Op-eds, Opinions

Story ’19, Greenwell ’20: Students must fight for reproductive rights in R.I.

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Op-Ed Contributors
Monday, April 16, 2018

Many Brown students assume that Rhode Island’s status as a blue state — and its reputation for progressivism on the national stage — means that we live in a safe haven of reproductive rights. But in fact, NARAL Pro-Choice America ranks reproductive rights access here as “severely restricted,” its lowest grade, on par with states such as Alabama and Texas. In short, the condition of reproductive health care access in Rhode Island is unacceptable, and Brown students must work harder to support protections for reproductive rights in the state.

In January 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that abortion is a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. Even though this landmark decision nullified abortion bans across the country, many states like Rhode Island did not amend state laws on this issue. Forty-five years later, the ban is still on the books at the state level in Rhode Island — and if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, as President Trump has promised to encourage, abortion would once again be illegal.

Even though abortion is currently legal because of Roe v. Wade, Rhode Island law burdens patients seeking reproductive health care with draconian restrictions. A doctor must notify a married woman’s husband, for example, before performing an abortion. Women under 18 must obtain parental consent for an abortion procedure, even in the cases of rape, incest or child abuse. Low-income women on Medicare are not able to obtain health insurance to cover an abortion procedure. And bans on late-term abortion do not provide an explicit exception to protect the health of the woman. These restrictions are in part why Rhode Island has earned such a low rating from NARAL on reproductive health access.

For many years, progressive representatives in the Rhode Island House and Senate have tried to codify the protections of Roe v. Wade in state law through the passage of the Reproductive Health Care Act. This bill would ensure that current federal protections are guaranteed under state law and would repeal unenforceable measures such as the requirement for spousal notice. But the leadership of the State House, which consists mainly of anti-choice Democrats, perennially stalls the bill’s progress. Every year when the bill is introduced, it flounders in committee and never makes it to the floor for a vote.

Rhode Island falls short when it comes to other reproductive rights issues as well. Tampons, for example, are still considered non-essential goods under Rhode Island law, and are therefore subject to sales tax. State Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, who is sponsoring a new bill to eliminate tax for these products, said in a committee hearing last June that the tax is unfair. Tampons are necessary “for women’s physical health and safety,” she said, and the tax is particularly a burden for low-income women.

There is some hope, however, that the political status quo regarding reproductive health in Rhode Island is shifting. It is encouraging to see several pro-choice women and men, such as Rebecca Kislak ’94, running for the State House this election cycle. But as of now, the tampon tax bill and the Reproductive Health Care Act, once again, are stuck in committee. To that end, Brown NARAL has organized phone banks and canvassing efforts, in addition to extending invitations to pro-choice State House candidates to come to campus. Brown NARAL and the Brown chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union are also co-sponsoring a discussion with Wendy Davis, the former Texas state senator who gained national attention after her 11-hour filibuster to delay the passage of abortion restrictions in 2013. We hope the event will serve as a reminder of the importance of robust reproductive health care legislation, and of the dire state of reproductive rights in Rhode Island and nationwide.

We urge our peers to attend and take part in the discussion. But more importantly, it is imperative for Brown students to campaign for reproductive rights progress in Rhode Island, especially in the face of a regressive federal administration. That means supporting pro-choice candidates in November, specifically candidates for the Rhode Island State House and Senate who will support bills such as the Reproductive Health Care Act. It also means educating people on campus and beyond about the appalling environment of reproductive health care restrictions in the state. This is especially critical as federal protections for abortion are the most at risk in the 45 years since Roe v. Wade.

Please join us on April 21 at 4 p.m. in Metcalf Auditorium to welcome Davis, and in the larger fight for reproductive justice as we mobilize for the November state elections.

Celia Story ’19 is a member of Brown NARAL. Liam Greenwell ’20 sits on the executive board of the Brown chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. They can be reached at celia_story@brown.edu and liam_greenwell@brown.edu, respectively. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.