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In Massachusetts, Minors Need Permission For Abortion, But That Could Change

A Massachusetts woman who had an abortion when she was 15 stands outside the Suffolk County Courthouse in Boston. In that state, girls considering the procedure who don't want to tell their parents must get a judge's approval. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

She was 15 and recovering from rape, when she realized she was pregnant. She knew right away that she wanted to terminate the pregnancy. But as in many states, Massachusetts required — and still requires — minors to get a parent’s consent before an abortion.

“I knew I couldn’t tell my mom or my immediate family members because my pregnancy was the result of a sexual assault from a family friend,” the now 23-year-old woman said. (KHN and NPR agreed to withhold her name.) Her home, she added, “wasn’t necessarily a safe or healthy one at the time.”

So the teenager pursued her only legal alternative: obtaining permission for the procedure from a state judge. She remembered staring up at a man who never made eye contact with her during a short conversation about grades and whether she played sports. She said the judge never asked her about the assault or her planned abortion.

“And then, right before I was leaving, he just encouraged me to think harder next time, before I had sex,” she recalled. “That was tough to hear.”

The judge issued an order granting her request. But the additional time it took to get that permission pushed the 15-year-old past the point that would allow her to take pills to induce an abortion. Research shows going to court typically delays an abortion for minors in Massachusetts by six days — delays that are most common among nonwhite teenagers from low-income families.

So, instead of a medical abortion, she had to have the more invasive surgical procedure. But that’s not what weighs heavily on the young woman, who is now 23, has a master’s degree and works for a nonprofit in Boston.

“The feeling that I had — from seeing the judge and those last words he said to me about being ‘more responsible'” — is what has stuck with her.

Required parental consent is one of the main reasons Massachusetts, often viewed as a bastion of liberal laws, gets only a grade of “C” for abortion access from the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights think tank. Now, there’s an ongoing, vigorous debate in Massachusetts about whether to keep or remove this restriction.

It’s part of a larger process, in which both supporters of abortion rights and groups that oppose abortion are reexamining — and often changing — state-level policies in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018. Both sides believe the appointment of Kavanaugh could lead to Roe v. Wade being overturned, which would mean the power to determine abortion policy would return to states.

Abortion-rights opponents say that when minors seek an abortion, having a parent or judge involved is supposed to help protect a vulnerable person, such as the 15-year-old who was raped. (That young woman said she believed her lawyer told the judge how she got pregnant, but she can’t be certain whether he knew or not. The judge did not address her rape.)

“In our laws, we need to do as much as we can — especially given the kind of epidemic abuse that we’re facing — to interrupt that cycle,” said David Franks, chairman of the board of the anti-abortion group Massachusetts Citizens for Life.

And requiring parental consent works to cut down on the procedures, opponents of abortion rights say. The restriction has prevented at least 10,000 abortions since it was enacted in Massachusetts, according to calculations by Michael New, a visiting professor at the Catholic University of America. That takes into account the hundreds of Massachusetts teenagers who travel to neighboring states every year where parental consent for minors is not required. New said Massachusetts residents have traditionally backed some abortion limits for teenagers.

“Even in these more ‘liberal’ states, some of the existing pro-life laws still enjoy a lot of support,” New said. “I think most people are uncomfortable with minor girls obtaining abortions without their parent’s knowledge.”

Still, a poll out last summer found that a plurality of Massachusetts voters favor letting minors decide on their own.

Removing parental consent is a key element in a bill called the “Roe Act” that’s pending in the Massachusetts Legislature. It would also allow abortions in the third trimester — if a doctor diagnoses a fatal fetal condition — and, in anticipation of a post-Roe world, would reestablish the right to an abortion in state law.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Harriette Chandler, argues that abortion is more widely accepted these days as general medical care. Chandler, 82, remembers when it wasn’t.

“I think if people realize what a post-Roe world would be, that would make it even more reasonable to do this bill,” Chandler said.

Her proposed legislation is still in committee, and its ultimate fate is unclear. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said he generally supports access to abortion, but not Chandler’s proposed expansions to state law.

Massachusetts, a heavily Catholic state, was among the first to pass limits on legal abortions in the 1970s, including required parental consent for minors. Twenty-five other states enforce a similar law for minors. No state has repealed the restriction.

‘It’s really been difficult to repeal barriers across the country,” said Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director at the abortion rights group NARAL Massachusetts. “This is a moment for us to take back that narrative and say those barriers are not acceptable.”

The prospect of eroding or overturning Roe v. Wade is triggering a flurry of legislative actions in states across the country. The Guttmacher Institute reports that 17 states have passed abortion restrictions or bans this year, while nine states have confirmed or expanded access to abortion.

The recent rush in many states to restrict abortion rights is part of what propels Chandler in Massachusetts: “We’re going in a different direction than the rest of the country,” she said.

Before Kavanaugh’s arrival on the Supreme Court created a five-member conservative majority, abortion access wasn’t an urgent priority in left-leaning states, said Guttmacher’s senior state issues manager, Elizabeth Nash.

“People felt that they were OK,” Nash said, “that their state was safe because they weren’t seeing the same kinds of attacks as, perhaps, in states like Texas or Louisiana.”

In Massachusetts, abortion-rights opponents are lobbying to dilute or defeat the Roe Act and then focus on their long-term goal: a state constitutional amendment to limit abortions.

Meanwhile, supporters of abortion rights say passage of the Roe Act would help Massachusetts cement its commitment to abortion access — and become a legislative haven for women who can’t obtain abortions in other states. With that message, they have stepped up fundraising appeals with the plea that even more women are going to need help with abortions in a post-Roe future.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes WBURNPR and Kaiser Health News.

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