PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Two potentially dueling proposals to codify the protections of Roe v. Wade have been introduced at the Rhode Island State House, including the Reproductive Health Care Act that has been proposed several times before.
As expected, Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Gayle Goldin, both Providence Democrats, re-introduced the Reproductive Health Care Act (RHCA) in the House and Senate Wednesday. The bill would make clear that abortion is legal under Rhode Island law, even if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Ajello and Goldin said their bill has the largest number of co-sponsors yet this year, with a majority of House members — 39 — signing on and 17 senators doing so, as well.
In a surprise move, Rep. Anastasia Williams, another Providence Democrat, introduced her own reproductive rights bill Wednesday, dubbed the "Reproductive Privacy Act," which would also codify Roe v. Wade into law but is more limited than the RHCA.
“My bill is about taking a fresh approach to this issue,” Rep. Williams said in an explanation provided by a House spokesman. “The other bill has been proposed for several years and it hasn’t passed in the Judiciary Committee — we need to take a look at the issue and focus on inclusiveness.”
Williams' bill adds adult siblings, those ages 25 and older, along with grandparents to the list of people who can give a minor permission to have an abortion.
“Most importantly, it removes partial birth abortion, which has been outlawed on the federal level since 2003,” she wrote of the difference between her bill and the RHCA.
The Williams bill is co-sponsored by a member of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s leadership team, Rep. Chris Blazejewski, who also signed on to the RHCA.
The RHCA would repeal several decades-old Rhode Island laws the sponsors describe as “unconstitutional and unenforceable,” including a spousal notification law and a “partial birth abortion” ban.
“The Rhode Island law described a medical procedure that is not, in fact, done,” Ajello said. “Late-term abortions are done to save the life or health of the mother.”
Both the RHCA and Williams’ new bill only allow abortions up until “fetal viability,” a time period both bills leave up to the patient’s doctor to determine.
Ajello said she hadn’t fully reviewed Williams’ bill, but expressed optimism that multiple reproductive rights bills were being considered.
“I think it’s noteworthy that there are now two bills that would codify Roe and subsequent court decisions into Rhode Island law,” she told Eyewitness News.
Efforts to protect abortion rights have grown more urgent since the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which cemented a 5-4 conservative majority on the nation’s highest court. While some believe Roe could be overturned altogether, leaving abortion laws up to the states, other court-watchers predict a piecemeal approach, with the court potentially upholding various abortion restrictions over time.
“The possibility that Roe v. Wade will be overturned in the coming months or years is very real, and the result in Rhode Island would be that these harmful, insidious laws would become effective once again, with devastating effects on women’s health,” Ajello wrote in a statement.
Speaker Mattiello has repeatedly said he is open to considering the abortion rights bills again this year, though he has said he doesn’t think Roe v. Wade is in trouble and has been repeatedly endorsed by Rhode Island Right to Life.
Asked if Mattiello supports the Williams’ abortion bill, spokesperson Larry Berman said, “The speaker is aware of the support for the bill and the issue. The House Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing and he looks forward to receiving the committee’s recommendation after the testimony is taken.”
A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Southern New Engand’s policy arm said the group is reviewing the new bill, but continues to support the RHCA.
“Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island and our partners in the RI Coalition for Reproductive Freedom have been working to pass the Reproductive Health Care Act, which was re-introduced this week with a record 37 co-sponsors in the House and a record 17 in the Senate,” spokesperson Craig Connor said. “We, along with our Coalition partners, will give the new legislation a thorough review. Ultimately, these bills show there is growing momentum in Rhode Island to protect access to safe, legal abortion."
Advocacy group The Women Project also sent out an email Wednesday touting the large number of sponsors on the RHCA, declaring: “The women in our state need more than a waiting game where their rights and their health are on the line.” The press release didn’t mention the Williams’ bill.
Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is also a supporter of passing a reproductive rights bill, saying in her State of the State address Tuesday night lawmakers should "make this the year we codify women's access to reproductive health care here in Rhode Island." Her comment drew cheers and applause from some lawmakers and members of the public.
The abortions bills are likely to receive pushback from pro-life groups like Right to Life. The group's leaer, Barth Bracy, did not immediately respond on Wednesday, but has previously decried the efforts as trying to create an "abortion sanctuary" in Rhode Island.
“While Rhode Island Right to Life eagerly looks forward to the day when Roe v Wade is overturned, so that legal protection can be restored for unborn children, we know the importance of remaining rooted in reality,” Bracy previously wrote in an op-ed.