Massachusetts 1st to Repeal Long-Dormant Ban on Abortion

Governor Charlie Baker signed the "Nasty Women Act," repealing the 173-year-old law banning abortion in Massachusetts

What to Know

  • Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bipartisan bill repealing antiquated laws, including one law banning abortion that dated to 1845.
  • Some of the archaic laws have since become largely unenforceable after decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court and Mass. SJC.
  • Abortion activists say President Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh raises the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Massachusetts on Friday became the first state since President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court to abolish from its books an abortion ban that predates the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who supports abortion rights, signed the "Nasty Women Act" on Friday, a bill that repeals the unenforced ban with roots dating to 1845, along with other archaic statutes that prohibited unmarried women from using contraceptives, and made adultery and fornication criminal offenses.

"It's a good day in Massachusetts," Gov. Baker said Friday.

He called the laws "antiquated, inappropriate," and in some cases, harmful.

"Here in Massachusetts, we will not compromise on a woman's right to her own decisions," Baker said.

Pro-choice activists joined lawmakers at the State House to see Gov. Baker sign the bill.

"This is a battle for the very heart and soul of our country," said Rebecca Hart Holder, Massachusetts' executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Abortion rights proponents fear Kavanaugh, whose nomination to replace Anthony Kennedy on the high court is pending before the U.S. Senate, could if confirmed tilt the court toward undoing abortion protections in place since Roe v. Wade, thereby potentially triggering old state laws that haven't been enforced in decades.

"For years, Justice Kennedy has held together a delicate balance on the Supreme Court protecting access to abortion and the fundamental ability of women to control their lives," Holder said. "This is not a drill. The lawsuits necessary to overturn Roe are making their way through the courts right now."

Seventeen states already have laws that could be used to restrict the legal status of abortions if Roe was overturned or severely limited. Of those, Massachusetts was among 10 states that still had pre-Roe abortion bans on the books, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a national research group that supports abortion rights.

Nine states have laws specifically protecting abortion rights, the institute said.

While not among the states listed as having pre-Roe v. Wade bans on the books, the Democratic governors of New York and Rhode Island have asked lawmakers in their states to vote on legislation codifying abortion rights in light of the potential shift in the Supreme Court.

In Massachusetts, a 1981 ruling by the state's highest court protects access to abortion, leading some critics of the so-called NASTY bill - short for Negating Archaic Statutes Targeting Young Women - to question why the action was necessary. Backers said they didn't want to take any chances.

"With an uncertain future in terms of federal action on these issues, it's up to the states," said House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat.

Baker was among only three Republican governors who did not sign on to a letter sent to Senate leaders earlier this week in support of Kavanaugh's nomination.

Baker stopped short on Friday of saying he outright opposed Kavanaugh, saying he would hold off on that judgment at least until after the Senate holds hearings on the nomination.

"I’m concerned about his previous writings on this issue," Governor Baker said.

Baker says the precedent associated with Roe v. Wade should be a key point of questioning during hearings between Kavanaugh and the U.S. Senate, but adds, "It does trouble me a little that everybody basically makes up their mind these days on everything before we even have a hearing."

With the bill repealed, can the state’s pro-choice activists now rest easy knowing their work is done?

"If they merely say that it’s up to the states, then you’re in the clear in Massachusetts," Carol Rose of the ACLU said. "If the court were actually to rule that abortion is illegal across the country, then no one is in the clear."

While Massachusetts is the first state in the country to repeal a pre-Roe criminal abortion ban in the wake of President Trump’s nomination, pro-choice activists expect to see other states now follow suit. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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