Amherst Town Councilors Talk Abortion, ‘Gender-Affirming Care’ Protections

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Amherst town councilors are considering extra protections for people seeking what they call “reproductive care” and “gender-affirming health care” in the town against hypothetical intrusions into Massachusetts from other states that have made such procedures illegal.

“I find similarity here with the Fugitive Slave Law,” councilor Dorothy Pam said during a meeting earlier this week.

“Massachusetts was known for trying to fight against that, and this is the language of these new laws,” which “are coming from the same place,” she said. “They both relate to human bondage.”

Pam also imagined a scenario where states try to catch people who have left their own state and gone to Massachusetts to get an abortion or gender-identity intervention.

“I can imagine there might be some staged events where they’re trying to snatch people,” Pam said, referring to state officials in states that have banned these procedures. “They like to do some demonstrations.”

As evidence, Pam mentioned Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s decision to send 48 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in October 2022.

NewBostonPost sought clarification from Pam as to what she meant by a possibility of “staged events” where other states would try “to snatch people.” The councilor could not immediately be reached for comment.

“Reproductive health care” mostly refers to abortion. “Gender-affirming care” refers to medications, therapy, and surgery that help a person transition to a gender identity that differs from the gender that corresponds to a person’s biological sex.

The measure before the Amherst Town Council is a proposed bylaw that seeks to protect individuals seeking these procedures in Amherst from lawsuits filed in states where such procedures are criminal offenses or grounds for a civil lawsuit.

The motion for the bylaw notes that since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Services, which in June 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade, “some states have responded to this decision by not only criminalizing and prohibiting the provision of some gender-affirming and reproductive services, but also by criminalizing (or allowing others to sue) the seeking of such services in other states by their own residents.”

If people come from other states to Amherst seeking such procedures, “we need to make sure that if they are pursuing that care here, they are able to do it without fear of their information being shared with people from their home states who might be seeking it,” councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier, who co-sponsored the proposal with Mandi Jo Hanneke, said during an online town council meeting on Monday, May 15.

“We would hope it would never have to be used, but if those laws that have been passed in states like Texas begin to be used against people who may come to Massachusetts for their care or who live in Massachusetts, we want to ensure that they’re not going to get help from the town,” Hanneke said at the May 15 meeting.

Texas state law does not make it illegal for someone to travel to another state to get an abortion, according to the Texas State Law Library. Idaho is the only state where some form of out-of-state travel to get an abortion is illegal. Idaho’s law makes it illegal to assist a minor get an abortion out-of-state.

Gauthier and Hanneke’s proposal is not the first of its kind. Both councilors mentioned an act signed into law by then-Governor Charlie Baker in July 2022, which among other things, protects those seeking “reproductive and gender-affirming care in Massachusetts from other states’ overreaching, extraterritorial anti-abortion and anti-gender-affirming care laws.”

Because there are already state-wide laws protecting individuals seeking an abortion or gender-transitioning measures in Massachusetts, some councilors wondered what the purpose of the new bylaw would be. The bylaw if passed in its current form it would only affect town officials, because the state law enacted last year already covers Amherst police.

Andrew Steinberg, a member of the town council, expressed concern that the council has been “making a lot of reactions of referring bylaws to committees that take a lot of time,” noting that some of these bylaws “don’t readily address an issue that is likely to occur.”

Steinberg said he felt it was “important to make a statement,” but that he was “still not entirely sure why the bylaw is necessary.”

But Gauthier said she didn’t think the event of someone seeking an abortion or gender transitioning in Amherst and then being sued is an unlikely thing to occur, pointing out that “many people said that Roe would stand as the law of the land.”

“If we start going down a road of not doing our jobs because we don’t know how to run effective committee processes, that’s a problem in my mind,” she said.

Steinberg responded that the council processes are complex “because they need to be complex,” saying that legal advice needs to be sought for bylaws by subcommittees before action can be taken. Steinberg went on to vote in favor of the motion.

Councilor Pat DeAngelis took issue with the idea that concern about the long process should get in the way of passing the bylaw. DeAngelis said she had an illegal abortion at 17. “I’m not different from a lot of people who will now have to revert to illegal abortions, illegal health care — trans people born into the wrong body who feel they need a real change risking their lives to become the person that they want to become, DeAngelis said.

“I don’t care about your process, I don’t care about your reservations. This is needed if it saves one person in Amherst,” she continued.

The motion on May 15 was to refer the proposed bylaw to the Governance, Ordinance, and Legislation subcommittee, which advises the council on governance, including bylaws.

The council approved the motion with one abstention and no one opposed. 

The subcommittee is scheduled to make a report to the full council by July 17.


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