Key senator plans to vote against abortion-rights bill in committee

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Senate Judiciary Committee to vote on controversial abortion bills

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The senator thought to be the swing vote on the nine-member Senate Judiciary Committee has announced he’ll vote against the current version of a high-profile bill on abortion rights at a pivotal hearing Tuesday evening.

Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, is planning to propose an amendment to the abortion legislation that he argues would make it a stricter codification of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.

However, Senate spokesperson Greg Pare said Tuesday night: “Our rules require any proposed Sub A be posted 24 prior to the scheduled vote. His proposal is not posted.”

But Pare also said Sub As — the shorthand for a substitute amendment being offered to replace the current bill — can only be ordered by the committee chair or the Senate president. Pare also said Archambault’s amendment doesn’t have the votes to pass the Judiciary Committee.

Archambault told Eyewitness News he has no plans to support the current language of the bill, which was already a compromise between the original Reproductive Health Care Act (RHCA) and the Reproductive Privacy Act, the latter of which was introduced by Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence.

The amended Reproductive Privacy Act passed the House in March, and the Senate amended its version of the Reproductive Health Care Act to have identical language. Both bills are up for a vote in the Senate committee on Tuesday.

“While I am pro-choice, I do believe in reasonable restrictions on abortions, once a pregnancy moves beyond viability,” Archambault said in a statement posted on his Facebook page Monday night. “Simply put, viability means when a fetus is so close to fully formed that it is likely to be able to survive outside the womb — if born. Reasonable restrictions are permissible under Roe v. Wade as currently interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

“I cannot support post-viability abortions that are based on undefined ‘health’ reasons and would permit very late term, up to date of birth, abortions. It simply goes too far,” Archambault said of the current bill.

Sen. Gayle Goldin, the lead sponsor of the RHCA in the Senate, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, which has been lobbying for the bill, sent a statement Monday night calling Archambault’s announcement a “last-minute stunt” aimed to “circumvent the democratic process.”

“It is clear that he is falling for the gross misinformation campaign that opponents have been spreading for months,” the statement read in part. “The Reproductive Health Care Act is the result of years of collaboration between lawmakers, community groups and the RI Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. It clearly upholds the status quo and ensures that a pregnant person can access safe, legal abortion, in consultation with her doctor, up to fetal viability.”

The statement continued: “We call on Senator Archambault, who claims to be pro-choice, to allow the democratic process to process and to vote to send this bill to the Senate floor for a full debate and vote by the entire membership.”

Archambault’s decision could put the legislation in jeopardy. The other eight members of the committee are believed to be split 4-4, based on an Eyewitness News tally and previous public statements made by those committee members who did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin weighed in on behalf of the pro-life side Tuesday morning, tweeting: “Still counting on the Sen. Judiciary Committee to reject the radical pro-abortion bill being considered today. It’s undeniable that it goes way beyond Roe v Wade. The vast majority in R.I. oppose late term abortions, the termination of viable children. Pro lifers-stay strong!”

The unknown factor is which, if any, of the five members of Senate leadership who are allowed to vote in all committees ex officio will do so. A spokesperson for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said he does not plan to vote in committee, though he would vote against the bill if it makes it to the floor.

Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, Minority Leader Dennis Algiere, and Minority Whip Elaine Morgan all did not immediately respond to emails on Monday inquiring if they will vote in the committee.

Pro-choice advocates have been pushing for the Senate to pass the legislation as-is without amendments. If the bill is amended by the Senate, it would have to go back to the House for consideration.

“This amendment is simply unacceptable!” the Womxn Project tweeted in response to Archambault’s statement. “It weakens the protections for Roe and for protecting the rights and balancing the different interests. NO AMENDMENTS!”

The current bill up for a vote Tuesday would allow abortion up to “fetal viability,” with exceptions made when the life or health of the mother is in danger post-viability. It explicitly affirms the federal ban on so-called “partial-birth” abortions.

Archambault’s amendment gets more specific, defining the “health” exemption as this: “if a continuation of the pregnancy will impose on the individual a substantial risk of grave impairment to their physical or mental health.”

Despite supporters’ arguments that the current bill is a codification of Roe. v. Wade, pro-life groups call it an “extreme abortion bill.”

“This bill expands abortion,” Rhode Island Right to Life wrote in a statement on Friday. “There is a startling reality that — for the first time in history — Rhode Island law would create and recognize a ‘right’ to take the life of an innocent human being through abortion.”

Advocates on both sides are planning to pack the State House ahead of the committee vote, which is scheduled to take place at the end of the 4 p.m. Senate floor session.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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