Abortion debate not over despite bill’s defeat, RI legislative leaders say

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Advocates of legal abortion regrouped Wednesday after a Senate committee rejected a bill they’ve been pushing for months, while legislative leaders left the door open to revising the legislation in a bid for additional support.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday voted 5-4 to defeat the Reproductive Health Care Act, sponsored by Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence. Advocates said the bill would codify Roe v. Wade in state law, but opponents objected to its inclusion of a repeal of the fetal homicide statute and suggested it did not do enough to restrict late-term abortions.

The committee’s swing vote — Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield — offered an amendment to address those concerns but was rebuffed by the bill’s supporters, and wound up voting no despite describing himself as pro-choice.

On Wednesday, Archambault said he was still open to supporting an alternative measure to codify abortion rights. “I remain very open-minded,” he told WPRI 12. “I remain willing to work on any type of compromise language.”

The vote left pro-life groups celebrating while pro-choice activists marched through the Senate protesting and chanting — even as Senate President Dominick Ruggerio quickly signaled the discussion was not over. “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,” he said Tuesday night.

In an interview Wednesday, Ruggerio said he wasn’t surprised by the committee vote. Senators plans to start working on the issue again next week in hopes of reaching a resolution by the end of session, he said.

“Hope springs eternal up here,” Ruggerio, D-North Providence, told WPRI 12. “You never know what’s going to happen but we’re hoping we can sit down, get all the parties together and build a consensus.”

Ruggerio said the most likely path is moving forward with an amended bill, not pushing the current Reproductive Health Care Act to a different committee. “We have a procedure in place for a long time,” he said. “We have our rules that tell us how to proceed with this, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to follow our rules.”

Yet it’s unclear what if any changes supporters of the original bill would support.

Kafi Rouse, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood’s local affiliate, insisted that the bill language rejected by the Senate committee “does not alter the current state of abortion in Rhode Island,” adding: “It does not repeal existing abortion limitations. It does not expand existing abortion rights. Any actions other than passing the RHCA leaves Rhode Islanders unprotected and at risk of losing the right to safe, legal abortion.”

Rouse added, “Planned Parenthood of Southern New England opposes watering down the current legal framework for protecting a pregnant person’s life or health.”

The language in the bill rejected Tuesday is identical to the abortion bill passed by the House in March, called the Reproductive Privacy Act. If the Senate eventually passes an amended version of the bill, it would have to go back to the House Judiciary Committee and win passage there, then clear the House floor, in order to reach the governor’s desk and get signed into law.

The five House co-sponsors of the Reproductive Privacy Act downplayed that scenario in a joint statement Wednesday. “While we have not been involved in any recent discussions in the Senate, we understand the advocates have continued to ask the Senate to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote of passage without further amendments,” they said.

Yet House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, took a softer line.

“The House will be happy to consider any legislation the Senate sends over regarding this issue,” he said in a brief statement Wednesday — keeping the ball in Ruggerio’s court.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, who called for an abortion-rights law in her State of the State at the start of the year, again urged action Wednesday. “Roe has been the law of the land here for 50 years, and I think it ought to stay that way and I think the legislature should take action to do that and put people’s minds at rest,” the governor told reporters.

From the other side of the debate, Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence tweeted that the five senators who voted down the bill were “profiles in courage” and thanked activists who had protested regularly at the State House and contacted their legislators.

“But stay vigilant,” Tobin wrote. “In our culture today, the struggle for human life will be relentless.”

Kim Kalunian (kkalunian@wpri.com) is a reporter for WPRI 12 Eyewitness News. 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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