PROVIDENCE — The US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade one day after the General Assembly wrapped up this year’s legislative session, and in the wake of that ruling, Democratic candidates for governor are clashing over Rhode Island’s lack of action to provide abortion coverage for low-income residents and state workers.
Despite calls to reconvene, the House and Senate do not plan to come back for a special fall session to vote on the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would provide for abortion coverage in the health insurance of Medicaid recipients and state employees.
Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat who opposes abortion rights, has previously said he sees no reason for a special session. He regards abortion coverage as a budgetary matter, saying, “We’ll take a look at that when we come back in January.”
The Senate might reconvene to confirm state judges this fall, but the proposed abortion coverage “will be addressed in 2023, ideally as part of the budget process,” Senate spokesman Greg Pare said Tuesday.
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, supports abortion rights and voted for the Reproductive Privacy Act, which aimed to protect abortion rights if Roe v. Wade was overturned.
But on Tuesday, House spokesman Larry Berman said, “No special session is planned this fall, nor has one been discussed with the speaker in conversations with the Senate president or the governor or the secretary of state. The best course of action is for the legislature to discuss this in the next session.”
Berman noted Senate leaders have already said they’re not interested in a special session. “It takes two bodies to pass legislation,” he said. “So the speaker does not want to bring everyone back if it is not going to pass.”
But Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, a Democratic candidate for governor, held a news conference outside the State House on Tuesday, calling for Governor Daniel J. McKee to do more to get the General Assembly to pass the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act.
“I am tired of hearing excuses from the governor on why this legislation isn’t getting passed,” Gorbea said. “We need leadership who is willing to use their power to protect the rights of women and families in Rhode Island.”
Gorbea did not specify how McKee could make the legislature return for a special session in September to act on the bill, but she said, “Now that we are in the post-session, he could definitely call on the leadership and say, ‘This is a really important issue, we have to act on it now.’ ”
McKee has said he supports the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, but Gorbea noted he did not include it in his budget proposal, and she said he apparently did not make it a priority in negotiations with legislative leaders. “In his time as an elected leader, Governor McKee has shown zero enthusiasm or leadership regarding abortion coverage,” she said.
During a separate event Tuesday, McKee told reporters that the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act is “a priority in legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes, whether it’s in the fall or in January. We are on the record on that. I think the secretary is probably a day late and a dollar short on that issue.”
McKee’s campaign spokeswoman, Alana O’Hare, issued a statement, saying, “For Governor McKee, women’s reproductive rights is not about politics or grandstanding, it’s about protecting women and their health care decisions. While he’s governor, those rights will always be protected.”
She noted that McKee signed an executive order on July 5 to ensure that people who come to Rhode Island seeking reproductive health care will be safeguarded from any potential legal liability in other states. “While Governor McKee is focused on taking action that gets things done, Nellie Gorbea once again is just trying to grab headlines in the heat of a political campaign,” O’Hare said.
Advocates have called for McKee to issue another executive order to provide abortion coverage for Medicaid recipients and state employees.
But the governor’s executive counsel has told him that state law expressly prohibits the state from procuring insurance plans that provide coverage for abortions, and that prohibition cannot be reversed by executive order, spokesman Matt Sheaff said. Rather, General Assembly action would be needed.
During her news conference, Gorbea did not dispute the executive counsel’s stance on issuing an executive order.
“I’m not a attorney myself,” she said. “I’m not going to get into a tit-for-tat on whether this one way of passing the provisions is a viable method or not. I know I’ve worked in this building as an advocate, as a community, and now as an elected official — there are many ways in which to get things done in this building, and he is not using the power of his office to stand for women and their right to choose what is best for their families.”
Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat who chairs the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, spoke during Gorbea’s news conference, saying she and others have asked House leaders to bring legislators back in September to pass the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act.
“We have said to them that we want this bill to get passed, and we are asking them if they could negotiate with whoever they feel they need to negotiate with so we can have this bill passed in September,” she said. “Women are being attacked right now. Our fundamental rights to our bodies are being attacked right now.”
During the news conference, Gorbea called for other Democratic gubernatorial candidates “to commit to fully funding” the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act.
All the Democratic candidates support abortion rights, and former CVS executive Helena B. Foulkes came out with an ad one day after Roe v. Wade was overturned, saying she would form a regional alliance of states to protect abortion rights.
Gorbea and Foulkes have clashed in the past, and that friction was evident again during Tuesday’s news conference.
When asked if she regrets support she showed for former House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, who opposed abortion rights, Gorbea said that while her opponents like to raise that issue, she has 30 years of experience fighting for abortion rights. And she noted that Foulkes donated $500 to US Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014, saying it’s McConnell “who we have to thank for being in this situation to begin with.”
“I didn’t give money to Mitch McConnell, who overthrew Roe v. Wade, I mean, who basically prevented President Obama from appointing a Supreme Court justice that could have changed the track of history that we are on right now,” Gorbea said. “So I understand (Foulkes’) need to get out on this issue now, but I have stood by women for all of my adult life, and I will continue to do so as governor of Rhode Island.”
Foulkes said she called for McKee to amend his budget to include the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act on May 12.
And in a statement, Foulkes said, “It’s extremely disappointing that Secretary Gorbea would choose this moment to attack a strongly pro-choice candidate. As we’ve said before, it’s an interesting line of criticism coming from the secretary, who started her career working for a Republican governor, refused to endorse Rhode Island’s first woman governor in her re-election, and knocked doors to help elect the pro-life Speaker of the House who prevented Rhode Island from codifying Roe v. Wade into state law for years.”
— Globe reporter Brian Amaral contributed to this report.