Metro, News

R.I. passes law protecting abortion rights after months of public pressure

Bill passed through General Assembly, governor’s desk in a matter of hours June 19

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Reproductive Privacy Act seeks to protect an individual’s legal right to an abortion and protects medical professionals who perform abortion procedures from felony assault charges.

Reproductive rights advocates secured a historic win on June 19 when Rhode Island lawmakers passed legislation that protects the legal right to abortion in the state. The Reproductive Privacy Act, which was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo within the span of a few hours on June 19, codifies Roe v. Wade for Rhode Islanders in case the Supreme Court were to overturn the ruling.

Legislation to protect abortion rights in Rhode Island has been unsuccessfully introduced to the General Assembly for decades, but Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, decided to bring it to the floor for a vote for the first time this year. Mattiello is publicly pro-life, but decided to allow for a vote because he “believed this was an important issue that deserved a vote by the full House of Representatives, regardless of his political position,” wrote Larry Berman, a spokesperson for Mattiello, in an email to The Herald. “He also respects the opinions of the state’s citizens and is aware of polling data showing about 70 percent of Rhode Islanders support codifying Roe v. Wade into state law should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn it,” Berman added.

But in a historically Catholic state, the issue of abortion rights has divided and impassioned Rhode Islanders on both sides of the issue. Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin tweeted that the day of the bill’s passage was “a very dark day in the history of our state.” He added that the passage is a “very temporary set-back,” and affirmed his commitment to “continue to oppose the prevailing culture of death in our society.”  The RPA passed despite opposition from Republican and Democratic lawmakers and with the support of one Republican state representative, Rep. John Lyle Jr., R-Lincoln, Pawtucket. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-Greater Providence, Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, and Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, all voted against the bill. Mattiello joined Senate Democratic leaders in voting against the measure. The RPA ultimately passed the House 45 to 29 and scraped by the Senate 21 to 17.

Advocates for and against the RPA have populated the State House over the last few months, staging protests and lobbying representatives. State Senator Gayle Goldin, D-Providence, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, attributed the RPA’s success to the groundswell of support from local pro-choice movements.

“The real lesson we can take away from that is that activism matters and without that large push of people from around the state paying attention to what was going on in the State House we would not have seen this bill pass,” Goldin said.

This sentiment was echoed by Maeve Wiesen ’21, president of Brown’s chapter of pro-choice advocacy group NARAL, who praised the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom for mobilizing people across the state to contact their representatives and voice their support for the bill.

“It’s really important to have a solid pro-choice presence so that the lawmakers can really understand what the electorate is looking for from them,” Wiesen said.

But other local coalitions felt betrayed by some lawmakers for supporting the bill or facilitating its passage. In a statement published on their public Facebook page, the Rhode Island Right to Life Committee called the bill’s passage a product of  “failures by unscrupulous and smarmy politicians, failures by dishonest media outlets and failures in our own pro-life movement and churches.” The group announced they would retract endorsements given to Mattiello, John Edwards, D-Portsmouth, Tiverton, John Lombardi, D-Providence, Daniel McKiernan, D-Providence, Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick and Scott Slater, D-Providence.

In the case that Roe v. Wade is overturned nationally, the bill will protect all who seek an abortion before the point of fetal viability or after fetal viability in the case that the mother’s health or life is at risk. The legislation also protects medical professionals from felony assault charges for performing abortive procedures and repeals measures requiring physicians to notify a married woman’s husband prior to terminating any pregnancy.

Rhode Island is one of a handful of Democratic-controlled states that have prioritized abortion protections following the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who joined the highest court in Oct. 2018 and created a strong conservative majority. New York, Vermont and Illinois have also passed bills to protect abortion rights, the Boston Globe reported.

Meanwhile, nine Republican state legislatures have successfully passed bills that restrict abortion access, according to the New York Times.

Among many of the state’s pro-choice representatives, there is consensus that there is still progress to be made with regards to reproductive rights. “The whole issue of affordability” must be tackled, State Representative Edith Ajello, D-Providence, told The Herald. Like Goldin, Ajello has long worked to codify abortion rights at the state level.

Rhode Island currently does not allow state funds to be used for abortion procedures unless in the case of life endangerment of the mother, rape or incest. Ajello added that some states use state funds to assist low-income women in accessing abortions.

“Without abortion being affordable, it is not really available,” Ajello said.