The Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday narrowly voted down an effort to ensure abortion rights in the state, sparking an angry reaction by supporters of the legislation who vowed to take retribution during legislative elections next year.
The Senate version of the abortion bill was rejected on a five-to-four vote, with Sen. Stephen Archambault (D-Smithfield) providing the key vote.
The Judiciary Committee held for further study the House version of the bill -- meaning there’s a slim chance it could resurface in the month or so left in the session. But that did little to mollify critics.
Angry abortion-rights supporters occupied the Senate chamber after the committee vote, chanting, “Send it to the floor!” They chanted “Shame” and “Shame on you” to senators leaving the committee room, and also sounded a call to “Vote them out!”
Archambault and other opponents of the Senate bill cited two main reasons in explaining their votes. They said there’s sufficient time to respond if the U.S. Supreme Court edges closer to overturning Roe vs. Wade, and they expressed concern that the versions of the bill sponsored by Sen. Gayle Goldin and Rep. Anastasia Williams would lead to more late-term abortions.
“I am pro-choice and I do support a women’s right to choose,” said Archambault, who spoke in favor of abortion rights when he faced a Democratic primary challenge last year. “I do not favor or support or endorse late-term abortions as defined by the sponsor’s bill.”
Archambault said he unveiled a proposed amendment to his colleagues before making it public Monday night, and he lamented it didn't get more consideration as a compromise.
Supporters rejected the opponents' depiction of the abortion bill. They said the abortion debate was distorted by emotion and they describe the legislation as a codification of Roe vs. Wade.
“[T]he Democratic leadership of the Rhode Island Senate failed women and failed their constituents,” Amanda Skinner, president/CEO of Planned Parenthood Votes! RI, said in a statement. “They sided with the blatant lies of President Trump and allowed the Reproductive Health Care Act (S 152A) to be defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
“Four Democrats on the committee stood against women’s equality and reproductive freedom by voting to defeat legislation that would preserve the right to safe, legal abortion in Rhode Island no matter what happens at the federal level,” Skinner said. “The Democratic leadership in the Senate refused to use their considerable power to ensure the Reproductive Health Care Act was brought to the floor for a vote by the full Senate.”
In a statement, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio reiterated that while he personally opposes abortion, “I would not impose my personal views on the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee or in any way seek to prevent the legislation from passing.”
Ruggerio said that “by holding the House version of the bill for further study today, there is opportunity for further action. I ask all parties to continue working together to see if amended language can be developed that will pass committee and be brought to the floor.”
The RI House passed the abortion bill in early March, on a 44-to-30 vote.
Judiciary Chairwoman Eric Lynch Prata (D-Warwick), who voted in favor of the abortion bill, acknowledged her own mixed feelings about the issue.
“Being pro-choice doesn’t necessarily make you pro-abortion,” she said. “What I am looking to do and what I believe my colleagues who are in support of this bill are looking to do is preserve a woman’s access to safe and legal abortion, and that is safe and legal healthcare.”
Lynch Prata said she was bothered that the Senate was told to pass a House version of the abortion bill with no changes. She also indicated the abortion issue isn’t about to go away.
Besides Lynch Prata, Sens. Dawn Euer (D-Newport), Cynthia Coyne (D-Barrington) and Mark McKenney (D-Warwick) voted in favor of the Senate abortion bill.
Voting against it were Sens. Archambault, Jessica de la Cruz (R-Burrillville), Harold Metts (D-Providence), Frank Lombardi (D-Cranston) and Leonidas “Lou” Raptakis (D-Coventry).
After the vote, Barth Bracy of RI Right to Life, a leading anti-abortion advocay group, praised the Judiciary Committee.
“Obviously, I’m relieved that the members of the committee read the bill and understood that the bill goes way beyond maintaining the current status quo under Roe v. Wade,” he said. “The reality is from the very beginning that bill proponents have been using fear, uncertainty and doubt to try to promote an exteme abortion agenda like they did in New York, like they attempted in Virginia.”
Bracy said abortion-rights opponents will be ready to respond if abortion-rights supporters target lawmakers who voted against the bill.
Goldin, one of the sponsors of the legislation, said the fight isn’t over.
“Make no mistake, this is a movement, and it is a growing one,” Goldin said in a statement after the vote. “I feel the anger and fear of thousands of women because of tonight’s vote. Right now in this country, we are in a landmark fight over who controls women’s lives – our health, our bodies, and our voices. In the last few weeks alone, we have seen legislatures and governors strip away reproductive rights. Rights that mothers and grandmothers fought for and hoped were secure for future generations. In Rhode Island, we had the opportunity to stand with women and for women. Instead, tonight we turned our backs.”