Reproductive rights, as usual, are under attack. Conservative activists have intensified their efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade and strip away access to abortion through legislation at the state level, both in Rhode Island and across the rest of the nation. The threat to reproductive freedom has not been in danger like this, especially on a national scale, in a long time.
It is no secret that President Trump and his administration are hostile to reproductive rights. In April 2017, Trump signed legislation that overturned an Obama administration rule that prohibited states from defunding abortion service providers. In January 2018, Trump spoke at the 45th Annual March for Life rally, an anti-abortion rally that seeks to overturn Roe v. Wade. At the rally, he stated, “Under my administration, we will always defend the very first right in the Declaration of Independence, and that is the right to life.” It is abundantly clear that Trump is not an advocate or defender of the right to choose. Additionally, Vice President Mike Pence has stated that he predicts abortion will “end in our time” and that he would like to see Roe v. Wade in the “ash heap of history.” The threats the Trump administration is making against the right to choose are incredibly alarming. Many have written these threats off as typical Republican rhetoric but it is not politics as usual this time.
The risk is greater now than in previous years because Trump is one Supreme Court Justice away from overturning Roe v. Wade. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, said that he believes Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has traditionally served as the Court’s “swing vote,” will announce his retirement this summer. This is incredibly troubling because it would provide the Trump administration another opportunity to nominate a conservative, pro-life replacement. Needless to say, there would be significant ramifications for those who rely on access to reproductive health care services, including abortion. This move would define the court for generations, likely stalling any social progress that has been made on many civil, social justice and reproductive health care issues. Low-income communities and black and brown people in particular will be disproportionately affected by the change.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, states could easily impose restrictions that would limit or totally eliminate a woman’s access to abortion services.
Yet, even without overturning Roe v. Wade, conservatives are intensifying their efforts to restrict access to abortion on a state level. Mississippi recently passed a restrictive abortion ban in the United States, which outlaws abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The week before the Mississippi legislation was signed into law, Kentucky attempted to ban abortion after just 11 weeks. Other states like South Carolina and Ohio are debating an outright ban of abortion and legislators in Iowa are considering a ban on abortion when a heartbeat is detected.
The threat to bodily autonomy is here and it is real. The bills that these states have passed and are considering can prompt a legal challenge that would make its way to the Supreme Court to challenge Roe v. Wade. Yet, here in Rhode Island, legislators refuse to take action to protect those living in the state, as we prepare for a potentially post-Roe v. Wade world.
In Rhode Island, existing antiquated and, in some cases, unconstitutional laws could completely outlaw abortion services. Several chapters of Rhode Island laws make it a criminal offense to perform an abortion or help a woman obtain one. A law that is still on the books that followed the ever-important 1973 Roe v. Wade decision defines human life as commencing “at the instant of conception.” Another law requires a married woman to notify her husband before she can terminate a pregnancy and actually prohibits insurers from covering the procedure. Despite our overwhelmingly democratic state government, Rhode Island is incredibly hostile to reproductive rights and freedom.
To address this issue, some Rhode Island lawmakers have introduced the Reproductive Health Care Act. The Act would prohibit the state or any of its agencies from interfering with any individual’s reproductive health care, including the ability to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability or after that point in cases when necessary to preserve the woman’s health or life. It would eliminate the several laws that (at least for now) unconstitutionally limit access to abortion, and repeal laws about definitions of life and permission seeking. In essence, the RHCA would codify Roe v. Wade into state law and protect the fundamental human right to reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy while repealing laws that could restrict access to legal and safe health care for Rhode Islanders. In the current political climate, with an administration that is hostile to reproductive freedom, a Supreme Court in jeopardy, a conservative national Congress and an emboldened pro-life movement within the state, the need to act is urgent.
The leadership of both the Rhode Island State Senate and House has refused to act and codify Roe v. Wade into state law to keep abortion safe and legal in the state. Consequently, it is on us to take action and hold them accountable. The fight for reproductive freedom is at a breaking point and we must take action. We must rally, talk to our elected officials and demand a vote on this important bill. We must secure these protections now, rather than reacting later to the rights of millions being taken away. To the Rhode Island House and Senate leadership, the time to act is now.
Ethan Morelion ’20 is a Bonner Community Fellow at Planned Parenthood Southern New England and the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. He can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com. If you would like to join the fight for reproductive freedom, you can attend the Lobby Day on April 26 at the Rhode Island State House.