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Rhode Island House of Representatives passes bill codifying Roe v Wade



In a hearing that lasted around five hours, the Rhode Island House of Representatives passed the Reproductive Privacy Act (RPA) by a vote of 44-30. The vote included 60 percent of all the Democrats in the chamber, 21 of the 26 women in the House, and had the support one Republican, John Lyle Jr (Republican, District 46, Lincoln).

As the bill was passed, cheers erupted from the House gallery where women who supported reproductive rights including abortion, had been waiting all day, some arriving at 9am to secure a seat.

In a statement, Amanda Skinner, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island said, “The Reproductive Privacy Act of 2019 will guarantee the right to safe and legal abortion in Rhode Island law no matter what happens at the federal level.”

The RPA was introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams (Democrat, District 9, Providence) as an alternative to the Reproductive Health Care Act introduced by Representative Edith Ajello (Democrat, District 1, Providence). The bill codifies Roe v Wade into state law, which will guarantee a woman’s right to an abortion should the Supreme Court overturn our severely undermine that right. After being reworked to address the concerns of pro-choice advocates, the RPA was embraced by both Planned Parenthood and Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom last Friday.

On Tuesday the RPA passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on a 9-7 vote. Many of the issues brought out in the committee by anti-choice legislators were mirrored in the floor amendments submitted to change the bill during lengthy discussions on the House floor. None of the proposed amendments were successful, and the RPA was passed without any changes.

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In order for the RPA to reach the desk of Governor Gina Raimondo for her signature, the Senate must pass a bill with the same language. Senator Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence), who has introduced the Reproductive Health Care Act on the Senate side, changed the language of her bill to reflect the RPA, and that version of the bill was heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting during a marathon session that lasted until 6am.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence) has said that he will allow the bill to come to the Senate floor for a full vote, though the bill must still be passed out of committee.

In the video below, Representative Robert Craven (Democrat, District 32, North Kingstown), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, introduces the Reproductive Privacy Act.

“I believe in the merits of this bill, I believe it is the right thing to do, and quite frankly I believe that this is a wonderful compromise between two groups of people who probably couldn’t agree on whether today is Thursday,” said Craven. “It’s happened. This is a great piece of legislation, and I would move passage.”

The first of five proposed, but ultimately doomed, amendments was submitted by conservative Representative Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence). Corvese’s “informed consent” amendment would compel women to wait 24 hours after visiting their doctor before receiving their abortion.

The longest discussion was prompted by an amendment put forward by anti-choice Representative Blake Filippi (Republican, District 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly) to add the concept of fetal homicide to the bill. Filippi is the House Minority Leader.

Filippi maintained that the RPA went beyond Roe v Wade in that it does away with the concept of fetal homicide by eliminating the quick child statute that allows prosecutors to charge someone who deliberately causes an unwanted abortion through an attack on a woman. Without such language, maintained Fillipi, the rights of the fetus could not be advocated for in court.

Representative Craven disagreed with Filippi. Craven produced a letter from Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha that averred that the Attorney General’s office could charge a person who assaulted a woman to induce an abortion under a plethora of statutes, that the Attorney general’s office has not charged anyone under the quick child statute in over 20 years, and that the language was constitutionally suspect.

Nevertheless, Filippi maintained that the rights of the fetus to achieve justice were not being protected, only the rights of the woman who was attacked. Filippi’s amendment failed.

Representative Brian Newberry (Republican, District 48, North Smithfield) suggested an amendment that would trigger the RPA only in the event that Roe v Wade was ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. As Representative Christopher Blazejewski (Democrat, District 2, Providence) pointed out, most trigger laws are passed by legislators for the opposite reason: States pass “blatantly unconstitutional” laws and let these laws stay on the books in the hopes that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v Wade, at which point the laws go into effect.

This amendment failed.

Newberry’s second amendment would have had the effect of preventing cities and town’s from offering insurance coverage for abortion to their employees. The amendment failed.

Newberry’s third and final amendment took issue with third trimester abortions being allowed when there were threats to the woman’s health. Newberry claimed that women and doctors would be able to access abortions under some kind of “loose mental health standard” so he suggested language that would exclude some mental health reasons for abortion.

“This amendment is probably the most insulting of them all,” said Representative Carol Hagan McEntee (Democrat, District 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett). Newberry’s amendment would exclude a woman from having a third trimester abortion for purposes of selecting the sex of the fetus or to prevent the child from being born with mental or physical disabilities. Newberry’s amendment would also prevent aborting a child based on the child’s sexual preferences or based on the race of the child. McEntee called Newberry’s amendment “ridiculous” and the amendment failed.

Finally, back on the bill itself, after a lengthy discussion lasting over an hour, the Reproductive Privacy Act was passed.

“I commend the House of Representatives for sending a clear message today that we as a state will not cower in the face of threats at the national level and that Rhode Island will stand strong in protecting women’s access to critical reproductive services. Due to this bill, Rhode Island will remain resolute in ensuring a woman’s privacy in making her own health care decisions and we will not turn back the clock on decades of progress for female reproductive health equality,” said Representative Williams, who sponsored the RPA.

“Tonight, the Rhode Island House of Representatives made history, and we are one step closer to protecting access to safe, legal abortion in Rhode Island law no matter what happens at the federal level. We call on the Rhode Island Senate to join their colleagues in the House and bring this legislation to a vote,” wrote the he Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom in response.

“Tonight, the Rhode Island House of Representatives made history. Under the leadership of Chairwoman Williams, we are one step closer to protecting access to safe, legal abortion in our state. We call on the Rhode Island Senate to join their colleagues in the House and bring this legislation to a vote,” wrote Amanda Skinner, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island.

“Let us celebrate the THOUSANDS of volunteers who have come out and joined us at events or made calls or knocked on doors or participated in our postcarding program. Let’s celebrate the lawmakers who today voted to support every Rhode Islander’s ability to manage our health and plan our families and control our futures — and let us celebrate the many lawmakers over the years who helped to get us here today,” wrote The Womxn Project.

Representative Arthur Corvese and Speaker Nicholas Mattiello before the session

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.