The teenager was just 15, and recovering from a rape, when she realized she was pregnant. This young woman, whom NPR has agreed not to name, says she knew right away that she wanted to terminate the pregnancy. But like a lot of states, Massachusetts required — and still requires — minors to get a parent’s consent before obtaining an abortion.
“I knew I couldn’t tell my mom or my immediate family members,” she says, “because my pregnancy was the result of a sexual assault from a family friend.” Her home, she adds, “wasn’t necessarily a safe or healthy one at the time.”
So the 15-year-old pursued her only legal alternative: obtaining permission for the procedure from a state judge. She remembers staring up at a man who never made eye contact with her during their short conversation about grades and whether she played sports. She says 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 recalls. “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 low-income, nonwhite teenagers.
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 masters 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, only gets a grade of “C” for abortion access from an abortion rights group. 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 re-examining — 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 out abortion, having a parent or judge involved is supposed to help protect vulnerable teenagers, such as the 15-year-old who was raped. (That young woman says she has always assumed her lawyer told the judge how she got pregnant, but she can’t be sure.)
“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,” says 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, these 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 says 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 says. “I think most people are uncomfortable with minor girls obtaining abortions without their parent’s knowledge.”
Still, a poll out this past summer found that a plurality of Massachusetts voters favor letting minors decide on their own.
Removing parental consent is one of the key elements in a bill being 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 establish the right to an abortion in state law.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Harriet Chandler, argues that abortion is more widely accepted these days as general medical care. Chandler, who is 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 says.
Her proposed legislation is still in committee, and its ultimate fate is unclear. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, says 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,” says 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, which supports abortion rights, says 17 states have passed abortion restrictions or bans this year, as compared to 9 states that have confirmed or expanded access to abortion.
The recent rush in many states to restrict abortion rights is part of what propels Chandler: “We’re going in a different direction than the rest of the country,” she says.
That reaction has also occurred in other left-leaning states, according to Guttmacher’s senior state issues manager, Elizabeth Nash. The increased focus on abortion began in late 2018, Nash says, when Kavanaugh’s arrival on the Supreme Court created a five-member conservative majority. Before then, abortion access wasn’t an urgent priority among liberals.
“People felt that they were OK,” Nash explains, “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.