THERE'S A RUMOR floating around the Massachusetts State House these days that State Rep. Charles Flynn thinks he's on his way to heaven--a funny thing for Charlie to believe since he just co-sponsored and succeeded in getting passed one of the most regressive steps taken by the Legislature in recent years.
As the story goes, Flynn apparently had a revelation that God would praise him if he could get the 1979 budget through with a bill restricting state funding for abortions for poor women. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis kept his promise, vetoing the bill last Friday, but it was overridden that evening by a vote of 159-50. Since Monday, poor women have been wondering who will pay for their abortions.
The abortion question, for poor women living in Massachusetts, is for all practical purposes right back where it was five years ago. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that women had the right to decide for themselves whether or not they wished to have a child, and people like Jean Weinburg, executive director of Massachusetts Organization for Repeal of Abortion Laws (MORAL) breathed a sigh of relief. Since the Supreme Court made that ruling, abortion has been a private decision--not a bid idea, since there are a number of moral considerations on the issue and no general consensus. Everyone is entitled to abortions; Medicaid funds have been used to pay for poor women to have this freedom of choice, too.
Too bad for poor women, though. Last June, by a narrow majority, the Supreme Court held that states need not supply Medicaid funds to women who wanted abortions, nor did hospitals even have to perform the operations if they didn't want to. Since that decision, between 30 and 35 states have ruled, in some form or another, to restrict state funding for abortions. Through October 1977, Medicaid funds paid for an estimated 22,000 abortions in Massachusetts alone and more than 300,000 in the whole country. Medicaid has in fact saved state welfare agencies from having to dole out even more money than the cost of these abortions to take care of unwanted children.
The 1977 Supreme Court ruling was a bad one, not necessarily from a moral standpoint, because everyone is entitled to their feelings on the subject, but because it left the original 1973 ruling saying, essentially, anybody who wants an abortion can have one, if she can afford it.
Since last June, three states have successfully overturned laws similar to the one the Massachusetts Legislature passed last week. Citing Title 19 of the Federal Code, which says that you cannot halt funding for medically necessary services for poor women, West Virginia, Illinois and last month New Jersey have restored Medicaid funding for poor women based on the unconstitutionality of their state actions. Weinburg says she is confident that MORAL will be able to win its case, which they took to court yesterday afternoon. Her biggest concern yesterday, however, was that they would be able to obtain a temporary restraining order as soon as possible, so that their first plaintiff would be able to have her abortion today, as she had planned.
THE MASSACHUSETTS Department of Public Welfare still awaits a legal opinion as to exactly when the Massachusetts bill passed by the Legislature will go into effect. As it turns out, Weinburg, a full-time lobbyist for MORAL, and her associates have suspected for a year that the Legislature would pass the bill, which Flynn began working on three years ago. But even if Dukakis's veto had been sustained, poor women could have been hurt more by a compromise bill, because then there would have been no court precedents to overrule it. MORAL went to work at the end of last week to convince legislators to overturn Dukakis. That way, they can now start again from "square one," as Weinburg puts it, and hope to win a court order overruling the whole bill.
The unfortunate fact which the Massachusetts law now represents is that, once again, minority families will suffer at the hands of unequal justice. Nearly one-third of the women who have received abortions in the nation since 1973 have been non-white. These are precisely the women who cannot afford to pay for abortions, the women whose children have a good chance of growing up in an unhappy enviornment, particularly if they are not wanted to begin with. The minimum price for an abortion these days is about $150. That rock-bottom price may not seem like very much to some people, but if this is half of one month's welfare check, and you are already trying to support six children, it's an awful lot of money. In fact, the whole situation smacks of injustice. Just imagine what would have happened if, when the Supreme Court upheld the compulsory education acts in the early 1900s; state governments refused to fund public schools four years later. Not everyone believed then, and some people probably don't believe today, that sending your kids to school is the best thing for them. There would have been a lot of parents forced to send their children to school without being able to afford it.
THE SUPREME COURT did not, of course, rule that everyone has to have an abortion. And it is possible to prevent pregnancy, even though there is no completely foolproof method. But given the fact that in one year, Massachusetts Medicaid has paid for an average of 5000 abortions, it is apparent that there is a great need for them. White, middle-and upper-class women should not be the only ones to enjoy this privilege.
Flynn and the rest of the Massachusetts Legislature, which is considered to be fairly moderate on budget issues, considering the amount of public service funds in the budget, believe they can win more votes this fall by supporting the new law. In fact, however, they have acted on last spring's socially irresponsible decision by the Supreme Court. But with a little luck and some effective lobbying, their action may soon be undone.