Jasmin Johnson was 16 years old when she decided to have an abortion. Not wanting to tell her parents her decision and not legally an adult, Johnson was required by Massachusetts law to go through a court judicial bypass process to get a judge’s authorization for the procedure.
The process was complicated and delayed the abortion by a week: Johnson had to connect and meet with a lawyer and a judge to defend her decision, and wound up missing school days to complete the process.
“In hindsight, I felt more pressure and anxiety on the day I met with the judge than the day I had the actual abortion,” Johnson said at Sexual Health Lobby Day at the Massachusetts State House last Thursday. “Having to defend my life circumstances to a lawyer, a judge, two middle-aged white men who I’ve never met before … was something else entirely. I felt like they had my entire life in their hands. Despite the fact that the judge said yes to my request, I still have to battle additional emotional anxiety. The anxiety of being a black person, depending on the court system to have your best interests in mind.”
More than 10 years later and now a community outreach specialist at Planned Parenthood, Johnson reflects on her experience trying to get an abortion and the barriers that still exist. “Why do we inflict additional pressure and stress onto what can already be a complex situation? … Why do we create more barriers for young people? Specifically for young women of color like myself. Why do we continue to enforce these roadblocks?”
To help break down some of these barriers, Sexual Health Lobby Day rallied support for the ROE Act and the Healthy Youth Act. Attended by more than 450 people, the event was sponsored by NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts, ACLU Massachusetts, and others. Following the speaking program, attendees visited their representatives to discuss the bills. The ROE Act would expand safe and legal access to abortion by eliminating parental consent laws, allowing for abortion access after 24 weeks of pregnancy in fatal fetal anomalies circumstances, codifying reproductive freedom principles into state law, removing medically inaccurate image from the books, and ensuring Massachusetts residents of all income levels and insurance coverage types can access affordable abortion. The Healthy Youth Act would require public schools to offer a comprehensive, medically accurate, LGBTQ-inclusive sex education that teaches about consent and healthy relationships.
Advocates for the two bills hope to pave a path toward more equitable sexual and reproductive health in Mass in the face of national threats to women’s autonomy. “We’ve been dealing with an administration that has infringed on our freedoms, stomped on our rights, and undermined our health,” said Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “This administration is appointing anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court, [championing] abstinence-only sex ed, and doing everything in its power to block people from accessing birth control, abortion, and other basic healthcare.”
Childs-Roshak pointed to past successes like the NASTY Women Act, which repealed archaic laws criminalizing abortion, as well as the ACCESS law that ensures birth control access, the PATCH (Protecting Access to Confidential Health Care) Act, and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
Even with some past successes, there is still a lot at stake in Mass, according to Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts.
“I think it’s really easy to feel safe in Massachusetts and to believe that access to abortion will always be equitable,” Hart Holder told DigBoston. “I think this time period on the federal landscape should show us that there really is a full-scale attack on our rights, including access to abortion, and that in Massachusetts we not only have to protect that care for the people … but we also have to serve as a model for what access to care should look like for the rest of the nation.”
According to those pushing for these measures, the ROE Act is especially critical in safeguarding and expanding abortion rights. State Sen. Harriette Chandler of Worcester recalled a harrowing time before Roe v. Wade in 1973 when backstreet abortions were commonplace.
“You know about women who found themselves pregnant and they had nowhere to go except to some butcher who really ended their chances of ever having children again if they survived,” Chandler said. “The procedures they had to endure were not safe. Sometimes they risk their lives.” House Rep. Patricia Haddad echoed the sentiments, adding that at the time, there was also a lack of information and counseling about abortion and birth control.
The ROE Act is not only about safeguarding abortion rights, but also about expanding them. Dr. Luu Ireland, a gynecologist, used her time to explain how the current law, which requires anybody under the age of 18 to obtain parental consent or obtain a judicial bypass for an abortion, is detrimental to women.
“Anyone, regardless of age, should be able to make the decision on when they are able to parent,” Ireland said. “At best judicial bypass accomplishes nothing but shame, missed school days, and increased risks from delayed abortions. At worst, it forces our young people to continue pregnancies against their will.”
Ireland also pointed to the necessity of allowing for an abortion past 24 weeks of pregnancy in the case of fatal fetal anomalies. Speaking of a woman she had cared for, the physician said, “Unfortunately, during her pregnancy, she contracted a life-threatening infection and spent over a month in the intensive care unit. When she was stable she underwent an ultrasound that showed that the baby had sustained such severe brain damage that he was unlikely to survive, let alone walk, talk, or even breathe on his own.” Given the woman’s “fragile medical state and the poor prognosis of the baby,” Ireland continued, “the family requested to terminate the pregnancy. By this time she was 26 weeks along and unable to end the pregnancy according to Massachusetts law.”
In another case, Ireland said she had to turn away somebody seeking an abortion because the patient was a refugee and did not qualify for MassHealth. “She arrived in the US pregnant as a result of rape. … Turning her away and essentially forcing her to continue a pregnancy that resulted from sexual violence in a new country where she had limited resources and limited support was one of the most heartbreaking moments in my career.”
Some speakers noted that sex education should start with the youth, who often seek sexual and reproductive health help but are left behind by the laws. Malik Gomes Cruz, a 16-year-old peer educator at the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts Get Real Teen Council, said that activists have been advocating for the Healthy Youth Act for eight years.
“I learned all about heteronormative sex, which is often exclusive of many experiences that people could have,” Gomes Cruz said. “Health class consisted of my English teacher playing a video that no one wanted to watch, which explained the science of puberty and how my voice was probably going to crack. The video also said it was perfectly normal for me to develop feelings towards females. … At a time in my life where I was questioning my own sexuality, the message I received from a community where I felt safe and included was, ‘Malik, you are not normal.’ Sexual health was this big mystery to me, so it became difficult for me to navigate my own body and the feelings that I was experiencing.”
Galina Smith, a health programs coordinator at BAGLY (Boston Alliance of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Youth), told DigBoston that from her experience coordinating an STI drop-in clinic, many people aren’t knowledgeable about sexual health due to gaps in education.
“The majority that come through don’t really know where to start regarding taking care of themselves, taking care of others, practicing safe sex, consent, and didn’t get a lot of information because if they had sex ed they didn’t feel that it applied to them because it wasn’t respectful or inclusive of LGBTQ identities,” Smith said. “I think that something that has been evident to me, time and time again, is that the queer community and the LGBTQ community really have to work hard at educating each other and making sure that everyone else in their community is knowing the things they need to know and learning how to protect themselves, because the larger society and especially education system doesn’t allow for that to happen for LGBTQ people, and part of that includes sex ed that isn’t comprehensive for LGBTQ people.”
Smith said it is critical to have identity-inclusive sex ed from early on to reduce the stigma: “I think that by not educating, especially not educating straight people, about different types of sexual orientations, different types of gender identities, gender presentations, you create a lot of stigma around those identities and those behaviors. Aside from that, the people that are a part of the LGBTQ community aren’t able to learn about those identities. When they’re coming into their own or having these realizations they may be LGBTQ, they’re also feeling stigmatized, and really feeling like there’s something wrong with them or that they’re a freak or feeling like the normal and natural feelings they’re having are unhealthy, which is just not the case. Not only does it impact your physical health, it impacts your mental health.”
Currently, public schools are free to teach any sex education curriculum they want, said Tricia Wajda, vice president of external affairs at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “They [public schools] have the green light to teach harmful abstinence-only sex programs that shame sexual assault survivors, pass judgment on LGBTQ youth, and promote blatantly inaccurate information,” Wajda told DigBoston. “We have to educate young people more about how to recognize and ask for consent. … It is an important step to combat sexual violence at its roots and transform our culture to one based on mutual respect and healthy communication.”
“Comprehensive sex education matters to me because queer youth deserve to feel included in their education no matter their identity,” Gomes Cruz said. “So now that I’m teaching sex education, I see my peers who are so misinformed and it reminds me of how I felt as an insecure 13-year-old kid. And I’m sure everyone in this room has felt the sensation of fear or anxiety, and no teen should feel that way about their own body.”
Olivia Deng is an arts and culture writer who also covers politics and social movements. Her work has appeared in DigBoston, WBUR, Boston Magazine, The Atlantic, Boston Art Review and more. She is also an illustrator and painter.