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Rhode Island’s Democratic Speaker: Abortion Rights Aren’t Under Attack in the US

Auditi Guha

Rep. Nicholas Mattiello opposes state lawmakers' effort to codify abortion protections, even though the bill has support from members of his own party and the Democratic governor.

Despite legislative efforts across the United States to curtail abortion access and challenge Roe v. Wade, Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston) said the push to codify abortion rights into state law is “irrelevant” and “divisive.” 

“I see no effort nationally to change the Roe v. Wade standard … so I don’t think it’s a real concern,” he said last week during a public radio interview.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion celebrated 45 years this January, as state lawmakers across the country ​pushed measures to criminalize abortion under a president who seeks to appoint judges who oppose abortion rights in hopes of ending legal abortion care in the United States. 

Republican lawmakers in Iowa just passed a total abortion ban as a “vehicle” to take down Roe, while Ohio GOP legislators in March mounted a challenge to Roe by proposing a law that would criminalize abortion. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced Congress’s first-ever total abortion ban in January 2017.

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Mattiello said on the radio that he hasn’t seen the laws nor the court cases challenging legal abortion in the United States. “I mean, some states are trying to limit it, but that’s not what the concern is. The concern is an overturn of Roe v. Wade and there is no case in the system anywhere,” he said.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 347 measures to restrict access to either abortion or contraception have been introduced in 37 states so far this year. Ten abortion restrictions were adopted in five states in the first quarter of 2018.

But Mattiello said the codification of abortion rights is “in my opinion, irrelevant, and I don’t say that in disregard to the wants of people because I know the issue is very important to people. I say irrelevant because Roe v. Wade is not going to be overturned. I think that’s a concern that’s not founded in reality.”

Members of his own caucus have worked to codify abortion protections with the Reproductive Healthcare Act of 2018 (RHA). Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has announced her support of the measure, and faith leaders from across the state have urged its passage.

“The situation reflects a lack of will even among progressives to address abortion rights head on,” said Karyn Bruggeman, communications director at State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a nonprofit policy center for progressive state legislators.

Jocelyn Foye, cofounder of the Woman Project, told Rewire.News that this is an example of how Mattiello wields power in the statehouse and chills debate and discussion on abortion rights.

“While many of our legislative leaders support codifying Roe v. Wade, their fear of the Speaker prevents them from truly advocating or expending political capital on making progress. This is in spite of the fact that the Reproductive Health Care Act (H7340/S2163) very possibly has the votes to advance to the Governor. Until this Speaker starts listening to the 63 percent of Rhode Islanders that support safe and legal abortion, he will continue to be the primary obstacle to reproductive freedom in our state,” she said.

“He wants to focus on the numbers so we are asking him to show up and not contradict himself,” said Foye, referring to a recent article on building a new baseball stadium in which Mattiello said, “If you ask the question that simply and … you get 60 to 65 percent that say they do, that would change my thinking on the issue.” 

“We are at a juncture where it seems we need to compare the [money] for Baseball to women’s lives,” she said in an email to Rewire.News.

Mattiello is among a handful of anti-choice Democratic leaders who have been endorsed by the state’s top anti-choice group. His office did not respond to emails seeking comment.

His interview struck a nerve with advocacy groups, including the Woman Project, the Women’s Fund of RI, and the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women (RI NOW), which have been fighting to pass the RHA in the state.

These groups reminded Mattiello in a statement “that while this may not be an issue that is of real concern to him personally, this is an issue that is of serious concern to a great many Rhode Islanders.”

More than 60 percent of Rhode Island adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and more than 30 Rhode Island legislators support codifying abortion rights.

“The women, and men, who support the codification of abortion rights are indeed rooted in reality and are very much aware of the fact that just [last week] the Iowa Legislature mounted an aggressive challenge to Roe v. Wade,” Hilary Levey Friedman, president of RI NOW, said in a statement.

Mattiello said the issue is too divisive and one that he is not willing to spend his energy on when there are “significant budget challenges.”

“We’ve got important bills that are of concern to a lot of people, and I choose to concentrate on everything and not to utilize every drop, every ounce of oxygen on one particular issue which is not of consequence either way. For everybody that wants that, there’s almost someone that doesn’t want it, so it’s just divisive for no real end, no real benefit either way,” he said.

Women’s groups fired back in their statement, urging Mattiello to “follow his own advice and work on bills that are of concern to a lot of people—or at the very least to allow Rhode Island’s legislators to vote on the Reproductive Healthcare Act of 2018.”

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