As a bill to protect abortions rights is being considered in the Rhode Island Senate, lawmakers are cautiously optimistic after decades of pushing for Roe protections in a state legislature long run by anti-choice Democrats.
The hotly debated bill, S 152A, continued its momentum with a visit from Dr. Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who came to the capitol Tuesday to urge state senators to pass the legislation, which would protect abortion rights if conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court strike down Roe v. Wade. The state senate bill mirrors the house version, which was reintroduced in January. The bill passed the Rhode Island House on March 7.
“I’m very proud to be standing with so many people here who are amazing champions of reproductive rights and health,” Wen said in the house’s crowded State Library, where many advocates and lawmakers sported pink.
The Reproductive Privacy Act (as the Reproductive Health Care Act or RHCA will be known if it becomes law) would guarantee safe and legal abortion in Rhode Island, and would eliminate restrictions like spousal notification and the criminalization of health-care providers.
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Wen commended supporters of the bill and said the fight is urgent given the “terrifying reality” of Roe v. Wade being overturned, which could lead to as many as 25 million—more than 1 in 3 women of reproductive age—living in states where abortion is outlawed or criminalized. In 2017, there were 212,000 women of reproductive age in Rhode Island.“It’s early in 2019, and already there have been over 250 bills introduced that directly restrict abortion access across the country. Fifteen states have introduced abortion bans early in pregnancy at six weeks, when most women don’t even know they are pregnant,” she said. Two of those GOP-backed bills have been signed into law, in Kentucky and Mississippi. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) is expected to sign similar legislation passed last week. “These are examples of politicians directly interfering with medical practice and, in the process, endangering women’s lives,” she said.
Yet support for abortion protections is at an all-time high, she said, pointing to the midterm elections that resulted in the most pro-choice, most female, and most diverse U.S. House of Representatives in history.
“It’s Rhode Island’s turn to stop politicians from directly interfering with medical practice and endangering women’s lives. We urge the Senate to stand with us and vote to protect women’s health and the health of families and communities,” Wen said at Tuesday’s press conference.
Abortion providers like Dr. Beth Cronin, Rhode Island vice chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), debunked falsehoods that have fueled some of the most draconian anti-choice legislation. “Abortion, like pap smears and prenatal care, is essential health care,” she said at the Tuesday press conference. “The Reproductive Health Care Act will not change how I or any other physician in this state currently practice medicine. It will simply keep abortion safe and legal for all citizens of Rhode Island.”
Despite being the most Catholic state in the country, with powerful anti-choice Democrats in its general assembly, Rhode Island added more women and pro-choice legislators last year than ever before. Many of the newcomers are champions of the bill—like state Sen. Melissa Murray (D-Woonsocket, North Smithfield), who told Rewire.News she has heard from an increasing number of constituents who want the bill to move out of committee and come to a full vote.
“Fifteen cases that could overturn Roe are steps away from the Supreme Court. Our rights are at stake. We must do everything we can to protect Roe and a woman’s right to a safe, legal abortion. It is critical. It is urgent. We are the 71 percent and the time is now,” she said at the press conference, referring to a 2018 poll that indicated statewide support for the legislation.
Advocates who joined the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom to urge for the bill’s passage in the state senate said they are excited to see support grow.
Jordan Hevenor, co-director of The Womxn Project, which has been hosting weekly events at the state house, told Rewire. News the movement to pass the bill “has really been building.”
“One of the most inspiring things is that new people are coming out and showing up. At every event we are capturing this energy and excitement, and helping people get plugged into activism that work for their life,” she said.
At least four of the nine senate Judiciary Committee members plan to vote favorably; three who were endorsed last year by the Rhode Island State Right to Life Committee are expected to oppose it. Like his anti-choice counterpart, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston), Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-Providence) seems to be allowing the process to play out despite his personal opposition to abortion rights, according to news reports. Both men have blocked the RHCA from floor votes in past years.
With 17 co-sponsors in the state senate (19 votes are needed for passage), where Democrats maintain a supermajority, lawmakers are hopeful the bill can pass this year. A committee vote has not yet been scheduled.
“I feel optimistic,” said state Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-Providence), a longtime supporter of legislation to secure abortion rights in Rhode Island.
“I know there are thousands of people talking to their senators about the bill and we are hopeful. Every year we have seen a growing amount of momentum for the passage of a bill to codify reproductive rights and there is ongoing support here every day,” Goldin, the bill’s sponsor, told Rewire.News.
Despite a powerful anti-choice lobby and the presence of anti-choice Democrats who have blocked the bill in the past, “we know there is a real threat to Roe being overturned and we don’t need to wait until reproductive rights are further diminished to take action in Rhode Island,” she said.
Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Providence), who co-sponsored the legislation, urged women in Rhode Island to speak up. “It was a hard and very long journey but we are almost there,” she said of the passage of the house bill. “This is our moment to make the change that needs to be made. We are halfway there and we cannot allow any guy, anyone to stop it.”