Make Mass. a leader in reproductive freedom

Constitutional amendment needed to protect access to abortion

FORTY-NINE YEARS ago today, the United States Supreme Court issued its historic ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade, confirming that access to abortion is a right guaranteed by the US Constitution. But in the past few months, we’ve seen profoundly troubling signs that indicate the court’s conservative majority is finally ready—and willing—to overturn all those decades of precedent and slash abortion rights altogether.

The court already has refused to block a bizarre anti-abortion bounty-system in Texas, and is expected to rule on a 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi by June. If that case goes the way that many legal commentators predict, Roe v. Wade may not live to see 50. In the past, January 22 has been a day of quiet celebration for civil liberties advocates. This year, however, the mood is far more somber.

It’s become abundantly clear that we cannot rely on the federal government to safeguard our civil liberties in the years to come. Therefore, the Commonwealth has a responsibility not just to uphold, but to champion the fundamental rights that an anti-democratic movement is working tirelessly to destroy. Right now, that means stepping up our efforts to protect and expand access to abortion.

The likelihood that Roe will be gutted or struck down this session is a sobering reminder that no fight for civil liberties is ever finished. The ACLU of Massachusetts knows this all too well. Former legal director John Reinstein recalls that, in the wake of the 1973 Supreme Court ruling, “we were immediately faced with an array of anti-abortion measures, state laws, local regulations that we were required to challenge in court.”

In 1981, the ACLU helped win a major victory against this backlash, striking down statutes that prohibited Medicaid funding for abortions in Massachusetts. Since then, we haven’t stopped fighting. One year ago, we celebrated the Legislature’s passage of the ROE Act, which guarantees the right to abortion in Massachusetts, even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and made Massachusetts one of the only states since the Trump administration to expand, rather than restrict, abortion rights.

But our opponents do not rest on their laurels, and neither should we. Anti-abortion extremists in Massachusetts have three times threatened—and failed—to launch a ballot initiative effort to reduce access to abortion care. In 2021, they fell short by only a few thousand signatures. In other words, we should not take these threats lightly.

To prevent future similar assaults, Massachusetts lawmakers should follow Vermont and Michigan in considering a state constitutional amendment to protect reproductive autonomy for everyone. At the same time, lawmakers and health care leaders must join forces to guarantee real-world access to abortion care in the Commonwealth by investing in abortion access, reducing cost barriers to care, ensuring that Massachusetts residents, including students, can safely access treatment like medication abortion, and developing strategies and policies to ensure a safe haven for people from states where those rights are under assault.

If and when Roe is overturned, Massachusetts needs to be ready. There may be massive outrage and widespread protests—potentially in numbers not seen since the Women’s March of 2017—and those people, rightly, will demand action. We need to think more expansively about how Massachusetts can play a role in promoting reproductive freedom. We should seek to demonstrate to the rest of the country that, even without Roe, abortion can still be accessible and affordable, and that patients can be supported. Despite the grim outlook nationwide, the Commonwealth can remind anti-abortion extremists that We the People are on the side of reproductive freedom.

Meet the Author

Carol Rose

Guest Contributor

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

These are troubling times for liberty in America. But Beacon Hill has an opportunity and obligation to live up to its name by acting courageously to adopt reforms that will protect and expand access to abortion. Massachusetts voters, meanwhile, must demand that our elected leaders light the way to a brighter future for our Commonwealth and for our country.

Carol Rose is the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts