PROVIDENCE — Nine state representatives have withdrawn their support as co-sponsors of a bill that would dramatically alter abortion law in Rhode Island, limiting regulations and expanding access to abortion of all types prior to fetal viability, in addition to redefining “fetal viability” in state law.
Rep. Marvin Abney (D-Newport, Middletown), Rep. Dennis Canario (D-Portsmouth, Little Compton, Tiverton), Rep. Helder Cunha (D-East Providence), Rep. Robert Jacquard (D-Cranston), Rep. Raymond Johnston (D-Pawtucket), Rep. Charlene Lima (D-Cranston, Providence), Rep. Michael Morin (D-Woonsocket), Rep. Carlos Tobon (D-Pawtucket) and Rep. Mia Ackerman (D-Cumberland, Lincoln) had removed their names as co-sponsors of H5343, the Reproductive Health Care Act, as of press time on Tuesday. According to Barth Bracy, executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life, further co-sponsors may remove their names this week as legislators return from their winter recess.
“We are grateful that some of the co-sponsors have withdrawn support for the bill because it is so extreme. I thank the many pastors and parishioners across the state who contacted the sponsors of H5343 and called upon them to reject such a radically extreme abortion bill,” said Father Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference. “Planned Parenthood and its pro-abortion allies at the RI State House need to hear the voice of the voiceless unborn and so we urge all Rhode Islanders to continue call upon their representatives to reject H5343.”
The bill, which has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing, was introduced by Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence) on February 2. The bill mandates that “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.” A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-Providence).
While supporters of the legislation maintain that the bill does not significantly alter Rhode Island state law and is simply an attempt to codify Roe v. Wade in the event that the ruling is overturned at the federal level, pro-life advocates and legal scholars who have analyzed the text of the legislation say the bill reveals a different intent, one that would virtually eliminate all restrictions on abortion in Rhode Island, allowing abortion of any type to be performed up until birth.
“The whole point of this bill, in my opinion, is to gut your existing laws regulating abortion,” Paul Benjamin Linton, a pro-life legal scholar and attorney practicing in Chicago, told Rhode Island Catholic by phone last week. “The bill would have the effect of repealing by implication a number of your existing statutes and administrating regulations regulating abortion.”
According to Linton, the bill’s vague language and open-ended restriction on any “interference” in the abortion industry would effectively repeal a number of measures currently in place for the protection of mothers and unborn children in Rhode Island. With the exception of statutes governing parental consent for minors and conscientious objection, both of which are particularly exempted by the bill, all current regulations on the abortion industry, including health regulations and policies regarding the use of state tax money to fund abortion, would be subject to challenge under the legislation.
“I think they would be in court the next day challenging the clinic regulations on the basis that they interfere with a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability,” Linton said in response to claims that the legislation would not change Department of Health oversight of abortion facilities. “They could certainly be challenged on the basis that you are restricting the manner in which medically recognized abortion can be provided. I think that’s pretty clear.”
Linton also commented on the bill’s definition of “fetal viability,” a source of concern for opponents of the legislation. Statements released last week by Planned Parenthood and several Warwick legislators in defense of the legislation claimed that it preserves the concept of fetal viability and forbids abortions performed after this point in a pregnancy.
However, as Linton pointed out, the bill contains no such provision. It only specifies that the practice of abortion may not be restricted prior to fetal viability, and in fact increases the likelihood that current Rhode Island law restricting post-viability abortions would be changed. In addition, the bill deviates from the standard definition of fetal viability established by the Supreme Court by omitting the words “with or without artificial support” and expressly forbids the state from interfering in a post-viability abortion “provided the decision” to seek the abortion was made prior to viability.
Bracy also expressed serious concern with the legislation’s definition of fetal viability, in particular with the language of a clause that ignores the existing medical definition of viability as currently espoused in state law and instead leaves determination of viability to the physician providing the abortion.
“Regarding abortions beyond fetal viability, H5343 proposes an absurd definition of ‘fetal viability’ that leaves the determination solely to the discretion of the ‘attending physician,’ that is, the abortionist being paid to kill the unborn child,” said Bracy. “Thus while deceptively and cynically claiming that the bill would not allow abortions beyond fetal viability, the bill and its sponsors are actually redefining ‘fetal viability’ as it has been understood in Rhode Island since our 1975 criminal prohibition against killing ‘an unborn quick child.’”
Other opponents to recently speak out against the legislation include Rhode Island attorney and legal scholar Joseph Cavanagh Jr., and Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse. While Cavanagh said his opposition is based on the bill’s vague language and unregulated threat to the sanctity of human life, Stenhouse said the opposition of his organization, which seeks to expand economic opportunities for families, is based on the threat to family structures posed by a completely unregulated abortion industry.
“I think that particular language, which would then allow for anything anytime, that’s clearly an expansion that most of us wouldn’t agree with,” he said. “And when I say us I mean Rhode Islanders.”
Rep. Charlene Lima, one of the legislators who withdrew her co-sponsorship of the bill, said that her decision to withdraw her sponsorship was based on the confusion over whether the bill would maintain abortion’s current legal status in Rhode Island or strike down current regulations and introduce new abortion policy.
“When I had originally co-signed the bill, it was to look at trying to keep things status quo,” she told Rhode Island Catholic by phone last Thursday. “Actually, it was in speaking with Father Healey that the language seemed to be overly broad and it would allow partial birth abortions. I don’t know if that was the intent, but I was concerned about that and it seemed to have a lack of regulations in it.”
Despite the sudden drop in support for the bill in the General Assembly, Bracy encourages those opposed to the legislation to continue to contact their elected officials, as the bill is likely to receive a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee this month.