PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Hundreds packed the Rhode Island State House Tuesday ahead of a committee hearing on multiple abortion-related bills.
The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on multiple bills, including the Reproductive Health Care Act, or RHCA, which would aim to codify abortion rights into state law and repeal multiple Rhode Island laws that supporters say are outdated or unconstitutional. Lawmakers also heard testimony on pro-life bills, including one that would ban “dismemberment abortions.”
Ahead of the hearing, which lasted until almost 3 a.m., pro-life and pro-choice advocates alike held signs and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the State House rotunda. Cries of “My body, my choice!” echoed through the halls, clashing with voices chanting “Life!”
Reflecting on the hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Craven said Wednesday morning, “I’m going to presume that some form of a woman’s right to choose bill will come out of committee.” He said he expects that to happen in late February or early March.
Inside the packed hearing room the committee heard first from Rep. Edith Ajello, a Providence Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the RHCA. So far, 39 of her fellow representatives have signed on as co-sponsors for the bill, which is among the most high-profile proposals at the Assembly this year.
Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo submitted written testimony supporting the bill, saying, “While we all share the goal of reducing unwanted pregnanies and abortions,the right way to achieve this is through education and access to healthcare and contraception — not by criminalizing women’s reproductive healthcare decisions.”
Other prominent Democrats voiced their support for the bill Tuesday night, including Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who gave his testimony with his infant son seated in his lap. Elorza told the committee he believes no woman should be forced to carry a pregnancy against her will and asked those who are against abortion to keep those views separate from public policy.
Former Rep. Linda Kushner talked about her own experience having an illegal abortion in the 1960s. The procedure led to a life-threatening infection.
“I have never regretted that decision,” Kushner said. “But I can say that I have also been always angry that my life was put in such terrible danger because some group of people thought that I should not be able to control my body.”
More than 300 people signed up to testify during the hours-long hearing, which included several tense moments.
Providence City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune said she is pro-choice and also a Christian, something committee member Rep. Sherry Roberts, a West Greenwich Republican, took issue with.
“I’m sorry, I’ve just never heard of a Christian that believes in abortion,” Roberts said.
“There is nothing, nothing in the Bible — you can go through the verses — but there is nothing that actually condemns a woman who chooses to terminate a pregnancy,” LaFortune responded, which elicited cries of “Abstinence!” and “Thou shalt not kill!” from the crowd.
An alternative pro-choice bill newly proposed this year by Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, was also considered. Her Reproductive Privacy Act is a less sweeping measure than the RHCA, which Williams has said is an attempt at compromise, though abortion-rights groups have criticized it.
The panel also heard testimony on bills that would seek to ban abortion and “dismemberment abortion.” Rep. Arthur Corvese, a North Providence Democrat, is the lead sponsor of the latter measure.
“While abortion may or may not be the legal murder of an actual innocent human life, no one can deny abortion is at the very least the snuffing out of a potential innocent human life,” he said.
Rep. Jim McLaughlin, a Cumberland Democrat, sponsored the Rhode Island Right to Life Act, which would “provide the right to life is guaranteed by the state of Rhode Island and is vested in each person at fertilization.”
“These little ones are sitting in a womb,” he said. “Nobody hears their silent screams as they’re being aborted. And that’s sickening.”
No vote was scheduled on the bills Tuesday night.
Steph Machado contributed to this report.