Abortion bill rejected by RI Senate committee

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to reject a high-profile bill that would codify the right to an abortion in state law, dealing a significant setback to activists just months after they managed to get the measure through the House.

The Senate panel voted 5-4 against the Reproductive Health Care Act, sponsored by Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence. The move was widely expected after the panel’s most likely swing vote, Democratic Sen. Stephen Archambault, announced late Monday he could not support the bill as written. He said Goldin had rejected his proposal for alternative language that would be more limited.

However, the committee also voted to hold the House’s companion abortion bill for further study rather than defeat that, too — leaving open a path to return to the issue later in the session. Nevertheless, angry activists erupted in protests immediately after the hearing, even occupying the Senate chamber.

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“It is clear that there is not sufficient support to pass the bill as it stands out of committee,” Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, said in a statement. “By holding the House version of the bill for further study today, there is an opportunity for further action. I ask all parties to continue working together to see if amended language can be developed that will pass committee and be brought to the floor.”

Ruggerio said that while he is personally pro-life, he “did not interfere” in the committee’s deliberations and tasked Senate lawyers with working on the issue.

“The legal staff worked throughout the session, and throughout this past weekend, but ultimately a consensus could not be reached before the committee vote,” he said.

Pro-choice advocates streamed into Ruggerio’s office after the vote, chanting, “Bring it to the floor!” Ruggerio was escorted out of the office by a sheriff, with protesters following them through the hall and down a staircase.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata, a Warwick Democrat who voted in favor of the bill, expressed frustration that her chamber was presented with a fait accompli after the House passed its own abortion measure, the Reproductive Privacy Act, back in March.

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“One of the things that bothers me more than anything is that this is a bill that was amended in the House and was sent to the Senate,” she said. “I was not included on negotiations when that happened, and I don’t believe any of the others in leadership were included in negotiations. And we received a bill and we were told, ‘Vote it now. No amendments.’ And that’s not the way the process works.”

However, the five lead sponsors of the House bill said in a joint statement Tuesday evening they were “very disappointed” in the Senate vote, and gave no indication House leaders are open to changes.

“In the face of ever-increasing threats at the national level to women’s access to critical reproductive services, we urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to reconsider and bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote of passage this year,” said the statement from Democratic Reps. Anastasia Williams, Chris Blazejewski, Karen Alzate, Jean Philippe Barros and Evan Shanley.

Greg Pare, a spokesperson for the Senate, said a discharge petition could not be used to bring the House bill directly to the Senate floor because it’s been heard and held for further study in committee.

‘Women are not deranged murderers’

Before the vote, all the senators on the nine-member Judiciary Committee — eight Democrats and one Republican — took time to lay out the rationale behind their decisions.

“Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land,” said Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston, who opposed the bill. “It still is the law of the land until and unless it is overturned. … So I say to you the certitude of it getting overturned after 50 years of jurisprudence I think is actually speculative at this point.” He also said he thinks the bill “goes beyond the codification of Roe v. Wade.”

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“The time to act is now,” said Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, who voted in favor. “Not only are the arguments against this piece of legislation factually inaccurate and misleading, they are insulting. Contrary to rhetoric, women are not deranged murderers who would carry a fetus for eight or nine months before deciding to commit infanticide.”

All the senators agreed the issue is an emotional one that had drawn unusually high interest from their constituents. Sen. Jessica De La Cruz, R-North Smithfield, said her communications had run 15-to-1 against the bill.

“These are people who are not normally politically engaged,” she said, before voting no.

Lynch Prata said as a 43-year-old woman, she was one of the people in the room who could be personally affected by the bill. While she said she had trouble imagining herself getting an abortion, “I don’t think it’s my responsibility to make that decision for every other person who’s of childbearing years,” she said.

Yet Sen. Lou Raptakis, a Coventry Democrat who opposed the bill, questioned the timing. “I don’t know why there is a rush since nothing has occurred which would restrict abortion here in the state of Rhode Island,” he said.

Supporters vow to keep up pressure

Rhode Island’s legislative leaders have long avoided addressing abortion, in part because it deeply divides the liberal and conservative wings of the state Democratic Party. When the House passed its bill by a 44-30 vote in March, it was the lower chamber’s first major vote on abortion since the late 1990s, and its first vote in favor of abortion rights since 1993; that year, a bill eventually died in the Senate.

Advocates on both sides of the issue had lobbied senators hard in the hours before the vote, with crowds thronging the State House Rotunda holding signs with slogans like “Stop Abortion Now” and “Protect Safe, Legal Abortion.” There was already a long line outside the committee’s hearing room hours before the vote. Loud chants could be heard outside as the senators debated.

Goldin, the Senate sponsor, said the result was “absolutely a disappointment.”

“I feel the anger and fear of women across the country,” Goldin told Eyewitness News. “We have seen in the past few weeks alone what’s been going on in Georgia and Ohio and other states with legislators stripping away reproductive rights. And we had an opportunity to take a stand in Rhode Island right here, to take a stand with women and we chose not to.”

She pledged to continue to fight on the issue.

“I’m going to talk with my 16 other co-sponsors about it and try and figure out what our next steps are,” she said. “There are many different ways we could get a bill to the governor’s desk. … I’m always hopeful until the day we leave this building.”

Goldin did rule out supporting Archambault’s proposed alternate bill, calling it “rather insulting to women and a slap in the face to health care professionals.”

Amanda Skinner, president and CEO of the group Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island, lambasted the three Democratic Senate leaders for not voting ex officio on the committee to pass the bill. Her comments echoed frustration among progressives that Rhode Island Democrats had defeated an abortion-rights measure on the same day Alabama Republicans enacted the country’s most restrictive abortion bill.

“Today, the Democratic leadership of the Rhode Island Senate failed women and failed their constituents,” Skinner said. “They sided with the blatant lies of President Trump and allowed the Reproductive Health Care Act to be defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

The Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, a group formed to lobby for passage of an abortion bill, described itself as “deeply disappointed” but said Senate leaders’ decision to keep the House bill alive means there is still “a chance of passing a bill this year.” The Womxn Project, another advocacy group, suggested transferring the bill to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee for a vote there.

On the other side of the debate, the Rev. Bernard Healey, who lobbies for the Catholic Diocese of Providence, hailed the senators’ decision in a one-sentence statement.

“We applaud the Senate Judiciary Committee for their courageous vote this evening in defense of human life and human dignity,” he said.

Bishop Thomas Tobin praised the vote on social media Wednesday morning.

“Much appreciation and admiration to the State Senators who voted against the awful (and unnecessary) pro-abortion proposals last night,” Tobin tweeted. “You did the right thing. You are profiles in courage. In this legislative stalemate, not one woman has been deprived of even a single ‘right.'”

The bishop also praised pro-life activists, particularly in Catholic parishes throughout the state. “But stay vigilant,” he added. “In our culture today, the struggle for human life will be relentless.”

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.

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

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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

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