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Rhode Island abortion rights bill headed to the full Senate

Debate over the abortion legislation has been front and center at the Rhode Island State House. Above: Supporters of the bill held court in the State House’s rotunda on Tuesday.
Debate over the abortion legislation has been front and center at the Rhode Island State House. Above: Supporters of the bill held court in the State House’s rotunda on Tuesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

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PROVIDENCE — After two unsuccessful attempts, an abortion rights bill cleared a major hurdle Thursday, passing a state Senate committee just two days after being transferred from a less supportive committee.

The bill now heads to the Senate floor on Tuesday, where supporters expect the vote to be close but favorable. The bill would then return to the House, which passed a previous version by a vote of 44 to 30 in March. Governor Gina M. Raimondo is expected to sign the bill into law.

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“This is a historic moment that we have just seen in Rhode Island,” Senator Gayle Goldin, sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said as she wiped away tears after the Health and Human Services Committee voted 8-to-2 for the measure. “I don’t think there has ever been a pro-choice bill that has ever passed a Rhode Island Senate committee, let alone gone to the floor for a vote.”

Goldin, a Providence Democrat, noted states such as Alabama and Georgia have passed highly restrictive abortion laws, and this legislation aims to protect abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

“Women are angry, but they have turned it into activism that is making a difference in our state,” Goldin said. “Today’s vote was a real sign that we believe in protecting reproductive rights in our state. We are a beacon of hope for our country, and I look forward to next week’s vote.”

But opponents of the bill blasted Senate leaders, charging that they broke Senate rules to ensure that the legislation made it out of committee.

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While Goldin called the vote a “watershed” moment, state Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki said, “It’s a watershed of tears. The rules of the Senate were disregarded to achieve a result. How can the residents of Rhode Island trust their government when they keep changing the goalposts?”’

Thursday’s vote marked the third time in a month that a state Senate committee had gathered to take up the abortion rights bill, and the State House rotunda once again reverberated with chants from opposite sides of the issue.

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee 5-to-4 against the Senate version of the bill, with Senator Stephen R. Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat, casting the swing vote. But the committee kept working on a House version of the bill, and at the outset of this week the committee unveiled revisions that had won over Archambault.

But when the Senate Judiciary Committee met Tuesday, Senate Minority Whip Elaine J. Morgan and Senate Minority Leader Dennis L. Algiere showed up, prepared to kill the bill by using their “ex officio” right to vote in any committee. In response, Senate Judiciary Chair Erin Lynch Prata, a Warwick Democrat, announced that she was transferring the bill to the Health and Human Services Committee — a much more friendly venue for the legislation.

“They had a king, but Erin had an ace,” said Senator Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

“I actually think she had a losing hand,” Cienki countered. “You know who lost? The citizens of the State of Rhode Island.”

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Cienki claimed Lynch Prata broke a rule that only permits bills to be transferred “during the reports of committees” — something that can only occur on the Senate floor. But Senate spokesman Greg Pare said the transfer was reported on the Senate floor in accordance with Senate rules as part of a committee report right after Tuesday’s hearing.

Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican, and Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a Burrillville Republican on the Judiciary Committee, wrote to Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, calling for the bill to returned to Senate Judiciary Committee for a vote. But Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, issued a four-word reply: “Your request is denied.”

On Thursday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted 8 to 2 for the bill — with the “no” votes coming from Morgan, in an “‘ex-officio” capacity, and Senator Thomas J. Paolino, a Lincoln Republican.

“My mother had three miscarriages before I was born and when she became pregnant again with me, the doctor said I wasn’t viable and that they wanted her to abort,” Morgan said. This bill does not sufficiently define terms such as “health” and “post viability,” she said. “It’s abortion on demand, when demanded. I object to it.”

Senator Joshua Miller, the Cranston Democrat who chairs the committee, said, “Like the Mueller report, many people haven’t read this legislation.” He proceeded to read key sections of the bill.

Senator Elizabeth A. Crowley, a Central Falls Democrat, voted for the bill, saying “I am pro life” but that she had heard from many doctors and other Rhode Islanders about the legislation. She said she is convinced the bill would not expand abortion rights in the state.

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“I believe this bill deserves the attention of the full Senate,” Crowley said. “Everybody has to make their decision.”


Edward Fitzpatrick of the Globe staff can be reached at Edward.Fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.