PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After a somber but impassioned debate, the Rhode Island House on Thursday approved a bill that would guarantee a woman’s right to obtain an abortion in the state, siding with activists who say the measure is needed in case Roe v. Wade is overturned.
The bill, called the Reproductive Privacy Act, passed 44-30. It split the overwhelmingly Democratic chamber, which still includes a large bloc of social conservatives. (See the roll call below.) Democratic Speaker Nicholas Mattiello took the highly unusual step of allowing the bill to reach the floor even though he personally opposed it, saying he was bowing to the public will.
The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Anastasia Williams of Providence, states that a woman has the right to obtain an abortion in Rhode Island until the fetus is viable, and can also terminate a pregnancy after that point in time “when necessary to preserve the health or life of that individual.” It also reaffirms the federal ban on so-called “partial-birth abortion.”
Addressing her colleagues at the end of the debate, Williams said, “I thank you for having the courage and the commitment to come in here and stand for what you believe in and represent your constituencies.”
The focus will now shift to the state Senate, which held a hearing on the same abortion bill overnight Tuesday into Wednesday. Senate Democratic leaders had not yet scheduled a vote on the measure as of Thursday night.
It was the House’s first major vote on abortion since the late 1990s, and its first vote in favor of enshrining abortion rights since 1993, when the bill died in the Senate. Representatives on both sides gave impassioned remarks during a debate that topped four hours.
“I’m a mom, not a monster,” said Rep. Justine Caldwell, D-East Greenwich. She added, “We want to pass this bill knowing that children are precious. We treat our own children as precious, and we treat each other’s children as precious.”
“It is between us and our medical professionals,” said Rep. Moira Walsh, D-Providence. “There’s a reason this is called the Reproductive Privacy Act. … It’s not your business; it’s our business.”
“This is a historic bill in the history of this chamber and Rhode Island,” said Warwick Rep. Joe McNamara, chairman of the state Democratic Party. He compared the House’s move Thursday to its 1996 vote prohibiting discrimination against gays and its 2013 authorization of same-sex marriage.
Rep. Jim McLaughlin, D-Cumberland, offered a very different perspective. “Who are we to decide who’s going to live and who’s going to die? … It’s death and destruction. Period,” he said, adding that he believes in the biblical commandment of “thou shalt not kill.”
McLaughlin was not the only legislator to invoke religious beliefs in his reasoning behind his vote, but others argued their beliefs shouldn’t be a factor in lawmaking. Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, D-Providence, declared: “You can be pro-choice and Christian.”
“Despite whatever personal or religious beliefs we may hold, despite whatever we may feel we would do personally if we were ever put in this situation, we have an obligation in this chamber to acknowledge that a woman’s right to choose is a private one,” Rep. Katherine Kazarian, D-East Providence, said.
North Providence Rep. Arthur Corvese, secretary of the state Democratic Party, said: “I vehemently oppose the legislation before us. …. Society has a moral imperative to protect innocent human life.”
Corvese, who was one of the leading voices against the bill in the Judiciary Committee, also said he wasn’t convinced by the argument that the legislation was needed because Roe v. Wade could be overturned.
“Even if we get nine conservative Supreme Court justices, they will never overturn Roe v. Wade,” Corvese said. “As much as I personally would like to see it. That will never happen.”
Rep. Camille Vella Wilkinson, a Warwick Democrat and one of the few female lawmakers who opposed the bill, said she had received petitions with about 14,500 signatures opposing the measure. She said the bill “doesn’t necessarily reflect the responsibility that comes from being pregnant.”
There were 2,000 abortions in Rhode Island in 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available from the R.I. Department of Health. That was down by more than half from a decade earlier. The vast majority — 83% — of pregnancies terminated in 2017 were ended in the first trimester, with 98% taking place prior to 20 weeks gestation.
Mattiello, who was endorsed by Rhode Island Right to Life in his re-election bid last fall, had long resisted bringing an abortion-rights bill to the floor. But under heavy pressure from progressive lawmakers, he agreed to allow votes on the Williams bill, kicking off a major fight pitting the Catholic Church and other anti-abortion forces against Planned Parenthood and other abortion-rights groups.
A key point of contention between the two sides was whether the bill represents a strict codification of Roe v. Wade, as supporters insisted, or a broader abortion right than federal law currently provides, as opponents argued. That discussion touched on not only the 1973 Roe decision but also subsequent abortion rulings such as Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992.
The House also considered multiple proposed amendments to the bill, though none passed.
The first amendment, offered by Corvese, would have established a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion. Another, offered by Republican Leader Blake Filippi, would have added language criminalizing fetal homicide.
Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, suggested multiple changes: having the bill only take effect if and when Roe is overturned; striking language related to municipal insurance coverage for abortions; or barring abortions based on sex, sexual orientation, gender or Down’s Syndrome status.
Rep. Jason Knight, D-Barrington, was among the progressive lawmakers who thanked Mattiello for bringing the bill to a vote. “He has been true to his word that he is willing to collaborate and move forward together,” Knight said in a statement.
“I am so happy that my colleagues saw fit to protect the women and girls in the state of Rhode Island before Washington comes down and does something crazy,” Rep. Williams told reporters after the vote. She and other female legislators wore white in support of women’s suffrage.
The Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom celebrated in a statement, saying: “Tonight, the Rhode Island House of Representatives made history, and we are one step closer to protecting access to safe, legal abortion in Rhode Island law no matter what happens at the federal level.” The group went on to urge the Senate to “bring this legislation to a vote.”
The Rev. Bernard Healey, director of the R.I. Catholic Conference, called the vote “a grave disappointment,” saying, “Supporters of this measure have placed political expediency over the protection of the defenseless unborn.” He added that his group hopes “that the result in the Senate will reflect a deeper respect for innocent life than we saw today.”
Rhode Island Right to Life announced that because of the vote, it “retracts its endorsements” of six Democratic lawmakers who backed the bill or authorized the vote: Mattiello, House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi, House Majority Whip Jay Edwards, Rep. John Lombardi, Rep. Dan McKiernan and Rep. Scott Slater.
“We commiserate with the pro-life voters in Cranston, Tiverton, Providence and Warwick who voted for Edwards, Lombardi, Mattiello, McKiernan, Shekarchi, and Slater, respectively, based in whole or in part on our endorsements,” the group said.
How the House voted on the abortion bill
NEWSMAKERS: Rabbi @Smack10 and @ProvidenceCol Prof @HTCoolman join us to debate yesterday’s historic @RIHouseofReps vote on abortion.
Then: Will Fall River’s mayor get recalled Tuesday? @HN_TG_Editor and @UMassD Prof @Mike_Goodman preview the big vote https://t.co/IbvN969wvJ pic.twitter.com/nIrtOYCfpO— Ted Nesi (@TedNesi) March 8, 2019