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US Supreme Court declines to hear appeal of R.I. abortion ruling

Catholics for Life and other plaintiffs had petitioned the high court to weigh in on whether fetuses are entitled to constitutional protections in light of Roe v. Wade being overturned.

The Supreme Court buildingAlex Brandon/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — The US Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a petition to hear an appeal in a Rhode Island abortion case, declining to rule on whether fetuses are entitled to constitutional rights now that the court has overturned Roe v. Wade.

In May, the Rhode Island Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge to the Reproductive Privacy Act, the law the General Assembly passed in 2019 to protect abortion rights in case Roe v. Wade was overturned. Catholics for Life and other plaintiffs had claimed the Reproductive Privacy Act violated the state Constitution, but Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office defended the validity of the law.

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In June, the US Supreme Court did overturn the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationally. And on Sept. 1, Catholics for Life and other plaintiffs filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, asking the high court to review the Rhode Island decision.

The petition asked the court to weigh in on whether, in light of Roe v. Wade being overturned, “the Rhode Island Supreme Court erred in holding that the unborn petitioners, regardless of gestational age, are not entitled to the protections and guarantees of the due process and equal protection clauses of the United States Constitution.”

And it asked whether the Rhode Island Supreme Court “erred in holding that the unborn petitioners, regardless of gestational age, categorically lacked standing to advance their claims.”

But the Supreme Court denied the petition, without comment, on Tuesday.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision to deny the plaintiffs’ appeal of the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s decision in this case,” Neronha spokesman Brian Hodge said in a statement. “It is the right decision on the law and is a welcome relief for all Rhode Islanders, who can now rest assured that the right to access abortion as provided by state law and consistent with Roe v. Wade remains intact.”

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While this case is resolved, Neronha knows “there are fights ahead to protect the right of women to choose and to access reproductive health care,” and he is “fully prepared and committed to defending women and reproductive health care providers in those fights to come, in Rhode Island and across the country,” Hodge said.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, Diane Messere Magee, tweeted about the Supreme Court denying the petition, saying, “It means that they will not take up our case to determine whether unborn human beings have any rights or guarantees of protection under the US Constitution. While we are extremely disappointed with this outcome, we are confident that #SCOTUS will eventually have to answer the question in the future.”

She said the Supreme Court’s denial of the petition is not a decision on the merits of the case. “It is just a denial to take the case to full briefing and argument,” she said.

Tyler Rowley, president of Catholics for Life, issued a statement, quoting Pope John Paul II as saying, “If you want equal justice for all, and true freedom and lasting peace, then, America, defend life from conception until natural death.”

“In the end, the Cross wins, and abortion loses,” Rowley said. “In the meantime, we will continue as joyful servants in our Lord’s victory over death by spreading a culture of life.”

Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, said the Supreme Court’s decision was not surprising.

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“We felt from the beginning the arguments against the law were frivolous,” he said. “We are glad the General Assembly had the foresight in 2019 to pass this statute. It’s especially important seeing what’s going everywhere else in the country.”

The ACLU had filed a legal brief defending the Reproductive Privacy Act.

Brown said the fight for abortion rights is not over in Rhode Island. “Supporters of reproductive freedom will work very hard next year to get the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act passed,” he said. “That is the next battle.”

Governor Daniel J. McKee, a Democrat, has directed two state agencies to include abortion services coverage in their fiscal year 2024 budgets. Both the Department of Administration and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services budget submissions include proposed funding for the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would provide for abortion coverage in the health insurance of Medicaid recipients and state employees.

McKee spokesman Matt Sheaff said, “We’re satisfied that the Supreme Court declined to hear this frivolous appeal. Governor McKee believes that we should be expanding access to reproductive health care for women — that’s why his next budget will include funding for the EACA, and he is committed to using his veto pen to block any legislation that would take our state backwards.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.