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Baker Opens up a Row with Legislature over Roe…

by Adam Bass

A House united, but branches divided (for once). (WMP&I)

Much to the frustration of Democratic Lawmakers and pro-choice organizations, Governor Charlie Baker, rejected a proposal in the commonwealth’s budget bill last Friday that would have allowed the expansion of abortion access in Massachusetts. The proposed amendment was Baker’s second punch to the left. Days earlier he had proposed changes to a police reform bill that had gone through its own, arduous legislative process.  

Originally standalone legislation called the Roe Act, the abortion language the governor declined to support would allow 16 and 17 year-olds to have an abortion without the consent of a parent or a judge’s order. The proposal would also allow abortions after 24 weeks in the event of a fetus has a life threatening irregularity.

Baker has voiced support for other abortion measures, such as the codification of the Roe v. Wade in Massachusetts. However, explaining his decision, he stated, “I cannot support the other ways that this section expands the availability of late-term abortions and permits minors age 16 and 17 to get an abortion without the consent of a parent or guardian.” 

The governor signed the rest of the budget on Friday.

Advocates did not receive Baker’s decision well.  NARAL Pro Choice Massachusetts, a non-profit that supports abortion access in the commonwealth, criticized Baker for claiming to be a pro-choice politician and yet he rejected the proposal. 

Pro-choice governor, but not pro-as-many-choices? (via YouTube/Mass Governor’s office)

Massachusetts must ensure that 16 and 17 year-olds are able to make decisions about abortion care without medically unnecessary barriers.” the organization said on Twitter.

Key supporters of the Roe Act, including some in Central and Western Massachusetts, expressed their displeasure with the governor. Many highlighted its impact and the overwhelming support it had in both chambers of the General Court. 

Senator Harriette Chandler of Worcester, one of the original bill’s chief sponsors, released a statement on Friday defending the proposal as passed. Baker’s amendment would, “maintain barriers to abortion care for young people, particularly young people of color and of low income.”

On the House side, Representative Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton relayed similar disappointments in an interview with WMP&I. 

Sabadosa, a longtime advocate for abortion access, noted the difficulties women face when they cannot obtain abortion care they require. For example, women who seek abortion services due to late-term defects often must go to other states for safe access.

“We’re not talking about people who just wait.” Sabadosa said. ”This is about helping the absolutely the most desperate, who thought they were going to have a healthy baby.” Moreover, she added, such circumstances are incredibly rare. Opponents, she implied, often gin up false impressions that late-term abortion was rampant.

Rep Sabadosa has been one of the bill’s top backers in Western Mass. (WMP&I)

As for Baker’s move to amend the bill, she called it, “very disappointing and heartbreaking.” She accused the governor of playing politics to try to run out the clock before the legislative session expires next month.

By proposing an amendment, Baker started a time-consuming, but not insurmountable process to enact the bill over his veto.

Despite these setbacks, lawmakers are optimistic about bringing the Roe Act into law.  

“I think we are on track to do this bill,” she said. The momentum had been there for sometime. Before the pandemic, Sabadosa added,  “I think we would have done this as a stand alone bill.”

Sabadosa is likely right. Hers was not the only frustration on Beacon Hill. She told WMP&I that Representative Claire Cronin, the House Judiciary Chair, had been meeting with almost all members of the legislature to build a firewall against a potential veto. 

The Roe Act had been in the mix for months. However, it gained speed after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The COVID-19 pandemic added another urgent reason for passing the measure. The restrictions on traveling out of state complicate accessibility of the abortion care the bill would allow.  

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, announced the House would reject Baker’s amendment—and it did Wedneday—in a rare and vocal split with the governor.

Shorter Speaker DeLeo: Yeah, hell no. (via Twitter/@SpeakerDeLeo)

“The House will vote in favor of safeguarding women’s reproductive rights in the Commonwealth at a time when they are under threat due to the new composition of the United States Supreme Court,” the speaker tweeted Tuesday.

The Senate will likely follow, returning the bill to Baker’s desk for his signature, veto or enactment without his signature.

“The Senate remains firmly committed to protecting the reproductive freedom of the residents of Massachusetts. We therefore look forward to acting promptly on the Governor’s amendment once we receive it from the House,” Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement.

WMP&I Editor-in-chief Matt Szafranski contributed reporting to this story.