PROVIDENCE — The state of Rhode Island recently witnessed a historical milestone in the legal fight over abortion. On Thursday, May 18, the state Senate voted to pass Bill SB0032, popularly known as the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which seeks to expand upon Medicaid and state employee insurance to include using taxpayer funds to support abortion services. The bill was immediately sent to the office of Governor Dan McKee, who signed it into law.
“The euphemistic title of the bill, the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, offers neither equality nor justice,” said Father Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference. “It is an Orwellian attempt to conceal the fact that the bill mandates every Rhode Island taxpayer, including those who oppose abortion on demand, to pay for the destruction of innocent human life.”
Father Healey said that forcing taxpayers to support abortion financially is a grave ethical violation of conscience and the passing of the bill “violated not only the sanctity of human life and conscience rights but also undermined the common good of our state.”
“The elected officials who delighted and rejoiced at the signing of the bill would be more at home in China and North Korea where human life is cheap and freedom of conscience is violated regularly,” he said.
The legislation was brought before the House on April 27, where it was voted upon and passed by a larger margin, 49-24, before being discussed before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 16. The committee was evenly divided among its 12 members, but the bill ultimately was passed due to a tie-breaker vote from Senator Dominick Ruggerio of District 4 (Providence, North Providence), president of the Senate.
The debates in the Senate chamber over the bill were heated, with most of the points made for or against the bill concerning economic justice and conscience rights. Senator Bridget Valverde of District 35 (East Greenwich, North Kingstown, South Kingstown), who proposed the bill in the Senate, asserted that this bill was an attempt to bring to its logical conclusion the 2019 Rhode Island legislation legalizing abortion, claiming that such a right is “useless” unless all people have equal access to abortion. She further described the ban on abortion in Medicaid and state insurance plans as “unfair and unjust.”
Senate minority leader Jessica de la Cruz of District 23 (Burriville, Glocester, North Smithfield) asserted that such manners of fighting against a perceived economic injustice undermine a larger good, namely freedom of conscience.
“Regardless of one’s view on the legality or appropriateness of abortion, taxpayers should not be forced or encouraged to pay for abortion,” said de la Cruz, going on to describe the bill as “an egregious overstep of the state government.”
De la Cruz cited as legal precedent the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funding for abortion except in the case of rape, incest or the life of the mother being at stake, and similar laws that exist in Rhode Island law. She noted how such laws have historically received wide support from members of both parties, and that Bill SB0032 goes beyond what was originally intended by the Hyde Amendment by expanding upon coverage to include elective abortions.
“Those who vote no stand firmly on the side of the taxpayer, respect for religious freedom and conscientious objects,” de la Cruz said. “Despite the increasing hostility towards these values, I will continue to fight for what is right, for what is good and just, and fair for the taxpayers.”
The bill passed by a landslide in both the House and the Senate, with a vote of 24 to 12 in favor in the Senate, and a vote of 49 to 24 in favor in the House.
Many spoke of the potential long-term effects of the bill.
Barth Bracy, executive director of the Rhode Island Right to Life, referenced Governor McKee’s 2024 Budget Proposal, which anticipated that, if the bill passed, Medicaid would spend $600,000 to cover abortions, and state employee insurance plans would spend nearly $30,000 to cover abortions, which amounts to an average of between 750 and 1,000 abortions per year paid for by Medicaid and state employee insurance plans.
“This is a devastating loss that will mean many more dead babies in Rhode Island, and many more mothers of dead babies,” Bracy said.
The reason why opponents placed such a strong emphasis on the reality of conscience rights when debating the bill, Bracy noted, was because the ethical stakes are so high.
“Abortion is different because it is the deliberate taking of an innocent human life,” Bracy noted, going on to quote from the Second Vatican Council which described abortion as an “unspeakable crime.”
“It is not now, never has been, and never will be health care because killing is not healing,” Bracy continued.
Another major theme raised in the Senatorial debate was the personal ideological consistency of many of those involved.
Some of those who voted in favor of the bill, including Senator Ruggerio, previously had a track record of voting in favor of pro-life positions, and some identified as Catholic. This was a topic raised over the course of the debates, as quotes from the heterodox activist group Catholics for Choice were mentioned in favor of the bill, with some senators responding that such an organization is composed primarily of non-practicing Catholics who do not speak for the Church or represent her official positions.
“Sadly, many members of the General Assembly, even some who previously supported pro-life legislation, have abandoned all principles in favor of political power and expediency,” said Father Healey. “They not only abandoned the protection of the unborn but are enthusiastically attacking the conscience rights of their constituents. Those who claim to be Catholic who support such a grave injustice have set themselves on a path of evil.”
In spite of the difficult situation that the pro-life movement in this state finds itself in, many remain optimistic.
Stacey Capizzano, an activist from Providence who was present at the meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee that pushed the bill through, said that her biggest advice for pro-lifers in Rhode Island during these trying times is to be mindful of larger trends in local government and to make their voices heard.
“Pay attention to the bills that are going on in the state,” she said. “It isn’t difficult to write to the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
Bracy repeated those sentiments.
“The events of this past week were very disheartening, marking a low point in the battle we have been fighting for so many years,” Bracy explained. “Rhode Islanders need to understand that elections have consequences.”
Father Healey spoke of the need to pray for our leaders and support pro-life candidates.
“We need to pray for elected officials that they might have the courage of their convictions and work to protect the sanctity of human life, respect human dignity and serve the common good.”
Father Healey said that there is a fundamental underlying ethical dilemma at stake in the passing of the bill.
“Coercion has no place in the intrinsically evil act of abortion,” he said, noting that efforts should be directed towards giving support to women who feel pressured to get an abortion due to difficult situations rather than expanding access to abortion.
“No mother should have to feel alone in her pregnancy and be coerced into choosing an abortion,” Father Healey stated, saying of abortion, “Abortion is not a choice, it is an act of desperation.”
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