House passes abortion access budget amendment

DeLeo praised, criticized for his role in passing measure

A LAME DUCK House passed a budget amendment Thursday night that would allow women as young as 16 to obtain abortions without parental or judicial approval and would also expand access to abortion when the fetus is older than 24 weeks.

Backers of the amendment, which passed by a vote of 108-49, characterized it as desperately needed with the recent shift that has taken place on the US Supreme Court, which enshrined abortion rights in a landmark 1973 decision called Roe v Wade.

But the amendment itself appeared to have little to do with national politics and seemed designed to address what its sponsors saw as deficiencies in existing state law.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s role in passing the legislation was controversial. According to a member of his leadership team, he decided to push for abortion legislation on September 1, the night Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. On November 2, he and Senate President Karen Spilka committed to having debates on abortion access in their two chambers because “reproductive rights are under threat at the national level.”

Last week, the speaker said the budget was not an appropriate place for major policy reforms, which should go through the regular committee process. Then he shifted course earlier this week and supported an abortion amendment to the budget.

The amendment passed by the House was also crafted in a way that prevented anyone from filing amendments to it.

After the measure was approved and the House moved on to other budget amendments, DeLeo issued a statement again characterizing the vote as a response to the upheaval over abortion nationally. “In the wake of the threat to reproductive rights for women on the national level, I’m proud of the House vote to remove barriers to women’s reproductive health options and protect the concepts enshrined in Roe v. Wade,” he said.

Rep. Claire Cronin of Easton, the House chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee who filed the amendment, said she had met personally with 120 members of the 160-member House to discuss the abortion issue. “Nothing is easy about this,” she said.

Under current state law, women under the age of 18 need parental consent or the approval of a judge to terminate a pregnancy.

Cronin’s amendment lowered the age to 16, which she said was logical given that a woman can legally have sex, and therefore a baby, at the age of 16.

Women under 16 would still need parental consent or a judge’s approval to terminate a pregnancy. Cronin’s amendment, however, would allow remote judicial appeals, which the representative said would reduce stress on young, vulnerable pregnant women and speed the process along. Cronin said the judicial process often takes weeks, a delay that in some cases may mean a pregnancy that could be terminated by taking a pill is no longer possible.

Current law prohibits abortions if the pregnancy goes beyond 24 weeks except to save the life of the mother or if the continuation of the pregnancy would impose a “substantial risk of grave impairment” to her physical or mental health.

The Cronin amendment alters the language of the law and broadens its reach. Instead of allowing abortions beyond 24 weeks to “save” the life of the mother, the amendment allows abortions beyond 24 weeks to “preserve” the life or the physical or mental health of the mother. The amendment also allows abortions beyond 24 weeks in situations where, in the judgment of a physician, an abortion is warranted because of a “lethal fetal anomaly incompatible with sustained life outside the uterus.”

Cronin said the expansion was needed to address situations where a mother learns after 24 weeks of pregnancy that her baby will be born dead or die shortly after birth.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Opposition to the amendment focused both on the process that brought it to the House floor and the substance of the amendment itself.

Rep. Brad Jones of North Reading, the House minority leader, said the amendment was being taken up at night (it was about 6 p.m.), during a pandemic, in a lame duck legislation session – after an election but before the new Legislature takes office.

Jones also said that DeLeo and his leadership team had repeatedly assured him that the budget – nearly five months late already – would not include major policy issues because of the desire to get it to the governor’s desk before Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, the amendment surfaced as as the deadline for filing budget amendments approached.

“It raises the question of whether agreements and relationships mean anything,” Jones said. “We operate in a system of do as I say not as I do.”

Rep. Michael Sorer, a Republican from Bellingham, said DeLeo wouldn’t have had the votes to pass the amendment if he had taken it up prior to the election.

Rep. Colleen Garry, a Democrat from Dracut, said she had eight amendments she wanted to file to the Cronin measure but was prevented from doing so because Cronin had filed an amendment containing some technical corrections to her original amendment. Once her amendment passed, no other amendments were allowed.

Garry dismissed Cronin’s claim that it made sense to lower from 18 to 16 the age at which a woman can get an abortion without a parent’s or judge’s approval because 16 is the age of sexual consent.

Garry said women may be legally old enough to have sex at age 16, but they can’t legally buy cigarettes or liquor and can’t vote. She said the Senate passed a bill in 2019 that would have barred women under the age of 18 from getting married.

“If a young girl cannot get married, if she cannot smoke a cigarette, if she can’t drink alcohol, if she can’t vote, I certainly don’t think that she should be able to get a third-trimester abortion without parental consent or the judicial bypass,” she said.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

She also ripped those who suggested passage of the amendment was needed because somehow a future Supreme Court decision could take abortion rights away from women in Massachusetts. She said the Legislature addressed abortion access in 2018 for that very reason and didn’t need to do it again.

“We have protected women’s rights,” she said. “This is an expansion.”