Three years ago, I sat at my kitchen table with the blinds drawn while my kids were at school, on a call with a professional abortion rights advocate. Ever the good student, I had a legal pad and a pen in front of me to take notes. I’d had a third-trimester abortion in Colorado the month prior.
It had been a complicated procedure; I was probably still not well the day I made that call. But at that time in my life I was living off rage. From the moment my doctors in Boston told me they couldn’t help me themselves—because Massachusetts law banned abortion after 24 weeks except in cases of a fatal fetal anomaly—and that the best they could do was to ship me off like tainted goods to another state, I had been furious. I asked to speak to this advocate, looking for a way to change something.
“Your case wouldn’t have fit the legal definition of a fetal anomaly under Roe,” she explained, slowly and clearly, so I would hear her. “Hospitals have maybe three conditions their lawyers tell them will safely fit under ‘fatal.’ And anyway, there’s no hope of expanding later abortion access more generally in Massachusetts—too many blue Catholics in that legislature. We barely managed to get rid of two-parent consent for minors.”
She was right—in 2017. A year later, President Trump began escalating violent anti-abortion rhetoric at rallies and even the State of the Union. Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence appeared at the March for Life rally. And slowly but surely, with escalating attacks on abortion rights coming from the Trump administration, deep-blue Massachusetts had enough political cover to draft the original ROE Act. Even with all those “blue Catholics” in the state legislature.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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I testified to the Massachusetts Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019 on behalf of the ROE Act, three weeks after giving birth to a baby girl. She came to the statehouse with me, and a sympathetic staffer let me use an empty office to feed her while I waited to testify. Someone on the committee made nice noises about bravery and thanked me.
I didn’t feel brave: I was angry. I was angrier still when a year passed and the bill stalled in committee, as the legislature hoped they could profit off merely drafting the legislation, then scrap it as unnecessary after a Biden win.
The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September and the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett weeks later finally shifted the political winds enough to put the bill back into play.
The ROE Act, adapted into a section of the budget, passed for a second time last Thursday, overruling Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed changes to the bill. Baker can, in theory, veto the measure after it is sent to him a second time, but both chambers have a veto-proof supermajority. The legislation does two things: increases access to abortion care for young people and expands access for those seeking care after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
First, it lowers the age of consent from 18 to 16, ending judicial bypass for youth over the age of 16. Those younger than 16 will now be able to request judicial bypass via a televisit, rather than going before a judge in person.
Second, the bill codifies the right granted under Roe v. Wade to an abortion after viability in the case of fatal fetal anomaly, and it expands that right to include a meaningful maternal health exception after 24 weeks. With the passage of this legislation, Massachusetts joins a small group of blue states that codified or expanded Roe during the Trump administration.
I am supposed to be happy. And don’t get me wrong: I’ll take the win. But this moment doesn’t feel victorious. These new laws codifying and slightly expanding Roe in Massachusetts are a rearguard action in a battle we’ve already lost. In the end, the ROE Act was only possible because we have utterly lost the battle for a bold, comprehensive vision of reproductive health care in this country.
I am not a professional advocate: I have a day job, three young children, a frontline spouse. But even I can feel the winds shifting in professional advocacy circles toward more focus on medication abortion, decriminalizing self-managed abortion, and bulwarking whatever states we can in whatever time we have left as the movement lays the groundwork for what comes next.
And what comes next is that later abortion is fucked. One way or another, abortion after the first trimester is dead on arrival in the majority of the United States. People like me, who needed complex, surgical abortion care late in pregnancy? Forget about it. The absolute best-case scenario is that the scant handful of providers that help those later in pregnancy remain open, while blue states continue to codify Roe. The worst-case scenario is a fetal “personhood” ruling written by Justice Barrett. I wonder, often, if my casually anti-choice acquaintances realize quite how completely Christian extremism will soon come to legislate their family’s most intimate choices.
This is what I will do: Celebrate the passage of the ROE Act. Take a break. Then fight the next retreating battle, and the next, and decide to hope for the day when it won’t be a retreat anymore. Am I still angry? Always. But Massachusetts is a safer state for pregnant people than it was last week, and that’s not nothing. Not nothing at all.