PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A set of bills for and against abortion rights in Rhode Island are being heard by the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday evening, in a hearing heavily attended by people on both sides of the debate.
It's unclear if House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello will allow a vote on abortion rights this year. The speaker has identified himself as pro-life, but also has acknowledged the wide support for codifying current abortion protections into Rhode Island law.
When asked Tuesday if the speaker would allow abortion bills to advance to the floor, his spokesperson sent this statement from Mattiello: “I await the recommendation of the members of the House Judiciary Committee, who will be taking public testimony tonight.”
Here's what you need to know about the bills being considered by House Judiciary on Tuesday.
The Reproductive Health Care Act
The highest-profile bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Edith Ajello and co-sponsored by 39 of the 75 representatives, would codify abortion rights into law. The bill allows abortion up to the point of "fetal viability," a determination that would be made by the woman's doctor, but would allow exceptions for when the health or life of the mother is in jeopardy.
The bill is being pushed hard by advocates from Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, The Woman Project, and the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. Concern for reproductive rights from these groups has intensified after the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Groups believe it's possible the high court could overturn Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide, leaving Rhode Island without its own abortion rights law.
The RHCA also repeals what the sponsors call "outdated" and "unconstitutional" Rhode Island laws, such as a requirement for spousal notification and a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion.
The Reproductive Privacy Act
Democratic Rep. Anastasia Williams has introduced an alternative to the RHCA, dubbed the Reproductive Privacy Act, which is a more straightforward codification of abortion rights into Rhode Island law without repealing the old abortion restrictions.
Similar to the RHCA, Williams' bill would allow abortion up to the point of fetal viability, with exceptions for the life and health of the mother. But her bill does not repeal the partial-birth abortion ban or another old Rhode Island law that banned abortion for a "quick child," a term for a fetus that can move in the womb.
Some supporters of the RHCA oppose the Williams bill, arguing it leaves unconstitutional laws in place that presently conflict with Roe v. Wade and are not allowed under current law.
"Because of these flaws, if Roe were to fall or be undermined at the federal level, the RPA would not adequately protect Rhode Islanders' right to safe, legal abortion," the policy arm of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England wrote in a statement. "The bill contradicts itself in areas, and uses vague language such as making the RPA subject to 'all applicable federal and state law,' which could support attacks on reproductive rights because of its open-ended ambiguity, making it difficult for courts to determine what is and what is not allowed."
The Rhode Island Right to Life Act
One of the pro-life bills being heard at Tuesday's hearing is a simple, one-page piece of legislation that would "provide that the right to life is guaranteed by the state of Rhode Island and is vested in each person at fertilization."
The bill, introduced by Democratic Rep. Jim McLaughlin, is currently in conflict with Roe v. Wade.
"I have a higher authority than Roe v. Wade," McLaughlin told Eyewitness News. "I answer to the authority of God."
McLaughlin acknowledged that his bill would be immediately challenged in court if passed, but expressed hope that the challenge would ultimately land in the U.S. Supreme Court and aid in the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
McLaughlin has also introduced a resolution entitled "recognizing the fetus as a human life upon the existence of a heartbeat," which he said is aimed at "protecting the unborn."
A final bill being heard by the committee Tuesday night bans "dismemberment abortions," which the bill defines as the removal of a fetus' body parts in the womb.