Comerford named to working panel on reproductive rights


For the Gazette
Published: 7/16/2022 10:29:04 AM
Modified: 7/16/2022 10:28:39 AM

A flurry of activity designed to protect reproductive rights in Massachusetts began nearly as soon as a draft of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, essentially overturning the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade case affirming a woman’s right to abortion, was leaked to the press in May. The majority ruling announced on June 24 mirrored the leaked draft virtually verbatim.

In recent days, legislation designed to protect the right to reproductive and gender-affirming health care in the commonwealth has been passed by both the House and Senate. Senate President Karen Spilka has announced formation of a working group “to dig deeper into the fundamental reproductive and other substantive rights under threat by the Supreme Court, as well as explore issues regarding data collection and privacy, and later in pregnancy abortions.” The panel will be led by senators Jo Comerford, chairwoman of the Senate’s Committee on Public Health, and Cindy Friedman, chairwoman of the Health Care Financing Committee.

The Senate bill, which received unanimous support, is designed, according to a statement from the Office of the Senate President, to protect “providers, residents, and visitors to the Commonwealth who engage in legally-protected reproductive and gender-affirming health care.”

Asked why legislation of this kind is necessary, given that Massachusetts is among the most liberal states in the country when it comes to safeguarding reproductive rights, Comerford said one reason “is just an acknowledgement of the tide that is turning, nationally.”

“One priority is the protection of providers in the commonwealth — the health care professionals and case workers — who are helping people in the commonwealth but, perhaps more germane, those from other states who are seeking care here. The provider protection piece is essential because of the Supreme Court decision and concerns that states are closing down their access and perhaps threatening action against providers in other states.

“We’re just saying, ‘Hey, our laws are our laws, and people here are protected by our laws.’ It’s pretty simple. We have to assert the primacy of our laws. We need to tell other states, ‘If you’re looking to sue provider X, you don’t get to do that in Massachusetts.’ I think it’s important to protect the people working here.”

Comerford said the same concerns apply to gender-affirming care.

“You see some pretty extreme measures coming out of other states,” she said, “like the ‘don’t say gay’ provisions in Florida, Texas. They’re really locking down in, I believe, some pretty alarming ways, especially around trans rights. So, if we want to continue to uphold the civil rights that we believe in, it’s the same thing; we have to protect the providers who might offer counseling or other gender-affirming care for people coming to Massachusetts for that care.”

Comerford also said steps to protect individual rights must be taken now, given the real possibility that decisions rolling back those rights could be handed down by an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court.

“I do think that with a Supreme Court really lurching into a very conservative posture, states like Massachusetts are going to have to think about all the ways in which we protect our people, should we not agree with that posture,” she said.

The Northampton Democrat said it’s too early to say whether an effort will be made to write reproductive and gender-affirming rights into the state’s Constitution.

“The Senate President has sent Sen. Friedman and I out on a task,” she explained, “and that task is to work with interested senators who want to explore the ways in which Massachusetts can continue to strengthen reproductive health care and reproductive equity. How do you do that?

“Those will be among the guiding questions, and (Sen. Friedman) and I will lead the process by which we look at the proposals from our colleagues. And then we’ll make recommendations to the Senate regarding protections that the Legislature could potentially get behind in the next session.”

Asked about the potential role of the state and/or nongovernmental organizations when it comes to facilitating travel to Massachusetts by women who wish to avail themselves of services unavailable in their home states, Comerford said it’s also too soon to answer that question.

“My first responsibility is to the people of Massachusetts,” she said. “But then I do believe the state has a role to play in terms of reaffirming our intentions to support reproductive access. Still, I guess I would say my own first — and important — charge is to my constituents and the people of Massachusetts. But I’m not every senator and we’ll see what our colleagues bring up.

“I do think there are going to be important roles for non-profits — in the non-profit sector, the advocacy sector — that are different from what the state can and should do,” she said.

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