On April 10, hundreds of community members gathered at the Rhode Island State House for a House Judiciary Committee hearing, which featured the introduction of six bills governing reproductive rights in Rhode Island. Five of the bills proposed limitations on abortion access; the lone bill aimed at safeguarding abortions rights was the Reproductive Health Care Act, sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence. Under the Act, the state cannot “restrict an individual person from preventing, commencing, continuing or terminating that individual’s pregnancy prior to fetal viability” or “restrict access to evidence-based, medically recognized methods of contraception or abortion or the provision of such (services).” The House Judiciary Committee elected to hold all six bills for “further study” after its hearing — including, regrettably, the Reproductive Health Care Act, effectively condemning it to legislative oblivion.
In previous editorials, The Herald has vehemently opposed unwarranted restrictions on abortion — such as a proposed 2012 bill that would have compelled Rhode Island physicians to conduct an ultrasound on individuals seeking abortions and display to them the ultrasound’s images — and decried efforts to curtail women’s rights. Once again, we urge Rhode Island lawmakers to seriously consider the medical needs of all their constituents, extricate the Reproductive Health Care Act from the depths of committee bureaucracy and bring the urgently needed bill to the floor for a vote.
When it comes to reproductive justice, Rhode Island is notoriously retrogressive, more like states in the American South than its neighbors in the Northeast. In spite of the state’s progressive bona fides, access to reproductive health care is “severely restricted” here, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, a national organization that advocates for the right to choose. These restrictions are codified in state law — a 1986 amendment to the state constitution explicitly refrains from granting or securing “any right relating to abortion or the funding thereof” — and diligently preserved by powerful, anti-choice Democrats in the General Assembly.
Most troublingly, the absence of any state legislation that protects access to critical reproductive services places abortion rights in continued peril. Currently, Roe v. Wade — the 1973 Supreme Court case that deemed abortions consistent with the constitution of the United States and rendered past abortion bans null — is the only statute preventing the renewed enforcement of arcane abortion restrictions still on the books in Rhode Island. These include the requirement that women notify their spouses before receiving an abortion, the prohibition of insurance coverage for abortion procedures and the assertion that “human life commences at the instant of conception.”
Already, obtaining an abortion is prohibitively difficult in Rhode Island: As of 2014, only 20 percent of Rhode Island counties contained any abortion clinics, and over two-thirds of Rhode Island women lived outside these counties. But if Roe v. Wade is overturned — a prospect at which President Trump has expressed impish excitement — Rhode Islanders could lose their right to choose in one immediate, devastating stroke. The Reproductive Health Care Act precludes such an eventuality and would preserve abortion rights in Rhode Island no matter what happens in the nation’s capital.
In the days leading up to the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing, a broad and diverse coalition of Rhode Islanders coalesced in favor of the Act. Gov. Gina Raimondo — who, until the hearing, had remained mostly silent on the issue of abortion — submitted a written endorsement of the Reproductive Health Care Act to the Committee’s chairman. Notably, several religious leaders across Rhode Island also publicly expressed support for abortion rights. Rev. Gene Dyszlewski, pastor of Lime Rock Baptist Church in Lincoln, Rhode Island, told WPRI that, “We believe that the freedom to choose is necessary because each person is the proper guardian of their own life and their own soul.”
We concur deeply. Against a dismaying backdrop of federal retrogression, the responsibility to protect the rights and liberties of all Americans — in this particular case, women especially — now falls on the shoulders of state legislators. Lawmakers in Rhode Island can and must do their part by supporting the Reproductive Health Care Act. Anything less would constitute a grave affront to the thousands of Rhode Islanders for whom reproductive health care access is not a policy abstraction but a day-to-day imperative, an indispensable component of true gender equality. In a state that prides itself on its early history of enshrining freedom of religion and conscience, it is high time for legislators to rise to the occasion, courageously advance that cherished legacy and extend freedom — in full, unadulterated measure — to the people of 21st century Rhode Island.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19, Mili Mitra ’18, Rhaime Kim ’20 and Grace Layer ’20. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.