PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Hours before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, the Rhode Island General Assembly wrapped up its session for the year without approving a high-profile bill that would have allowed state-funded insurance to cover abortions.
The Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, or EACA, would have repealed a current ban on taxpayer-funded abortions in Rhode Island, allowing both state workers and people on Medicaid to have insurance coverage for abortions.
Roughly a third of Rhode Islanders are on Medicaid. The state has estimated about 79,000 of them are maternity-aged women who could utilize the expanded abortion coverage.
The lack of action has prompted dismay from advocates and elected leaders who had pushed for the bill, and multiple gubernatorial candidates are calling on the General Assembly to reconvene to pass the measure before their scheduled return next year.
Within hours of the Supreme Court decision, the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom held a rally in downtown Providence demanding the EACA be approved.
State Rep. Liana Cassar, D-Barrington, the House sponsor of the bill, criticized Speaker Joe Shekarchi for not bringing the bill to the floor.
“Our leadership decided that it was not going to come out of committee,” said Cassar. “We have the votes on the floor. It’s unfortunate that we ended this session last night knowing that the bill was going to stay stuck in committee.”
“It’s very disappointing, but not surprising,” said state Sen. Bridget Valverde, D-East Greenwich, the Senate sponsor.
The bill was not high on political observers’ radar earlier this year, but momentum to approve the measure grew after a draft version of the Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe leaked in May.
Gov. Dan McKee said at the time he supported the bill and would sign it if it reached his desk, but stopped short of amending his proposed budget bill to include the provision.
Both Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said Friday the measure will be considered again in 2023.
“The EACA has financial implications and should be considered as part of the budget, but was not included in the proposal presented to the Legislature in January, or in the budget the House sent to the Senate last week,” Ruggerio and Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, both Democrats, said in a joint statement. “We plan to address this issue in the 2023 session.”
“We will continue the discussion in our next legislative session on a bill that would provide Medicaid funding for the procedure,” echoed Shekarchi, D-Warwick.
The leaders emphasized the Reproductive Privacy Act, passed in 2019, that enshrined the right to an abortion into Rhode Island law. The legislation was approved out of concern that the increasingly conservative Supreme Court would curtail abortion rights, or even overturn the Roe precedent.
“I am disheartened by the extreme decision by the U.S. Supreme Court today,” Shekarchi said. “Fortunately because the General Assembly passed the Reproductive Privacy Act in 2019 when I was the House Majority Leader, Roe v. Wade was codified into state statute so the women of Rhode Island continue to be able to make the personal decision to access safe and legal abortion.”
“As a result, no Rhode Islander is losing rights today,” Ruggerio and McCaffrey said. (Both Senate leaders voted against the Reproductive Privacy Act in 2019, while Shekarchi voted for it.)
Asked why the EACA was not incorporated into the budget, McKee’s office noted the budget requires a two-thirds majority vote to pass, which would make it more difficult to approve an abortion measure through that channel. (A regular bill only requires a simple majority to pass.)
“The governor continues to be in full support of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act that would protect access to reproductive health care through statutory legislative action,” said press secretary Alana O’Hare. “He encourages the General Assembly to pass the bill and send it to his desk for signature next session. The vote threshold for a legislative vote is much lower than a budgetary vote—this gives the act its best fighting chance to pass.”
Several of McKee’s rivals in September’s gubernatorial primary jumped on the issue.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and former Secretary of State Matt Brown separately called on the General Assembly to reconvene a special session to approve the EACA. Brown also called on McKee not to sign the budget into law, which he is slated to do on Monday.
“There has never been a more important moment to end Rhode Island’s bans on abortion coverage and yet Governor McKee, Speaker Shekarchi, and Senate President Ruggerio have allowed the EACA – which would end those bans – to die,” Brown said.
“Passing the Rhode Island Equity in Abortion Coverage Act will be a priority for me as governor but I would welcome a special session of the General Assembly to pass this law prior to January 2023,” Gorbea said.
Helena Foulkes, another Democratic candidate for governor, said she would incorporate the EACA into her first budget if elected.
“We need a governor who will lead to protect choice in Rhode Island,” Foulkes said. Her campaign also announced she will begin running a new campaign TV ad this weekend outlining her support for abortion rights.
McKee’s own statement about the Supreme Court ruling did not mention the EACA, but called the Supreme Court ruling a “travesty.”
“Here in Rhode Island, we will always support a woman’s right to choose,” McKee said. “Despite today’s ruling, Rhode Islanders still have the right to access abortion health care services in our state thanks to the General Assembly codifying these protections into law – but all people should have the ability to make their own reproductive health care decisions, no matter where they live.”
Cassar argued that without the EACA, it’s not accurate to say all Rhode Islanders have access to abortion.
“We have this false narrative that there’s access,” Cassar said. “For people without insurance coverage, it’s not accessible.”
“Governor McKee had the chance at several points to make this a priority and put this into his budget, and he did not do it,” Valverde added.
The Rhode Island GOP has slammed the EACA, saying it would be wrong to fund abortions with taxpayer dollars.
“The idea that because abortion is a constitutional right, taxpayers should pay for it is simply wrong,” the GOP said in a statement last month. “You can’t chant ‘my body, my choice’ and then demand that your choice be paid for with everyone’s else money.”
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.