If a woman on Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, or Cape Cod wants an abortion, the nearest provider is in Providence, R.I.
“The closest place is in another state,” state Rep. Dylan Fernandes (D-Falmouth) said at a community briefing Sunday. “There isn’t a single abortion provider across all three counties.”
That, among other concerns, came up at a meeting hosted by Fernandes, Planned Parenthood, Friends of Family Planning M.V., Indivisible M.V., M.V. Dems, and Family Planning M.V. to discuss the ROE Act — a bill aimed at improving access to safe, affordable, legal abortions and reproductive healthcare. The bill is formally titled “An Act to Remove Obstacles and Expand Abortion Access,” which is why it’s called the ROE Act.
Mehreen Butt, Planned Parenthood associate director of policy and government affairs, briefed the audience on the history of Roe v. Wade, and the need for legislation like the ROE Act. Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court in 1973, granting women the right to chose to have an abortion. One year later, Massachusetts passed a law to “protect the unborn child,” making it illegal for women to get an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy. In 1981, another law was passed, prohibiting women under 18 from getting an abortion without parental consent or a judicial bypass — granting judges the final say as to whether a teen can get an abortion. The ROE Act aims to undo these barriers, and make it easier for women of all ages, color, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status to access abortion services across the state.
“We think of Massachusetts as this liberal bastion,” Fernandes said. “But we’re kind of behind — at least we are compared to other states.” Vermont, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, for example, do not have these barriers written into law.
“There are unnecessary, archaic things in our law books,” Butt said. “Massachusetts has the best healthcare in the country, and individuals shouldn’t have to travel to [other states] to access the care they deserve.”
The passing of the bill is “more important than ever,” Fernandes emphasized, touching on recent restrictive abortion laws that passed in many Southern states, and the appointed conservative majority on the Supreme Court. “Women’s reproductive rights are under attack,” Fernandes said. “We can only speculate that the fate of the ROE Act is very uncertain in the coming years … It’s more important than ever that Massachusetts leads on this and codifies this.”
And because of the unique geography of the Cape and Islands, women here face even more obstacles. There is a “complete lack” of abortion care providers and services, Fernandes said, noting that Attleboro and Providence host the nearest medical providers. Local groups like Family Planning M.V. provide reproductive services such as birth control, counseling, and STI testing and treatment, but they cannot provide abortion services themselves due to Title X laws that would eliminate their government funding. But Fernandes and Butt commented that abortions are often nonmedical, and about 40 percent are administered through two pills. The rest are performed through medical procedures.
“Accessing two pills for Martha’s Vineyard residents should be the easiest barrier for us to break down,” Fernandes said. “Frankly, I find it unconscionable that standard healthcare providers across the Cape and Islands are not already providing basic abortion services to residents in need … When you look at the M.V. Hospital and Cape Cod Health Care, these entities should be providing this very basic service.”
In a Q and A discussion, Butt asked Fernandes for insight on the bill from inside the State House.
“It’s something that’s widely supported, but when you think about it making its way through the legislative process, it’s hard to say,” Fernandes said, noting that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is pro-choice, but has voiced in recent interviews that he doesn’t see a need to change the current abortion laws in Massachusetts.
“I’ve seen signals he’d probably veto [the bill],” Fernandes said, explaining that two-thirds of legislators would then need to override the veto. There are 200 elected officials in the State House, and 113 co-sponsor the ROE Act, according to Butt and Fernandes.
“Even if we don’t have two-thirds, I would still put this in the governor’s hands and put pressure on him to take action,” Fernandes said. “If he’s going to veto a law as basic as protecting women’s health, he should have that stain on record and be held accountable by voters.”
Fernandes said the majority of pushback from fellow legislators is around the age limit for women to get an abortion. “I understand the rationale,” Fernandes said. “But at the end of the day, this is a healthcare decision for a woman to make … we shouldn’t have an arbitrary line in the sand of when parental consent should come in.”
According to Butt, 77 percent of individuals go through abortion care with parental consent, but 23 percent of the population does not. Many of those women are low-income women of color. “This is a bill to protect that 23 percent,” Butt said.
“Think about a 16-year-old woman who has to stand before a judge to ask permission to get an abortion,” Fernandes said. “A judge has no formal medical training, and they are supposed to weigh in on what’s fundamentally a healthcare decision that should be made by a healthcare professional.”
Other ROE Act opposition comes from the Catholic Church, Fernandes said. Many elected officials who sponsor the bill are subject to “infanticide” labeling, Fernandes included. “It’s a crazy, horrible, and deplorable way to frame or discuss this issue,” Fernandes said. He also noted that there are many Catholics who support the ROE Act: “It’s a small [minority] in the church that’s been vocal in opposition.”
What can constituents do?
Butt, Fernandes, and Planned Parenthood representatives encouraged the room to write letters to legislators in support of the ROE Act. “I think it’s important that people also weigh in with the judiciary committee,” Fernandes said. He encouraged people to reach out to friends in other parts of the state, namely in Winthrop, Revere, Brockton, Chicopee, and Acton, “where people need to hear it,” Butt added. “Ask them to reach out to legislators and support us,” Fernandes said. “I’m hopeful with people taking action here today, and similar movements across the state, we can really move this forward.” For more information on the ROE Act, visit plannedparenthoodaction.org.
‘It’s time care is made available’
Elizabeth Barnes, a Vineyard native and now Pennsylvania resident, is the president of a small nonprofit called Abortion Access for All. The aim of the group is to offer simple abortion care services on the Island. Barnes told The Times she is currently in search of a space and that the space needs are very simple. “We will only need to utilize it about once a week and the time of use is very flexible, and could be on the weekends,” Barnes said. “It is my hope that the current existing health care providers on the Island will begin offering basic abortion care services, as they are both safe and simple and are an essential component of women’s reproductive health care needs. But as that hasn’t happened, it’s time care is made available … it is essential for the well being of our Island community.”