BOSTON — State representatives are poised to vote Wednesday on a reproductive health bill, and top Democrats feel a sense of urgency as they prepare to make the latest bid to protect patients and practitioners in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court ruling eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion.
“In this bill … we’re anticipating what the next level of fight is going to be, which is other states trying to chip away at our constitutional rights here in Massachusetts, so these are safeguards we’re putting up to ensure that that does not happen — whether that’s protections for practitioners or protections for residents here in Massachusetts,” Rep. Mike Day, the House Judiciary Committee chair, said Tuesday afternoon. “That’s what this bill is going to do. It’s a comprehensive approach to making sure that our laws are fully enforced here, that our citizens and our practitioners are protected here for legal actions in Massachusetts.”
The House on Tuesday gave initial approval to the 21-page bill (H 4930) shielding providers of reproductive and gender-affirming care and their patients from out-of-state legal action, and Speaker Ron Mariano said a full vote on the bill is planned for Wednesday.
The new House bill means both branches of the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker all have an interest in adopting some sort of expanded liability protections for providers who offer abortions and their patients, but they will now need to agree on the exact approach.
Abortion remains legal in Massachusetts under state law. Baker on Friday, shortly after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case Dobbs v. Jackson, signed an executive order to limit effects of actions other states might pursue against services that are legal in Massachusetts.
Baker’s order bars Massachusetts from cooperating with extradition attempts from other states connected to reproductive care, protects providers from professional discipline arising from out-of-state charges, and prohibits executive branch agencies from helping another state investigate someone for delivering or receiving reproductive health services.
One “significant difference” between Baker’s order and the House proposal, Mariano said, “is we’re putting it into the rule of law as opposed to his executive order, which only covers the areas which he has control over.”
Mariano said the House bill also differs from similar legal shields that the Senate added to its fiscal 2023 state budget plan. The House passed its version of the budget in April, and the Senate tacked on the protections when it took up the bill in May, after the leak of a draft opinion overturning the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade.
Mariano said he prefers addressing the issue via a standalone bill, “where my members get to vote on the specifics of the legislation rather than a budget amendment that we didn’t see until the Senate released its budget.”
Senators in their budget also increased the funding for reproductive health care access, security and infrastructure, from $500,000 in the House bill to $2 million. The new fiscal year starts Friday, and a team of six House and Senate lawmakers are still negotiating a compromise budget.
Asked if a final budget would emerge this week, House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said the negotiators are “working towards it.”
In a statement to the News Service earlier Tuesday, Senate President Karen Spilka indicated an interest in taking up some version of the House bill after representatives vote on it.
“I applaud the House for adopting much of the language the Senate already passed in the bill that they released today, and we look forward to debating a version of this bill when it comes to the Senate,” she said. “There are many pathways towards enshrining the Commonwealth’s reproductive health care access into law, and so we look forward to passing a final bill which confirms our resolve to protect reproductive rights.”
Areas where the House bill diverges from the Senate budget amendment include measures mandating that health insurers cover abortions and related services without deductibles, co-pays or cost-sharing, allowing providers of reproductive and gender-affirming health care to have their home addresses made confidential, and permitting abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy in cases of a “severe” fetal anomaly in addition to already-allowed cases involving “fatal” fetal anomalies.
The House bill would declare that access to both reproductive health care and gender-affirming care — a term covering the wide range of services treating gender dysphoria — is a “right secured by the constitution or laws” of Massachusetts.
It also seeks to boost access to emergency contraception, another area the Senate addressed in its budget.
Agreement between the branches will need to come quickly if lawmakers hope to send Baker a bill. Formal law making sessions end for the year on July 31, making that the deadline for passage of major legislation.
Baker in 2020 vetoed a bill codifying the right to abortion in state law, citing concerns with sections dealing with abortions later in pregnancy and the age of consent for the practice. The Legislature overrode his veto, passing the bill into law over his objections.
Baker so far has not suggested he would veto a reproductive health care shield bill — last week he said he was “deeply disappointed” with the Dobbs ruling and that it is “especially important to ensure that Massachusetts providers can continue to provide reproductive health care services without concern that the laws of other states may be used to interfere with those services or sanction them for providing services that are lawful in the Commonwealth.”
Mariano said, though, that the possibility of a veto — and the fact that any override vote would need to occur in the next five weeks — is one reason “why we’re doing it as quickly as we can.
“We do have a sense of urgency because we do know that there is a possibility,” he said.
“We want[ed] to make sure we have Roe vs. Wade on the books. We codified it,” Mariano said. “Now we want to protect the people who have to use it.”