Rhode Island Approves Bill Protecting Abortion Rights

As a wave of anti-abortion bills sweeps the country, Rhode Island wrote abortion protections into law.
Abortion-rights supporters pressure legislative leaders to bring a bill protecting abortion rights to the state Senate floor for a vote. The bill was signed into law on Monday.
Abortion-rights supporters pressure legislative leaders to bring a bill protecting abortion rights to the state Senate floor for a vote. The bill was signed into law on Monday.
(Jennifer McDermott/AP Photo)

Rhode Island’s Democrat-controlled government passed a law on Wednesday to protect abortion rights, part of a broader effort to support Roe v. Wade as it faces attacks nationwide from conservatives.

“It keeps the most personal and difficult decisions of a woman’s life between her and her doctor ― where they are today, and where they belong,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimundo (D) said at the bill signing on Wednesday evening.

The new Rhode Island law codifies the privacy rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision protecting abortion. Under the new measure, Rhode Island cannot restrict the right to an abortion prior to fetal viability, nor can it do so afterward if an abortion is necessary for the health or life of the mother. The law also repeals older Rhode Island abortion laws dating back to 1861 that the courts deemed unconstitutional.

The law is particularly relevant now as other states clamp down on abortion rights and provoke legal battles to chip away at reproductive freedom. Conservatives who want to overturn Roe v. Wade see the current makeup of the Supreme Court, which includes two appointees of President Donald Trump, as a vehicle for doing so.

Measures like Rhode Island’s, which affirmatively protect abortion rights, are one way for progressives to fight back. Several other states have acted to protect abortion rights this year, such as Kansas, New York and Vermont.

“Due to this bill, Rhode Island will remain resolute in ensuring a woman’s privacy in making her own health care decisions and we will not turn back the clock on decades of progress for female reproductive health equality,” Rep. Anastasia P. Williams, the House sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.

The Reproductive Privacy Act passed the Rhode Island legislature in a matter of hours. The state Senate approved the bill in a 21–17 vote, then the state House passed it 45–29 after adding language to clarify when “late-term abortions” are permitted.

Although the bill passed quickly, it faced opposition. Republican senators made multiple attempts to amend or delay the bill but were voted down each time. Rhode Island Sen. Elaine Morgan (R) tried to add a “trigger” clause that would have only allowed the bill to be enacted if Roe v. Wade is overturned. State Sen. Jessica de La Cruz (R) tried to add a provision that would require giving anesthesia to a fetus during an abortion and then tried to have the bill sent back to committee. Both efforts failed.

There was emotional testimony for the bill, including from state Sen. Sandra Cano (D), who is Catholic, opposed to abortion and currently pregnant.

“My faith is very important to me. I believe that life is sacred. ... However, I also believe that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and I can’t impose my faith on others,” Cano said during debate in the Senate.

Thousands of activists and supporters demonstrated at the State House and called their representatives to advocate for the law, Amanda Skinner, the CEO of the Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island chapter, told HuffPost.

Skinner said watching the bill get signed was a “powerful moment,” but said there is more work to be done.

“If we really want to meaningfully expand access to affordable, high quality health care, we need to address the root causes of racial disparities and health outcomes,” Skinner said. “We need to pass legislation that reflects those values and puts our resources and our policies to work.”