One of the most emotion-charged battles in Massachusetts history is heading for the state's November ballot. Bay State senators and representatives, meeting in joint session Wednesday, gave final approval to a proposed state constitutional amendment that would empower state lawmakers to all but ban abortions.
The controversial measure was approved within hours of a unanimous US Supreme Court ruling that thwarted an attempt in Illinois to reinstate a law to regulate abortions.
In their action Wednesday the justices, noting that Illinois itself had not appealed, disallowed an appeal by a state pediatrician, who objected to abortion on moral grounds. The high court held that only state officials have the authority to seek reinstatement of the regulations, which had been invalidated by a federal appeals court. It never ruled on the merits of the case.
The provisions of the struck-down Illinois law required doctors who abort fetuses that might be able to live outside the womb to use the same care required for childbirth. A similar, perhaps more far-reaching case from Pennsylvania involving the abortion-rights question is still pending before the high court.
The Reagan administration has been urging the Supreme Court to use these cases as a vehicle for overturning its 1973 decision legalizing abortions in the United States.
The proposed Massachusetts measure, if ratified by a majority of the state's voters next fall, would clear the way for legislators to impose whatever abortion restrictions they deem appropriate, to the extent permitted under the US Constitution.
While it is uncertain how far Bay State lawmakers might go to restrict abortions, they almost surely would end state funding of the termination of pregnancies, except when the life of the woman is threatened.
Similar legislation, enacted in 1978, was later struck down by the state Supreme Court, which found it in conflict with the Massachusetts constitution's ``equal protection'' provisions.
The pending measure states: ``No provision of the [state] constitution shall prevent the general court [legislature] from regulating or prohibiting abortions, unless prohibited by the United State Constitution. . . .''
It further specifies: ``Nor shall any provision of the [state] 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 measure, which received initial legislative approval by a 47-vote margin in 1984, cleared its final lawmaker hurdle on a 123 to 69 rollcall. It passed despite strong opposition from a ``freedom of choice'' coalition, including the League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood League, the National Organization of Women, and the Civil Liberties Union.
Anti-abortion forces had the strong backing of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the state, including Bernard Cardinal Law, who heads the Boston archdiocese. Although not a part of the ``Pro-choice'' coalition, the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents 17 Protestant denominations, also opposes the amendment.
Foes of the pending constitutional change argue that a woman should have the right to decide whether to go through with a pregnancy and should not be forced to bear an unwanted baby. They warn that elimination of abortion funding through the state's medicaid program would be hard on the poor and unmarried teen-agers.
Those pushing the amendment maintain that ``it's the state's responsibility to protect the rights of the unborn.''