Metro, News

R.I. House takes step toward codifying Roe v. Wade

House could hear bill as early as Thursday, while Senate heard similar legislation last night

By and
Senior Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee debated and eventually passed the Reproductive Privacy Act Tuesday.

The R. I. House Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday night in favor of a bill that would keep abortion legal in the state should the Supreme Court repeal the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. 

The Reproductive Privacy Act passed 9 to 7, and an R.I. House vote could come as early as Thursday evening, according to Committee Chairman Rep. Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown. Democrats made up the body of support for the bill, while dissent was split between four Democrats and three Republicans. The R. I. Senate held a hearing for a similar bill Tuesday night and was still ongoing at press time.

This is the first time the General Assembly has come close to passing legislation protecting abortion since 1993, according to the Providence Journal. The 1993 bill, sponsored by former Rep. Linda Kushner, passed 51-42 in the full R.I. House but did not make it past the R.I. Senate. This January, Kushner testified in a House hearing for the Reproductive Health Care Act, which has not been brought to a vote this year, The Herald previously reported.

The Reproductive Privacy Act was introduced by Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence. Originally, pro-choice activist groups, such as The Womxn Project and the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, opposed the bill in favor of the Reproductive Health Care Act, which is sponsored by Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence, and Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence. William’s bill did not originally repeal old abortion restrictions, WPRI reported, raising concerns from pro-choice activists. Abortion rights groups have now given the Reproductive Privacy Act their full support after an amended version was released March 1.

“It was looking vague, and then there were several good amendments,” said Liam Greenwell ’20, treasurer of the Brown chapter of the ACLU. The R.I. Chapter of the ACLU now supports the bill. Members from the Brown chapter of NARAL and the Brown Political Action Committee also attended the vote.

“I’ve had the displeasure of informing so many students on campus about the realities of reproductive health in Rhode Island. I’ve had to be the one to explain to them that Rhode Island receives a restricted access rating from NARAL Pro Choice America,” said Maeve Wiesen ’21, president of the Brown chapter of NARAL Pro-Choice America, in her testimony to the Rhode Island Senate.

The amended bill would strike down unconstitutional laws, under Roe v. Wade, that are still on the books in the state, such as a spousal notice requirement and a law that decrees life begins at conception. It would also guarantee the right to an abortion up to fetal viability, after which a woman would only be able to obtain an abortion should her life or health be at risk.

Under the Trump administration and a Republican-majority Supreme Court, pressure has been mounting to ensure abortion rights are protected at the state level, according to a State of Rhode Island General Assembly press release.

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who has held the position since 2014, had never allowed an abortion rights bill to move to a vote, WPRI reported. When asked why Mattiello permitted a vote on this bill to take place, Craven responded it was “because I asked him to.”

Before the vote, certain committee members expressed their disapproval of the bill. Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, said that the bill is “not a strict codification of Roe vs. Wade.”

“I think it goes beyond Roe v. Wade,” said Minority Leader Rep. Blake Filippi, R-Block Island, Charlestown and parts of South Kingstown and Westerly.

Rep. Christopher Millea, D-Cranston, expressed conflicted opinions before the vote. He said his constituents contacted him, worrying that the bill “expands the definition of abortion.”

“I am pro-life, but I am certainly not the person to take away the choice of any female who walks this earth,” he said. “But I will not be part of the expansion of abortion.” In the end, Millea voted against the bill.

Other committee members spoke in support of the bill. “I believe that this is a good thing, and I believe that quite frankly the time has come for the General Assembly in the State of Rhode Island, the House in particular and this Committee specifically to recognize those rights of a woman,” Craven said. “We’re not talking about changing the law here. We’re talking about making our law constitutional,” said Rep. Daniel McKiernan, D-Providence.

Craven estimated that the House vote, likely to be held Thursday, would be split similarly to the Judiciary Committee’s vote. Ajello noted there seem to be more pro-choice House representatives than there have been in previous years.

The House Judiciary Committee members who voted in favor of this year’s bill include Craven; Rep. Evan Shanley, D-Warwick; Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown, Narragansett; Rep. Joseph Almeida, D-Providence; Rep. Dennis Canario, D-Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton; Rep. Julie Casimiro, D-North Kingstown, Exeter; Rep. John Edwards, D-Portsmouth, Tiverton; Rep. James Jackson, D-West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick; and McKiernan.

Committee members who voted against the legislation include Corvese; Millea; Rep. Thomas Noret, D-Coventry, West Warwick; Rep. David Place, R-Burrillville, Glocester; Rep. Sherry Roberts, R-West Greenwich, Coventry; Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson, D-Warwick; and Filippi.