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Rhode Island latest state to pass a bill protecting abortion rights

A woman watched as supporters and opponents filled the rotunda at the Rhode Island State House before the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on an abortion rights bill in Providence on June 11.
A woman watched as supporters and opponents filled the rotunda at the Rhode Island State House before the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on an abortion rights bill in Providence on June 11. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

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PROVIDENCE -- In a matter of hours on Wednesday, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed legislation and the governor signed into law the abortion rights protections that advocates have sought for decades.

The action began with the state Senate voting 21-17 for the bill, which aims to protect abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. The House, which had approved a previous version of the bill in March, promptly voted 45 to 29 for the Reproductive Privacy Act.

And at 9 p.m., with legislators and advocates arrayed behind her in her State House office, Democratic Governor Gina M. Raimondo signed the bill into law.

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“In Washington and, frankly, throughout the country and many other states, there is a great deal of anxiety about women’s right to health care,” the governor said. “This bill that I’m about to sign codifies Roe v. Wade. It preserves the status quo that has existed here in this state for 50 years. As such, it’s a very important bill.”

Raimondo acknowledged the controversy that has drawn advocates and opponents to the State House rotunda for noisy demonstrations throughout this year’s legislative session. “It’s a difficult issue and there are good and principled people on either side of the issue,” she said.

But, the governor said, “I think the majority of Rhode Islanders are for it, which isn’t to say it’s not controversial. But I believe it’s the right thing to do.”

“This is a truly historical moment in Rhode Island,” the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom said. “After decades of advocacy, conversation and compromise from activists, lawmakers and organizations, Rhode Island has proven that it values the reproductive rights of all its residents.”

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Rhode Island joins New York, Vermont and Illinois in passing bills to protect abortion rights in those states this year, coalition campaign manager Erich Haslehurst said.

Here in the state’s most Catholic state, the legislation had faced strong opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. On Wednesday morning, Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin had tweeted, “Praying fervently today that God will enlighten the minds and hearts of R.I. State Senators to vote against the horrible, extreme pro-abortion legislation being considered today.”

“The JFK Democrats are rapidly losing their party,” said Tyler Rowley, president of Servants of Christ for Life. “The extreme progressives have dragged them to the brink of infanticide at the expense of the lives of innocent human beings. All pro-life Rhode Islanders have a moral duty to run for General Assembly seats and support the true pro-life candidates.”

The legislation passed both chambers although Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, and House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, voted against the bill while allowing the legislation to come to the floor for votes.

The law prohibits government interference in a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy “prior to fetal viability.” Abortion beyond that point is “expressly prohibited except when necessary, in the medical judgment of the physician, to preserve the life or health of that individual.”

Republican senators introduced a series of amendments to the bill, including one that would make the bill effective only if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade.

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“It’s not going to be reversed tomorrow or next week,” said Senate Minority Whip Elaine Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican. “Having Trump in office doesn’t mean the Supreme Court will reverse Roe v. Wade. It’s not just going to happen.”

But Senate Judiciary Chair Erin Lynch Prata, a Warwick Democrat, said the bill aims to maintain the status quote for abortion rights in Rhode Island, and that status is reflected not only by Roe v. Wade but the case law that followed the landmark 1973 ruling. Also, she said court decisions are often overturned or upheld in part, so it would be very difficult to determine the “trigger” for putting the law into effect.

“It has been over 45 years since the Roe v. Wade decision and it has taken this long to come up with a law codifying it,” she said. “I’m not willing to wait another 45 years to figure out the trigger.’’

The Senate rejected Morgan’s amendment by a vote of 13 to 25.

Senator Gayle L. Goldin, a Providence Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said the legislation “acknowledges that women have the moral agency to make their own decisions, including when and whether to become a parent.’’

Goldin said the Reproductive Privacy Act was 46 years in the making. “I’d like to acknowledge the thousands of Rhode Islanders who spoke out in support of this bill — women and men, from young teenagers who fearlessly led protests to women decades older than me who did not think they’d be fighting this battle once again in 2019. Tonight’s historic vote is a clear message: Your voices have been heard.”

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Senator Frank S. Lombardi, a Warwick Democrat, voted against the bill, saying Roe v. Wade is not about to be overturned — “notwithstanding the alarmist mentality” about the matter. He said the bill did not adequately define the term “health” when it came to allowing abortions past the “point of viability” to preserve the life or health of the mother.

Lombardi praised senators on both sides of the issue for handling themselves “professionally and with dignity.” But he objected to “folks who believe those of us who disagree are evildoers.”

Reflecting on the past months of intense debate and protests, he said, “We were met with handmaids and hangers, rosary beads and holy water. That gave me pause because I think we lost sight of what we were trying to do with this bill.”

The House took up the bill around 8 p.m.

Representative Sherry Roberts, a West Greenwich Republican, introduced an amendment that would have required anesthesia be administered to any fetus older than 20 weeks — unless a doctor that it should not be administered to preserve the mother’s health.

Roberts noted that legislators have “lots of animal legislation” designed to “protect our furry friends” this year. “In the same way, I am only asking you to extend that same privilege” to try prevent some of the pain that fetuses experience in the abortion procedure, he said.

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Representative Carol Hagan McEntee, a South Kingstown Democrat, called the amendment “outrageous,” saying, “It puts the fetus before the woman. A woman has to have the ability to get sound medical treatment.”

She argued against requiring anesthesia prior to performing medically necessary abortions, saying, “We are not vessels to carry fetuses around. We are people who deserve all the rights of every individual in this country.”

The House rejected the amendment by a vote of 24 to 49 before approving the bill itself.


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