Groundbreaking Massachusetts Abortion Law Repeals Parental Consent for Older Teens

“We think of Roe v. Wade as the floor, not the ceiling,” said NARAL Massachusetts’s executive director Rebecca Hart Holder of Massachusetts’s groundbreaking abortion access bill, the ROE Act.

Groundbreaking Massachusetts Abortion Law Repeals Parental Consent for Older Teens
Gov. Charlie Baker. (Wikimedia Commons, Boston Red Cloaks)

Last week, the Massachusetts legislature passed a groundbreaking new law creating an affirmative right to abortion in the state, expanding abortion access after 24 weeks, and removing a parental consent requirement for 16- and 17-year-olds.

On Thursday, the bill hit a roadblock when Gov. Charlie Baker (R) vetoed the bill. But the Massachusetts state legislature became set on overriding Baker’s veto: Shortly after Baker struck the bill down, House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D), tweeted, “The House will seek to override the Administration’s veto, which sought to limit the reproductive health protections the Legislature voted last month to put in place.”

On Monday, the Massachusetts House did just that—overriding Baker’s veto with 107 votes. And on Tuesday, the state Senate followed suit.

With this law, Massachusetts becomes the first state ever to legislatively remove a parental consent requirement as unnecessary—and the law went into effect immediately, meaning it’s now legal for 16- and 17-year-olds to get an abortion without parental consent in the state. Similar efforts to repeal parental consent laws are underway in Illinois, Virginia, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Behind the law is a statewide coalition of over 70 diverse groups, led by NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts, and ACLU Massachusetts. Originally called the ROE Act (standing for Remove Obstacles and Expand Abortion Access), a paired down version of the law moved forward in late November as a budget amendment.

Ms. spoke with NARAL Massachusetts’s executive director Rebecca Hart Holder about the new law and how activists in Massachusetts successfully organized for its passage.


Carrie Baker: What is the significance of this law?

Rebecca Hart Holder: I think this is a moment when we as a state are changing our laws to reflect our values. The laws that we have had on the books that are politically motivated barriers to abortion that have been there since 1974 in direct response to Roe v. Wade to try to curtail access. And we’ve seen over and over that our elected officials in the Massachusetts House and Senate react when there’s a threat at the federal level, and they reacted quickly to the confirmation of justice Amy Coney Barrett.

So I think we are setting a kind of national precedent. The same way we did with same sex marriage. The same way we did with access to universal health care. We are saying that women and pregnant people should be trusted to make the personal decisions about their body and if, when and how to become pregnant that we know they’re perfectly capable of making and there should not be barriers, especially barriers that disproportionately impact low-income people and people of color.

Baker: If this bill passes it would be the first time a state has legislatively removed parental consent. What’s the significance of that?

Hart Holder: Yes, this would be the first time we do it nationally. And it is hugely significant that we are taking on a law that I think most people in our movement have said is a win we’re never going to get.

I think what we have proven is that in a state that is overwhelmingly Catholic and in a legislature that is overwhelmingly Catholic, we have proven that you can hold your faith separate from your belief in the fact that young people should have access to care, that you can’t legislate family communication, that as much as we want every single one of our sons and daughters to be able to go to their parents when facing an unintended pregnancy, you simply cannot mandate that.

It is wrong to put young people through the judicial system when they are facing abuse and neglect in the home or possibly the threat of homelessness if they disclose a pregnancy. So I think what we’re doing in Massachusetts is proving that the impossible is possible, and that we believe in young people. There are a set of states that can take what we’ve done and what we’ve learned and do it in their states.

Baker: The original legislation removed parental consent altogether, but the compromise legislation set the age at 16. Can you explain the significance of that difference?

Hart Holder: There are two ways to explain it. The first is that the age of consent to sex in Massachusetts is 16, so for many lawmakers, there was a very cogent argument that if you can consent to sex, you should be able to consent to all reproductive healthcare, including abortion care. The other factor is that the vast majority of young people seeking a judicial bypass are 16 or older.

So we’re helping the most people, and we’ve created a mechanism to help people 15 and under who can now use the telephone to get in touch with a judge and not have the extra step of having to go in to the courthouse. And I think that’s a critically important streamlining measure that we’ve put in to speed access to care in Massachusetts.

Obviously we wanted full repeal. In this case, we didn’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.


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Baker: Does the law codify Roe v. Wade and the right to abortion in the State of Massachusetts?

Hart Holder: Yes, the intention is to create an affirmative right to say that the state can’t interfere in your reproductive healthcare decisions. We think of Roe v. Wade as the floor, not the ceiling, and our intention was to write in a more expansive right into our state laws that prevents the Commonwealth from interfering in personal reproductive healthcare decisions.

Baker: What else does the law do?

Hart Holder: There were criminal penalties in the law that impacted the provision of later abortion care and these were removed so that providers who are offering care to people later in pregnancy don’t have to be afraid of any criminal penalty. I can’t stress enough how critically important that is to providers.

The law also allows advanced practice clinicians to provide first trimester abortion care within their scope of practice, including first trimester surgical abortion.

Baker: What do you think the impact will be of allowing advanced practice clinicians, including nurses, midwives and physician’s assistants, to provide abortion?  

Hart Holder: We hope this opens the possibility that there will be much wider access in Massachusetts. There are big swathes of Massachusetts without either access to care or easy access to care. Martha’s Vineyard doesn’t have access, and Cape Cod. We are optimistic that there will be advanced practice clinicians who decide to provide care in those areas. And, it will reduce the cost greatly.

Baker: You mentioned that the COVID pandemic contributed to the legislature taking this issue up. Can you explain?

Hart Holder: Absolutely. COVID highlighted two things for legislators, particularly legislators who were on the fence.

One is for later abortion care. I think it really highlighted the absolute absurdity of having to fly across the country for care in the case of the devastating lethal fetal anomaly when we’ve got the best care in the world here in Massachusetts. So I think that forcing people to travel out of state during the COVID pandemic really highlighted the arbitrary nature of our law.

And in the case of parental consent, we’ve been lucky in Massachusetts to have a court system that works really well to help get young people access to care when they need a judicial bypass, but it is an unnecessary hurdle. It is a two- to three-week delay for young people and I think COVID highlighted that it was a totally unnecessary delay that in some cases made the lives of young people seeking a judicial bypass less safe. These are barriers that are not helping any patient and they’re just contributing to delay and shame.

Baker: The law was a bill all along and then at the last minute it became an amendment to the budget. What was the significance of that? How did you get that to happen?

Hart Holder: I don’t think any of us could have foreseen that the budget would have been the vehicle. It was a unique vehicle during the pandemic because our legislature had to meet less and did not meet in person as much.

It was the right vehicle at the right moment that was going to get us over the finish line. The advantage of it was a sense of urgency. The state needed a budget, the state had to pass a budget in order to function. We piggybacked on that. The budget sped our time frame significantly.

Baker: Can you tell me about the organizing behind this bill?

Hart Holder: This was a massive undertaking to organize. We started thinking about the ROE Act when Brett Kavanaugh ascended to the Supreme Court. A lot of it came out of our rage at the threat to reproductive freedom. We all knew we had to do something differently.

There’s been extraordinary coordination between Planned Parenthood Massachusetts, NARAL Massachusetts, and the ACLU of Massachusetts. We created this huge coalition of the willing that included labor unions, faith groups, individuals who care, abortion funds and mayors. We’ve worked really hard to make the case that access to abortion is an economic justice issue and a faith issue and a civil rights issue. That resonated with people. Seeing advocates who you don’t associate with the fight to expand abortion access was really powerful for our elected officials. It’s something I’m really proud of in our work.

Baker: You think that had an impact on the elected officials?

Hart Holder: I have no doubt that it did. Having 200 faith leaders sign a letter saying they believed that this was a social justice issue to counter a letter from anti-choice faith leaders is incredibly powerful.

Having labor unions show up for us? I mean, one doesn’t think of labor unions and reproductive freedom advocates as bedfellows. But we were. These are economic justice issues and I think our unions got that. I’m really proud of that work.

Baker: How many groups were in the coalition?

Hart Holder: About 75 groups. They organized their members to make phone calls, write postcards, send emails and get their friends to do the same. The number of emails that were sent to the State House on the ROE Act is astounding. We made tens of thousands of contacts. I mean, it is just remarkable.

CB: You won a supermajority in both houses. How did you win over all those legislators?

Hart Holder: When we introduced the bill, I think most legislators thought this was going to be an uphill battle, if not impossible. We believed we needed to make space for legislators who had hard questions, not making them feel like this was a black and white issue, but saying you have hard questions and we want to go there with you. We want to hold your hand through this. We want to provide all the education you need, all the communications resources you need, all the background policy research you need, because we’re committed to making sure that you understand.

And providing to them that this is a politically popular issue, including among almost 80 percent of Catholics. It’s a winner. Showing legislators who weren’t already there with us that this was a winning issue helped us get over the finish line. At the end of the day, it’s about trust. It’s about are you going to show up for me and am I going to show up for you. Our coalition proved to them that the answer was yes.

Baker: Who else advocated for the bill?

Hart Holder: The patient storytellers are what moves people the most without a doubt. I have a lot of ambivalence about asking patients to tell their stories. I wish we didn’t have to have people prostrate themselves to be believed.

That said, I cannot overstate how critically important the stories of people who had had a lethal fetal anomaly and had to travel out of state, or young people who’d gone through the judicial bypass process and faced extraordinary barriers. These stories were critically important in moving legislators. First-person storytelling is critical to our movement.

Physician research and testimony was also crucial to our win, to be able to say that we knew that the judicial bypass process was disproportionately impacting low-income people and people of color. We had recent statistics to back it up and to be able to say that we knew three quarters of young people in Massachusetts were involving a parent in the decision about what to do with an unintended pregnancy was also critical. It was confirming what we knew all along—that for young people for whom it’s safe to involve a parent, they do. Having the data is a very powerful tool in our toolbox.

I also can’t say enough about how the clinicians and doctors showed up for us. I don’t know how there’s enough hours in the day for those people, especially during this pandemic, to show up the way they did. Their voices were incredibly important for elected officials to really hear how the law was going to impact their care for people.

Baker: What role did local activism play in the passage of the ROE Act?

Hart Holder: Getting city and town councils to pass resolutions supporting the ROE Act, and getting mayors who don’t usually weigh in on choice to call on the legislature to act was hugely important. I think having the kind of unlikely allies and showing up for them and asking them to show up for you is so important. It was really one of the critical components of our success.

Baker: Can you tell me about the opposition to the legislation?

Hart Holder: The majority of the opposition that we faced was from leadership of the Catholic Church and from the head of the Massachusetts GOP Jim Lyons. What was really unfortunate about the opposition was that much of it was done in bad faith, peddling lies and misinformation and distortions of what the bill was trying to achieve. I think voters and legislators saw through that. Being a good faith partner matters, and it hurt their credibility.

Baker: Do you have any advice for folks in other states wanting to pass abortion rights legislation?

Hart Holder: One hurdle for a lot of activists is getting people to pay attention to the state level. The game of protecting reproductive freedom is in the states now. I know that I am certainly guilty of being attracted to what’s going on in the federal government because you can make such broad change quickly.

But you know, our federal government is not correctly functioning right now. We don’t know the outcome of the of the Senate races in Georgia, so it isn’t clear if pro-choice advocates will have the votes we need in both branches of the US Congress — but we can affect change on the local level.

You can get to know your city councilor, you can get to know your mayor, you can get to know your state rep and your state senator. It’s actually relatively easy to do that. And you can really affect change that way. To activists, I would say spend time convincing your friends that they need to pay attention to the state because that’s where the real change is happening.

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Chair of American Studies and a professor in the program for the study of women and gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the U.S. Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race, and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com.