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Rhode Island abortion rights bill returns, and intrigue comes with it

The Rhode Island State House.
The Rhode Island State House. (LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF/File)

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A Rhode Island abortion rights bill that was derailed a few weeks ago has been revived, and a Senate committee is expected to take it up Tuesday evening.

The bill, which would protect abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, has generated impassioned advocacy efforts on both sides of the contentious issue. Other states have enacted similar measures.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday unveiled the latest version of the legislation.

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Last month, the committee rejected the Senate version of that legislation in a dramatic 5-to-4 vote, but now it has reworked a House version of the bill and is poised to vote on it Tuesday evening.

Senator Erin Lynch Prata, the Warwick Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, explained the changes made to the bill, saying, “The goal was to codify the status quo — not restrict or expand it.”

Lynch Prata said Senator Stephen R. Archambault, the Smithfield Democrat who held the swing vote last month, was included in discussions about the revisions. “While he is not the only one that needed to be satisfied with the changes,” she said, “I’m confident and comfortable that we will be able to move forward.”

In a statement, Archambault said, “I am pleased we have reached an agreement that accomplishes my goals of codifying Roe v. Wade and ensuring that safeguards are built in to limit late-term, post-viability abortions.”

If it does pass the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, the bill is expected to come to the Senate floor for a vote on Thursday. And if the Senate approves it, the bill would go back to the House, which approved an earlier version by 44-to-30 vote in March. Governor Gina M. Raimondo would be expected to sign the bill into law.

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But speculation centered Monday on whether Senate Minority Whip Elaine J. Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican, will sit in on the committee to vote against the bill. The Senate’s president, majority and minority leaders and whips can vote as “ex-officio members” of any committee, though they rarely do. With a 5-to-5 vote, the bill would die in committee.

The Reproductive Privacy Act would prevent the government from interfering with a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy “prior to fetal viability” -- or “after fetal viability when necessary to preserve the life or health” of the mother.

Lynch Prata said one revision to the bill spells out that doctors are required to place in the medical record the basis for their judgments in terminating pregnancies to preserve the life or health of the mother. And it details the obligations doctors have under a fetal death registry law, she said.

“Part of this was making it clear what the responsibilities of the physicians are — not necessarily adding more requirements but making them clear,” she said. “It’s not increasing or decreasing their autonomy.”

Another revision makes clear that the state Department of Health can deny or revoke medical licenses if doctors violate professional standards in terminating pregnancies, Lynch Prata said. “Again, it’s not an addition -- it just makes clear that if there are bad actors out there, there are consequences,” she said.

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In addition, the revised bill would allow the state to charge people with felony assault if they attack a woman knowing (or having reason to know) that she’s pregnant and the assault results in the termination of that pregnancy, Lynch Prata said. That provision could not be used against doctors performing abortions, she said.

Another change eliminates a provision that would have allowed grandparents or siblings over the age of 25 to grant consent for a minor to have an abortion, Lynch Prata said. She said she understands why the bill’s House sponsor, Providence Democratic Representative Anastasia P. Williams, included that section in the bill, but she said members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had concerns about making any additions to current law. “Again, the goal is not to grant any additional rights than we already have,” she said.

Lynch Prata, a senator for 10 years and an attorney who practices family law, said she never thought she would see abortion become a state-level issue. But she said many Rhode Islanders are concerned that the U.S. Supreme Court, with new members appointed by President Donald Trump, will overturn precedents, including the 1973 landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade. And she said states such as Alabama and Georgia are passing strict abortion limits in an attempt to propel legal challenges to the high court.

“I was born after Roe v. Wade, so in my head this was something that was ‘the law of the land’ — not something I needed to worry about,” Lynch Prata said. “I think there is a very real threat now of that law being overturned and going back to the early 1970s, where it became an issue of people having the money to travel to get abortions and people dying while seeking unlawful abortions. It’s not something I want to go back to.”

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Rhode Island is the most Catholic state, and Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has fought hard against the abortion rights bill. But Lynch Prata said, “I think there is no question there is overwhelming support in the state for codifying the status quo.”

Lynch Prata — who was raised Catholic along with nine brothers and sisters and who attended Boston College and the Catholic University of America law school — said, “I can say through my religious upbringing I’ve been taught to think for myself. To me, this is a health-care issue, and me being pro-choice does not make me pro-abortion.”

Regardless of what she would do herself, Lynch Prata said she feels she has no right to tell others whether to have an abortion. “It should be between them and their doctor,” he said.

Lynch Prata said it was difficult finding ways to modify the bill. “For most people it’s very very personal — this isn’t an issue where a lot of people are on the fence and you can make a few word changes,” she said. “You have to sit down and get into it and understand people’s concerns and have them understand what we are trying to do.”

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It is important to address the matter now, Lynch Prata said.

“The issue is not going away,” she said. “Now is the time to put that work in to get us to a point where where we can codify the status quo and move on.”


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