PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In what pro-choice advocates hailed as a historic vote but pro-life activists described as a dark day, both the Rhode Island Senate and House approved an abortion-rights bill Wednesday evening.
It was immediately signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo.
“Fundamentally, this bill is about health care,” Raimondo said prior to signing the bill. “With all the uncertainty in Washington and frankly around the country, there is a lot of anxiety that a woman’s right to health care is in danger.”
The vote was 21-17 in the Senate, which debated for two hours Wednesday afternoon. The chamber’s five Republicans were joined by 12 Democrats in voting against the measure.
The Reproductive Privacy Act was then immediately sent back to the House, which passed the legislation in March, to approve changes that were made on the Senate side. Two hours later, the House voted 45-29 and sent the bill to Raimondo for her signature.
“This bill is about codifying the current status quo in the state of Rhode Island,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Erin Lynch Prata, D-Warwick, said during the Senate floor debate. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
“This is not an expansion, this is not a restriction,” she added. “This is a codification of what we have now.”
Several amendments were introduced on the floor, including a proposal by Sen. Elaine Morgan, R-Hopkinton, to include a “trigger clause” that would make the bill go in effect only if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
“Having President Trump in office does not mean the Supreme Court is going to reverse Roe v. Wade,” she argued.
But advocates have argued that Trump’s two Supreme Court picks, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, have moved the court to the right and made it more likely the high court could restrict abortion rights.
Sen. Bill Conley, D-East Providence, said the Senate should “jealously guard” its ability to make laws, and not cede that control to the courts by including a trigger clause.
The amendment failed 13-25.
Republican Sen. Jessica de la Cruz introduced an amendment to require anesthesia for the fetus during an abortion, with some exceptions. The amendment was defeated.
“If any of you were meeting your demise … I would assure you that you would want anesthesia,” de la Cruz said.
Sen. James Sheehan, D-Narragansett, said he would personally advise a woman against an abortion. But he voted in favor of the bill, saying he doesn’t have the “luxury to just be Jim Sheehan” when it comes to public policy.
“I will vote to codify a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions,” Sheehan said. He added that he supports more sex education and access to contraceptives, which could reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies.
The full Senate hasn’t considered abortion-rights legislation in decades, according to a spokesperson. The Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom called it a “monumental moment in Rhode Island.”
It took three tries to get the bill out of committee, after the Senate Judiciary Committee defeated similar legislation called the Reproductive Health Care Act. The committee held the Reproductive Privacy Act for further study to avoid its defeat, then returned a month later to vote again–but instead transferred the bill to the Health and Human Services Committee after Republican leaders showed up to join the committee in their “ex-officio” capacity, and it became clear the measure could fail.
The Health and Human Services Committee then overwhelmingly approved the bill last week, sending it to the floor.
Multiple changes were made on the Senate side since the House passed the bill back in March, including a requirement that a doctor document why a late-term abortion was performed. The bill only allows abortions up to “fetal viability,” with exemptions to preserve the life and health of the mother.
Pro-life and pro-choice advocates were lined up at dawn on Wednesday to get seats in the chamber’s gallery.
“At the end of the day, government is about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” said David Mitchell, a pro-life activist arguing against the bill. “So I think if governments can provide the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness we’re good.”
“We have been working arduously to ensure this basic human right for women,” said Patricia Ricci, who is pro-choice. “And what’s at stake is huge as far as I’m concerned.”
Shiina LoSciuto, Brandon Truitt and Ted Nesi contributed to this report.