PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A key House panel on Tuesday narrowly approved a bill that would establish the right to obtain an abortion in Rhode Island, the first major vote by the General Assembly on the highly charged issue in years.
The 9-7 vote came after months of pressure on Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who is pro-life, from pro-choice lawmakers, activists and outside groups. The speaker has not said whether he personally supports the bill, but a vote would not have been allowed without his assent.
The bill now goes to the House floor, where it is scheduled to be debated and voted on Thursday.
All three Republicans on the committee voted no, along with four of the panel’s 13 Democrats. (See the roll call below.) Two of the Democrats who voted in favor — House Majority Whip Jay Edwards and Rep. Dan McKiernan — were backed by Rhode Island Right to Life in last year’s election, as were Mattiello and House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi.
“This is a strict codification of Roe v. Wade,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown, who led the defense of the bill ahead of the vote.
“The time has come for the General Assembly and the state of Rhode Island … to recognize those rights of a woman and to say, look, this is your body; you can make those decisions, with these caveats, with these rules, with these limitations,” Craven said, adding, “It’s not throwing out a baby with the bathwater.”
But another committee member, Democratic Rep. Arthur Corvese of North Providence, disagreed. “It is my firm belief that contrary to reports about this bill … [it] is not a strict codification of Roe v. Wade,” he said.
The bill backed by the House Judiciary Committee is a revised version of the Reproductive Privacy Act, sponsored by Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence. Abortion-rights groups initially opposed the measure, but threw their support behind it after a reworked version was released last week.
Williams’ legislation states that a woman has the right to obtain an abortion under state law until the fetus is viable, or after that point “when necessary to preserve the health or life of that individual.” It also reaffirms the federal ban on so-called “partial-birth abortion.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee was separately holding its own hearing Tuesday on the abortion legislation, as that chamber’s leaders also prepare for a potential future vote on the measure. More than 100 people had signed up to testify as of midafternoon.
The debate comes amid rising energy on both sides of the issue, with supporters citing concern that President Trump’s Supreme Court appointees could overturn Roe, while opponents express outrage over abortion legislation put forward this year in New York and Virginia. Activists packed the State House rotunda as lawmakers were meeting.
Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo strongly supported passing a new state law on abortion during her re-election campaign. “What this bill does is really just codifies Roe v. Wade, which I do support,” she said Tuesday. “It’s not about expanding abortion rights.”
One of Raimondo’s predecessors — former Republican Gov. Don Carcieri — made a rare return appearance to the State House on Tuesday to oppose the bill. Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin has also been marshaling opposition in recent days.
Tobin tweeted Tuesday, “If the abortion expansion law passes in R.I. it won’t be the end of the world, except for: unborn children who will never see the light of day; women whose lives will be forever scarred by abortion; our society which will perish if we insist on killing our offspring.”
During the hearing, House Republican Leader Blake Filippi questioned the definitions of terms in the bill like the word “health,” as well as why it did not provide criminal penalties for violations. He debated the panel’s Democrats at length over his concerns, who argued the law has been made clear by the high court.
Rep. Chris Millea, a freshman Democrat from Cranston, said he had agonized over his vote before coming to the conclusion that the bill represents “an expansion of abortion.” Like others, he said the bill was too broad in saying third-trimester abortions can be performed to protect “health.” He also said the calls and emails he had received about the bill were “overwhelmingly” opposed.
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Craven said he thought the terms including “health” were properly defined in the bill.
“I think they were well-defined by the United States Supreme Court because that’s exactly the words that the U.S. Supreme Court used in 1973 in Roe v. Wade,” Craven said. He said he expects a close vote on the House floor Thursday.
After the vote, the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom cheered its victory.
“This a monumental moment in Rhode Island,” the group said in a statement. “The last time a vote on a bill to codify Roe v. Wade happened in Rhode Island was 1993 when it passed out of the House of Representatives, but did not pass the Senate. … It is clear that these bills have momentum and the time to codify Roe v. Wade is now.”
Opponents took a different view. The Rev. Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, called the vote “a low point in the three-century history of the R.I. General Assembly.”
R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell labeled top House Democrats as “enablers of the worst kind” for bowing to progressives on the matter.
“Edwards voted yes on the bill,” Bell said in a statement. “Mattiello and Shekarchi didn’t bother showing up for the vote. If Mattiello and Shekarchi showed up and voted no it would have died in committee. And, if Edwards had voted no, it would have died in committee.” (As leaders, Mattiello and Shekarchi are ex officio members of every committee who can vote if they choose.)
House Judiciary Committee abortion bill vote
YES (9): Reps. Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown; Evan Shanley, D-Warwick; Carol Hagan McEntee, D-Narragansett; Jay Edwards, D-Portsmouth; Julie Casimiro, D-North Kingstown; Joe Almeida, D-Providence; Dennis Canario, D-Portsmouth; Dan McKiernan, D-Providence; James Jackson, D-West Warwick.
NO (7): Reps. Chris Millea, D-Cranston; Camille Vella Wilkinson, D-Warwick; Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence; Thomas Noret, D-Coventry; David Place, R-Burrillville; Sherry Roberts, R-West Greenwich; Blake Filippi, R-New Shoreham.