by Lawrence Pareles
On July 5, progressive activists from western Mass. showed up at the Easthampton City Council meeting which was considering a modest ordinance that would provide information about reproductive and gender-affirming medical care, and protect people seeking those services from being reported to other states.
Despite the moderate nature of this ordinance it nevertheless attracted lots of anti-abortion forces from across the state. Arriving at the City Hall parking lot, we saw a large group of anti-choicers being led by a priest in a “prayer to protect the unborn.” It was clear that the upcoming meeting would be heated.
In fact, the meeting room was packed with more than 100 people with standing room only, and more online too, with palpable tension in the air.
Easthampton Mayor LaChapelle spoke first and expressed support for reproductive rights, but had strong reservations about the ordinance because she felt it was beyond the scope of the city, and might invite expensive outside legal challenges.
After the mayor spoke, each City Councilor spoke to. Councilor Zaret explained that the proposed ordinance, “protects individuals pursuing legal reproductive or gender-affirming care from city agents reporting them to other states where such actions may be civilly or criminally illegal, and instructs the city to provide information from the Commonwealth regarding legally protected reproductive and gender-affirming health care.”
Following the councilors’ remarks came public comments. Many people spoke in favor of this very basic law, including many young people. Smith College professor Carrie Baker, Jenifer McKenna, co-author of Designed to Deceive, members from IN-SLWM, Beth Lev, Ann-Louise Smollen and many others, spoke with passion and eloquence in support. But there were multiple speeches by anti-abortion forces too. The attendees included city councilors from other cities, and reps from organizations including the Mass. Family Institute, Reproductive Equity Now and the Abortion Truth Campaign (working with Planned Parenthood), medical practitioners, lawyers, and clergy too.
The Council discussions and public testimony were fascinating.
Councilor Koni Denham, the only female city councilor, spoke with an emotional and shaky voice: “As a member of the LGBT community, I’ve watched my community nationally be harassed. I’ve watched suffering. I’ve watched fear. And I’ve watched harm on a variety of different levels as a member of that community…It’s hard to watch; it’s painful.”
Supporters spoke eloquently about protecting freedom of information and the rights of pregnant people to make their own personal health decisions, getting loud applause.
Here are are some direct quotes:
A REN spokesman said, “We are doing everything in our power to protect people and providers seeking and offering reproductive healthcare of every type.”
Attorney Carrie Baker (Chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at nearby Smith College, and organizer of the Abortion Truth Campaign) said: “It’s fine if you want to try to convince people not to have abortions, but be honest about it. Be safe about it. Don’t put people’s lives in danger… ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’ (CPCs) are lying to people. They’re misleading people. They’re harming people. We need public awareness about what they are and we need true and accurate information out there.”
She continued: “To interfere with reproductive health care access, abortion opponents are now targeting states where abortion remains legal by pumping resources into a spider web of anti-abortion CPCs working to mislead people.”
She discussed the class action suit against Clearway Clinic (a CPC in Worcester), where a woman had an ultrasound which misdiagnosed her ectopic pregnancy as normal. She needed emergency life-saving surgery, and lost one of her Fallopian tubes in the operation. See details.
“Please pass this law to help people navigate the treacherous landscape of misinformation.”
“If you don’t want an abortion, don’t have one. But don’t stand in the way of other people from getting the medical care they want.”
“This is City Hall. This is not a house of worship — it is a house of laws.”
“Please, please help protect our own citizens with this ordinance.”
“These are human rights. This law is an important first step to protect our rights as human beings.”
“These very personal decisions really belong in the hands of medical caregivers, not the government.”
A nurse practitioner with 30 years of experience said: “I will never allow politicians in my exam room. And I will not allow any religious people in there either.”
“In Massachusetts we don’t answer the calls of the gender oppressors. We want everyone to know that Massachusetts welcomes everyone.”
A librarian said: “This law is important to protect access to information and protect privacy. It protects access to actual, real medical care.”
“This is a moral decision of those whose bodies need to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. People have the right to make their own moral decisions.”
“Democracy is for everybody. Let’s guarantee it to everyone.”
“This is a very limited ordinance which provides information which is already available.”
One City Councilor, a practicing Buddhist, spoke to support the ordinance: “I have complete and total respect for all human life and this ordinance fully respects it.”
“I want to affirm the rights of people to have the information they want and need.”
“It is the role of all of us to stand up for freedom of information.”
“Turning women into criminals for making their healthcare decisions about their own bodies is totally wrong.”
“Our basic human rights are under attack. I want my community to reflect our values to make everyone feel and be safe. We need to protect each other.”
Opponents spoke too:
Opponents spoke against abortion rights, and possible impacts on the Bethlehem House. Bethlehem House is a faith-based nonprofit in Easthampton that offers free pregnancy resources, including diapers, clothing, and other supplies, to pregnant people. It is a self-described “Pregnancy Care Center” which offers “support for young mothers” but which provides no pregnancy-related medical services.
Attorney Whiting, from the conservative Mass. Family Institute, said the ordinance allows the city to publicize and help create complaints against a “Limited Service Pregnancy Center… We’re concerned that Easthampton is going to use its resources to point people to something that is essentially propaganda against pro-life organizations.”
Multiple others spoke about the evils of abortion and other right-wing talking points.
We were disheartened to see how many people there were opposed to abortion, trying to take away the right to abortion and other personal medical decisions.
There were actually more opponents to abortion rights than supporters at this meeting. Many of them appeared to be well-organized and came from outside the local community.
What does the ordinance do?
This ordinance tasks the city of Easthampton to:
- Maintain accurate information on its website about legally-protected healthcare — what it is, where it’s available (and where it’s not), and Massachusetts state advisories about this care.
Currently Massachusetts has an advisory about deceptive advertising by many so-called “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” (anti-abortion centers) and information on filing consumer complaints with the state about “Limited Service Pregnancy Centers” (which don’t provide abortion services or referrals).
- Ensure that anyone seeking this care (Massachusetts resident or not) will be protected from having their medical information shared by city employees with anyone, including officials from states who want to criminalize this behavior (which is legal and protected in Massachusetts).
Although there are Massachusetts state protections for people seeking reproductive and gender-affirming care, including An Act Expanding Protections for Reproductive and Gender-Affirming Care — which protects individuals from other states’ abortion restrictions — the Easthampton ordinance adds additional local protections.
This isn’t a heavy-handed ordinance, and cannot close any center. It doesn’t include enforcement. But it does help spread information already available on the Massachusetts state website, and protects fundamental human rights and personal freedoms.
The author of the ordinance, Councilor Owen Zaret, said: “The precipitous increase in states that have criminalized a variety of reproductive healthcare and gender-affirming services caused an influx of patients to our state. We are obligated to offer information and protections to people seeking legal services in our state.”
Zaret explained that this ordinance will help Easthampton share information about how to access reliable and safe reproductive and gender-affirming services through the city’s website and post advisories about “Limited-Services Pregnancy Centers.” These advisories come from the state, including from then-Attorney General Maura Healey.
Through the ordinance the city can also share information about how to report complaints against a “Limited-Services Pregnancy Center” to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office.
Zaret said: “I‘m just doing my part to make sure that people’s rights to their bodies are protected, they’re well-informed, and when they are seeking care, they know where to find it… The landscape of reproductive and gender-affirming health care has changed substantially in just the last year… We have an obligation from a public health perspective to make sure the public is aware of this information from the state.”
The ordinance was approved after 2½ hours of testimony and discussion, with 6 councilors voting in favor, 1 against, 1 abstention, and 1 absent. The ordinance is here.
By passing the ordinance, Easthampton joined cities including Cambridge, Somerville, Salem, and Framingham that passed similar measures.
We left the Council meeting feeling uplifted when the ordinance passed.
Unfortunately, the next day Mayor LaChapelle vetoed this law — her first veto since 2017.
Despite LaChapelle writing, “Even with our City Solicitor assuring the ordinance’s legal merit, we know it will face legal challenges by well-funded organizations intent on limiting the rights of women and the LGBTQIA+ community.”
The mayor’s action stands in stark contrast to her previous statements, including, “Past actions show the City of Easthampton governs based on values rather than fear or likelihood of legal repercussions. Affirming and protecting the rights of women and members of the LGBTQIA community is not new to our City— we act to do so regularly.”
The Council can override a mayor’s veto by a vote of two-thirds, or six “Yes” votes. That vote must be taken no later than 30 days after the veto.
The City Council meets next on August 2nd to vote about overriding her veto. Our support for these brave city councilors is welcome and necessary.
Our next steps:
We must speak out loudly to ensure that the City Council overrides this veto. Last time, we were outnumbered by the opposition! This time we need to be stronger.
What you can do:
Write or call each city councilor. See here for templates, talking points, and contact info, and urge them to vote FOR this ordinance and to override the mayor’s veto, since councilors are already getting opposition emails!
Come to the Easthampton City Council meeting for the vote on Wednesday, August 2nd, at 6:00pm.
Location: Municipal Building, 50 Payson Avenue, 2nd floor, Easthampton, MA.
If this moderate ordinance can’t pass here in Easthampton, it will have a chilling effect on passing similar laws elsewhere.
We have the power to WIN this fight and to continue to strengthen and expand our freedoms in Massachusetts and across the country! Please join this work.
Resources:More information from the IMC Feminist Action Team