On March 1, State Sen. Bridget Valverde and nine other senators introduced the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would allow state employees and Medicaid recipients to use their insurance to cover the cost of abortions. The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee where it has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.
Valverde, who has also introduced this legislation in the Senate twice previously, believes the EACA would expand the coverage of the 2019 Reproductive Privacy Act. The 2019 legislation guaranteed that the state could not “restrict an individual person from preventing, commencing, continuing or terminating that individual's pregnancy prior to fetal viability.”
“We took a really great step in Rhode Island in 2019 when we passed the Reproductive Privacy Act, which guarantees the right to an abortion,” Valverde said. “But we all know that a right isn’t real if you can’t actually access it because you can’t pay for (that) service.”
A coalition of 19 groups called the R.I. Coalition for Reproductive Freedom — with members including the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, The Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, Sojourner House and Catholics for Choice — is campaigning to pass the EACA. This campaign is part of a larger movement in some states to expand legal protection for reproductive rights as a result of concerns that the Supreme Court may soon overturn Roe v. Wade.
Jocelyn Foye, director of The Womxn Project, a Providence-based organization committed to reproductive justice which is also advocating for the bill, said that Rhode Island law currently restricts state employees and Medicaid recipients from using insurance to cover the cost of their abortions. In 1981 and 1993, Rhode Island passed laws prohibiting abortion coverage under the state employee health insurance and state Medicaid programs, respectively.
According to a written statement by the R.I. Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, these laws particularly target “Black and Latinx people, people with low incomes, people living in rural areas and anyone shut out of the healthcare system.” In 2019, people of color comprised 52.6% and women comprised 52.6% of Medicaid recipients in Rhode Island.
Abortions can cost up to $1,500 without insurance, according to Planned Parenthood. Foye said there are over 20,000 women of childbearing age in the Medicaid program that would be impacted by the passing of this law.
“We want there to be equality in terms of healthcare for all folks,” Foye said, underscoring that this is the reason The Womxn Project helped create the EACA and led the campaign for its passage.
According to Foye, even though Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in the nation, a majority of Rhode Islanders want abortion to be accessible and legal.
The EACA is opposed by the Rhode Island Catholic Conference. Father Bernard A. Healey, director of the Conference, wrote in a statement shared with The Herald that a version of the bill introduced in the House of Representatives last year — House Bill No. 5787 — was a “step in the wrong direction.” He opposed the bill on both moral and financial grounds, arguing against the use of taxpayer dollars to fund “the objectionable practice of abortion.”
He also asserted that this bill “ignores the desires of most Americans” and added that “only 38% of Americans support using tax dollars to pay for abortion.”
“Our position has not changed,” Healey wrote in an email to The Herald regarding the Conference’s stance on the EACA.
As part of the Coalition, the ACLU of Rhode Island has been working to lift the “burden on the ability to exercise this right” to abortion and pushing to enact legislation to protect Rhode Islanders’ reproductive rights before the Supreme Court issues its ruling on Mississippi’s challenge to Roe v. Wade, according to Stephen Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.
“A right doesn’t mean much if you can’t exercise it,” Brown said.
While Brown said “these battles could take a long time,” he is optimistic that the coalition will succeed in securing insurance coverage for state employees and Medicaid recipients.
If passed, he added, this law would result in “enormous relief for thousands of residents.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified The Womxn Project as part of the R.I. Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. The Herald regrets the error.