In Rhode Island, vote on abortion-rights bill reveals a complicated state
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PROVIDENCE — The marble halls of the State House rang with chants of “Praise the Lord!” and “Shame! Shame!” Abortion-rights advocates lined a hallway dressed in “Handmaid’s Tale” costumes. And antiabortion activists thronged the rotunda, celebrating a legislative victory.
That scene might not be surprising in deep-red Alabama, where the governor signed a near-total abortion ban on Wednesday. But it took place in deep-blue Rhode Island, where a state Senate committee on Tuesday rejected a bill to codify the right to an abortion in state law.
“It’s terrifying to think of what Alabama passed and to think that Rhode Island had a chance to take the opposite course on the very same day and chose not to,” state Senator Gayle Goldin, a Providence Democrat and lead sponsor of Rhode Island’s abortion-rights bill, said Wednesday.
While Rhode Island is known as a liberal Northeast state, that description masks a wide spectrum of political viewpoints within the state’s dominant Democratic Party. It’s also the most Catholic state in the country, according to a Public Religion Research Institute report, and Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has long used public pressure to try to make powerful Catholic public officials toe the line on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
“Still counting on the Sen. Judiciary Committee to reject the radical pro-abortion bill being considered today,” Tobin tweeted before Tuesday’s vote. “It’s undeniable that it goes way beyond Roe v Wade...Pro-lifers — stay strong!”
But don’t confuse Providence with Montgomery. Goldin’s bill aims to enshrine the principles of the US Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling in state law, while the Alabama law bans virtually all abortions in the state, including for victims of rape and incest.
“It’s one of the most Catholic states, but a lot of Catholics supported marriage equality,” veteran Rhode Island pollster Joseph Fleming said. “As generations go on, it’s changing. Senior citizens in the past grew up with John F. Kennedy. Now seniors grew up with the Rolling Stones.”
In the past, legislative leaders, many of them abortion-rights opponents, kept abortion bills bottled up in committee, Fleming said. But in the 2018 elections, progressive Democrats — including many women — gained ground in the House and Senate, and challenged other Democrats in primaries, he noted.
Goldin said she was one of only eight senators endorsed by Planned Parenthood when she was first elected in 2012, and “the influence of the Catholic Church made many legislators uncomfortable about voting on reproductive rights.”
But, she said, “The Trump administration’s constant attacks on women — on our health, on our bodies, on our voices — has led to an outpouring of activism in Rhode Island and across the country.”
Supporters of the abortion-rights legislation pressed leadership to allow a vote this session, citing the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned by the reconfigured US Supreme Court. And they got what they wanted.
House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a Democrat from North Providence, opposed the bill but allowed it to come to a vote. The House voted 44 to 30 for the bill on March 7, but on Tuesday the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against it, 5 to 4.
“We elected a more liberal General Assembly,” Fleming said. “Leadership is letting things come to the floor. I think it’s reflecting what members want, and leadership serves at the pleasure of the members.”
Barth E. Bracy, executive director of the Rhode Island State Right to Life Committee, rejected the idea that recent progressive gains in the Legislature reflect a shift on abortion among Rhode Islanders, and he said people can hold different views on same-sex marriage and abortion.
Abortion-rights activists who contacted legislators on this bill “generally track from Barrington and the East Side of Providence,” Bracy said of two affluent communities. “Pretty much all other parts of Rhode Island generally are on our side.” And he said Latinos represent a “sleeping giant” in abortion politics.
Bracy said his group revoked its endorsement of Mattiello right after the abortion rights legislation passed the House, because he had let it come to a vote on the floor. Mattiello voted against the bill.
The Catholic Church has “certainly been very active and engaged” on abortion legislation, Bracy said, but Catholic legislators vote on both sides of the issue.
Bishop Tobin told the Globe on Wednesday, “We were very pleased with how the committee voted. We’ve been talking about that and hoping for that and praying for that.”
He doesn’t believe the legislation is necessary because there is “no imminent danger” of Roe v. Wade being overturned. He also argued the bill “extends abortion rights to include late-term abortions.”
Tobin said he didn’t speak with state lawmakers in recent weeks about the bill, but he took to Twitter to urge the Senate committee to vote it down.
“The Catholic Church clearly still has a major role to play in public issues in Rhode Island,” Tobin said.
Over the years, the bishop has not hesitated to criticize Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights.
In 2009, then-US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy — a scion of one of the nation’s best-known Catholic families — said Tobin told him not to take Communion and that he’d instructed the diocesan priests not to give him Communion because of his advocacy for abortion rights. Tobin denied any instructions to the priests, but said his advice to Kennedy was meant as a private “pastoral” message.
In 2014, then-candidate and now-Governor Gina M. Raimondo announced her support for abortion rights and was endorsed by Planned Parenthood. Tobin responded on Facebook: “It is always disappointing when a Catholic candidate for political office abandons the teaching of the Church on the dignity of human life for the sake of self-serving political gain.” The next day, Raimondo’s photo was removed from the Wall of Notables at Providence’s La Salle Academy, a Catholic school where she was valedictorian.
In May 2013, Speaker Mattiello said he was no longer being invited to be a lector at his church because he had voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Tobin had announced that he was “profoundly disappointed” in the vote.
Fleming said the Catholic Church remains influential in Rhode Island “but not as strong as it used to be.”
Tuesday’s vote is not the end of the story for Rhode Island’s abortion rights legislation. Senate President Ruggerio noted the committee held the House version of the bill for further study. He urged lawmakers to work on a compromise that could be considered before the legislative session ends in June.
“It is not over as long as the legislative session is going,” Goldin said, citing a “constant attack on women’’ across the United States.
Tobin agreed the abortion fight is not over: “I think this clearly will not be the end of the issue.”