PROVIDENCE — The recently-concluded 2019 legislative session in Rhode Island was a mixed bag for religiously-informed voters, notably in the passage of a new state law that expands access to late-term abortions.
Before adjourning on June 28, state lawmakers also passed a new law to extend the statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse claims to 35 years. Another bill signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo in early July requires pension plans managed by religious organizations to send regular updates on the pensions’ financial health plan participants.
The General Assembly wrapped up their session without taking action on a bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in Rhode Island.
On June 19, Raimondo, a Democrat and a Catholic, signed the Reproductive Privacy Act, which supporters argued would only codify into state law the right to legal abortion as guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision in Roe v. Wade.
The wording of legislation allows abortions to be performed after a fetus is viable outside the womb — usually around the 22nd week of pregnancy — in cases where the physician determines it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.
Local pro-life leaders, citing an analysis of Williams’ legislation and another abortion bill conducted earlier this year by a former lead attorney with Americans United for Life, a national pro-life legal organization, said the law will make it easier for women to obtain late-term abortions for virtually any reason.
“The passage of the pro-abortion law in R.I. is profoundly disappointing, a very dark day in the history of our state,” Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin wrote on Twitter the day after Raimondo signed the law.
The new abortion law was a local example of how state lawmakers in Democratic-leaning states, including New York and Illinois, have pushed for aggressive new laws this year to preserve and expand legal abortion in the event that the nation’s high court overturns its abortion precedents.
Statute of limitations
On July 1, Raimondo signed a bill that amends Rhode Island’s civil statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse.
The new law, sponsored by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown, and Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, extends the statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse claims to 35 years. The previous statute of limitations in Rhode Island was seven years.
The law extends to 35 years the statute of limitations for entities, individuals and organizations both public and private which “caused or contributed to childhood sexual abuse through negligent supervision, conduct, concealment or other factors that enabled the abuse to occur.” The 35-year window begins at age 18 for victims.
Advocates for sex abuse victims, including those abused by Catholic clergy, have pushed lawmakers in several states to amend their statute of limitations to allow victims to seek damages for decades-old abuse claims.
Upon passage of the bill through the General Assembly on June 26, Father Bernard Healey, the director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, said this new law “protects all victims of sexual abuse including those children harmed by their contact with public entities and who will now be able to seek redress under this bill.
“It is now time for the process of achieving justice and healing for victims to move forward,” Father Healey said. “Today’s action by the General Assembly moves us closer to that end.”
The governor also signed a bill into law that requires religious organizations in Rhode Island to give regular updates on the health of their pension plans.
“All Rhode Island workers and retirees deserve to know the truth about the health of their pension plan,” said Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, D-North Providence, said in a prepared statement.
The federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 requires most private pension plans to send members a letter each year outlining the health of their plan. Pension plans administered by religious organizations had claimed exemption from federal reporting standards.
“This is common-sense legislation that provides members of church-run retirement plans the same level of transparency afforded to members of private pension plans, to help them know how their pension funds are doing,” said Majority Leader Shekarchi, D-Warwick, who along with Ruggerio submitted the bill in cooperation with General Treasurer Seth Magaziner.
The Rhode Island Catholic Conference took no position on the bill as such disclosure has been the practice of the Diocese of Providence for many years. Father Healey stated “We have long sought to be transparent by annually providing each pension plan participant a yearly estimate retirement benefit statement. Additionally, an annual independent audit of the Central Administration Funds and Diocesan Cemetery Operations discloses the plan’s health, which includes a detailed explanation of the plan’s overall status. This audit report is published in full on our diocesan website.”
The 2019 legislative session ended without action on legislation which would permit Rhode Islanders given a diagnosis of less than six months to live the ability to obtain a lethal dose of drugs.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 25, local and national pro-life leaders turned out to warn lawmakers about the consequences of allowing terminally-ill people to end their own lives.
“Making this practice lawful would put your constituents, your friends, you family and even yourselves at risk,” said Barth Bracy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Right to Life Committee.
Bills to legalize assisted suicide in Rhode Island were heard this year before committees in the House and Senate, but were held for further review.
Physician-assisted suicide is currently legal in the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Advocates of assisted suicide have pushed aggressively in recent years to expand “aid in dying” laws at the state level.
Catholic teaching is clear in saying that allowing someone to end their life by suicide is gravely immoral. The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its 1980 Declaration on Euthanasia, said that the request of a gravely-ill person who asks for death is “almost always a case of an anguished plea for help and love.”
In written testimony on the legislation, Father Healey stated: “While some may view this legislation as a response to the understandable fears about pain and a loss of “dignity” that someone diagnosed with a terminal illness might face, we insist firmly that the answer to those fears should be a demand for appropriate medical treatment that provides adequate pain management and excellent palliative or hospice care. A terminally ill patient requesting a prescription to commit suicide deserves to be surrounded by compassion, not handed a prescription to take his or her life.”