Stop public funding of abortions 

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Roe v. Wade stands among the most recognizable and controversial Supreme Court decisions in American history. The 1973 ruling upended abortion laws and regulations in all 50 states and triggered a pitched political and legal battle that still rages today.

If a group of pro-life activists has any success, that battle will soon return to Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Alliance to Stop Public Funding of Abortion intends to beat the odds and place a referendum question on the ballot in 2018, a gubernatorial election year. Their ballot question gives voters the opportunity to restore authority over taxpayer funding of abortions to the governor and the legislature. Led by attorney, Navy veteran, and pro-life advocate Thomas Harvey, the Alliance has to gather 64,750 petition signatures before November 18 in order to pass the first hurdle.

The story behind this effort dates back decades.  Roe made an indelible mark on the American culture. Far less well-known is Harris v. McCrae, a case in which the Supreme Court held that the federal government has no constitutional obligation to spend taxpayer dollars on abortion. Harris upheld the so-called Hyde Amendment, legislation that restricted federal funding for abortions.

In 1979, when Massachusetts enjoyed a more robust and competitive ideological landscape, pro-life Democrat Governor Edward J. King, and pro-life Democratic majorities in the state legislature enacted the Doyle-Flynn amendments prohibiting state tax dollars for abortion, except in cases where necessary to preserve the life of the mother. The amendment bore the names of Democrat State Representatives Charles Doyle and Ray Flynn, who went on to be elected mayor of Boston and was later appointed ambassador to the Vatican by President Bill Clinton.

Contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1981 that the Commonwealth must use taxpayer resources to fund Medicaid abortions. Moe v. Secretary of Administration and Finance effectively ended debate on this hot-button issue on Beacon Hill.

A 1986 effort by the Massachusetts Citizens for Life to reverse the decision at the ballot box failed. In a climate far removed from Ed King’s and Ray Flynn’s political heyday, Massachusetts voters re-elected Governor Mike Dukakis, who supported mandatory taxpayer funding of abortion, while defeating a ballot initiative to begin the constitutional process required to restore discretion over such funding.

Not only are pro-life taxpayers currently obligated to foot the bill for abortions, they are prevented from having any say in the matter. The Supreme Judicial Court decision prevents any popular or legislative reforms until the state constitution is amended. Today’s petition drive seeks to put the public funding issue back into the democratic arena.

Harvey and the Alliance are acutely aware of the difficulties ahead. “We face a series of challenges,” says Harvey. “Right now we’re 100 percent focused on signature gathering. Without that, nothing else will move forward. Out ultimate goal is to re-invigorate the democratic process, so that we can at least discuss the issue and talk to our governor and legislators about it. That’s a start. That’s what representative government is all about.”

Of course, even if the question makes it onto the ballot and is approved by voters, that doesn’t ensure victory for pro-life advocates. Today, the Republican governor and the Democrat legislature are securely in the pro-choice camp. That’s unlikely to change significantly in the foreseeable future.

But the decision about how to spend taxpayer money should be open to political and legislative debate.

Harvey and friends may find inspiration in the famous words of a seventeenth century Boston minister named Rev. Jonathan Mayhew: “No taxation without representation.” In the revolutionary era, colonial patriot James Otis, Jr. adapted the minister’s words, proclaiming: “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” A Harvard grad and respected lawyer, Otis is memorialized with a statue guarding the front entrance to the historic Barnstable County Courthouse.

Like his contemporary John Adams, Otis argued against government overreach at the Superior Court of Judicature, the colonial forerunner to the state Supreme Judicial Court. Two and one-half centuries later, questions remain about the proper role of government, the judiciary, and taxation without representation.

Joe Tortelli is a freelancer writer.