The Rhode Island Island Senate’s Judiciary Committee remains closely divided on a high-profile abortion bill, with Sen. Stephen Archambault (D-Smithfield) emerging as the potential swing vote.
Another key vote on the committee, Sen. Mark McKenney (D-Warwick), used a detailed letter to the editor in the Warwick Beacon this week to explain why he plans to vote in support of the abortion bill.
“I’d prefer to have some amendments, as I don’t see this bill as perfect. Then again, no bill is perfect,” McKenney writes. “And while amendments could make for a better bill, I don’t agree that this is an expansion of the status quo. The bill ensures that women who have abortions can do so safely ... largely because it’s legal.”
Archambault, who could not be reached for comment, is now seen as the swing vote on the 9-member Judiciary Committee.
For now, the committee appears divided between four supporters (McKenney, and the three co-sponsors of the abortion bill, Judiciary Chair Erin Lynch Prata of Warwick and Sens. Dawn Euer of Newport and Cynthia Coyne of Barrington) and four opponents (Sens. Lou Raptakis of Coventry, Harold Metts of Providence, Jessica de la Cruz of Burrillville, and Frank S. Lombardi of Cranston).
Erich Haslehurst of the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom said he believes a majority of Judiciary Committee members support the abortion bill, “but we are in conversation with the Judiciary Committee members to make sure that we can answer any questions they might have and to be as helpful as we can as a coalition.”
It remains unclear, however, if and when the Judiciary Committee will vote on the Senate version of the bill already passed by the House.
Another question is whether the three Democrats and two Republicans who form the Senate leadership would use their ex officio capacity to vote on the bill in the Judiciary Committee.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio appears to be taking a hands-off approach to the fight to bring the bill to a committee vote. Like House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Ruggerio appears willing to let the process play out, even though he personally opposes abortion rights.
Asked why a vote has not yet been scheduled, Senate spokesman Greg Pare provided this response: “[A]t this point, the Judiciary Committee is focused on hearing the multitude of Senate bills that need to be heard prior to the hearing deadline. No determination has been made as to next steps.”
Activists on both sides of the debate continue to press lawmakers, and pressure is expected to intensify if a vote does not take place before a one-week break for lawmakers in mid-April.
Raptakis said his opposition is based on his belief that there’s not a current threat that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe vs. Wade.
“Anyone who wants to have an abortion can [have one],” Raptakis said. He said the General Assembly would have time to respond if the situation changes, since it took multiple years for the Supreme Court to decide the Roe case.
Other opponents argue that the version of the abortion bill passed in the House and introduced by Gayle Goldin (D-Providence) in the Senate would expand abortion rights.
McKenney rejects that view in his letter to the Warwick Beacon: “No, it doesn’t. In the critical aspects, it tracks the Roe language (as modified by Casey) almost verbatim: prohibiting post-viability abortions except to preserve the ‘life or health’ of the woman.’ ”
The Warwick senator said he would take no satisfaction in voting for the bill, and said the focus should remain on reducing the frequency of abortion. He also listed five additional rebuttals to arguments he’s heard on the bill.
“Moreover,” McKenney added, “it is imperative that concern and support for life extend beyond time spent in utero. I believe that pro-life means more than just pro-birth. Too often, the same people who are dead-set against abortion are dead-set against public funds being used to ensure that children have proper access to health care, food, shelter and education (including sex education and birth control to prevent unwanted pregnancies).”