PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island General Assembly wrapped up its 2022 Session on June 23, after debating or passing several bills of particular interest to Catholics, including three pertaining to right-to-life issues.
The first of these two, proposed in January, sought to legalize euthanasia in Rhode Island and expand access to assisted suicide. The second, proposed in February, sought to expand Medicaid to include the use of taxpayer dollars to cover abortions.
The third bill included a section that codified the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate into Rhode Island law which would legally oblige all places of business, including non-profits and religious organizations, to provide coverage for contraceptives.
None of these bills passed into law, but they were nonetheless hotly debated in the halls of the Statehouse.
“Thankfully these anti-life bills did not advance in this past legislative session and we are most grateful to the pro-life members of the General Assembly who worked so zealously in opposing them,” Father Bernard A. Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference told Rhode Island Catholic.
“However, after the recent the SCOTUS Dobbs Decision, this bill to use taxpayer dollars to fund abortions on demand has now become the rallying cry for the pro-abortion extremists in our state.”
He said there is little doubt that this bill and many more anti-life bills will be introduced in the next legislative session.
“Abortion and assisted suicide have become the trademark for a growing majority of elected officials in our state as well as candidates for office,” Father Healey said.
“Their platform seems to be built on advancing the culture of death at any cost and with little regard for human life, human dignity and the common good. Rhode Island Catholics and non-Catholics who seek to
protect the sanctity of life and respect human dignity must remain vigilant in the upcoming election for, without a doubt, radical anti-life legislation will be advocated with enthusiasm next legislative session.”
Sponsored by Rep. Liana M. Cassar (D-East Providence and Barrington), HB 7442/SB 2549, known popularly as the “Equality in Abortion Coverage Act,” was introduced before the House on February 11.
The bill proposed to expand upon Medicaid coverage, as well as insurance coverage for state employees, to include a variety of prenatal, birth and postpartum-related medical procedures, including abortion.
A few days before the committee met to discuss the proposed bill, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin said in an online post: “Tax payers in Rhode Island should not be forced to pay for other people’s abortions,” describing it as “an attack on their personal freedom and a violation of their sincerely held moral convictions.”
“It’s just wrong,” the bishop went on to say.
Barth Bracy, director of Rhode Island Right to Life, said that this was the most worrisome of the bills connected with issues pertaining to life, describing the desire to obtain public funding for abortion as “the number one goal of the pro-abortion side.”
“The abortion industry is not just out for blood, they’re also about money,” Bracy continued. “They were very desirous of having access to the public purse.”
In an interview with Rhode Island Catholic, Bracy went on to note that government money spent on covering abortion would be better spent on things such as infrastructure and education.
Father Healey expressed similar sentiments in his testimony relating to this bill.
“We advocate the R.I. General Assembly instead direct the expenditure of these monies towards producing healthy birth outcomes and providing income security to decrease the perceived need for abortion.”
In his testimony, Father Healey quoted from the late U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who stated that the test of a morally healthy society was how it treated children, the elderly, the needy and the handicapped.
State Sen. Jessica de la Cruz (R-Burrillville, Glocester, North Smithfield), said that most taxpayers she speaks to, both Democrat and Republican, are opposed to elective abortion, and don’t want their tax dollars spent on something that violates people’s consciences.
“I was against it in committee, and I would urge everyone, including my colleagues, to vote against it,” de la Cruz said, calling the bill “extremely misleading.”
She went on to note that while most proponents of the bill assert that without it, women will have much more restricted access to abortion, supporters of such a view overlook the fact that Rhode Island has its own version of the Hyde Amendment, which allows for federal funding for abortion in the case of rape, incest, or if the life of the mother is at risk.
“What proponents of this legislation are asking for is elective abortion. And I emphasize elective, because it is not for the health of the mother. It is only for convenience,” de la Cruz said.
The bill was brought before the House Committee on Finance on May 19, followed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 31. The members of both committees voted to delay the bill for further study. Although there was a push for the Legislature to take a vote on the bill, the session closed without a vote taking place.
Similar in nature to the abortion bill was Bill S2080, titled “The Individual Health Insurance Coverage Act.”
Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Providence/Cranston) proposed the bill on January 28. It was passed by the Senate on March 24, but was never brought before the House.
The bill proposed to codify into state law the many elements of the Affordable Care Act signed into law by former president Barack Obama in 2010, including the HHS mandate, which stipulates that all places of employment — including large and small businesses, and non-profit (including religious) organizations — are not only legally mandated to provide health insurance coverage for their employees, but that this insurance coverage must also include contraceptives. This includes all contraceptives approved by the FDA, including abortifacients.
Absent from this bill was any codification into law of the July 2020 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of former President Donald Trump’s allowance of an exception to this section of the Affordable Care Act on the basis of moral or religious objections. This means that religiously-affiliated organizations in the State of Rhode Island are legally bound to provide coverage for contraceptives in their employee health insurance programs.
Father Healey said that subjecting these groups and individuals to participate in immoral actions and grave sins that violate their consciences is nothing less than persecution for their religious beliefs.
“Forcing Catholic organizations to choose between following Senator Miller’s mandate or Jesus’ mandate strikes at the very heart of the right to religious liberty on which our country and our state were founded,” he said
Bracy, in a RI Right to Life statement at the time, said that the forcing of religious, including Catholic, organizations to provide health insurance plans that cover things that such religious organizations have a fundamental moral disagreement with is “an egregious injustice and seemingly malicious absurdity.”
He went on to say that if the government wishes to expand upon access to contraceptives, it should find ways to do so outside of forcing individuals and organizations to act against their beliefs.
“It’s a violation of the First Amendment, because what you are doing is asking people of faith to violate their conscience and violate their faith,” Sen. de la Cruz said.
Another important right-to-life issue bill proposed before the state Legislature this past session was HB6600, also known as the Lila Manfield Sapinsley Compassionate Care Act.
Proposed before the House on January 6 and sponsored by Rep. Edith Allejo (D-Providence/East Providence/Pawtucket/Central Falls), the bill sought to expand access to physician-assisted suicide.
The bill sought to absolve physicians from any civil or criminal liability or professional disciplinary action for administering life-ending substances to a terminally-ill patient under certain conditions.
In an interview with Rhode Island Catholic, Bracy asserted that most of the attempts to prevent abuse of assisted suicide in the bill are insufficient.
“The disinterested party could be anyone, even those sympathetic to the interests of those who have to gain from the death of the patient in question,” he said.
He noted that attempts to expand access to assisted suicide actually undermine efforts to provide care for the terminally ill. “There are doctors who specialize in this,” he said. “The doctors who administer euthanasia are usually not your family doctor or geriatrician,” Bracy said.
Bracy also connected an increase in access to assisted suicide to the larger mental health crisis.
“Suicidal ideations are a classic symptom of depression,” Bracy stated, going on to say that since most doctors who specialize in euthanasia lack the prior doctor-patient relationship, they are not in a position to make a decision as to whether one’s request for physician-assisted suicide is born out of mental health issues or a legitimate desire to alleviate pain.
In his testimony on this bill, Father Healey quoted from a 2014 speech by Pope Francis in which the supreme pontiff noted that every human life is of equal value, and that the value of human life is not derived from material or economic considerations.
He also testified, “The Catholic Church teaches that physician-assisted suicide gravely violates the sacred value of all human life, particularly those who are vulnerable due to illness, age or disability, and violates the medical professions healing mission.”
The value of all human life, even of the sick and dying, is something that even non-believers can see, he added, noting that all people “can see that suffering persons need solidarity and support more than a loaded syringe and an easy exit,” Father Healey said.
He also said that the Catholic Church does not require us to make use of artificial means to keep the terminally ill alive if such means would increase suffering.
He also noted that we can never intentionally take the life of an innocent person, quoting from a 2011 document from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that stated that, “[B]y hastening and facilitating their deaths, [society] will lose respect for their other rights and freedoms.”
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