The Amherst Town Council adopted a bylaw protecting access to reproductive and gender-affirming healthcare at its most recent meeting, on Oct. 16. Taking effect on Oct. 23, it prevents town employees and staff from disclosing identifying information of anyone who uses these services in Amherst.
The measure is primarily designed to protect people that come from states that have criminalized access to reproductive or gender-affirming care from lawsuits for seeking that care out of state.
“The reality in Amherst is that we have a huge transient population, a lot of whom are coming from states where this care is criminalized,” said Ana Devlin Gauthier, a member of the council from District 5 who co-sponsored the bylaw. “It’s important everywhere, but in Amherst especially it’s important, because I would say the risk is higher for us here that this could happen [a lawsuit], given the number of college students here.”
After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June 2022, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker instituted an executive order protecting healthcare providers from prosecution if they provided care to out-of-state residents, as well as the right of patients to seek care in the state.
But the state law did not address potential lawsuits against those patients from states that have made it illegal to seek out-of-state care.
“When you start looking at states like Texas and Florida that started criminalizing not just access in their own state but going across borders to other states — the state law didn’t really address that part of it,” said Mandi Jo Hanneke, an at-large member of the Amherst town council, who co-sponsored the bylaw with Devlin Gauthier. Devlin Gauthier also serves as learning and development facilitator at the college and represents its district.
Hanneke and Devlin Gauthier saw an opportunity to fill in the gap left by the state law on a municipal level. “One thing we were looking at with other towns is can we as a town say ‘our employees aren’t gonna help you with that lawsuit, sorry,”’ Hanneke said.
She mentioned several potential methods of identifying patients the town would protect from being exposed. “We’re not gonna hand over videos, or if we have our own public health nurse, even if it's not actual public health data, we’re not gonna hand that over,” Hanneke said. “We’re not gonna hand over the license plate data from the person you’re looking to see that they were parked outside in the parking lot with a friend.”
For Lily Popoli ’24E, who helped work on a reparations bill the town council adopted, the measure is crucial.
“I think this is a great bylaw given the current attack on reproductive and gender-affirming healthcare rights,” she said. “It would be nice to live in a world where people could make decisions about their health without being scrutinized, but that’s not the case. Privacy is crucial to ensure people who want to make decisions about their body can do so without fear of retaliation.”
The bylaw passed without much opposition.
“It went to committee and the committee took care of it fairly quickly. I would say it was one of the smoother processes we have had,” Hanneke said.
Indeed, the measure was adopted as part of the council’s consent agenda, which is reserved for non-controversial items. Any councilor can unilaterally remove an item from this agenda if they would like it to be discussed further. The bylaw passed the final council vote unanimously.
Despite this, Devlin Gauthier noted that the bylaw faced two obstacles. “The first was a question about legality,” she said. Legal advisors expressed concern that the measure was incredibly broad, covering town employees as well as anyone who received funds from the town of Amherst. But the bill’s co-sponsors maintained that the bylaw’s breadth was intentional.
The second potential hurdle was a philosophical one. There was a question about whether this was an appropriate action for the town council, Devlin Gauthier said.
“We felt yes, we felt that this was an important municipal action we should be taking,” Devlin Gauthier said. “We’ve gotten support from groups like Reproductive Equity Now that are using our bylaw and bylaws in Easthampton and Salem to bring this to other towns and cities as well,” she added.
Devlin Gauthier had originally proposed a bylaw relating to the banning of crisis pregnancy centers, but later withdrew it after similar bylaws in neighboring towns were embroiled in legal trouble.
But after Hanneke received an email from a resident asking what she was doing to help with access to reproductive care, she said that she was inspired to work with Devlin Gauthier and figure out a path to do something. “One of the things I’ve taken to heart as a councilor is that we shouldn’t just hear complaints and hear desires, we need to do something about them,” she said.
“Living in a state like Massachusetts sometimes can feel a little bit helpless, because we’ve already done so much to protect our folks and guarantee access to gender-affirming care and reproductive care,” Devlin Gauthier said. “But in that I kind of was like, ‘Nope, that’s not a stance, that’s not the way I think about the world. Let me figure out a way.’ And this was the way that I found.”