Charlie Baker expresses ‘unhappiness’ with abortion access budget amendment

"This is definitely policy in the budget, which I think is a legitimate beef."

14CORONAMAIN - Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at a press conference regarding the state's response to Covid-19 at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Nov. 13, 2020. (Chris Van Buskirk/Pool)
Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at a press conference Friday regarding the state's response to COVID-19 at the Massachusetts State House in Boston. –Chris Van Buskirk / Pool

Gov. Charlie Baker isn’t going so far to say he’d veto the measure to expand abortion access that the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed within a larger budget proposal Thursday night.

But at the very least, the pro-choice Republican governor does not support the process.

“I do share some of the unhappiness that was raised by a number of members of the Republican Party — that putting policy in the budget was something that both leaders in the House and Senate said they would not do,” Baker said during a press conference Friday. “And it’s pretty hard to argue that this isn’t a major policy initiative that is now in the budget.”

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House Speaker Robert DeLeo had said as recently as last week that policy reforms would not be welcome in the spending bill, which has been delayed due to the pandemic.

However, lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled state Legislature — including DeLeo himself — have called for urgent action to ensure abortion access in Massachusetts is fully protected, amid fears that the new 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade, the decades-old decision protecting the right to choose across the country, following the replacement of the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

The amendment that was adopted Thursday would change Massachusetts law — which currently only allows abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy if the mother’s health is at risk — to allow abortions after 24 weeks if the fetus is diagnosed with a fatal birth defect. It would also lower the age at which one can obtain an abortion without the permission of a parent from 18 to 16.

“In the wake of the threat to reproductive rights for women on the national level, I’m proud of the House vote to remove barriers to women’s reproductive health options and protect the concepts enshrined in Roe v. Wade,” DeLeo said in a statement, after the measure was adopted into the budget bill, which also passed by a wide margin, by a vote of 108-49.

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Senate President Karen Spilka has also previously hinted support for the amendment.

Baker declined to discuss the substance of the measure Friday, given his longstanding stance against weighing in on legislation that could potentially change before it reaches his desk. But the governor echoed the complaints by Republican minority leaders in both the House and the Senate that the amendment violates the agreement to not include policy reforms in the budget bill.

“A lot of the folks on our side took all kinds of policy initiatives off the table and didn’t pursue them because the message was, ‘We need to do this quickly. It needs to be done collaboratively. We’re not going to do policy in the budget,'” Baker said. “This is definitely policy in the budget, which I think is a legitimate beef on the part of some of the folks on our side.”

It’s somewhat unclear what Baker — who has the power to “line item veto” specific provisions of the budget — thinks of the amendment itself (though the vote Thursday in the House suggests Democrats in at least one of the two requisite chambers would be able to override the governor).

Last year, Baker — who is generally pro-choice but opposes late-term abortions — said he had “some concerns” about “changing the terms and conditions associated with late-term abortions in Massachusetts,” in response to a separate but similar bill known as the ROE Act. Baker also voiced concerns about the ROE Act’s proposal to effectively lower the parental notification age requirement to 12. However, he hasn’t said what he thinks about lowering the age requirement by two years.

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Baker noted Friday that he has supported efforts to “strengthen” and “enhance” access to reproductive health services in Massachusetts due to concerns about changes in federal law, including officially getting rid of several restrictive, antiquated — and largely ignored — state laws.

“I think all of us felt that cleaning that up and getting it either off the books or changing it — just in case, you know, heaven forbid something happened at the federal level — would be an important thing for us to do to make sure that we preserved and protected access to abortion services in Massachusetts,” he said.

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