The Mass. House and Senate pass reproductive rights bill, now on governor’s desk
Spurred into action by a Supreme Court ruling that overturned 50 years of legal precedent in the United States, the Legislature on Tuesday sent Governor Charlie Baker the second major abortion rights bill in less than two years, seeking to protect providers from lawsuits brought by other states and expanding and clarifying a woman’s right to an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The compromise bill that passed both the House and Senate also expands access to emergency contraception, strengthens insurance coverage requirements for abortion services and would require college campuses to develop plans to ensure their students’ access to abortion drugs.
House Ways and Means chairman Aaron Michlewitz, who led the negotiations for his branch, said the final bill makes “pretty clear the Commonwealth’s position on the future of reproductive rights”.
The House and Senate handed the abortion rights bill to Baker just 32 days after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, sparking a wave of new restrictions on abortions in more conservative states and leaving providers in Massachusetts worried about the potential for an influx. out-of-state patients.
The House passed Bill 137-16, with just five Democrats and 11 of 27 Republicans opposed to the compromise legislation. The Senate accepted the final bill on a 39-1 vote, with Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman casting the dissenting vote.
Attention now turns to Baker, who, despite being a pro-choice Republican, has expressed some unease in the past with expanding access to abortions later in pregnancy. He vetoed the latest abortion rights bill over his objection to lowering the age of consent to 16 and concerns over language regarding abortions after 24 weeks to protect the physical and mental health of the patient.
The governor, however, has put in place by executive order many of the legal shields proposed in the bill to protect providers from licensing and legal penalties for providing abortion care to patients in abortion-restricted states.
Baker said at an unrelated bill-signing ceremony on Tuesday that he had yet to read all of the legislation, including the section on late pregnancy, but hoped he could support it. .
“I only read about half of it. But hopefully we can have a ceremony for that one too,” Baker said.
The governor did not say how soon he could complete his review, but acknowledged the time sensitivities involved.
“We know how important this is not just to people in Massachusetts, but to women across the country, so we’re going to be pretty aggressive in looking at it,” Baker said.
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While Baker may wait until after July 31 to act on the reproductive health bill, it’s also possible, given his support for many of the bill’s provisions, that if he doesn’t want to sign it, he’ll could choose to send it back quickly with amendments so that they could be considered before Sunday and before it became an all or nothing proposal.
Fearing the potential Supreme Court ruling in June, pro-choice lawmakers acted in late 2020 to codify abortion rights into Massachusetts state law and expand access for women after 24 weeks of pregnancy in the event of a diagnosed fatal fetal anomaly.
Senate Speaker Karen Spilka, however, said the intent of this law “was not properly followed by all providers” and that some hospitals were using risk signs to overrule decisions made by doctors with their patients. terminate pregnancies after 24 weeks.
“I firmly believe with all my heart and soul that the decision must remain in the hands of a doctor and the pregnant person. It is such an intimate and critical decision that we cannot allow panels, panels risk or whatever, to reverse those decisions,” Spilka said in an interview with WBUR.
The bill prohibits a medical review process from overriding a decision made by a patient with her treating physician to terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks that meets the eligibility criteria set out in the law.
In addition to cases where an abortion is deemed necessary to preserve the patient’s life or physical or mental health, abortions after 24 weeks would be permitted under the bill in cases of fatal fetal abnormality or serious fetal diagnosis that “indicates that the fetus is incompatible with sustained life outside the womb without extraordinary medical interventions.”
Michlewitz said this effort to clarify existing law should prevent any situation where a woman living in Massachusetts would have to travel out of state to have an abortion.
“We strengthen and protect the relationship between a patient and her physician and the difficult decision they will ultimately have to make,” Michlewitz said, adding, “No patient should have to travel out of state to receive needed services.”
The House had originally proposed adding language to the existing law to cover “serious” fetal anomalies, but Spilka said Tuesday the Senate viewed that standard as “totally unclear.”
The conference committee, led by Michlewitz and Sen. Cindy Friedman, developed the language regarding the “serious fetal diagnosis” as a compromise, and leaders hope that will allay any concerns Baker may have had and convince him to sign on. The law project.
Friedman lamented that by ruling against a federal abortion right, the Supreme Court opened the door for other states to use laws passed by their legislatures to try to reach into Massachusetts and restrict access to care for their residents.
“This is a blatant and direct attack on a state’s ability to make its own laws and protect its own residents,” Friedman said in remarks.
Senator Becca Rausch said she was proud to support a bill that makes “significant and much-needed progress” in access to reproductive health and gender-affirming care. “It’s a huge win. A huge win. A necessary win,” she said.
But the Needham Democrat said the compromise also omitted Senate-backed provisions to ensure insurance coverage for the management of miscarriages and to regulate crisis pregnancy centers, which critics say discourage women to have an abortion.
Rausch also said the fight for reproductive health care rights in Massachusetts will not be over until there are restrictions on a woman’s right to choose an abortion, including what she described as an arbitrary age limit of 16 for obtaining an abortion without parental consent and the still existing limits on abortion after 24 weeks.
She cited Vermont as an example of a state where there are no time restrictions on a woman’s ability to choose an abortion.
“We have to face the fact that we still have restrictions on our books,” Rausch said.
The bill would prevent Massachusetts authorities from cooperating with out-of-state investigations into abortion care legally provided in Massachusetts or penalizing a provider who faced charges or disciplinary action in another State due to the provision of care considered legal here.
It would also require health insurance plans to cover abortions without co-pays, deductibles or coinsurance, allow any licensed pharmacist to dispense emergency contraceptives, and allow the availability of abortive drugs such as Plan B in dispensers. automatic.
“At this time in our country’s history, we know now more than ever how important it is for our state legislature to step in when our federal government falls short,” said the Senate Majority Leader, Cindy Creem.
[Colin A. Young contributed reporting]