Metro, News

Reproductive rights take center stage at State House

Over one hundred activists gather in support, opposition of five proposed bills

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2019

State Rep. Edith Ajello listened to testimony regarding abortion legislation at a public hearing at the State House. She sponsored the Reproductive Health Care Act, which would codify Roe v. Wade in Rhode Island.

Five bills regarding abortion were heard by the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee Tuesday night, and over 100 activists filled the State House halls to support or oppose the bills.

Should the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturn Roe v. Wade, the Reproductive Health Care Act (H 5127) would codify protections set forth in Roe v. Wade at the state level. In her testimony, Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, argued that the RHCA would maintain the current status quo as exists under Roe v. Wade in the state. Both Providence and Central Falls city councils affirmed their support for the RHCA in resolutions this past week, which were distributed at the State House Tuesday night. This hearing marks the third year that state legislatures have filed the RHCA, The Herald previously reported.

Another bill heard Tuesday, the Reproductive Privacy Act, is similar to the RHCA but does not repeal existing state abortion restrictions that currently do not align with federal law. The other propositions are not in favor of codifying Roe v. Wade in the state — the R.I. Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act, the Right to Life Act of 2019 and a resolution “recognizing the fetus as a human life upon the existence of a heartbeat.”

An hour before testimonies began, the hearing room filled to capacity, and overflow rooms quickly became crowded. Signs with Planned Parenthood or pro-life slogans flew overhead. Around 5:00 p.m., a chant of “Life!” broke out for several minutes. At least three priests of the Catholic Church stood in the halls. In the hearing room, those seated held signs, and one Make America Great Again hat could be seen.

“I don’t understand how people can rationalize it,” said Providence resident David Gillis, a self-proclaimed devout Roman Catholic and pro-life supporter. Deploring the “loss of human potential,” Gillis added, “You can’t take somebody’s life because it’s inconvenient for you.” In the hearing room, certain witnesses’ testimonies were met with “Amen” and applause.

One witness, former R.I. State Representative Linda Kushner, recounted nearly dying after getting an illegal abortion 60 years ago. “I don’t want any woman to go through what I had to go through,” she said.

“When abortion is restricted, (women) are forced outside the medical system,” said Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology Benjamin Brown ’08 MD ’12.

While many came to testify and support their positions, the future of these bills remain unclear as states across the nation contest abortion legislation.

“We’ve been seeing really restrictive abortion bans in states like Ohio. …  And a lot of these types of things some people are saying are kind of bait or could be used to bring things up to the Supreme Court,” said Maeve Wiesen ’21, president of the Brown chapter of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Wiesen was joined by Ben Lipson ’22, political director of the Brown Democrats, and Liam Greenwell ’20, treasurer of the Brown chapter of the ACLU, who said they support the RHCA and oppose the four other bills. They planned to testify Tuesday but left the State House before they were able to deliver their addresses, citing a backlog of other witness testimonies as the reason for their departure. Greenwell and Celia Story ’19 have been concerned about reproductive rights in the state since last April, when they wrote an op-ed in The Herald positing that repealing Roe v. Wade would pose a serious risk to abortion access in Rhode Island.

Six University students accompanied the representatives of the Brown ACLU, Brown Dems and Brown NARAL to the hearing. “I think that a lot of people have assumptions about what it means to be going to school in New England and in a state that is blue. In my experience a lot of people just haven’t thought that this is an issue here,” Wiesen said.