Abortion measure is seen as likely add-on to House budget

Despite Speaker Robert DeLeo warning House lawmakers off trying to use the annual budget to advance major policy changes, the top Democrat blessed a vote this week on an amendment that would codify abortion rights into state law and make abortions legal after 24 weeks if a doctor has diagnosed a fatal fetal abnormality.

The amendment to the annual budget bill was filed by Rep. Claire Cronin, an Easton Democrat and the co-chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, which faces its own deadline of Thursday to make a recommendation on a bill known as the “ROE Act.”

The abortion debate has picked up steam on Beacon Hill in recent weeks over concerns that the stronger conservative majority on the US Supreme Court could jeopardize abortion rights across the country. In a statement on Monday, DeLeo said, “Following last week’s joint statement with Senate President Spilka, in which we expressed concern over the threat to women’s reproductive rights on the national level, it is urgent that the House take up an immediate measure to remove barriers to women’s reproductive health options and protect the concepts enshrined in Roe v. Wade.”

Cronin filed a version of the ROE Act as Amendment 759. It would strengthen abortion access laws in Massachusetts by making abortion explicitly legal in state law, and allowing for abortions after 24 weeks in more than just cases where the life of the mother is in jeopardy.

The amendment also spells out a legal process for young women under the age of 16 who can’t or do not want to get the consent of a parent or guardian to petition a judge for an abortion.

“I’m grateful to Chair Cronin for filing a thoughtful amendment that would accomplish those goals in an expeditious manner, and I look forward to bringing it before the House this week,” DeLeo said.

The legislation has been under consideration since the session started in 2019, but gained momentum following the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court last month to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka promised after Barrett’s confirmation that the Legislature would debate abortion rights before the end of the session in early January, but last week DeLeo said the fiscal year 2021 budget, which is already four months late, is “not an appropriate place for major policy reform.”

The House and Senate are attempting to get an annual state budget bill to Gov. Baker’s desk by the end of the month, but tacking on such a controversial policy proposal during the lame-duck portion of the session the House could complicate that timeline.

Access to abortion in Massachusetts is currently protected by both the Roe v. Wade decision in the Supreme Court, as well as a separate state-based decision by the Supreme Judicial Court.

Neither House Minority Leader Brad Jones nor Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr could be reached for comment.

If the Legislature were to include a version of the ROE Act in the budget, it’s unclear if Democratic leaders would need to muster a veto-proof majority. One hundred fourteen legislators co-sponsored the original bill, including 22 in the Senate and 92 in the House.

Baker has said he supports a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, but doesn’t necessarily see a need to change the current abortion laws in Massachusetts.