Massachusetts Senate Passes Version of ROE Act Over Bipartisan Opposition

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A version of the ROE Act passed in the Massachusetts Senate despite bipartisan opposition on Wednesday afternoon.

This version, known as Amendment 180 in the fiscal year 2021 budget, passed 33-7. All four Republican state senators voted against the amendment, as did three Democrats:  Michael Rush of West Roxbury, Walter Timilty of Milton, and John Velis of Westfield, as State House News Service reports.

If enacted, the amendment would expand the definition of legal abortion in Massachusetts after 24 weeks in cases where “an abortion is warranted because of a lethal fetal anomaly incompatible with sustained life outside the uterus.” It would also mean that 16 and 17-year-old girls would no longer need consent from a parent or a judge to get an abortion. It would also eliminate language in current state law that requires doctors to try to save the life of a baby born alive after an attempted abortion.

Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) wrote the amendment. She said it’s vital to pass it now that conservative pro-lifer Amy Coney Barrett has replaced legal-abortion-supporting stalwart Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The time has come for urgent action,” Chandler said, according to State House News Service. “I believe in an affirmative right to choose, but this right now hangs in the balance. Those of us who remember the days before legal abortion and contraception must unite with those of us who never knew those dark times to protect this right at all costs.”

Skeptics question the argument that legal abortion is in jeopardy in Massachusetts, since the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1981 that abortion is a fundamental right under the state constitution and current members of the court are generally liberal. Most current state legislators also support legal abortion.

State Senator Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth) supports legal abortion, but on Wednesday he expressed concerns over one part of the abortion amendment:  the parental consent portion.

“How many people, because of human nature, at 16 years old would go it alone when they could have gone to their parents and had that support system in place?” O’Connor said, according to State House News Service.

Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester), another Republican who supports legal abortion, said he opposes the process supporters of the abortion amendment used. No version of the ROE Act bill ever received a vote from a legislative committee, which is how such policy legislation normally is addressed.

“In this extraordinary year, we would take up a matter that is incredibly important, I would suggest, to every single member of the Senate, and do it in such a way that says, ‘You are cut out. You get one further amendment,’ ” Tarr said, according to State House News Service. “No opportunity for people to say, ‘Let’s try to improve this, let’s offer amendments, let’s try to debate them, let’s include the members of the Senate as we always do in a full-throated, reasoned, inclusive discussion.’ ”

“We move forward, that’s gone,” he continued. “What a sad thing that would be for the state Senate.”

The Senate abortion amendment is similar to an amendment passed by the House last week, but it’s not identical. In order for the legislation to pass both chambers, differences between the two versions would have to be worked out by a conference committee.

If both chambers approve the measure, it would go to Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican who supports legal abortion but in April 2019 said he opposes the ROE Act bill because he opposes late-term abortion and supports the state’s current abortion law.

Baker has not yet said what he will do the new abortion amendment. He declined to stake a firm position when asked about it during a press conference last week, but seemed to lay the groundwork for vetoing the bill on procedural grounds.

“I do share some of the unhappiness that was raised by a number of members of the Republican Party, that putting policy in the budget was something that both leaders in the House and Senate said they would not do,” Baker said Friday, November 13. “And it’s pretty hard to argue that this isn’t a major policy initiative that is now in the budget. Which, I mean, a lot of the folks on our side took all kinds of policy initiatives off the table and didn’t pursue ‘em, because the message was:  ‘We need to do this quickly, it needs to be done collaboratively, we’re not gonna do policy in the budget.’ This is definitely doing policy in the budget, which I think is a legitimate beef on the part of some of the folks on our side.”

If the governor signs the budget bill without vetoing the abortion amendment, it would become law. If he vetoes the abortion amendment, it would go back to the House and Senate for a possible override of the veto.

That takes a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. The amendment in each chamber got well more than the two-thirds needed in the initial votes, but state legislators sometimes change their mind after a governor’s veto.

The left-leaning Senate is likely to override the governor’s veto — it would take seven left-leaning Democrats switching their vote to uphold the veto, which seems unlikely.

Opponents of the abortion amendment are more hopeful about the House, which passed its version of the abortion amendment by a much smaller percentage on Thursday, November 12. In the House, the vote in favor was 109-49.

The House has 160 seats, but one is currently vacant. If all 159 state representatives vote, then it would take 106 to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to override the governor’s veto. If the final vote were 105-53, it would fail to reach the two-thirds majority. That means opponents of the abortion amendment would need a net of at least four additional votes in the House.