Could Massachusetts Stop Funding Abortions?

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Should Massachusetts taxpayers pay for abortions? Pro-life activists say no, and they are hoping to bring a ballot question to voters in 2020.

Several dozen activists gathered on the Massachusetts State House steps Thursday morning to call attention to their signature drive, sponsored by the Massachusetts Alliance to Stop Public Funding of Abortion.

The alliance is a campaign to overturn a court decision 36 years ago requiring that tax dollars go to fund abortion in Massachusetts.  The referendum simply states, “nothing in this Constitution requires the public funding of abortion,” restoring the issue to the purview of the legislature.

“We’re committed to gathering 100,000 signatures to obtain the roughly 70,000 certified signatures needed to advance to the next stage of this effort,” said Chanel Prunier, executive director of the Renew Massachusetts Coalition.  “We’ll be organizing prolife volunteers, as well as fiscal conservatives, and all manner of Massachusetts activists to put forward a grassroots effort to give voters the choice.”

She argued that Medicaid funds should not go toward abortions.

“Abortions aren’t health care,” Prunier said.  “They shouldn’t be subsidized with our tax dollars.  It’s a violation of our conscience rights, and we aim to change that.”

State Representative James Lyons (R-Andover) and his wife Bernadette, two of the original signers of the initiative petition, also addressed the crowd.

“(T)axpayers of Massachusetts should no longer be forced to pay for abortion,” Bernadette Lyons said.  “Instead of empowering women to have their babies, our state is paying for Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics to destroy these children, with our tax dollars.  It is time to stop this atrocity and give women the help they need.”

James Lyons said a healthy majority of Americans believe that tax money should not be directed to abortion, citing poll numbers.

Ballot committee chairman Thomas Harvey said drying up public funds for abortion can be effective.

“Studies show the best way to reduce the abortion rate is to stop subsidizing it.  Instead of trying to make abortion quick and easy and free, we as a society owe it to women to help them choose life instead,” Harvey said.

Abortion was legalized nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. But the high court didn’t say the government had to pay for them, and in 1976 the Hyde Amendment (named for then-U.S. Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois) prohibited federal funds from going to abortions.

In 1978, the Flynn-Doyle Bill prohibited the Massachusetts state government from paying for abortions. It was sponsored by then-state representatives Charles Doyle and Ray Flynn (who later became mayor of Boston). But in 1981 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state constitution requires the state government to provide funding for poor women seeking abortions.

In Moe v. Secretary of Administration and Finance, the Supreme Judicial Court held that, although the Massachusetts legislature did not need to subsidize any of the costs associated with child bearing, or with health care generally, once it chose to enter into that area it could not fund only those procedures incidental to childbirth.  The court stated that otherwise an indigent woman would be deprived of her freedom to choose abortion over maternity.  It said such deprivation was an impermissible burden on a right protected by the state constitution’s guarantee of due process. The court referred to abortion as a “fundamental right.”

So it takes a constitutional amendment to make it possible to de-fund abortion.

Amending the Massachusetts Constitution by initiative petition is a four step process.  

First, activists must obtain certified signatures totaling more than 3 percent of the total number of votes cast for all candidates in the previous gubernatorial election. According to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office, this means that the petition must be signed by a minimum of 64,750 certified voters.

Second, one-quarter of the state Legislature must vote in favor of advancing the amendment to the ballot. There are 200 state legislators, so at least 50 must support putting the measure on the ballot.

Third, sometime during in the next two-year legislative term, one-quarter of the legislature must again vote in favor of advancing the amendment to the next state general election ballot.

Fourth, once on the ballot, a majority of voters who vote on the referendum (and at least 30 percent of all voters who cast a ballot in the election) must vote yes.

Abortion supporters say government funding for abortion is vital for poor women.

But Eileen Cahill, 41, of Arlington, who attended the rally with her five children, said de-funding abortion is pro-woman.

“I really think women deserve better,” said Cahill.  “I don’t want tax dollars going to hurt women and children.”