Thursday, June 13, 2024

Protesters march May 26 on Cambridge Common in support of abortion rights. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There’s not much a city such as Cambridge can do in the face of Friday’s overturning of federal abortion rights by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The City Council did what it could, though.

It gave unanimous approval Monday of two late policy orders: One supporting an executive order by Gov. Charlie Baker that “prohibits Massachusetts government officials from cooperating in the investigation or prosecution of women, their supporters or their health care providers related to reproductive health care”; and another banning medical counseling centers that trick pregnant people into thinking they’re getting objectively administered health care that could include abortion if wanted or needed. The “limited-services pregnancy centers” are instead religiously funded and anti-abortion and seek to dissuade or delay an abortion decision.

The order about pregnancy centers drew questions of legality from some councillors, with Dennis Carlone wondering “how can you stop anybody counseling anything?” But it was adopted unanimously – like the other – with the intention of getting an opinion from the city solicitor even as it heads to the Ordinance Committee.

Somerville officials adopted an order against the deceptive clinics in April, apparently the first in the state.

Neither city has one of the mislabeled clinics within their borders, but there are at least nine in the state, and one is as close as Brookline. “I was shocked to find out that somewhere as liberal as Brookline has one,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said.

But “shocked” was the general sense as councillors discussed the orders at the end of a long meeting, the final pieces of business before a two-month summer break from regular meetings.

“It’s horrible, even though we knew it was coming,” said Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui of the Supreme Court’s 6-3 overturning of the Roe v. Wade precedent in a case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The move was expected since May, when a draft of the decision was leaked, prompting marches nationwide opposing the end of the 1973 legal precedent affirming the right to privacy and autonomy in health care.

Tears and tough conversations

Councillor Burhan Azeem, participating remotely as he recovered from Covid, said he suspected everyone had “a strong feeling of disgust” over the weekend, with knowing of the court’s decision in advance only making it worse because its six-member majority “had all this time to see how two-thirds of Americans disagree with them.”

The weekend had been rough, Councillor Patty Nolan agreed. “I just burst into tears all day Friday,” she said in response to the Dobbs decision. “It’s literally set us back 50 years.”

Mallon and councillor Marc McGovern described the difficulty of talking through the situation with their daughters. “It was a very dark weekend, and it’s still such a shock,” Mallon said. McGovern recalled grappling with the dissonance between Dobbs, which supposedly endorses states’ rights over federal rights, and the court’s decision earlier in the week that weakened states’ rights to restrict guns. 

“Placing guns ahead of women’s autonomy, it’s just disgusting,” McGovern said.

“Get ready” for more

Councillors said the measure supporting Baker’s order echoed one declaring Cambridge a sanctuary city from the anti-minority and anti-immigrant policies of then president Donald Trump. “This is something we at the local level can actually do and can take action on,” Nolan said. “Just like we’re a sanctuary city in other areas, we need to do everything we possibly can to protect people not just in our city but outside the city who come here.”

Councillors said people must brace for the conservative Supreme Court majority to go on undoing other landmark right-to-privacy freedoms won over the past several decades. Clarence Thomas has written that the rights to contraception and same-sex relationships and marriage are next – carefully leaving out Loving v. Virginia, a 1967 case that allows for interracial marriages such as his own.

“Thomas is trying to set the stage to roll back these rights and responsibilities. It is horrible, what’s going on,” councillor E. Denise Simmons said. “I want to stand in the vanguard that says we will not stand for this and we will push back … get ready for the fight, because we are really in for one.”

Organizations respond to ruling

Local organizations have also spoken out about the court ruling.

YWCA Cambridge released a statement Friday saying it was “devastated” by Dobbs. “Abortion access is crucial to social justice, racial and gender equity, especially for those with multiple marginalized identities,” the organization said via social media, expressing support for the Massachusetts 2020 Roe Act that ensures “reproductive rights for all those in the state would be protected.”

The small-business organization Cambridge Local First called Dobbs a “gut-wrenching blow” and offered its resources to members for organizing or commiserating. The mailing by leaders Theodora Skeadas and Pooja Paode urged members to consider abortion rights for team members scattered in other states as well as considering more general efforts: contacting senators with support for the Women’s Health Protection Act; advocating at the state level; and supporting state abortion funds and other, local abortion and reproductive health funds.