On Thursday the Senate Health and Human Services Committee (HHS) passed the Reproductive Privacy Act (RPA), H5125B, out of committee and onto full consideration by the entire Senate as early as Tuesday. The RPA will codify the human rights protection of Roe v Wade into Rhode Island State Law. The vote was 8-2 in favor, and fell along party lines, with every Democrat voting for the measure and both Republicans on the Committee voting against.
In what was expected to be a much tighter vote, he bill was slated to be voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday evening, but a last minute move by ex officio Senators Elaine Morgan (Republican, District 34, Exeter Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich), who serves as the Minority Whip and Dennis Algiere (Republican, District 38, Westerly, Charlestown), who serves as Minority Leader, threw that vote into doubt.
Since the Democratic leadership of the Senate, which includes Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence), Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (Democrat, District 29, Warwick) and Minority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (Democrat, District 1, Providence) have all declared themselves to be pro-life, voting in an ex officio capacity for the bill in an effort to counter the Republicans was a no go.
Instead, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Erin Lynch Prata (Democrat, District 31, Warwick, Cranston) transferred the bill to Senate Health and Human Services, chaired by Senator Joshua Miller (Democrat, District 28, Cranston). This set off a war of words and public letters between Senator Morgan and Senate President Ruggerio, with Morgan hinting at a possible lawsuit in the event of the legislation passage.
Thursday night’s hearing began with Senator Miller clearing the rest of the legislation HHS was to deal with before getting into the passage of the RPA. The room was mostly full of supporters of the bill. Curiously, the anti-choice groups did not make a strong presence known at the State House until later in the evening.
Miller began with a statement saying that he was going to defer “to the women who are leaders on this issue.” Miller then went on to recognize “several women who have provided me with guidance and leadership over the years and who have worked with me to ensure that women the women of Rhode Island have the full access to health care that they deserve.”
These women included Miller’s mother. “I don’t I don’t think she’s been here since I was first sworn in in 2007,” said Miller. “I thought this might be an interesting day for her to revisit the State House.”
Miller also introduced his wife, Nancy, and former Senator Rhoda Perry (Democrat, District 3, Providence). Miller also acknowledged the women legislators and staff who helped bring the bill this far.
Senator Miller then attempted to hand control of the Committee over to Senator Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence), who has worked for years to bring this bill through the Senate. Before Goldin had a chance to speak, Senator Morgan made the first of several objections. It is interesting to note that Senator Algiere was not in the room.
“Mr Chair, I make a motion that this matter be referred back to Judiciary H5125, where it belongs,” said Senator Morgan. “The judiciary Commission Committee under Senate rules 5.1 number one, ‘all legislation which matters affect the penal code are heard in judiciary’ but that language, Mr Chair comes directly from our rules. All matters which affect the penal code, fetal homicide law repeal, also known as the quick child status, for example the fetal homicide repeal should be heard in judiciary. It deals directly with the Penal Code and that comes right from our laws. Another aspect of the this is it involves the penal code which is now felony assault which again directly affects Penal Code and directly needs to be heard in Judiciary. I make a motion to put it back into Judiciary.”
“So I know that complaint and those statutes and also the rules that you that you brought forward have been brought forward legally and they are to be considered and that is the proper place,” said Miller, referring to the legal action planned by the Republican Party in the event the bill is passed. “You’ve already started that initiation so I refer back to Senator Goldin for a motion.”
“Objection,” repeated Morgan.
Senator Thomas Paolino (Republican, District 17, Lincoln) is the only Republican member of the HHS Committee. He tried to interpose himself at this point in the hearing, but Goldin reminded him that she had been recognized by Chair Miller. Goldin moved to introduce H5125B, which was approved by acclimation.
Morgan opposed. Paolino was recognized by Miller but he spoke privately. I think he may have simply opposed the introduction of H5125B, but it is hard to tell.
“I make a motion, Mr Chair, to permanently postpone H5125 or to bring it back to Judiciary,” said Morgan.
“That was considered before and I think that’s part of your appeal we’ll go to the motion,” replied Miller.
Senator Lynch Prata, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, explained the changes to H5125A which resulted in H5125B. In short:
- A doctor who performs an abortion after fetal viability will be required to record the basis for why it was necessary for the the life or health of the woman.
- An assault by another person on a pregnant woman resulting in the loss of a fetus would be specifically considered a felony assault. That would not pertain to medical professionals operating under the bill known as the Reproductive Privacy Act.
- Finally, the bill omits an expansion of the type of family members who could offer consent for an abortion for a minor.
“I assure you,” said Lynch Prata, “that we worked as hard as we possibly could to codify our current status quo and I believe what you see before you today in House bill 5125 substitute B is that codification.”
Senator Stephen Archambault (Democrat, District 22, Smithfield, Johnston, North Providence) serves as the Vice Chair of Senate Judiciary Committee. It was he who voted against the Reproductive Health Care Act, the Senate version of the bill originally introduced by Senator Goldin. Archambault’s demeanor as he delivered his comments to the HHS Committee stands in sharp contrast to his demeanor one month earlier in Senate Judiciary, where he attempted to place the blame for the bill’s failure on Senator Goldin.
The vote and the comments made by Archambault then, and the way he delivered them, so angered supporters of the bill that a series of protests were held. (See: Here, Here, Here, Here and Here) It was during this time, I believe, that the State Senate leadership began to understand exactly how politically volatile this issue was.
“As someone who believes in a woman’s right to choose and who thinks it is important to codify the protections of Roe v Wade into state law given the current composition of the United States Supreme Court, I am in support of this revised and substantially improved legislation,” said Archambault before HHS last night. “I urge all Committee members to join me in supporting it and for the Senate and the House to pass it expeditiously.
“The agreement we have reached, which is reflected in this legislation, accomplishes the goals I’ve had since the beginning of this process. It codifies Roe v Wade, protecting a woman’s right to choose, and at the same time, puts in place safeguards that limit later-term, post-viability abortions.
“I commend Chairwoman Lynch Prata for her principled and wise leadership and demonstrated commitment to reaching common ground,” concluded Archambault
“Mr Chair, I again ask to make a motion for this to be H5125B to be transferred back to Judiciary where it was appropriately heard,” said Senator Morgan. “I make that motion…”
“I think we’ve dealt with this issue already, twice, so I think the third time is not necessary,” said Miller.
“Okay,” said Morgan, looking at fellow Republican Senator Paolino, who stared straight ahead. “Well, I do, because [my objection] hasn’t been seconded. I’m asking for a second.” If Morgan was hoping for a second from Paolino, she was disappointed.
“There is no second,” said Miller, handing it back over to Goldin.
Senator Goldin thanked Senator Lynch Prata for her help in bringing this bill to a conclusion. “You know, when women help each other we changed the world,” said Goldin. Senators Lynch Prata and Archambault were excused and left the room.
Senator Miller invited the Senators on the HHS Committee to make comments on the bill.
Senator James Sheehan (Democrat, District 36, Narragansett):
Senator Donna Nesselbush (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket):
Senator Bridget Valverde (District 35, North Kingstown, Narragansett):
The biggest surprise vote came from Senator Elizabeth Crowley (Democrat, District 16, Central Falls), who is pro-life.
“First let me say that I am pro-life and if I were asked to give advice [to] a young woman having a baby I would certainly give them alternatives to having an abortion,” said Crowley. “But I have spent the last 24 hours talking with and answering phone calls from many Rhode Islanders, from many Rhode Island OBGYNs, many doctors, … and they have told me some very sad stories about women who have found themselves in a way of pregnancy that they could not – they had to find a means to go away with it. Most of it was because of the fact that they were ill and the child would not survive…
“I believe that this bill deserves the attention of the full Senate not just five, six, seven, eight people,” continued Crowley. “It needs to have the attention of all of us and everyone has to make their decision and so Mr Chairman and members of the committee I will be voting YES to send it to the floor.”
Senator Paolino said that he has heard more from anti-choice constituents than from pro-choice constituents. He voted No on the bill.
Senator Adam Satchell (Democrat, District 9, West Warwick) had no comments.
Senator Valerie Lawson (Democrat, District 14, East Providence, Pawtucket):
“I just want to share a story,” said Senator Morgan. “My mother had three miscarriages before I was born and when she became pregnant again with me the doctor said I wasn’t viable and that they wanted her to abort. So this is a little – I feel like a lot of things haven’t been defined in this new bill. The compromise that I see is that a doctor would have to put a note in a file. I would think that they would already put a note in a file. Have abortionists been immune from noting in patients files the procedures that they’ve done? That’s just bizarre to me.
“So when they kill an unborn baby, post viability, has not been defined in this bill,” continued Morgan. “So what is post by viability? It doesn’t say in this bill. What is health? It does not define health in this bill. It could be any kind of health. As Senator Erin Prata Lynch had said, no one does. She didn’t say it couldn’t happen or it can’t happen in this bill, she just said it doesn’t happen. It can happen with this bill. It doesn’t define viability. It does not define the health.
“There was a Virginia doctor or Vermont doctor who said he would keep a baby comfortable until a mother made the decision. If she decided in labor she didn’t want she didn’t want the baby, then he would keep it comfortable until she made the decision. That’s what this bill says,” concluded Morgan. “It does not define anything, so it’s abortion on demand when demanded and I object to it.”
“Like the Mueller Report, many people haven’t read this legislation,” said Senator Miller. “I think it’s important to read this legislation… We have to praise those who wrote the language, most often Senator Goldin. [It] is very important and really gets to the core of why this legislation is so important.
“I think that is important,” continued Miller, after reading from the bill, “for people to clearly understand the intent of this type of legislation, what it codifies and why. It’s an important decision for women and law to make and with that I admire the language and those who wrote it…”
“Today is a watershed moment and with this committee vote Rhode Island will be one step closer to protecting reproductive rights and affirming that we believe a person who becomes pregnant can make their very own healthcare decisions,” said Senator Goldin. “We will become a beacon of hope for the rest of the country. Today’s vote is the result of many who have fought for many decades, including Senator Perry, who preceded me in this seat.
“There were 16 senators who were co-sponsors of the Senate bill, including many who are sitting up here with me today and each and every one of them deserves considerable thanks,” continued Goldin. “Throughout this legislative session we spoke with doctors and lawyers, religious leaders, our constituents, and our colleagues. I am particularly thankful for the new and newish class of senators who pushed this bill alongside me.
“I’d also like to thank Senate President Ruggerio. We might not always see eye to eye on ideology but he has always been willing to work with me on issues I care deeply about. Under the President’s direction our talented Senate staff put considerable effort into helping Senator Lynch Prata find a path forward in order to protect protect reproductive rights and to me that is leadership.
“The bill we have before us today has had a longer journey than most and while the bill began in Judiciary it makes sense that this bill would also be in Health,” concluded Goldin.
“After all, abortion is health care.”
Goldin then moved passage of the bill.
The bill passed 8-2.
Statements from advocacy groups:
The Womxn Project:
Big Step Forward to Protect Roe and Our Rights
Activists thrilled that after decades of work, the Reproductive Privacy Act passed out of committee and will head to the Senate floor early next week.
“We have been working for decades to advance legislation to protect right to seek an abortion. We took a huge step forward today as the Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted to pass an amended version of the Reproductive Privacy Act. Changes were made from the version that came out of the House, but the legislation continues to provide strong protections to ensure that no matter what happens at the federal level that here in our state people are able to get safe, legal abortion care.
“We are grateful to the lawmakers who worked to find a path forward. This has been a long fought effort. People have been working for decades to get us to this day. Countless women have shared their stories – have put themselves out there and stood in front of people they do not know to tell personal details of their journeys in order to try to get legislators to understand how important and personal and necessary it is that when someone needs an abortion that they can get one.
“Volunteers – thousands of volunteers – have given their time. We have people from our team who have been up at the State House every day of session in their pink to be present, to speak up, to represent the thousands more who want to see this bill pass and who because of work or family could not be up there. They have shown up time and again, missed bedtimes or soccer games to be a strong voice to make sure our rights are not trampled on or ignored.
“This bill is a necessary and powerful challenge to the slew of states where politicians who do not know our lives or care about our stories have pushed to take abortion care away. This bill stands as a clear rejection of anyone who thinks they should be able to control our bodies, take away our rights, or deny the ability to make our own decisions about how we build our families and our futures.
“There is still work to be done to get this bill to the governor’s desk, but we are not going anywhere. We are in this. We will be here on Tuesday when the full Senate votes. We will keep showing up and speaking out. And after that we will harness the power of this amazing movement that we have built to take on the barriers that push the right to abortion out of reach for too many.
“The RPA is a strong, well-crafted policy. It will truly ensure that people have the right to make their own decisions. It has been a long road, but we are thrilled to take this important step forward. We are in this together. The time is now. No more waiting. Together, we will get this done. Together, we will protect our rights.”
The Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom (RICRF)1:
“The Senate Committee on Health and Human Services has voted in favor, on a 8-2 vote, of the Reproductive Privacy Act (H5125B) which we expect to head to the Senate floor next week. The Coalition is grateful to the Committee for their diligence in hearing the Sub B as presented by Judiciary Chair Erin Lynch Prata and for recognizing that abortion is, in fact, healthcare. We thank Chairman Josh Miller and Senators Gayle Goldin, Donna Nesselbush, Elizabeth Crowley, Bridget Valverde, Val Lawson, James Sheehan and Adam Satchell for their votes this evening.
“We are equally disappointed that the Minority Whip Elaine Morgan once again attempted to thwart the legislative process in the Senate.
“Our Coalition partners and countless activists were undeterred as they came to the state house this afternoon to watch this bill take the next step. We also reflect on how far we have come here in Rhode Island. It has been more than a quarter century since a 1993 version of this bill passed out of the House of Representatives, but failed to be acted on in the Senate. For years the Senate did not even hold hearings on bills that would protect access to safe, legal abortion— it is clear we have made significant progress in the Senate. With abortion bans passing around the country intended to make a Supreme Court challenge on abortion rights, the Rhode Island Senate is now poised to make history by passing the Reproductive Privacy Act (H5125B).
“We call on the Rhode Island Senate to vote in favor of this bill and send it back to the House of Representatives for the final legislative step in this process to protect access to safe, legal abortion in Rhode Island once and for all.”
Planned Parenthood Votes!:
“Today was a historic step forward for reproductive freedom in Rhode Island. Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island (PPV!RI) stands with our partners in the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom in thanking Chair Joshua Miller and Senators Gayle Goldin, James Sheehan, Elizabeth Crowley, Valerie Lawson, Donna Nesselbush, Thomas Paolino, Adam Satchell and Bridget Valverde of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services for passing the Reproductive Privacy Act of 2019 (H 5125 Sub B); and sending the bill to the Senate floor,” said Amanda Skinner, President and CEO, Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island. “We thank Chair Erin Lynch Prata and her Senate Judiciary Committee colleagues for their hard work in crafting this new version of the legislation. We also thank Senate President Ruggerio and his leadership team for listening to the public and ensuring the bill goes before the full Senate. We are thankful for Senator Gayle Goldin and her years of leadership in protecting reproductive freedom in Rhode Island. Now, we call on the full Senate to act quickly to pass the Reproductive Privacy Act of 2019 (RPA) without delay.
“Passing the Reproductive Privacy Act of 2019 will guarantee the right to safe and legal abortion in Rhode Island no matter what happens at the federal level.
“As the vile, misogynistic attacks on reproductive rights escalate across the nation, Rhode Island is poised to set an example by protecting an individual’s right to control their own body and their own future. President Trump has doubled-down on his attacks on women’s health care, using blatant lies to manipulate people’s emotions, and many states have passed laws aimed at eliminating access to abortion. In the last few weeks, states like Georgia, Missouri, and Louisiana have enacted extreme abortion bans as part of a coordinated effort to challenge the protections of Roe v Wade – and four decades of legal precedents protecting the fundamental right to abortion – in front of Trump’s Supreme Court. Their intention to overturn Roe is clear.
“In this environment, it is more important than ever to enact state policies that protect safe, legal abortion. That is why Planned Parenthood stands behind the RPA and calls for a vote by the full Senate, and swift action by the House of Representatives, to bring this critical legislation to the desk of Governor Raimondo.
“There is a clear mandate to protect access to abortion. A new NPR/PBS/NewsHour/Marist poll saw an increase in those who self-identify as ‘pro-choice’ and found that 77 percent of Americans want to see Roe v Wade upheld. In the 2018 elections, Rhode Island elected the most Planned Parenthood-endorsed candidates in history, including 12 new voices for reproductive freedom. All five statewide General Officers support passing a law to put the protection of Roe v Wade into Rhode Island statute, and we thank Governor Raimondo for calling on the Assembly to act this year in her 2019 State of the State address. There are now more than enough votes in the General Assembly to pass the RPA.
“Abortion is health care, reproductive care is health care, and health care is a human right,” concluded Skinner. “With reproductive rights under constant attack in America, we can’t wait—now is the time for our elected officials in Rhode Island to act by moving this legislation forward. PPV!RI won’t stop fighting until we finally safeguard access to safe, legal abortion in Rhode Island state law.”
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- The Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom (RICRF) is the American Civil Liberties Union of RI, American Congress of Obstetricians, RI Chapter, Catholics for Choice, The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, Hope and Change for Haiti, Humanists of Rhode Island, Indivisible RI, League of Women Voters, RI, Medical Students for Choice, National Council of Jewish Women, RI Chapter, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, Rhode Island Working Families Party, RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence, RI Democratic Women for Leadership, RI National Association of Social Workers, RI National Organization for Women, RI Religious Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, The Womxn Project, Women’s Health and Education Fund and the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island.