PROVIDENCE — The US Supreme Court has overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that protects women’s rights to abortion.
The move would substantially diminish the right to abortion in the US, according to advocates, and potentially put access at risk for more than 36 million people. But in Rhode Island, lawmakers in 2019 passed the Reproductive Privacy Act, which protects the legal right to an abortion in Rhode Island, even if Roe v. Wade is weakened or overturned.
Here are the protections Rhode Islanders have — and do not have — under state law.
If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, will abortion rights be stripped away from Rhode Islanders?
No. When the Rhode Island General Assembly passed the Reproductive Privacy Act, it codified abortion access into the state’s constitution. Former governor Gina M. Raimondo signed the bill into law the night it passed the Senate in June 2019.
“In Washington and, frankly, throughout the country and many other states, there is a great deal of anxiety about women’s right to health care,” Raimondo, who now serves as US Commerce Secretary, said at the time. “This bill that I’m about to sign codifies Roe v. Wade. It preserves the status quo that has existed here in this state for 50 years. As such, it’s a very important bill.”
Do those under the age of 18 need parental consent or notice in Rhode Island?
Minors require parental consent for abortion in Rhode Island, but they can appeal for a judicial bypass.
Which health care professionals can perform abortions in Rhode Island?
The health department’s regulations have a physician-only requirement for surgical or in-clinic abortion.
“Physician requirements create additional, unnecessary barriers on abortion access. They are a version of a Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers law — treating abortion differently than any other medical procedure, and makes it harder for people to get the abortion care they need,” said Gretchen Raffa, a senior director of public policy, advocacy, and organizing at Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island, which lobbies for access to sexual health care and reproductive rights.
Is counseling required before getting an abortion in Rhode Island?
There is no mandatory counseling in Rhode Island.
Are abortions covered by the state’s Medicaid program?
No. The Hyde Amendment, which was implemented in 1977, forbids the use of federal funds for abortions other than in cases of “life endangerment, rape, or incest.”
Raffa said it’s time to pass the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act. The EACA would eliminate what advocates call “Rhode Island abortion bans” by allowing abortion to be covered by the state’s Medicaid program, which is used by more than 315,000 residents.
“Yes, the legal right to abortion is protected in Rhode Island, but the right is meaningless to someone who can’t afford to access the abortion care they need,” said Raffa.
How could passing the EACA expand abortion coverage?
“There are abortion bans for specific people,” Valverde told the Globe in a phone interview. “For those under Medicaid, and it’s written into the state statue that the health insurance plans for state employees are prohibited from covering abortion and our families.”
Cassar and Valverde said other state laws prohibit nearly one in three Rhode Islanders (people enrolled in Medicaid and more than 17,000 state employees and their dependents) from using their health insurance to cover the costs of abortion. To afford the procedure out of pocket would be “out of the question” for many, they said.
“Many lower-socioeconomic households in Rhode Island just don’t have the financial flexibility. Trying to afford the average cost [of an abortion] could be catastrophic for them. ... it might cause them to miss rent that month or not be able to afford utilities or food,” said Cassar. “It could completely destabilize households.”
Do other states allow Medicaid programs to cover abortion?
“Politicians across the country have introduced more than 600 abortion restrictions this year, making 2021 the worst year on record for reproductive rights since the decision in Roe v. Wade nearly 50 years ago,” Raffa said. “We can’t be complacent while abortion access hangs by a thread.”
Why didn’t the EACA pass and become law?
The bill had 26 co-sponsors in the House and 21 co-sponsors in the Senate, but never left their assigned committees.
Valverde said she objected to Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s decision to send the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee instead of the Senate Health and Human Services (HHS) Committee, of which she is vice chairwoman. It continued to the Judiciary Committee, where many advocates say have several “anti-choice” lawmakers, and was never brought to a full House vote.
“In 2019, we passed the RPA, which guaranteed the right to an abortion in Rhode Island. However, we really didn’t finish the job,” said Valverde.
Both Valverde and Cassar said they planned to reintroduce the bill in the 2022 legislative session.
Other than the EACA, what else will abortion rights advocates be asking for in Rhode Island this year?
Raffa, of Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island, said in December 2021 that the organization is hoping to get a number of bills passed that were not approved last session, including access to affordable contraception, ensuring health insurance coverage is is guaranteed renewability regardless of a preexisting condition, mandating improved sex education curriculum on consent and safe relationships in Rhode Island’s schools, granting Medicaid coverage for all income-qualified children regardless of immigration status, and extending Medicaid’s postpartum coverage.
This article has been updated to reflect the U.S. Supreme Court Decision released on June 24, 2022.