Senate passes its own abortion budget amendment

Measure differs from House version in some respects

THE MASSACHUSETTS SENATE approved an abortion access budget amendment on Wednesday that is similar to but not identical to an amendment passed by the House last week.

The amendment, which 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 six months, passed on a 33-7 vote. That vote followed an earlier 35-5 rejection of an attempt by Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth to reduce the amendment’s scope.

Under Senate rules, no other amendments were allowed.

The Senate debate, coming in the midst of two days of budget deliberations, was fairly brief and focused on process and substance.

Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, the Senate minority leader, lamented the fact that such a major policy issue was being taken up in a budget during a lame duck session that most parties had agreed would focus almost exclusively on budget and pandemic matters. He called it a “very sad day for the Senate.”

Sen. John Keenan, a Democrat from Quincy, voted with the majority on both amendments, but said he disliked the fact that abortion was being debated during a budget process where major non-budget policy matters were supposed to be off-limits.

“We should be mindful of the process. If people do not trust the process, how can they trust the results of the process?” he asked.

Sen. Cynthia Creem of Newton said lawmakers could not put off acting on the issue with a conservative US Supreme Court poised to rule on abortion. “We cannot let process get in the way of a woman’s right to choose,” she said.

The Senate amendment, filed by Sen. Harriette Chandler of Worcester, mirrors the House amendment with a couple exceptions. Unlike the House amendment, the Senate measure contains a broad statement affirming the right to abortion, which Chandler and other senators said was needed if the US Supreme Court were to strike down Roe v Wade.

Senate President Karen Spilka, who, along with House Speaker Robert DeLeo, orchestrated the push for an abortion access amendment, hailed the measure’s passage. “With judicial threats to Roe v. Wade looming on the federal level, I am proud the Massachusetts state Senate has taken this step to further codify a woman’s right to the health care she deserves, and the right to choose if and when to begin a family,” she said.  “A woman’s ability to control her reproductive future is fundamental to her freedom, her agency, and her humanity.

Sen. Becca Rausch of Needham said the broad statement supporting abortion contained in the Senate amendment was crucial. “There is a risk that when Roe falls, all of the Massachusetts pieces will fall,” she said.

But many abortion rights advocates say that’s unlikely. The Center for Reproductive Rights, for example, says if Roe v Wade is weakened or overturned “abortion will remain legal in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Supreme Court has recognized the right to abortion under the state’s constitution, and Massachusetts repealed a pre-Roe v Wade ban on abortion in 2018.”

Unlike the House amendment, the Senate measure also gives a woman younger than 16 the ability to appeal directly to the Supreme Judicial Court if a lower court judge refuses to allow her to obtain an abortion. The Senate measure also explicitly states that no municipality in Massachusetts could abridge the right to an abortion.

The differences between the House and Senate amendments will be resolved by a conference committee of members from both branches charged with developing one single document. The final budget will go to Gov. Charlie Baker, who has not stated how he would act on the abortion amendment but has raised concernsabout the process followed.

O’Connor’s amendment, co-sponsored by his fellow Republican Sens. Tarr and Dean Tran of Fitchburg, contained a broad statement supporting abortion rights in Massachusetts and a provision allowing the termination of pregnancies beyond 24 weeks when the fetus suffers a “lethal fetal anomaly” or is unable to sustain life outside the womb.

The O’Connor amendment also retained 18 as the age at which a woman can obtain an abortion without needing parental or judicial consent and called for the creation of a 17-member commission to study minor consent.

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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.

The O’Connor measure received only five votes – Republicans Tarr, O’Connor, Tran, and Sen. Ryan Fattman of Worcester as well as Democratic Sen. John Velis of Westfield.

The vote on Chandler’s original amendment passed 33-7, with the four Republican senators voting no along with Velis and fellow Democrats Michael Rush of West Roxbury and Walter Timilty of Milton.