After RBG's Death, Urgency Mounts in Massachusetts Abortion Debate

Women in Massachusetts are forced to get abortion care elsewhere because it’s illegal in the state after 24 weeks, even in cases of fatal fetal anomalies

Seeking solace as she sat in the airport parking lot of a strange city, Tara Mendola tried to reach her rabbi before her procedure, to no avail. 

Though Mendola lives in Massachusetts, home to some of the best hospitals in the world, she was forced to travel to Denver, Colorado, for abortion care after receiving a fatal fetal diagnosis.

“I think that for women -- especially women of faith -- you know, we often seek out guidance for how to handle these situations,” she said, recalling that day nearly three years ago. “That’s a great deal easier if you’re not trying to negotiate reaching your spiritual leader from several thousand miles away.”

In the days since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Supreme Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation to replace her -- which consolidated a conservative majority on the bench -- the push to expand abortion access in Massachusetts has gained traction on Beacon Hill.

Mendola is not alone in facing such a predicament: Women in Massachusetts are forced to get abortion care elsewhere because it’s illegal in the state after 24 weeks, even in cases of fatal fetal anomalies. There is an exception if continuing the pregnancy is a threat to the life or health of the mother.

In the days since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Supreme Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation to replace her -- which consolidated a conservative majority on the bench -- the push to expand abortion access in Massachusetts has gained traction on Beacon Hill.

“So much hangs in the balance with this new Supreme Court,” Attorney General Maura Healey told NBC10 Boston. “From my perspective, we need to do everything that we can in our state legislatures to make sure that we have laws on the books in Massachusetts and elsewhere across this country that ensure a woman has a right to access an abortion when she needs it.”

If Roe v. Wade were to fall, Massachusetts has precedence from the Supreme Judicial Court that would preserve the right to choose. Opponents argue the legislation is unnecessary, but advocates warn that the make-up of state courts is subject to change and, therefore, the right should be written in law.

Pro-choice supporters of the the Roe Act line a staircase waiting to attend a hearing at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on a bill to expand abortion access in Massachusetts on June 17, 2019. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

"Obviously to just lose such a lion, such a force for all kinds of rights -- but especially for women's rights -- is a devastating blow for all of us who held Ruth Bader Ginsburg up as a hero," said Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. "But it's a really scary blow for our rights going forward."

"We have a record in Massachusetts of responding when there is a change on the court that looks like it could threaten our rights," Hart Holder said, pointing to the Legislature's decision to repeal a criminal abortion ban when Supreme Court Chief Justice Anthony Kennedy retired in 2018. "It's a really important opportunity for Massachusetts to lead nationally."

The legislation is written too broadly, so as to include pretty much any circumstance that a woman feels is challenging for her up to the moment of birth… It would encompass too many viable babies’ lives.

Myrna Maloney Flynn, Massachusetts Citizens for Life

A coalition of organizations including NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and the ACLU have been pushing to pass the ROE Act, a bill pending on Beacon Hill that would expand access to abortion beyond 24 weeks in cases of fatal fetal anomalies and lower the age that women are required to get permission from a parent or judge from 18 to 16.

“We like to think of Massachusetts as being super progressive and in a lot of ways, we are. In a lot of ways access to abortion has been protected,” said  Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president of PPLM. “But there are a couple of remaining areas that really create barriers.”


Mendola learned of those barriers firsthand after she became pregnant in April 2017, when a routine growth scan with her high-risk pregnancy doctor in October turned into a diagnosis of severe and potentially lethal brain deformities. Her doctor at Beth Israel Deaconess referred her to Boston Children’s Hospital, where a team of specialists ran tests to confirm the physician’s suspicion.

Courtesy: Tara Mendola

“They sat us down and they told us that the doctor had been right,” Mendola said, “and that should we wish to end the pregnancy, they couldn't help us because it was illegal in the state of Massachusetts.”

That’s how Mendola found herself at the airport parking lot in Denver, far from the comfort of her home, family and spiritual leader.

“Obviously, being able to have the abortion in Massachusetts would not have taken away the grief that we felt or the pain of the situation,” she said. “But, you know, I'm not going to lie -- I'm still very angry and frustrated that I was not able to get care with my doctors in my state. And that I had to leave my older children behind at a very difficult time for a family to travel for care.”

Mendola was "very lucky," she added, that she could afford the associated travel expenses such as last-minute plane tickets, a car rental and hotel that was reasonably comfortable considering the circumstances.

We need to do everything that we can in our state legislatures to make sure that we have laws on the books in Massachusetts and elsewhere across this country that ensure a woman has a right to access an abortion when she needs it.

Attorney General Maura Healey

The issue disproportionately impacts people of color and those with low incomes, Hart Holder said, adding such people may not have the means to pay "tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket" to travel to Chicago or New Mexico for abortion care, or to navigate the court system for judicial bypass.

"It is a ridiculous amount of money to expect people to have on hand," Mendola said.

The ROE Act has been stuck in the Judiciary Committee for the majority of the 2019-2020 session despite widespread support. Amid concerns over an ideological shift on the Supreme Court, abortion amendments that closely mirror the bill were recently passed in the state House and Senate versions of the FY2021 budget. 


The decision now lands on Gov. Charlie Baker's desk.

Baker has said he doesn't necessarily see a need to change the current abortion laws, but has not explicitly said whether he would veto the measure. When asked again about the subject during a press conference last week, Baker echoed complaints from his Republican counterparts over including the proposal in a spending plan.

Getty Images
Governor Charlie Baker (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

"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 last week. "And it's pretty hard to argue that this isn't a major policy initiative that is now in the budget."

Opponents of the bill, like the pro-life organization Massachusetts Citizens for Life, argue the legislation is unnecessary because the abortion laws currently on the books are sufficient. 

"We agree with the governor when he states that the abortion law, as it is currently written in Massachusetts, serves our population just fine," MCFL President Myrna Maloney Flynn said, noting that Baker is "more pro-choice" than the organization.

“We don’t believe that it’s in the best interest of the women, the girls or the infants in the Commonwealth,” Flynn said. “The legislation is written too broadly, so as to include pretty much any circumstance that a woman feels is challenging for her up to the moment of birth… it would encompass too many viable babies’ lives.”

Massachusetts Citizens for Life Vice President Myrna Maloney Flynn speaks during a rally outside the Massachusetts Statehouse on June 17, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. Opposing activists were rallying in advance of consideration by lawmakers of measures aimed at loosening restrictions on abortion, including removing criminal penalties for those performed after 24 weeks as well as removing the requirement for parental-consent for pregnant girls under 18.

Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler, co-sponsor of the legislation, argues that the bill protects a woman’s right to choose without interference from the state.

“Basically, it gives women the right to make their own decisions about their bodies with the help of a doctor,” Chandler said. “That’s the most important issue that we have to deal with.”

I think that for women -- especially women of faith -- you know, we often seek out guidance for how to handle these situations. That’s a great deal easier if you’re not trying to negotiate reaching your spiritual leader from several thousand miles away.

Tara Mendola

Health care providers like obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Tara Kumaraswami, who has worked in central Massachusetts for more than a decade, argue the state restrictions prevent them from being able to provide complete care.

“I’ve been able to see what women have gone through and what the barriers they encounter (are) that really make it difficult for them to seek abortion care,” Kumaraswami said. “It is important that women are able to make this very personal decision between themselves, whomever they feel comfortable sharing this decision with and their health care provider.”

Mendola, who describes herself as a private person and a woman of conservative Jewish observance, said she is sharing her story in the hopes of changing the state law and, subsequently, the lives of women who need access to care like she did.

“I carry a sense of obligation to the people that helped me and to the women that will come after me,” she said. “I have a terrible stage fright. I hate talking in front of people. I really don't enjoy having my personal obstetric history on the internet, but it feels worth it to me.”

State House News Service contributed to this report.