NOEL KING, HOST:
Last year, state lawmakers were busy with one of the most controversial issues in American politics. Twelve states passed laws to ban or severely restrict abortion. Nine other states passed laws to protect or expand abortion rights. In Massachusetts, a proposal to strengthen abortion rights is still being debated. As Martha Bebinger at member station WBUR explains, a key part of the bill would extend new rights to the state's youngest women.
MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Often viewed as a bastion of liberal laws, Massachusetts only gets a grade of C for access to abortion from an abortion rights group. One of the main reasons - the state requires that minors have a parent's consent. That did not work for this young woman whose name we've agreed to keep private.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I found out I was pregnant when I was 15, and I knew I wanted an abortion right off the bat. But I knew I couldn't tell my mom or my immediate family members because my pregnancy was a result of sexual assault from a family friend. And then - my home wasn't necessarily a safe or healthy one at the time. So...
BEBINGER: The 15-year-old pursued her only legal alternative - permission from a judge. The young woman remembers staring up at a man who never made eye contact during a short conversation about grades and whether she played sports. She says the judge never asked about the assault or her planned abortion.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And then, right before I was leaving, he just encouraged me to think harder next time before I had sex. That was tough to hear.
BEBINGER: The judge issued an order granting the abortion. The additional time it took pushed the 15-year-old past the period when she could take pills to induce an abortion. She had the more invasive surgical procedure instead. But that's not what weighs heavily on the young woman, who's now 23, has a master's degree and works for a nonprofit in Boston.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The feeling that I had from seeing the judge and those last words he said to me about being more responsible were really what haven't left me.
BEBINGER: This woman always assumed her lawyer told the judge she was raped, but she can't be sure he knew how she got pregnant. Having a judge or parent involved is supposed to help protect such vulnerable young women, says David Franks with the anti-abortion group Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
DAVID FRANKS: In our laws, we need to do as much as we can - especially given the kind of epidemic abuse that we're facing - that we do as much as we can to interrupt that cycle.
BEBINGER: After the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Massachusetts, a heavily Catholic state, was among the first to pass a parental consent requirement for minors. Twenty-five other states enforce a similar law. No state has repealed this restriction. Rebecca Hart Holder is with the abortion rights group NARAL Massachusetts.
REBECCA HART HOLDER: It's really been difficult to repeal barriers across the country. And this is a moment for us to take back that narrative and to say, you know, those barriers are not acceptable.
BEBINGER: The Catholic Church's political influence has waned in Massachusetts since the '70s. Now there's a bill in the Massachusetts legislature that would remove parental consent for abortion. It would also allow abortions in the third trimester if a doctor diagnoses a fatal fetal condition, and would establish the right to an abortion in state law.
The bill's sponsor, state Senator Harriette Chandler, argues that abortion is more widely accepted now as part of general medical care. Chandler, who is 82, says she remembers the days when abortion was illegal.
HARRIETTE CHANDLER: I think if people realize what a post-Roe world would be, that would make it even more reasonable to do this bill. We're going in a different direction than the rest of the country.
BEBINGER: Well, not yet. Chandler's bill is still in committee. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, says he generally supports access to abortion but not Chandler's proposed expansions. Still, abortion rights advocates think the bill could help Massachusetts become a haven for women who can't access abortion in other states. They are already focusing fundraising appeals on the idea of even more women needing help with abortions in a post-Roe world.
For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.
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