News Abortion

This Democratic-Dominated Legislature Won’t Stop Attacking Abortion Access

Teddy Wilson

NARAL Pro-Choice America this year gave Rhode Island a failing grade on its annual scorecard of states’ reproductive freedom, along with Republican-dominated legislatures in Alabama, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas, among others.

You might not expect anti-choice measures to churn through a legislature in which Republicans hold 15 percent of the seats.

But it’s in Rhode Island that Democrats, not GOP lawmakers, have introduced every anti-choice measure in 2016.

Reproductive rights are under threat in states dominated by GOP legislators as well as states with Democratic legislative majorities, and laws attacking abortion access that have been passed in recent years have received at least some Democratic support.

While there are a variety of factors that contribute to the prevalence of anti-choice Democrats in Rhode Island, the lawmakers who are proponents of these bills look very much like the proponents of these bills in red states.

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Rewire analysis of legislation introduced in state legislatures during the first three months of 2016 found that 60 percent of the 311 anti-choice bills introduced were sponsored by white male Republicans. Male lawmakers introduced about seven out of every ten anti-choice bills during that time. 

White male Democrats sponsored nine of the 14 anti-choice bills this year in the Rhode Island state legislature. 

Rhode Island’s Democratic legislators hold a 63-11 majority in the house and a 32-6 state senate majority. But that doesn’t translate to a legislative body supportive of maintaining and expanding abortion access and reproductive health services. 

NARAL Pro-Choice America this year gave Rhode Island a failing grade on its annual scorecard of states’ reproductive freedom, along with Republican-dominated legislatures in Alabama, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas, among others. 

Susan Yolen, vice president of public policy and advocacy of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, told the Providence Journal that there is a “big information gap” between the perception and reality of abortion politics in Rhode Island.

“People assume Rhode Island is going in the right direction when it comes to rights—it’s a blue state,” Yolen said.

Amy Retsinas Romero, president of Women’s Health and Education Fund, spoke during a March conference on reproductive rights at Rhode Island College about the challenges people face when seeking reproductive health care in the state.

“In Rhode Island we are an F. We are not that far from Texas,” Romero said, reported the Brown Daily Herald. “We should all be ashamed of ourselves.”

Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence) told Rewire that Rhode Island is in “pretty good shape” in ensuring access to abortion care and reproductive health care. She said there remain legislative issues that need to be addressed.

“We have laws on the books that have been declared unconstitutional. For instance, the spousal notice regarding abortion,” Ajello said, referring to the state’s requirement of notice to an abortion patient’s husband before the procedure. “It would be good to get rid of those and we have legislation in place to do that, but it has yet to pass.”

Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) sponsored legislation this year that would repeal the so-called spousal notice law. HB 7612 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee.

Ajello sponsored HB 7444, which would prohibit the state from interfering with a person’s decision to prevent, commence, continue, or terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability. Ajello said that the bill would codify into law protections for reproductive rights.

There have, however, been far more bills introduced to restrict reproductive rights, all of which have been introduced by Ajello’s fellow Democrats.

There have been 14 anti-choice bills introduced this year in the Rhode Island legislation. This collection of bills would restrict reproductive rights in a number of ways, including restricting funding for abortion care for low-income people in the state. It’s an issue that has been debated in the state for the last few years.

It’s not only Rhode Island Democrats in the house and state senate that back measures designed to chip away at abortion access.

Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) last year signed a budget that left nearly 9,000 residents without comprehensive abortion coverage through their insurance plans. The budget included a requirement that health insurers who offer plans on Rhode Island’s health insurance exchange to also offer plans that exclude coverage for elective abortion care.

The contingent of anti-choice Democrats and the few Republicans lawmakers does not appear to have enough political power to move most anti-choice bills through the legislature. Since the legislature is and has been dominated by one party for so long, policy disagreements have developed along ideological rather than partisan lines, political observers told Rewire

Ajello said in an interview with Rewire that there are members of the legislature who are anti-choice but are also “quite progressive” on other issues, such as marriage equality. 

“In the way that I see social conservatives in Texas, I don’t see those differences [in Rhode Island lawmakers],” Ajello. “We work together, cooperating on issues that we agree about and being respectful on issues that we don’t.”

H 7760, sponsored by Rep. Samuel Azzinaro (D-Westerly), would prohibit health plan coverage purchased in whole or in part with any state or federal funds through the Rhode Island health benefits exchange from providing coverage for induced abortions, unless it was to save the life of the pregnant person or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

Azzinaro has long advocated prohibiting health-care coverage of abortion care. Azzinaro said during a debate in 2013 about the state’s health-care exchange that tax dollars should not be used to fund abortion care.

“You want choice?” Azzinaro said, reported the Providence Journal. “We talk about choice, what choice do you have if you only have a plan that says we’re going to fund abortions.”

The house judiciary committee recommended in March that H 7760 be held for further study. State Sen. Marc Cote (D-Woonsocket) sponsored a companion bill pending in the senate judiciary committee.

A number of other bills designed to restrict abortion and reproductive health care have been introduced in the Rhode Island legislature. Many of the proposed measures create the same rhetoric surrounding anti-choice bills in state legislatures held by GOP majorities. 

H 7764, sponsored by Rep. Deborah Fellela (D-Johnston), would prohibit a person from performing or attempting to perform an abortion with the knowledge that the pregnant person is seeking the abortion solely on account of the sex of the fetus. 

The bill charges that any physician who intentionally violates this provision would be considered to have engaged in unprofessional conduct, and their license would be subject to suspension or revocation by the State Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline.

There is no documentation that so-called sex-selective abortions are widespread in the United States. Proponents of the bans often justify the anti-choice measure by using cultural stereotypes that target immigrant people of color.

Bills to ban sex-selection abortion care have been introduced in several states this year. Fellela sponsored a similar bill in 2014.

H 7764 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee; the companion bill S 2612, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Crowley (D-Central Falls), is pending in the senate judiciary committee.

H 7282 and S 2216, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) and Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown), would prohibit a person from performing, or attempting to perform a “dismemberment abortion” on a fetus unless it is necessary to save the life of the patient or if the continued pregnancy would cause irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant patient.

State courts have blocked such measures passed by Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma and Kansas. West Virginia’s GOP-held legislature in March voted to override the veto of a similar bill.

H 7282 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee, and S 2216 is pending in the senate judiciary committee.

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