BOSTON — A controversial proposal seeking to eliminate state funding for Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions has fizzled.
Led by state Rep. Jim Lyons, R-Andover, activists opposed to abortion spent several months gathering signatures to put a question on the November 2020 ballot. It would have sought to overturn a 1981 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that requires the state to fund abortion services.
Wednesday was the deadline to submit the requisite 64,750 signatures, but Lyons said the effort appears to have fallen short. He said 57,400 certified names were collected ahead of a 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline.
"It's disappointing, but I'm encouraged that we had so many people involved," Lyons said. "We've built a lot of support for this over the years."
The Alliance to Stop Taxpayer Funded Abortions, which includes anti-abortion activist and former Republican state committeewoman Chanel Prunier, filed the ballot initiative with Attorney General Maura Healey's office in July. Healey certified the proposal a month later.
The proposed constitutional amendment would not have eliminated state funding for reproductive services, but it would give lawmakers the authority to decide whether to spend that money.
This is the second attempt by anti-abortion groups to put the question to voters. A similar ballot initiative several years ago also came up short.
Gathering the required signatures was one of several hurdles the groups faced to amend the state Constitution. They still would have needed approval from one-quarter of the 200-member state Legislature, meeting in two consecutive Constitutional Conventions.
Supporters of the measure say they were dealt a blow over the summer when the four Catholic bishops of Massachusetts — including the Archdiocese of Boston — issued a directive banning the practice of using church property to gather parishioners’ signatures for ballot initiatives.
The church's hierarchy lifted the ban several months later, but supporters of the measure say the damage was done.
"Given how close they were to the required number of signatures I think the Catholics bishops of Massachusetts have a burden of responsibility," said C.J. Doyle, spokesman for the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts. "They went from a ban to a buffer zone, imposing all sorts of restrictions."
Doyle claims the church's hierarchy worked behind the scenes to derail a similar effort two years ago.
"It really calls into question to what extent the Catholic church in Massachusetts is pro-life?" he said.
The 1981 SJC ruling holds that because the state provides medical coverage through its Medicaid programs to eligible women for births and other reproductive services, so it must also provide coverage for abortions.
Anne Fox, president of the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said she isn't discouraged by the failure of the latest ballot drive. She views the process of gathering signatures as a way to raise awareness.
"There's a lot of people out there who don't know that their tax dollars are going to pay for abortions," she said.
The petition initiative was opposed by groups including Planned Parenthood, which offers reproductive health care to 31,000 patients in the Bay State.
Abortion opponents say they are encouraged by what they see as a changing political landscape in Washington, D.C.
President Donald Trump, a Republican whose election was backed by anti-abortion groups, has pledged to appoint conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court who will overturn Roe v. Wade and let states decide whether abortion should be legal.
In April, Trump signed legislation that eliminates a federal rule blocking states from defunding health care providers for political reasons. The rule — put in place by President Barack Obama — prohibited states from withholding federal family planning funding to women’s health providers, even if they perform abortions.
Republicans say reversing the rule gives states power to decide how they want to use the money, while Democrats say it's just another swipe at Planned Parenthood.
Massachusetts is one of 17 states where public money is used to fund abortions and other reproductive services for low-income women.
Abortion providers are reimbursed through federal and state Medicaid payments, but it's not clear how much the state spends. Neither the state’s Center for Health Information Analysis or the Executive Office of Health and Human Services track state spending on reproductive services.
Overall, the number of women seeking abortions in Massachusetts appears to be falling.
There were 18,570 abortions performed in the state in 2015, according to the most recent figures from the state Department of Public Health.
That's down 11 percent from 2010 when hospitals, clinics and physicians reported 20,802 abortions to health officials.
Lyons said supporters of the measure to ban state funding are undeterred.
"We're in this for the long haul," he said. "We expect when we go at it again in 2019 we'll reach that goal and put this issue in front of the public."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.