Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence, and State Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, filed the Reproductive Health Care Act — which would codify the legality of abortion into state law — for the third year in a row on Jan. 15. Currently, the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade legalizes abortion at the federal level, leaving the right to abortion unprotected in Rhode Island if the case were to be overturned, according to Goldin and Ajello.
Gov. Gina Raimondo voiced her support for the bill, stating on her Twitter this summer that “it’s now more urgent than ever that the legislature pass the Reproductive Health Care Act.” The Womxn Project, a non-profit organization working for rights for female-identifying Rhode Islanders, held a rally on Wednesday in support of the bill’s launch.
Concerns about the overturning of Roe v. Wade were raised with the election of President Trump and the appointment of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, according to a State of Rhode Island General Assembly press release. Currently, Rhode Island has some of the most regressive abortion laws in the country, more akin to southern states than its northeastern neighbors, according to Goldin and Ajello. Rhode Island has previously received an F rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America. Roe v. Wade is the only statute preventing the enforcement of restrictive abortion laws in Rhode Island. Such laws include requiring a woman’s spouse to consent to her having an abortion or defining life to legally begin at conception, according to Goldin and Ajello. The Reproductive Health Care Act would strike these down.
The Act would not change anything about the current state of abortion access or legality in Rhode Island. “It takes what’s legal in federal and state case law and puts it into state law,” Goldin said. She also added that the bill would not change how abortion is funded in Rhode Island.
Rhode Island’s status as a Democrat-leaning state with regressive abortion laws is largely due to the strength of the Catholic Church, according to Goldin and Ajello. “The largest impediment to this bill’s passage is the Catholic Church,” Goldin said. “The Catholic Church has a lobbyist up at the state house every day; I don’t think people realize that.”
The Catholic Church has also used its influence in the past to enact punitive measures against Catholic legislators who openly support reproductive rights, Goldin said. “They have certainly excommunicated people in the state for being leaders of reproductive rights,” she added.
In the past two years, the bill has been unable to garner the support needed to come to a vote. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, spoke last year on his belief that the issue is irrelevant since the Supreme Court has not yet taken action to overturn Roe v. Wade, The Providence Journal reported. “I just remind folks that this is a very divisive issue on both sides. And you know, it is an issue that would utilize all of the oxygen in the room,” Mattiello said.
It also may be against the interests of some legislators to vote on the bill, as it could reveal discrepancies between their personal opinions and those of their constituents, according to Goldin. Seventy-one percent of Rhode Islanders expressed their support for the bill to protect abortion access, according to the press release. For the Senate, there are people who “would probably prefer not to actually vote at all,” Goldin said.
But supporters are “cautiously optimistic” about the bill’s chances this year, said Maeve Wiesen ’21, president of NARAL at Brown. Ajello also voiced her hopes for this legislative session. “What’s different in recent years is that more and more pro-reproductive freedom and reproductive privacy legislators have been elected in Rhode Island,” Ajello said. “There’s been a steady gain over the years of more and more pro-choice legislators.” The bill has 39 sponsors in the House and 17 in the Senate this year, a record number in comparison to the previous two years it’s been introduced, WPRI previously reported.
Student groups, such as NARAL at Brown and the University’s chapter of the ACLU, have supported the bill in the past and are working again this year to aid in the bill’s passage, according to Wiesen and Liam Greenwell ’20 of the ACLU.
Wiesen said that NARAL and other Brown-affiliated organizations are “trying to work with other groups that are mostly Rhode Island residents” since many University students do not live in Providence and aren’t registered to vote in Rhode Island. Last year, Wiesen provided childcare for Rhode Island citizens while they testified in support of the bill.
Greenwell said that one thing University students can do to support this bill is let Rhode Islanders “take the lead, and see what they need to help pass these things.” The state of reproductive rights in Rhode Island still affects many University students, Greenwell said.
“A lot of people do take for granted that Rhode Island is a bastion of reproductive rights, but it’s not,” Greenwell said.