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Mass. Should Protect Women's Reproductive Health And Freedom. My Patients Deserve Better

Abortion rights supporters gather during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
Abortion rights supporters gather during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Abortion is back in the headlines: Several states — including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Utah — have passed restrictive abortion laws this year.

As a physician, my fundamental responsibility is to offer unbiased advice and serve in the best interests of my patients. But current Massachusetts law places barriers between patients and their doctors, undermining the care I can provide and my patients’ abilities to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. I have dedicated my career to ensuring that my patients have access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care and that they are able receive the care they need and deserve. And I know that women seeking abortion care — even here in liberal Massachusetts — face medically unnecessary restrictions every day.

The commonwealth has an opportunity to respect the dignity of women in Massachusetts and to trust them to make their own medical decisions by passing the ROE Act (An Act to Remove Obstacles and Expand Abortion Access), which would change existing laws that restrict abortion. But some leaders, including Gov. Charlie Baker, seem intent on interfering in a woman’s personal medical decisions by opposing the legislation.

Women seeking abortion care -- even here in liberal Massachusetts -- face medically unnecessary restrictions every day

Under current Massachusetts law, if a woman in her third trimester is found to be carrying a fetus with a lethal anomaly — that’s an anomaly that would be incompatible with life outside of the womb — she is forced to carry that fetus to term, possibly for as much as three more months (if the anomaly is detected early in the third trimester which begins at 28 weeks). This carries significant risks to the pregnant person's health — risks that would be mitigated if physicians in Massachusetts were permitted to end such a pregnancy.

This is not a hypothetical scenario for me. Existing law prevents me from counseling my patients on the option of abortion care later in pregnancy, even though doing so has resulted in deadly consequences.

One of my patients, with a desired pregnancy, was given a lethal fetal diagnosis during her third trimester. By law, she could not have accessed abortion care in Massachusetts. When she developed a complication during labor, I had to perform an emergency C-section. Tragically, she died; neither she nor her child survived. It was the most difficult experience of my professional career, and it could potentially have been prevented if a full spectrum of abortion care had been available to my patient.

The purpose of the ROE Act is simple: to ensure that a woman’s fundamental right to access safe, medically appropriate abortion care is protected in Massachusetts. It’s before us precisely at the time when abortion access across the country is under siege.

We must act to protect and expand reproductive freedom and abortion rights.

The ROE Act would remove inflammatory and medically inaccurate definitions of abortion and pregnancy from state law, remove mandatory parental consent to abortion (which disproportionately harms low-income teens and teens of color) and end a mandatory, but currently unenforced, 24-hour waiting period for abortion care. The ROE Act will ensure that decisions about abortion later in pregnancy, in the case of lethal fetal diagnoses, remain between a patient and her doctor.

Research conducted by NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts confirms what those of us who provide health care already know: More than 8 in 10 Massachusetts voters, including those who identify as Catholic, believe that if a woman has decided to have an abortion, “it should be safe, legal, affordable and available in her community without shame, pressure or barriers.”

With increasing challenges to Roe v. Wade, and abortion rights in imminent danger, my patients and women across the country are at risk. We are not immune in Massachusetts. And our current laws are not enough to guarantee an acceptable level of care.

We must act to protect and expand reproductive freedom and abortion rights. We need the ROE Act to ensure that everyone has access to respectful, quality and affordable reproductive health care, including abortion.

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Aaron Hoffman Cognoscenti contributor
Dr. Aaron Hoffman is a family medicine physician practicing at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also a member of the NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts Medical Advisory Board.

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