PROVIDENCE — Advocates, religious and political leaders, and health care workers reacted with a mix of horror and elation after a leaked draft opinion suggested that the Supreme Court could overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which protects women’s rights to abortion access.
If the leaked opinion, first published by Politico, is the court’s final ruling, each state will have to determine a woman’s access to abortion. The move would effectively ban abortion in at many Republican-controlled states.
“While it’s devastating, it’s not at all surprising,” said Senator Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat, who said she was inspired to run for elected office because of abortion rights. “And even before a post-Roe world, we have Rhode Islanders who still don’t have access to abortion.”
In Rhode Island, the 2019 Reproductive Privacy Act still guarantees the right to an abortion in the state. But many advocates say that the state didn’t “finish the job.”
Under Rhode Island’s law, abortions are not covered by the state’s Medicaid program which is used by more than 315,000 residents and health insurance plans for state employees are prohibited from covering abortion for them and their families. That means about one-third of the state’s population can’t access abortions.
“Policy will not stop abortions. It will just stop safe and legal abortions. Folks with money will still be able to get them and access them,” said Mack. Rhode Island’s Reproductive Privacy Act was “historic and critical,” Mack said, “But it leaves communities behind... And communities of color have been left out of the conversation for far too long.”
“Folks said that Roe would never be overturned. But that day is here,” said Mack.
Jocelyn Foye, director of The Womxn Project, told the Globe that the push to pass the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act this year is “now more important than ever.” The EACA would allow abortion to be covered by Medicaid in Rhode Island.
“It’s not just about abortion,” said Foye. “We’re literally talking about an economic justice issue. It’s about race equity. It’s about everyone being given the same right.”
The EACA was first introduced to the General Assembly by Representative Liana M. Cassar, a Barrington Democrat, and Senator Bridget Valverde, an East Greenwich Democrat, in 2021 and again this year. Mack is a co-sponsor in the Senate.
“We have groups of people that are being discriminated against. They are being denied access to care simply because they cannot afford it,” said Valverde. She said about 80,000 Rhode Island women of child bearing age are on Medicaid. “When you can’t afford a procedure, you typically delay care or forgo it altogether.”
Having to bring a child to term, instead of having an abortion, in some cases, can be “detrimental,” said Valverde. She said while there’s interest among General Assembly members and voters in Rhode Island to pass the EACA, she has not seen senate leadership express support for the bill.
Health care workers also expressed their concern about the US Supreme Court decision, which could prohibit abortions performed by licensed providers in health care settings.
“Don’t tell me elections don’t matter. Reproductive health is health care. Women’s health is health care. Abortion is health care,” tweeted Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency room physician and dean of Brown University School of Public Health.
Dr. Jeremiah Schuur, president of Brown Emergency Physicians and emergency medicine doctor, said he took constitutional law in high school and pushed back against the leaked 98-page opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito. “It was clear then that Roe was not ‘egregiously wrong,’” said Schuur. “[It’s a] dark day for our country.”
US Congressman David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, told the Globe Tuesday that the state’s 2019 decision to ensure that “every woman’s right to an abortion is protected” under law was a “key step for reproductive rights.” Yet, he said, Congress needs to “finally” pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would protect a person’s ability to determine whether to continue or end a pregnancy and would protect a health care provider’s ability to provide abortion services.
Passing the bill, which was sponsored in 2021 by Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat from California, would “leave no room for doubt on the right to abortion — once and for all,” he said.
But while the bill passed the House, it has yet to pass the Senate. “I am committed to making sure that every woman — no matter where she lives or her income — has that same protection,” said Cicilline.
US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse called on Congress to address judicial ethics. On Tuesday morning, he led a subcommittee hearing where he opened by saying Americans are experiencing a “collapse in confidence” in the Supreme Court.
“We can only set things right by codifying the protections of Roe v. Wade into law and by fixing what’s badly broken at the Supreme Court after a decades-long right-wing scheme to capture it,” said Whitehouse in a statement to the Globe. “Hard-fought forward progress hangs in the balance.”
While Democratic candidates for Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District and for governor have issued statements expressing their own outrage of the leaked opinion, most GOP candidates have kept quiet on the matter.
However, former Cranston mayor Allan Fung, a Republican who is running for Congress, told the Globe that he did not support late-term or partial-birth abortions, neither of which are protected by Roe v. Wade.
“In Rhode Island, they’ve already spoken about this issue,” Fung said. “And I’m not running to try to change the laws on abortion.”
Others celebrated the news that Roe v. Wade could be struck down.
Father Jay Finelli, a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, tweeted a link to the leaked report and wrote Monday night, “This will be a great miracle.”
Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin, said he had “no comments” on the Supreme Court and the pending abortion legislation :until a decision of the Court on this matter is final.”
“In the meantime, I urge everyone to reflect upon this very important issue, that involves one of our core beliefs in the dignity of human life, with humility, peace, and prayer,” he said in a statement sent to the Globe.
The Rhode Island Life Committee posted a statement on Facebook, urging members and supporters to pray “for the members of the court, for our country, and for the protection of human life” and to “resist the temptation to get caught up in the hyperbolic bloviating of political and media personalities.”
“Rather, now is an opportune time for everyone in the pro-life movement to double down in prayer, in fasting, and in giving witness to the goodness and truth and beauty of LIFE by continuing to serve mothers and families in need,” the statement read.