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With Roe v. Wade at risk, pro-choice activists aim at expanding access to abortion in R.I.

Activists in Rhode Island were long told they were “overreacting” to the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned. Now they’re looking to help women on Medicaid with the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act.

People hold signs in support of abortion access during a pro-choice rally on the lawn of the Rhode Island State House in Providence, Rhode Island on May 3, 2022.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — In 2018 and 2019, Tammy Brown could often be found holding a bright, red bullhorn and wearing a shirt that read “Abortion is Healthcare.” She and other pro-choice activists were in and out of the State House during that legislative year, warning lawmakers that if Roe v. Wade was ever overturned, Rhode Islanders would lose access to abortions.

Republicans and pro-life Democrats questioned the necessity of passing a bill that would protect abortion access at the state level, saying that activists were “overreacting” and the 1973 Supreme Court decision would “never be overturned.”

“I think that’s a concern that’s not rooted in reality,” former House speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a pro-life Cranston Democrat, said in 2018.

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Pro-choice activists were not deterred.

“We were a constant presence that couldn’t be ignored. We ramped up the pressure that something needed to be done,” Brown told she recalled to a Globe reporter. “And we were OK making folks feel uncomfortable for not taking action.”

Tammy Brown, of Cranston, R.I, leads the crowd in chants outside a fundraiser for the Rhode Island Senate Democrats Political Action Committee in Providence in 2019.Jennifer McDermott/Associated Press

Later that year, lawmakers passed the Reproductive Privacy Act, which codified Roe v. Wade into Rhode Island state law, protecting the right to abortion in Rhode Island even if the landmark 1973 decision is weakened or overturned by the US Supreme Court. Twenty-nine members in the House, both Republican and Democratic — many of whom are still in office — voted against it.

“And now we’re facing what we all knew was the inevitable,” said Brown. “What everyone told us would ‘never’ happen.”

On Monday night, Politico reported that a leaked draft opinion suggested the Supreme Court planned to overturn Roe v. Wade as well as a supporting 1990s-era decision known as Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

“Now it’s just this shocking realization that (women in) so many states, in a matter of several weeks, may not be able to control their own reproductive lives,” said Brown. “It’s horrifying. This is everything we fought against.”

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Ashley Onorato of North Kingstown, Rhode Island holds up a sign in support of abortion access during a pro-choice rally.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

Representative Liana Cassar, a Democrat from Barrington, remembers hearing Mattiello pushing back against abortion rights in 2018.

“It was disappointing to hear, it was untrue, and frankly, a bit insulting coming from someone who has no experience in the reproductive health of women to make such a statement,” said Cassar, who is also the sponsor of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would allow abortions to be covered by the state’s Medicaid program, which is used by more than 315,000 residents.

Mattiello, who was defeated for his bid for reelection in 2020, is now a lobbyist for Lifespan Corp., the state’s largest health care system. When asked on Tuesday whether he would have changed his vote if he knew that Roe v. Wade was at risk of being overturned, Mattiello said: “I’m not going to speculate on the issue. I voted the way that I intended to vote at that time.”

“People have their opinions on it. There are two distinct viewpoints,” he said.I expect people to vote with their conscience. I certainly did. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

Senator Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat, said she was inspired to run for elected office because of the fight for abortion rights. “Folks said that Roe would never be overturned. But that day is here,” said Mack.

On Tuesday night, hundreds of advocates and elected officials rallied outside the State House, pushing for lawmakers to pass the EACA. While the sun was setting over the marble dome of the State House, Deborah Lennon, of Newport, was holding a sign that read, “Forced birth is torture.”

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“Rhode Island is a purple state, and it’s a Catholic state,” said Lennon, who said she came of age when abortion was still illegal in the US. “Why would any woman would want to give up her right to choose? It could have a huge economic impact on her future. Why are we going back in time?”

“This is only the start. Next in line will be interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, and contraception,” she said. “They’ll go after it all.”

Deborah Lennon, of Newport, (right) holds a sign that reads, “Forced birth is torture." She is one of hundreds that gathered in support of abortion access during a pro-choice rally on the lawn of the Rhode Island State House in Providence on Tuesday night.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

Jocelyn Foye, director of The Womxn Project, which organized the Tuesday night rally, said passing the EACA this year is now more important than ever. “It’s about everyone being given the same right,” she said.

Jennifer Rourke, a progressive activist and co-founder of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, started her political journey in Rhode Island in 2018 when she ran for state senate. But she’s been involved in fighting for reproductive rights for as long as she could remember, she said. She said she’s been told countless times that she was hysterical for thinking that Roe v. Wade would ever get overthrown.

“It’s frustrating when your own elected officials don’t listen to you,” she said. “I had an ‘I told you so’ moment when I first heard” the news of the leaked Supreme Court opinion.

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People hold signs in support of abortion access during a pro-choice rally on the lawn of the Rhode Island State House.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

Governor Dan McKee joined a coalition of 17 governors in calling for the U.S. Congress to take immediate action to protect reproductive rights and access to abortion. In a letter to congressional leaders, the governors called on Congress to codify Roe v. Wade into federal law. While the measure could pass the House, it would face steep opposition in the Senate.

“I trust women to make their own health care decisions in consultation with their health care provider,” said McKee in a statement. “Here in Rhode Island, we stand firmly in defense of a woman’s right to choose.”

Shortly before the rally on Wednesday, the governor tweeted that he is in “full support” of the EACA, and urged the Assembly to send it to his desk.

Brown, who was the emcee at Tuesday’s rally, took the mic at the top of the State House steps in front of hundreds and called on the governor and on Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos to submit a budget amendment that would use the state’s Medicaid program to cover abortions.

“You have his ear,” Brown said to Matos, as the crowd erupted into chants. “You can’t just stand here,” she said, adding: “the time to act is now.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.