Charlie Baker Sounds Skeptical About ROE Act Abortion Bill; House Speaker Doesn’t Greenlight It, Either

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Governor Charlie Baker poured cold water on the abortion-expansion ROE Act bill in the Massachusetts Legislature on Monday without saying he’d veto it.

Baker took questions from reporters after a ceremonial signing of a separate bill that guarantees state funding of Planned Parenthood abortion clinics in Massachusetts even if the Trump administration cuts them off from Title X federal funding for clinics that provide contraception to poor people. The new Trump administration rule, set to take effect in May, requires that clinics receiving federal funds for contraception not perform abortions at the same site and not provide referrals for abortions, which Planned Parenthood does.

The governor was asked about the ROE Act bill (Massachusetts Senate Bill 1209), which stands for Remove Obstacles and Expand Abortion Access and also calls to mind the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide, Roe v. Wade. The ROE Act bill would remove most remaining restrictions on abortion in Massachusetts, including a theoretical prohibition after 24 weeks and a requirement that underage girls get permission from their parents or from a judge to get an abortion. It would also remove a requirement that abortions performed after 24 weeks be done in a hospital instead of a clinic.

“Well, we support women’s reproductive health care in Massachusetts, and we worked hard with our colleagues in the legislature to ensure that Title X funding would not be compromised in Massachusetts by whatever happened with respect to federal policy on this issue,” Baker said, according to video published by State House News Service, adding:

“I don’t support late-term abortions. I support current law here in Massachusetts. It’s worked well for decades for women and families here in Massachusetts. And that’s what we support.”

The ROE Act bill would delete 10 sections of current state law, including one that requires that doctors “take all reasonable steps, both during and subsequent to the abortion … to preserve the life and health of the aborted child” and have “life-supporting equipment … in the room where the abortion is to be performed.”

That portion prompted Jim Lyons, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, to call the ROE Act a “radical infanticide bill” on March 27. Lyons has attempted to target Democratic supporters of the ROE Act bill through social media using similar language.

A reporter asked Baker during the press conference Monday, April 1 about Lyons’s comment, mentioning that a co-sponsor of the ROE Act bill has asked for an apology.

Baker distanced himself from Lyons’s comment but didn’t offer an apology.

“Well, I’ve made pretty clear that I have a particular approach to this public policy process in Massachusetts. I don’t believe in questioning motives, I don’t believe in questioning character, and I think the inflated language that exists on all sides in politics has made it much harder for people to do the work that they’re supposed to do on behalf of the people they serve and they represent. And I do support current law here in Massachusetts, and I always have, but I don’t support late-term abortions,” Baker said.

Lyons subsequently declined comment on Baker’s statement Monday through a spokesman, according to State House News Service.

The chief House sponsor of the Roe Act, state Representative Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset), defended late-term abortions as appropriate in some circumstances.

“Late-term abortions are for very specific reasons that should be decided with a medical professional and the family involved. We already have women who leave the state when there are cases of a fatal fetal anomaly. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking a fetus that can’t survive outside the womb. We’re talking about a fetus that has no future,” Haddad said, according to State House News Service.

Asked about Governor Baker’s apparent opposition to her bill, Haddad said:  “We will agree to disagree and I will try to convince him. I think that what’s out there is that people are saying this is abortion on demand. It is not.”

“… It’s about a medical professional and a family, what is right in their circumstance. Not mine. Not Jim Lyons’s,” Haddad said.

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo was noncommittal on the ROE Act bill, calling it “just another” of many bills before the state Legislature and adding, according to State House News Service:  “We’ll see what happens as it goes through the process and we’ll take it up from there.”

Baker’s and DeLeo’s comments offer the first concrete signs of uncertainty about the future of the ROE Act bill.

Democrats have vast majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature and can easily override a veto of the Republican governor if they band together, but Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill have been reluctant to do that with Baker, preferring to work with the governor. In addition, any major legislation requires the assent of DeLeo, who tightly controls the agenda in the House, as well as influencing many members’ votes.

The ROE Act bill is in the hands of the Joint Committee on Public Health, but a hearing has not yet been scheduled.