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Rhode Island Legislators Overcome Anti-Choice Democrats to Pass ‘Roe’ Protections

Auditi Guha

Passing the Reproductive Privacy Act has been an uphill battle for advocates in Rhode Island, a Catholic Church stronghold where some Democratic legislators oppose abortion rights.

Lawmakers in Rhode Island, the most Catholic state in the nation, made history this week by passing legislation protecting abortion rights, one month after a Democratic state senator tanked a more comprehensive bill protecting and expanding access to abortion. 

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) signed the Reproductive Privacy Act (RPA) into law Wednesday night, calling it “the product of an important and vigorous debate and a great deal of public scrutiny.”

The RPA codifies Roe v. Wade by preventing interference in reproductive health care in Rhode Island. It will ensure residents access to abortion if the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision is ever reversed. On Wednesday, the state senate voted 21 to 17 to pass the bill, and the house of representatives reconvened to pass it in a 45-29 vote. Democrats control both chambers. 

This is the first time the state senate has voted to advance a pro-choice bill, state Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-Providence) told Rewire.News in an interview. Goldin was a sponsor of the Reproductive Health Care Act, a senate companion bill to RPA that was blocked in May by Sen. Stephen R. Archambault (D-Smithfield), a lawmaker who claims to be pro-choice but has lauded “reasonable restrictions on abortions.”

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The RPA is 46 years in the making and “acknowledges that women have the moral agency to make their own decisions, including when and whether to become a parent. While this bill maintains the current status quo on access to abortion, the passage of this legislation is about far more than the law it will create. It is about showing that Rhode Island finally recognizes a pregnant person’s right to make her own health care decisions,” Goldin said in a statement. 

The Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, a group of organizations that advocated for the law, called the bill’s passage “a truly historical moment in Rhode Island.”

Protecting Roe has been an uphill battle for advocates in Rhode Island, a stronghold of the Catholic Church where several Democratic legislators oppose abortion rights and have not allowed a reproductive rights bill to be voted on in the senate in more than a quarter century. Church groups have packed the state house at abortion bill hearings this year. 

Abortion rights activists told Rewire.News that recent controversies played a part in garnering more support for the RPA among Catholic lawmakers. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, who opposed the RPA, drew criticism recently after saying Catholics should not support Pride Month events and refusing to let a local arts publication use a diocese-owned auditorium for an annual awards ceremony after it published an opinion piece criticizing him.

Passing the pro-choice bill into law required a circuitous route. Republican lawmakers tried to foil the RPA’s passage, with state Sen. Elaine Morgan (R-Hopkinton) calling the legislation “legal murder,” the Boston Globe reports. Seeing that senate Republicans planned to sink the legislation, Senate Judiciary Chair Erin Lynch Prata (D-Warwick) used her power to transfer the bill to the Health and Human Services Committee in an unusual last-minute move. That committee recommended its passage, and the legislation then received a full senate vote.

Advocates celebrated Rhode Island joining the list of states that have shored up abortion rights in 2019.

“For us, this is not about politics: it’s about our health and our ability to control our own futures. We believe that people should be able to get an abortion without barriers or judgment,” said Jocelyn Foye, co-director of The Womxn Project, a group that started in Rhode Island two years ago to advocate for reproductive rights in the state.

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