Mass. Lawmakers To Discuss Abortion Care Legislation Shielding Providers

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BOSTON (State House News Service) — House and Senate Democrats are in agreement on a suite of reforms to protect access to abortions and shield Bay State providers amid tightening restrictions elsewhere, and they may need to set aside any differences to stave off a potential veto.

The Senate teed up a bill on Monday (S 2996) that would implement a range of legal and licensing protections for Massachusetts professionals who offer reproductive and gender-affirming care, prohibit insurers from sharing abortion costs with patients, and make emergency contraceptives more widely available.

In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that eliminated the national right to an abortion, senators will vote Wednesday on a new version of standalone legislation that cleared the House with a 136-17 vote less than a week after justices handed down their ruling.

Some provisions in the bill moving through the Legislature, including a ban on the administration cooperating with out-of-state extradition attempts over abortion and other services legal in Massachusetts, already feature in an executive order Republican Gov. Charlie Baker issued just hours after the court's decision.

But Sen. Cindy Friedman, an Arlington Democrat who filed the Senate redraft, said the legislation is "much, much bigger" than Baker's order and would keep protections in place permanently.

"It's much more inclusive than the governor, who has certain things he can control and certain things he can't," Friedman said in an interview. "This is why this is so important."

[Bill Summary]

The bill set for Senate debate on Wednesday would shield against out-of-state legal action seeking to punish abortions and other health care services legal within Massachusetts, offering those protections both to Bay State providers and patients who travel here.

It would also order the Department of Public Health to issue a standing order allowing any licensed pharmacist to dispense emergency contraceptives, mandate that health insurance plans cover abortions without copays, deductibles or coinsurance, and allow providers to make their home addresses private.

However, the version Friedman filed does not include two other sections that featured in the bill the House approved late last month: it would not make emergency contraceptives such as Plan B available in vending machines, and it would not expand when abortions are allowed after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Friedman said senators "didn't really have time" to consider the impacts of allowing vending machines to dispense emergency contraceptives as they work to get a bill to Baker before the July 31 end of formal business for the term.

She cited a similar concern with language the House approved that would authorize abortions after 24 weeks in cases of "severe" fetal anomalies.

"I've heard from my colleagues and I've heard from outside the building that people are concerned when you put in a word like 'severe' with no real clear definition, what are you talking about?" Friedman said. "Does it open a door wider than people are comfortable with? I respect that, and I think we need to -- again, this is a very, very short timeframe, and right now, what I see as the absolute critical piece of this is to make sure our providers are protected and women who come here for an abortion are protected."

Existing state law limits abortions after 24 weeks only to situations in which a physician has determined there is a "lethal fetal anomaly," that the fetus is "incompatible with sustained life outside the uterus," or that an abortion is necessary "to preserve the patient's physical or mental health."

Lawmakers enacted some of that language over Baker's veto in a 2020 law known as the ROE Act. At the time, Baker said he supported parts of the bill making abortions available if the fetus would not survive after birth but opposed other sections "that expand the availability of later term abortions."

Friedman said that precedent makes her believe Baker would veto the current bill moving through the Legislature if it landed on his desk with language allowing abortions after 24 weeks in cases with "severe" fetal anomalies.

"The governor was very clear, made this very well known, that 'severe' -- that language would cause him to veto," Friedman said.

Friedman stressed that she wants lawmakers to circle back to that topic, saying she is concerned that some providers do not always make abortions available in cases when a fetus is incompatible with life outside the womb. But the narrow timeframe for getting a new law on the books has narrowed her scope.

"It's not that the other pieces are not incredibly important," she said. "It's just if I have a short amount of time, I will argue for the protection (language) first and foremost."

Following the Senate passage expected this week, legislative leaders could name a conference committee to hash out a final version of the bill. That group will face pressure to work quickly and close the gaps between the branches before the end of the month.

"It is clear to me that both the House and the Senate care very, very deeply about this issue. Both have the same goal of protecting women. I think that's clear," Friedman said. "I would think that when you come to a conversation where you're both coming from the same place, you will be able to get through the differences."

"It doesn't mean we're never going to do them," she added. "It doesn't mean we're against any of this. I don't believe the Senate is against any of this. It's just the timing of it that is tough because we're so late in the formal sessions and we have an administration that's been pretty clear about where they come down."

The Senate had already adopted a similar but smaller-scale measure creating legal shields and emergency contraceptive access as part of its fiscal year 2023 budget bill, when the court appeared poised to overturn Roe v. Wade but had not yet officially done so.

Lawmakers continue to negotiate a final budget 11 days into FY23, and it appears the eventual spending bill compromise will not include the Senate's reproductive and gender-affirming care language.

"We're probably going to pursue it in a standalone bill now," Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues, who serves as his chamber's budget chief, said Monday. "That'd be the path of least resistance to get it to the governor's desk."

Written by Chris Lisinski/SHNS.

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