PROVIDENCE — The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony last Wednesday on several pieces of abortion-related legislation, including a bill proposed last month by Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence) that has received strong criticism from pro-life advocates for its attempts to limit state regulation of the abortion industry and eliminate protections currently in state law. Witnesses from both sides of the debate turned out in force to offer testimony on what Committee Chairman Rep. Cale Keable referred to in his opening remarks as “unquestionably the most difficult social issue of our time.”
Testimony focused largely on H5343, the Reproductive Health Care Act, which calls for a broad deregulation of the abortion industry in Rhode Island by mandating 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.” The bill also prohibits the state from restricting the method in which abortion is provided and redefines fetal viability, bypassing definitions previously adopted by the Rhode Island General Assembly and U.S. Supreme Court.
“House Bill 5343 is the most extreme abortion bill we have seen in Rhode Island,” said Barth Bracy, executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life, in his testimony.
Rep. Ajello introduced the bill before fellow members of the House Judiciary Committee, describing it as a codification of the ruling of Roe v. Wade in state law that would have the effect of maintaining abortion’s current standing in Rhode Island regardless of changes in federal policy.
“This is not extreme. It is simply saying that we will continue in Rhode Island, as determined by the Department of Health, abortions to the point of viability,” she said.
Joseph Cavanagh, Jr., a Warwick attorney and pro-life activist, disputed the claim that the legislation would not significantly alter current state abortion law in a legal analysis he presented before the committee. According to Cavanagh, if passed, the legislation would repeal several statutes currently regulating the abortion industry in Rhode Island, including those prohibiting partial birth and post-viability abortions, regulating conditions at clinics, limiting abortion coverage for state employees and restricting public funding.
Cavanagh also criticized what he called the bill’s “flawed” definition of fetal viability, which leaves determination of viability up to the abortion provider, as well as a clause that prohibits the state from interfering in abortion up until birth provided the woman made the decision to seek an abortion prior to viability.
“That’s inadequate. That’s not a codification of Roe v. Wade. It’s way more extreme than that,” he said.
Father Bernard Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, offered the Church’s perspective on the proposed legislation, emphasizing in his oral and written testimony society’s responsibility to protect its most vulnerable members.
“House Bill No. 5343 codifies in RI state law an attack upon the human life and dignity of every unborn child,” he said. “Such a grave moral evil must always be rejected by people of good will, especially by the elected leaders of our state.”
Both Planned Parenthood and RI Right to Life called upon members of the medical community to present their testimony, with Planned Parenthood calling upon an OB-GYN physician who performs abortions and RI Right to Life calling upon several pediatricians to discuss the ethics of various abortion procedures and the psychological impact on the mother. RI Right to Life also called upon Father Nicanor Austriaco, a biologist and professor of bioethics at Providence College, to share his experience working with women who regret abortion through the Project Rachel retreat program.
“The problem with these bills is that it does not acknowledge that it is a difficult choice,” said Father Austriaco, who said that many of the women he works with do not feel abortion regret until much later in life, often when they conceive another child.
“You end up having this situation where a woman struggles with the incoherence of what she has done. This bill does not acknowledge that.”
Father Austriaco also spoke against the repeal of a statute requiring a woman to notify her spouse prior to receiving an abortion, saying that eliminating the child’s father from the decision would only further a culture of male abandonment that leads many women to seek an abortion in the first place.
“In the millennial generation, I have students at Providence College who come to me and tell me that men have no responsibility over pregnancy because it’s a woman’s choice,” he said.
John O’Reilly, a member of the Providence College student group PC for Life, also spoke on the responsibility to support a woman during pregnancy, saying that he sees abortion as a false solution to a serious problem of his generation.
“Abortion’s not the way to address the tragedy of male misconduct and abandonment. It simply punishes the woman more and adds another victim,” he said, standing alongside other members of PC for Life.
According to Bracy, the hearing continued until after midnight, with members of the pro-life and pro-choice positions called alternately to the podium to share their testimony. Many students, activists, members of faith congregations and representatives of pregnancy support organizations turned out to support the pro-life cause.
All five of the abortion-related bills presented to the committee were held for further study. In a follow-up email with Rhode Island Catholic, Bracy said that while pro-life activists should remain wary, as the bills could continue to present a challenge in future years, the legislation is unlikely to come up again during the current session.