The Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee today approved the Reproductive Privacy Act (RPA), House Bill 5125 Substitute A, on a 9-7 vote. The bill now moves on to a full vote on the House floor on Thursday, according to Committee Chair Robert Craven. Craven estimated that the bill will pass on a close vote – “percentage-wise” the same as the House Committee.
The discussion within the committee was at times heated, at times emotional, and often pedantic.
“This is a strict codification of Roe v Wade,” said Craven (Democrat, District 32, North Kingstown), describing the bill. “There have been several statutes over the years that the Rhode Island General Assembly has made attempts to deal with abortion in statute, which have been, in my opinion, unsuccessful, unenforceable and more importantly, unconstitutional…
“Roe v Wade and this statute deals with science,” continued Craven. “The science of viability and not the religious issues, the moral issues. It was the intent of the Supreme Court, in deciding Roe v Wade, to deal with viability in the context of science. Viability meaning: When does a fetus acquire the status where it becomes a life?
“I believe,” said Craven, “my reading of this as both a lawyer and a legislator, is that the ability to get a late term abortion, that which is most offensive, I believe, to the Catholics that live in my district and in some instances are members of my family, it will be much harder to accomplish such a goal, of a late term abortion, if this bill passed, than under existing law as we sit here today.”
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Conservative Representative Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence) disagreed with Craven. The bill, said Corvese, “is not a strict codification of Roe v Wade. For that reason, and several others not necessary to delve into at this time, I’ll be voting no on this bill.”
“Are there legal penalties if someone performs a third trimester abortion, in violation of the law?” asked Minority Leader Blake Filippi (Republican, District 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly). “Or are those just subject to discipline under professional conduct?”
Filippi pointed out that there are no criminal charges in the law regarding a doctor violating the statute. When Craven corrected Filippi, and pointed out that there were criminal penalties, Filippi said,”I would suggest a misdemeanor isn’t enough.”
Fillipi agreed with Corvese, saying that the legislation “goes beyond Roe v Wade.” Filippi took issue with the idea that a third trimester abortion could be performed if the pregnancy threatened the health of the mother. “Health includes mental health,” said Filippi. He also wanted a definition of the term “necessary.”
“Because there’s no definition of necessary, and health is broad, I think it creates a very gray area that doctors can operate in,” said Filippi. Since the doctor making the determination is the doctor who performs the abortion, “I think it creates a moral hazard,” said Filippi. “I think we’re setting ourselves up to have violations.”
“Next,” said Filippi, “I really want to go into fetal homicide…” Filippi then graphically described an assault on a woman that results in a third trimester abortion. “The charge that we’re left with is a simple assault charge… We need to protect women who are victims of criminal action,” said Filippi.
Craven pointed out that there are “a plethora of other charges that are serious and draconian in not only their penalties, but their sentencing guidelines.”
Undisuaded, Filippi moved onto partial-birth abortions, which he sees as being allowed under the RPA. Representative Evan Shanley (Democrat, District 24, Warwick) pointed out that all late term abortions are banned under the RPA, except when necessary to ensure the health of the pregnant woman, but Filippi persisted, saying that partial-birth abortion is a method of abortion and allowed in cases when the health of the pregnant woman is at risk.
“The alternative,” said Vice-Chair Carol Hagan McEntee (Democrat, District 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett) “would be to not have that exception for the life of the mother. Are you suggesting that we don’t preserve the life of the mother?” McEntee was the first and only woman legislator to speak.
Filippi slipped back to his earlier point. “I’m suggesting we define necessary and we define health… We heard earlier that it’s the mental health as well. Is that what we’re doing? That to preserve the mental health, we can allow a third trimester abortion?”
“Mental health and physical health are completely inter-related,” said Representative Daniel Mckiernan (Democrat, District 7, Providence). “Health is health. Whether it’s a mental illness or a physical illness.
Representative David Place (Republican, District 47, Burrillville, Glocester) opposed the legislation. He said the legislation was ambiguous, and therefore unclear. Corvese agreed, saying that if four different lawyers discussing the legislation in the committee (Craven, Filippi, McEntee and McKiernan) couldn’t agree on the interpretation and definitions in the language, the the law was not ready to be passed. McKiernan argued that finding four lawyers to agree on anything was unlikely.
Representative Christopher Millea (Democrat, District 16, Cranston), also a lawyer, ended the discussion with his interpretation that the RPA expanded abortion rights and didn’t just codify existing protections. “I am not one to take away the choice of any female who walks this earth… but I will not be part of the expansion of abortion,” said Millea.
After Millea’s statement, the vote was taken:
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