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The House rejected Gov. Charlie Baker's proposed changes to an abortion access provision Wednesday, doubling down on its own attempt to make the procedure more accessible to 16- and 17-year-olds and clarify when abortions are allowed after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
In a display of the super-majority that Democrats wield, representatives voted 49-107 to turn back the Republican governor's amendment that would have altered two key sections of the high-profile proposal.
The vote reiterated the House's support for its original abortion access language, approved as part of the fiscal year 2021 budget bill, which would lower the age for teenagers to receive an abortion without parental or judicial consent from 18 to 16 and make clear that abortions after 24 weeks can be allowed to "preserve" a patient's physical or mental health.
"One month ago, we stood in this chamber and took action to protect access to safe and legal abortion care for women in the commonwealth," said Rep. Claire Cronin, an Easton Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee. "The governor's amendment threatens this significant progress as it would reinstate barriers and curtail protections contained in the conference committee report."
The Legislature approved the abortion provisions as part of the fiscal year 2021 budget, but with Baker's proposed amendment, it now functions effectively as a standalone bill (H 5179) that reflects, in large part, an earlier proposal referred to as the ROE Act.
Baker on Friday returned the section of the fiscal year 2021 budget containing the abortion language with an amendment.
In a letter to lawmakers, he said he supported several sections such as codification of abortion rights in state law and allowing abortions after 24 weeks in cases with a fatal fetal anomaly, but flagged concerns about other provisions.
"These are important changes to protect a women's reproductive rights and autonomy in the Commonwealth, and I support them," Baker wrote. "However, I cannot support the other ways that this section expands the availability of late-term abortions and permits minors age 16 and 17 to get an abortion without the consent of a parent or guardian."
His amendment would keep the current age-based restrictions on abortion in place, scrapping the Legislature's attempt to reduce the age to access the procedure without a parent or judge's involvement by two years.
Baker also aimed to tweak language in another section related to abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy. The Legislature's bill would permit abortions after 24 weeks "if it is necessary, in the best medical judgment of the physician, to preserve the patient's physical or mental health." The governor proposed changing the condition to "if a continuation of the pregnancy will impose, in the best medical judgment of the physician, a substantial risk to" the patient's physical or mental health.
Speaking in favor of Baker's amendment Wednesday, Republican Rep. Sheila Harrington of Groton said the Legislature should impose a stronger condition on abortions after 24 weeks than a goal to "preserve" health.
"When we allow for that language to prevail, we're playing God if we are becoming the arbiter of whether a mother's mental health preservation is more important than that baby's life," Harrington said.
Representatives also turned away another amendment from Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, that would have added a section into the proposal requiring physicians to use life-saving equipment "to preserve the life and health of a live birth baby and the patient."
Lombardo argued the change would not affect anyone's access to abortions, but Cronin responded that misinformation about the procedure served to "stigmatize" those who seek it. The House rejected the amendment 34-120.
Senate leaders have not yet indicated their plans for Baker's amendment. If the Senate also rejects the proposed changes, both branches will need to re-enact a final version of the underlying proposal and send it to the governor, who can either accept it or veto it.
If the governor vetoes their ultimate bill on abortion access, Democratic leaders in the House would need at least 106 votes — based on the fact that the chamber missing two members from its usual 160 — to reach the two-thirds majority necessary for an override, assuming everyone votes.
Their timeline is increasingly crunched. The current two-year lawmaking session ends on Jan. 5, 2021, and Baker will have 10 days to review any bill under state law, meaning he could effectively kill anything sent to him too close to the end of session by sitting on it.
Legislators also need to decide how to handle Baker's amendments on major police reform and settle long-running private negotiations on climate change, health care, economic development and transportation borrowing.
Reproductive health care advocates who pushed for the expansion of abortion rights praised the House for rejecting Baker's proposal on Wednesday.
"Once again, House members have affirmed their commitment to reproductive freedom by fighting to ensure all Bay Staters can access abortion care when and where they need it," the ROE Act Coalition, which includes groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said in a statement. "Governor Baker's proposed amendments would have completely undermined lawmakers' efforts to protect and expand abortion access by pushing life-saving abortion care later in pregnancy out of reach and by fully maintaining our state's racist and discriminatory, anti-choice barriers for vulnerable young people."
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