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On November 4, Massachusetts voters will be presented with an anti-abortion referendum that, if passed, would allow the State Legislature of Massachusetts to regulate or prohibit abortion in any way not specifically prohibited by the Constitution of the United States.
On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court announced in the decision of two landmark cases, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, that in the first trimester, the abortion decision must be left to the pregnant woman and her doctor. Right now, a 5-4 vote upholds Roe v. Wade; just one more anti-choice Supreme Court Justice would be enough to overturn it. If, when, and as soon as this happens, passage of Question 1 will give the Massachusetts Legislature the power to outlaw abortion--even in the case of rape and incest victims and women with serious health problems.
In the meantime, the referendum, if passed, will allow the legislature to regulate abortion in other ways. For example, the legislature could eliminate Medicaid funding for abortions. As of the Hyde Amendment of 1977, there is no federal funding for Medicaid abortions except in the case of threat of death to the pregnant woman. Massachusetts currently pays for several thousand Medicaid abortions each year, in the same way that it supports thousands more welfare births. There is currently a law on the state books which mandates Medicaid funding of abortions as long as child birth funds are provided. Only by presenting poor women with financially feasible options can the government truly give them the power of choice. Passage of Question 1 would pave the way for anti-choice lobbyists to end Medicaid funding for abortion.
Anti-choice forces present this referendum as a tax issue. They ask "Do you want your tax dollars spent on abortion?" This implies that taxpayers will save money by voting for the referendum. Nothing could be more untrue. The cost of several thousand abortions is nothing compared to the cost of supporting one child on welfare for 18 years, especially if that child has any health problems.
Regardless of the money issue, Question 1 is more than a question about taxes. At a debate over the referendum held at Boston University this week, the President of the National Organization for Women, Eleanor Smeal, emphasized the broad wording of the referendum as a threat to pro-choice voters. Smeal argued that if abortion is defined as the termination of pregnancy after fertilization, then Question 1 has ramifications for the availibility of birth control. The intrauterine device, morning-after medication and some of the low dose birth control pills work by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus and thus might be regulated, along with abortion, by the passage of Question 1.
In addition to its broad wording, the referendum is poorly worded and confusing. It reads:
No provision of the Constitution shall prevent the General Court from regulating or prohibiting abortion unless prohibited by the United States Constitution, nor shall any provision of the Constitution require public or private funding of abortion, or the provision of services or facilities therefor, beyond that required by the United States Constitution. The provisions of this article shall not apply to abortions required to prevent the death of the mother.
Smeal argues that voters faced with deciphering the multiple double-negatives imbedded in this text would have a hard time deciding which way to vote, even if they were clear about their own positions on the issue. Campaign for Choice, a coalition of pro-choice organizations, is pushing for voter education in order that voters understand that the pro-choice vote is "No." In addition, they are helping to sponsor a march to defeat the amendment on Saturday, October 18, starting at Copley Plaza at 11:30 a.m.
Most Massachusetts residents are pro-choice; most Catholics in the state are pro-choice. However, most choice supporters do not vote. Low turn-out and confusion over the wording of the referendum is cause for concern for those who are pro-choice. The anti-choice contingent is well funded, vocal and sure to turn up at the polls. As long as the outcome of the vote on November 4 remains in doubt, so does the reproductive freedom of all women in this state.
Barbara Okun '86 is a counselor at the Crittenton Abortion Clinic in Brighton. She was a Peer Contraceptive Counselor while she was at Harvard.
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