PROVIDENCE — Pro-choice legislators in the Rhode Island General Assembly introduced legislation last week that could dramatically alter the state’s current abortion laws, reversing protection-of-life measures and preventing regulation of abortion of any kind prior to fetal viability.
The Reproductive Health Care Act, introduced by Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence) at a pro-choice rally last Wednesday, prohibits the state from interfering in the obtainment or delivery of an abortion prior to fetal viability, effectively eliminating all legal protections of the unborn currently in place in Rhode Island. The bill was officially filed in the House on Thursday, February 2, with legislation expected to follow in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-Providence).
“Neither the state, nor any of its agencies, or political subdivisions shall: interfere with a woman’s decision to prevent, commence, continue, or terminate a pregnancy provided the decision is made prior to fetal viability; restrict the use of medically recognized methods of contraception or abortion; or restrict the manner in which medically recognized methods of contraception or abortion are provided,” reads the bill text.
The bill goes on to define “fetal viability” as “that stage of gestation where the attending physician, taking into account the particular facts of the case, has determined that there is a reasonable likelihood of the fetus’ sustained survival outside of the womb.” This definition leaves determination of fetal viability — typically reached sometime after 22 weeks gestation — to the discretion of the attending physician, leaving opponents concerned about the possibility of abuse by abortion providers.
“Amongst other very serious issues, the bill would prohibit the State of Rhode Island from banning any ‘method’ of abortion, even partial birth abortion, [and] allow abortions beyond our longstanding ‘quickening’ threshold, potentially allowing abortions all the way up until birth, leaving the determination of viability solely to the discretion of the abortionist,” said Barth Bracy, executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life, in a statement emailed last Thursday.
“The bill amounts to a virtually complete deregulation of the abortion industry in Rhode Island, precisely at a time when both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Select Investigative Panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have recommended criminal investigations into Planned Parenthood for egregious violations of existing laws and regulations,” Bracy continued.
The announcement of the legislation followed one day after President Donald Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. Since President Trump’s election, both pro-life and pro-choice activists have expressed anticipation of changes in federal abortion policy, including the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade. Such an outcome would leave abortion law to be determined by individual states, a possibility that has led to a push among abortion supporters for legislation that would codify the policies of Roe v. Wade into state law.
“We need to protect women in Rhode Island now of who would be next and what Republicans in Congress may do,” Ajello told the crowd at Wednesday’s pro-choice rally.
Father Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, expressed serious concern regarding the proposed legislation in a statement issued last Wednesday.
“This proposed legislation is a radical attempt to remove all state regulation from the unethical and questionable practices of abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood and the Kermit Gosnells of the Ocean State,” he said. “Removing this regulation by the state disregards the health and safety of thousands of women and children in Rhode Island.”
Carol Owens, diocesan coordinator of the Office of Life and Family Ministry, also expressed concern, criticizing in particular the deregulation of an industry that has a strong impact on women at a vulnerable time in their lives.
“The filing of H5343 in the R.I. House of Representatives is, once again, an exaggerated reaction to the possibility of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, especially with the new presidential administration and appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court,” she said. “The bill promises to put women in danger at any stage of pregnancy. Deregulating abortion would open the floodgates and place an already vulnerable and desperate woman in the hands of an abortionist.”
While similar legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly without success in the past, the bill has garnered attention due to an unprecedented amount of support among legislators. During last week’s rally, Ajello announced the bill had 36 co-sponsors in the 75-member House.
“The number of co-sponsors is very disturbing,” said Bracy, who has issued a call to pro-life activists to contact their elected officials. “It is becoming apparent from my conversations with them that many of them failed to read the bill and were seriously misled by proponents as to what the bill actually does.”
The Rhode Island Catholic Conference is also urging Catholics to contact their elected officials to come out against the bill.
House Minority Leader Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-Coventry, Warwick and West Warwick) expressed her opposition to the proposed bill in a statement emailed to Rhode Island Catholic on Monday.
“I oppose this legislation because it protects neither mothers nor their babies,” she wrote. “By abandoning the ‘quickening standard’ that Rhode Island has used for decades, it allows a subjective assessment of fetal viability to enter this healthcare decision.”
Rep. Morgan continued by expressing her concern that the bill puts abortion agencies beyond the regulatory oversight of the Department of Health, preventing authorities from enforcing health and safety regulations standard to the medical field.
“It takes away the ability of any government agency, including the Department of Health, to oversee abortion procedures. As a result, women’s health could be compromised. If passed, this law would allow anyone to perform an abortion — without restriction.”
Speaker of the House Rep. Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston) declined to take a position on the bill, offering the following brief statement through spokesman Larry Berman:
“As always, the bill will go through the committee process.”
Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport and Jamestown) also declined to comment, with spokesman Greg Paré citing the lack of official legislation filed at this time in the Senate.
“The Senate President has not commented at this point because, while I do anticipate that Sen. Goldin will be submitting legislation in the near future, no legislation has been introduced in the Senate yet, so we have not seen any details,” he said by email.