Abortion debate at Rhode Island State House intensifies

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Toni Van Pelt, President of the National Organization for Women, is drowned out by anti-choice protesters in the State House rotunda

The Rhode Island State House seemed chaotic as hundreds of pro-choice advocates held a rally in support of legislation that will codify the human rights protections of Roe v Wade into Rhode Island State Law. During a speaking program at which the rotunda microphone was mysteriously inoperable, anti-choice activists chanted loudly and pushed their way into crowds of pro-choice advocates attempting to shout down the speakers and insert their hand held signs in front of the cameras.

One older man was particularly aggressive, as seen in this video starting around the 34 second mark, using his wrists and elbows to push past young women activists and yelling “Let the babies live!” over and over again. Capitol Police did not interfere, despite numerous complaints.

Danika Severino Wynn, Regional Clinical Director from Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, attempted to open the event despite the microphone problems and the loud voices of the anti-choice advocates.

Danika Severino Wynn

Because Severino Wynn was unable to deliver her words to the audience, I’ve reproduced her speech here:

“It’s so wonderful to see you all here today! Your support is sending a clear message to our legislators that we are not going to back down.

“My name is Danika Severino Wynn, I am a midwife and a Regional Director at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England.

“On behalf of our patients and our amazing team of care providers, and on behalf of our supporters and donors, we have one clear message – It is time to protect safe, legal abortion and pass the Reproductive Privacy Act.

“As a clinician I am petrified by the restrictive legislation that we see being introduced across our country. Missouri and Louisiana are just the latest in a wave of states enacting unconstitutional restrictions on access to abortion with the goal of bringing a case to the Supreme Court and overturning the federal right to abortion.

“But Rhode Islanders – all of you – are saying no to this world where women, and anyone who can become pregnant, have decision made for them. We demand a world where we control our own bodies, our own futures and our own choices.

“Over the last few weeks, hundreds of Rhode Islanders have shown up at the State House and at events across the state demanding action to protect safe, legal abortion in Rhode Island.

“One of the most exciting was Thursday, May 23rd. Dozens of high school students fighting for their future organized themselves and took over the state house. I believe there are a group of young people with us today. Let’s give them a hand.

“Let me be clear, no matter how hard the anti-choice groups try abortion will NEVER go away. It will only become unsafe and those most burdened will be low-income people and people of color – groups of people who are already most impacted by the health care disparities plaguing our system.

“It is simple – abortion is health care. It is time for the Rhode Island Senate to join the House and bring the Reproductive Privacy Act to the floor for a vote.

“It is urgent and we are running out of time.

“And it is clear – Rhode Island supports protecting safe legal abortion. For the past four years, Rhode Islanders have been consistently electing candidates who are proud, bold leaders on reproductive freedom. After the last elections, we know there are now more than enough votes in the General Assembly to pass the Reproductive Privacy Act. In addition, all five statewide officers, including the Governor and the Attorney General, support the Reproductive Privacy Act.

“The public is with us – on October 14, a poll in the Providence journal showed 71 percent of Rhode Islanders support a law to protect safe, legal abortion.

“Rhode Islanders expect – demand – the leadership of the Rhode Island Senate do their job: bring the Reproductive Privacy Act to the floor for a vote this year.

“We will back every day until the Senate takes action. We will back next week, next month and if we need to, we will be back next year.

“It’s now my honor to introduce Hilary Levy Friedman, President of the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Organization of Women. NOW is member of the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom and has been on the frontlines of fighting for reproductive freedom for decades.

“Please give a hand for Hilary.”

“Communities across America are facing a stark reckoning,” said Hilary Levey Friedman, President of Rhode Island NOW, ahead of introducing Toni Van Pelt. “In places like Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Alabama, legislatures and governors are on the wrong side of history, restricting the rights of women in their communities. We talk of bans in those states—but have an existing ban in Rhode Island that was found unconstitutional. It’s on the books ready and waiting, if Trump gets his way and Roe is overturned. That is why we are fighting to write a different story in Rhode Island by passing the Reproductive Privacy Act.”

The chanting of anti-choice protesters continued to intensify as NOW President Toni Van Pelt attempted to speak. Van Pelt was given the opportunity to read her full speech at a Rhode Island NOW event being held at the Public Kitchen and Pub on Francis Street. (See Video 7 below)

I asked Van Pelt if she had ever dealt with a crowd like the one in Rhode Island when she delivers speeches in other states.

“I’ve given a lot of speeches at rallies where there were a lot of antis, but I don’t think I’ve ever had it be so immediate, so in my personal space,” said Van Pelt. “Back in the day, before FACE was passed, they used to chain themselves up to the clinic doors. We used to get up really early in the morning, get there at 4am and they used to come and try to chain themselves to the doors, their necks to the doors so that the doors couldn’t open. We were defending against that, so that was very immediate. But not when giving a speech. This was different today.

“I’ve given speeches where there were antis there and they were very, very loud, but they were not, like, right in my space. I didn’t feel physically threatened before,” said Van Pelt.

“So you felt physically threatened here in Rhode Island?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Van Pelt, nodding.

Toni Van Pelt

I also asked Van Pelt about her meeting with Governor Gina Raimondo.

The meeting with Governor Gina Raimondo “went really well,” said Van Pelt. “She’s very warm and personable and we had an extensive conversation about the politics of the day and what it is like for women to run for office, and what it is like for women once they’re in office, and just the way that the media treats them.”

Here is Van Pelt’s speech:

“Hello Rhode Island! You may be the smallest state geographically, but today, you have the biggest determination, the most energy, and the greatest coalition of feminists, humanists, healthcare professionals and activists working together to support and defend access to reproductive health. I salute you, and on behalf of NOW members everywhere I am proud to stand with you here today.

“In the last few months, we’ve seen a turbo-charged assault on reproductive rights from state legislatures and anti-abortion Governors to consolidate their power over women’s bodies, turn back the clock on women’s rights, and put the health and safety of women and girls at risk by passing the most outrageous, immoral and unconstitutional restrictions and bans on abortion care.

“Donald Trump promised them a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v Wade, and now that he’s installed two Justices he picked from a list of anti-abortion judges, the race is on to pass a law that could attract a Supreme Court challenge to abortion rights.

“In Georgia, a six-week abortion ban was deliberately loaded with provisions that were designed to be challenged in court—like a provision that would allow Georgians to claim an embryo as a dependent on their taxes, and another that would count a zygote in the national census.

“Alabama’s abortion ban criminalizes doctors and makes no exception for rape and incest. Montana and North Carolina have passed so-called ‘Born Alive’ legislation built on junk science and political gimmickry.

“Of course, these laws and restrictions are all about power—not health.

“Fetal heartbeat laws, waiting periods, informed consent requirements, bans on public funding, insurance prohibitions and unnecessary clinic regulations are not designed to protect women. Instead, they are designed to deter women from choosing abortion and to make it more difficult and burdensome to obtain for those that do.

“During the Alabama floor debate, Democratic State Senator Vivian Davis Figures interrupted a Republican colleague who was defending the morality of not allowing abortions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

“‘That’s not your business,’ she said. ‘You don’t have to raise a child. You don’t have to carry that child, you don’t have to provide for that child, you don’t have to do anything for that child—but yet you want to make that decision for that woman that that’s what she has to do.’

“Let’s hear it for speaking truth to power!

“That’s always been at the heart of everything we do at NOW, and it’s what you are doing here today. NOW’s mission has always included the determination to work towards building a culture that values women as equals. The PBS documentary series ‘The Sixties’ quoted a NOW activist saying, ‘It was a feeling of power, that if there’s a sisterhood—that we all want to change society—we can do it.’

“We can do it. We’ve done it. We’re doing it now. You’re doing it today. When we take action, we win. And the distinctive brand of feminist activism we share has never been needed more.

“The Trump Administration has given a blank check to the religious right to enact a fundamentalist vision of government that is straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale. Led by a President who openly brags about sexual assault, they give support to a culture that degrades, harms and shames women.

“They are also creating serious, entirely preventable threats to women’s health.

“The United States has the highest maternal death rates among developed countries, and they continue to rise. This is a direct result of the religious right’s success in restricting access to health care. If a woman doesn’t have access to a complete range of affordable health care services, the maternal death rate goes up and the infant death rate also rises.

“Donald Trump has filled his Administration with the most extreme religious conservatives to ever reach the highest levels of government. First, he picked Mike Pence as Vice President—a man who introduces himself as ‘a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.’

“Trump is now packing the courts with anti-abortion judges who could serve for decades. These include unsafe for any democracy judges like Wendy Vitter of Louisiana, who promoted the junk science theory that abortion is linked to breast cancer and oral contraceptives can cause women to be assaulted and murdered. Vitter once spoke at an anti-Planned Parenthood rally and accused the group of ‘killing over 150,000 females a year.’

“Donald Trump has stacked his administration with anti-abortion activists. His Deputy General Counsel at the Department of Health and Human Services, Matthew Bowman, once wrote that employers who provide contraception coverage ‘kill embryos and bow to the altar of fruitless intercourse.’ He subscribed to the Blackstone Legal Fellowship, a radical fundamentalist Christian group that sought ‘to recover the robust Christendomic theocracy of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.’

“Roger Severino, Donald Trump’s director of the Office for Civil Rights, has referred to contraception as ‘abortion-inducing drugs and devices,’ and Scott Lloyd, who has declared “mission accomplished” for his extremist agenda and is in his last days as head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement has equated abortion with the Holocaust.

“Lloyd has argued that women who aren’t willing or able to give birth should abstain from sex. He said, ‘If a woman needs to defend so fiercely the ‘one thing they can call their own—their body’ then they shouldn’t be so careless with it as to have sex when they are not ready to be pregnant.’

“Needless to say, he doesn’t expect the same standards from men.
How do we resist this rising tide of extremism? How do we protect reproductive freedom and enshrine women’s rights to bodily autonomy, health care and happiness?

“The answer is all around us today. It’s what you’re doing, why you’re rallying here today, and how you will ensure that Rhode Island lawmakers hear your voices and represent your constitutional rights. Don’t let up the pressure—and don’t be discouraged by setbacks along the way.

“I know what successful, transformative activism looks like, and I see victory here today. I see history being made. When you succeed in passing this critical legislation, you will show the nation that Rhode Island’s call to #LetItOut can rise above the din of anti-abortion extremism and misogyny. I raise my voice with you today! We will not be ignored! We will not be denied! We will not fail!”

Here’s Hilary Levey Friedman at the Public Kitchen event:

“We’re all here for the exact same reason: We know that the decision of when to have a child is a decision that should be made by a woman, period,” said Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, ahead of introducing Van Pelt.

“I don’t know where to begin in terms of what’s happening in Washington,” continued Elorza. “It is certainly the darkest hour that I’ve experienced in my lifetime in terms of national politics. They’re just itching for the right case to overturn Roe v Wade. If this [legislation] gets over the finish line here, at the very least we can take solace in knowing that every single woman in Providence, every single woman in the State of Rhode Island, can rest assured that they have access to safe and legal abortion care.”

Toni Van Pelt:


Here are some observations made earlier at the State House:

Representative James McLaughlin (Democrat, District 57, Central Falls), leaving the Senate Chamber and holding aloft his painting of Jesus.

Pro-choice protesters positioned themselves at all three entrances to the Senate Chamber to make they’re voices heard. Several time Senators such as Erin Lynch Prata (Democrat, District 31, Warwick, Cranston) and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence) paused when talking for the noise to dim so their words could be heard.

Here’s some video (and audio) of what it sounded like inside the Senate Chamber while pro-choice advocates rallied outside.

The door that connects the Senate Chamber to the main rotunda was kept closed and locked after the Senate concluded their business. That’s because on the day the Senate Judiciary Committee killed the Reproductive Health Care Act on a 5-4 vote, pro-choice activists crowded into the Senate Chamber to loudly chant for their reproductive rights to be protected.

I asked a Senate Page about this. To protect his identity I turned the camera away.

“Is this door being locked?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Is that to prevent what happened last time?”

“People coming in,” he replied.

“So you don’t want anyone coming in through the door?” I asked.

“No,” said the page.

The door to the Senate Chamber opening is a sign to lobbyists and others in the State House that the Senate has concluded their business and that committee hearings were soon to start. I talked to two lobbyists who hadn’t realized that the Senate had concluded their business.

The rally was organized as an “emergency action” by the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom and partner organizations.

At this point it is unknown whether the Senate will pass legislation to protect reproductive health care rights or if thy somehow prefer a General Assembly session marked by chaos.


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About Steve Ahlquist 961 Articles
Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade.Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading.atomicsteve@gmail.com

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