For the fourth consecutive year, the Rhode Island General Assembly’s legislative session saw the proposal of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would ensure that individuals on Medicaid or state employee health insurance plans receive coverage for abortion procedures.
State Sen. Bridget Valverde, D-East Greenwich, has introduced the bill in the state Senate annually since 2020, failing to get the bill to the governor’s desk each time.
But when the bill failed to pass last summer, Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land, guaranteeing the right to abortion. The day after the General Assembly adjourned last summer, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — overturning Roe.
Given a possible change in public opinion surrounding abortion in the wake of Dobbs and increased attention on the subject from the Democratic party, advocates told The Herald that they hope 2023 might bring the bill’s passage.
While Rhode Island affords more expansive access to abortion than many other states — in 2019, the state codified the right to abortion through the Reproductive Privacy Act — the EACA addresses what its sponsors see as a key barrier to reproductive health services. Currently, Rhode Islanders on Medicaid or state health insurance plans must pay out of pocket for abortion procedures, due to sections of state law that prohibit both from covering abortion procedures.
The bill, introduced in the state House this year by Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian, D-East Providence, would eliminate those provisions in the law. The bill has 43 co-sponsors, over half of the members in the legislative body. In the state Senate, it has 21 co-sponsors.
“While I am grateful that Rhode Island has codified Roe v. Wade into state law, access to reproductive health is still not equal in our state,” Kazarian said in a press release.
“People who rely on Medicaid or a state health plan are still prevented from using their health coverage to pay for abortion,” Valverde said in a separate release. “That’s wrong and we have a responsibility to end these discriminatory bans that overwhelmingly affect low-income communities and people with disabilities.”
Proponents of the bill received an encouraging sign on Jan. 19 when Gov. Dan McKee included funding for the changes in his proposed fiscal year 2024 budget. Still, some opponents of the bill and abortion access plan to mount a fight to prevent its passage.
Advocacy efforts find ‘momentum,’ McKee’s support
Hannah Stern, a policy associate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, said she thinks there is a “unique amount of momentum this year” for the EACA, referencing “devastating changes” to abortion coverage following Dobbs.
On the first day of the 2023 legislative session, The Womxn Project, a Rhode Island organization focused on expanding abortion access, held a peaceful gathering at the State House in support of the EACA.
Jocelyn Foye, the organization’s executive director, described the gathering as successful.
“One of the greatest strengths that we’ve had as an activist base is making sure that (government officials) understand that the people are behind their words,” Foye said, “and they’re going to show up, and they're going to be present.”
The Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, an umbrella group encompassing 24 organizations including ACLU Rhode Island and Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, has also lined up in support of the bill again.
Nicole Jellinek, chair of the Coalition, said it was clear that the EACA was “the next big piece” of legislation to focus on after the Reproductive Privacy Act’s 2019 passage.
The Coalition’s case for the bill centers around equity. Jellinek added that while it’s easy to feel as though abortion access is safe in a state like Rhode Island, for individuals on Medicaid or a state employee health plan, abortion access “looks like Texas … (or) Mississippi,” where abortion is illegal with limited exceptions.
“We’ve passed the right to have (an) abortion in Rhode Island in 2019,” Foye said. “But what we’re fighting for right now is for our state to be equitable to all people.”
Because McKee’s proposed budget includes funding for the EACA, Jellinek said she believes the bill will likely pass this year. Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, D-North Providence, previously described the EACA as a “monetary item” to the Boston Globe after the General Assembly failed to pass the bill in the 2022 session and did not include funding for it in the final FY23 budget.
In an email to The Herald, state House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, did not provide a specific stance on the EACA but wrote that he is “generally supportive of equal insurance coverage in health care.”
And on Wednesday, McKee, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and other elected officials joined the Coalition at the State House to call for the bill’s passage.
“It seems like leadership and the governor are hearing the request of the people,” Foye said. “It’s just a matter of seeing it through to the finish line.”
Objectors line up
As Democratic leadership urges the bill’s passage, anti-abortion advocates are preparing to voice their objection to the EACA. Most immediately, the Rhode Island Right to Life Committee will hold its annual rally at the State House Saturday.
In the event’s Facebook description, the group calls upon attendees to encourage legislators to oppose “taxpayer funding for abortion-on-demand in Rhode Island.”
Reverend Bernard A. Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, submitted testimony against the bill when it was introduced in 2022 and wrote in an email to The Herald he plans to testify against the bill again this year.
In 2022, Healey opposed the bill on the grounds that “it would use taxpayer dollars for the objectionable practice of abortion which ends the life of an unborn human being,” comparing the bill to the “coercive abortion policies of China and North Korea.” Instead, he argued at the time that money budgeted for the EACA should go towards funding “healthy birth outcomes and providing income security” to parents who choose abortion for economic reasons.
And Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz, R-Burrillville, told ABC 6 that she believes Rhode Island voters oppose state funding of abortion coverage when it is “not necessary.”
A September 2022 poll conducted by the Providence Journal showed that 66% of Rhode Islanders support the bill’s passage.