How to use the secretary of state’s office to protect abortion rights

Changes on public records, corporate regulation, crisis pregnancy centers, and lobbying are in order

LAST FRIDAY, Gov. Charlie Baker  signed into law a bill codifying several measures first included in an executive order he issued following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. When it comes to protecting reproductive freedom, it’s an important start, but not nearly enough.

The Dobbs decision represents a critical encroachment on the rights of all of us, not just women and families in Massachusetts. Today, across the country, states are passing strict abortion bans, including punishing friends, family, and doctors who assist women with abortion services, often in the face of widespread public disapproval. While the Legislature and Baker have taken critical steps, it is clear all of Massachusetts’s constitutional officers must step up to ensure the rights of women in and out of the Commonwealth are protected.

In particular, the Commonwealth’s secretary of state has significant powers and authority to regulate corporations and securities, the disclosure of public records, and those who lobby our state government, among others. The secretary must use the full power of the office to push back against efforts to criminalize the right to choose when, how, and with whom to start a family.

How?

First, we should protect the privacy of women, doctors, and health care workers. Today, states are not only criminalizing abortion services within their state lines but also attempting to ensnare in the legal process anyone who assists women with abortion services. At the same time, the availability of digital health records and apps used on smartphones to track monthly cycles make it easier than ever to track users in need of reproductive health services – putting women, as well as doctors and nurses at risk.

Using the authority under the state’s public record and voter registration laws, the secretary should ensure the privacy of women and health care workers by refusing to make public any record that could be used to criminalize, punish, or harass those who seek or provide abortion services. Out-of-state advocates – be they members of government or private individuals – simply should not be able to use our public records (including our voter registration files) to identify the home address and contact information of reproductive health providers. The secretary has the authority to ensure that happens today; and, if extra authority is needed, that request should be made of the Legislature, which has shown itself committed to reproductive choice.

Second, we must enhance corporate oversight and disclosure of reproductive health. Within the corporations division, the secretary of state has authority to issue certificates of good standing to companies and entities that wish to conduct business in Massachusetts. Likewise, the securities division has oversight of entities that seek to issue a security or raise funds in Massachusetts. Both protect Massachusetts residents and investors.

The secretary should require companies applying for a certificate of good standing or to issue a security in Massachusetts to disclose whether 1) its health plan covers contraception, abortion services, and miscarriage care for employees and dependents, 2) it provides on-site or subsidized child care provisions, and 3) it has collaborated with law enforcement to punish anyone seeking or aiding reproductive health services, as well as any other essential information when it comes to deciding whether to start a family.

Using this information, the office should compile a “reproductive health grade” easily accessible on the state website for each company that allows consumers and investors to see for themselves whether companies doing business in Massachusetts are supportive of women and families. If additional statutory authority is required, we should work with the Legislature to attain it.

Third, we should hold so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” accountable for deception. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Attorney General Maura Healy have so powerfully said, these centers pretend to offer legitimate abortion services but actually gather personal information to harass pregnant women – and outnumber legitimate providers 3-to-1 in the Commonwealth. Our secretary of state should collaborate with the attorney general to ensure the records of these centers are complete, their advertising is truthful, and seek to add disclaimers where necessary to minimize fraud and deception.

In addition, the secretary should explore whether the broad authority within the Massachusetts Securities Act—which protects investors from businesses that engage in fraud or deceit—can be applied not only to crisis pregnancy centers but any affiliate or funder.

Lastly, it’s time we enforced the disclosure of lobbying activity on Beacon Hill. Today, when lobbyists and businesses register with the secretary of state’s office in the Commonwealth, they agree to disclose what legislation they lobbied on and the position they took. But the office allows these powerful institutions to simply state they advocate on “issues of interest to the institution.” With lobbyists currently advocating in the Legislature against funds in the budget for out-of-state abortion care, this has implications for women. Instead, we should enforce existing lobbying law to ensure timely, accurate, and transparent disclosure of what lobbyists and companies are advocating or opposing. This will apply not only to reproductive health but a host of issues before the Legislature important to women and families, including voting reform, public records law, and economic opportunity.

We have entered a new era in which constitutional officers must proactively act to protect access to women’s health care. No longer can we wait to act. On this issue, as with others, Massachusetts must lead.

Tanisha Sullivan is a Democratic candidate for secretary of state running against the incumbent, William Galvin, in the September 6 primary.