Warren vs Brown Debate Highlights Progressive Abortion Views in Massachusetts


Editor's Note: With 46 days left until the presidential election, PolicyMic's Audrey Farber will be posting a daily update on the state of abortion rights in the U.S., covering legislative challenges to Roe v. Wade in all 50 states. So far, we've gotten updates on Maine and New Hampshire. Check back in every day to keep track!

On Thursday, right before his debate against Democratic opponent Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown's record on abortion was called into question. NARAL Pro-Choice America's Nancy Keenan, who spoke recently at the Democratic National Convention about the importance of women's reproductive rights in this election, called Brown's record "mixed." But is it, and if so, how so?

In today's installment, we venture into the territory of clam chowder and the American Revolution, examining the state of abortion legislation in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Red Sox Territory


Once upon a time, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was more or less pro-choice. Then he became less and less so.

Even now, though, in making a statement saying he opposes abortion except in cases of the endangerment of the mother’s health, rape, and incest, he is going against the extremely conservative, newly-written GOP national platform.

Massachusetts, like most states, requires parental consent or a judge’s approval for a minor seeking an abortion and provides a legislated outlet for providers or hospitals who would choose not to provide abortion services (more information here). Massachusetts law freely permits abortions up to 24 weeks, and after twenty-four weeks if necessary to preserve the life of the mother. The law requires a 24 hour waiting period after signing a form indicating the informed consent of the woman seeking the abortion, a policy criticized by pro-choice groups. Nevertheless, as of 2008, only 10% of Massachusetts women lived in a county without an abortion provider. The state is 1 of the 17 to provide public funding to low-income patients for abortion services.

This seems to be a thing in Massachusetts: everything is just a little bit bluer there.

Massachusetts is also home to relatively pro-choice Republican Senator Scott Brown and openly gay Republican congressional candidate Richard Tisei, both of whom are critical of their party’s national platform and whose leadership will likely help protect Roe v. Wade from its more conservative opponents.

Senator Brown called for Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin to drop out of the race after his inflammatory and inaccurate “legitimate rape” comment. Though his views on abortion are not as liberal as his opponent’s, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, either Senate candidate will likely be a moderate to progressive voice in the Senate.

With its rich progressive history, even Massachusetts Republicans will not likely move to severely restrict abortion access in the state (unless, of course, the state GOP adopts the national GOP platform) – not that they could even if they wanted to, with nearly 80% and 90% Democratic representation in the State House and Senate, respectively.

Rhode Island is governed by pro-choice Independent (formerly-Republican) Governor Lincoln Chafee. Its largest city and capital boasted the country’s first openly-gay mayor (David Cicilline, 2003-2011), and its Senate and House are overwhelmingly blue.

Still, more than a year ago, a bill passed the State Senate prohibiting the sale of insurance plans that included abortion coverage on the state’s health exchange. Another bill was introduced in March requiring doctors to show women seeking abortions the ultrasound images of the fetus, despite the fact that “Planned Parenthood already performs ultrasounds prior to abortions and shows the images to patients who want to see them.”

Such bills are usually intended to discourage abortions, but similar efforts have failed in previous legislative sessions.

The statute on abortion falling under Criminal Offenses simply reads “unconstitutional”, and the remainder of Rhode Island’s abortion statutes fall under Health and Safety. Despite bans on partial birth abortions (it is a felony), exceptions are made for the health and safety of the mother. The state requires written informed consent, and parental consent for minors. Public funding and insurance coverage for public employees is available only in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.

For a state the size of my fingernail, Brown University lists three in-state abortion providers and one just across the state line in Massachusetts. In a state of just over a million people, 349,873 are women between 18 and 64, not nearly all of whom are fertile. This might sound like a lot, but only 5000 women obtained abortions in Rhode Island in 2008 out of 215,905 women of reproductive age. The point: not one of them was traveling more than 55 miles.

Rhode Island is relatively permissive regarding abortion, and even though some state legislators regularly attempt to push abortion-related bills through, these do not historically enjoy the popular support required to become state law and simply fizzle away.