alewis@ricentral.com

STATEHOUSE — Sen. Bridget Valverde and Rep. Liana Cassar announced legislation last week that would expand abortion access in the Ocean State.

The proposed legislation, which would lift the ban on abortion coverage for state employee health plans and ensure that abortion care is covered by Medicaid, was announced on the 47th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. 

“Abortion is basic health care and should be covered by your health insurance no matter how much money you make or where you work,” said Valverde (D-Dist. 35, North Kingstown, East Greenwich, Narragansett, South Kingstown). “Right now, we have an unfair, discriminatory system in place here in Rhode Island. State employees and Medicaid patients deserve the same coverage as everyone else, but the law prohibits their insurance from providing it.”

“These policies result in people and their families being denied access to health care, and in this case, those impacted are disproportionately poorer Rhode Islanders,” she continued. “We believe that every person has the right to make their own reproductive health decisions, but these Rhode Islanders cannot do that when their insurance is expressly prohibited from covering their choice.”

If the General Assembly approves expanding abortion access to those on Medicaid, Rhode Island would join the ranks of 16 other states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine.

Valverde and Cassar (D-Dist. 66, Barrington, East Providence) enter this current legislative session on the heels of what Cassar calls “a great success.” 

Last year, both legislators cast their votes to approve Rhode Island’s Reproductive Privacy Act. More than four decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, the Ocean State codified Roe v. Wade — ensuring that abortion will remain legal if the decision were ever overturned. 

The legislation, which passed the Senate in a 21-17 vote and a 45-29 vote in the House, “eliminated many of the unconstitutional laws enacted in Rhode Island after Roe v. Wade to restrict reproductive rights,” according to Cassar. 

“The ban on Medicaid programs and state employees’ insurance policies covering abortion is just one more vestige of the time when legislatures used every tool they had to deny people their right to choose,” she said. “All Rhode Islanders deserve bodily autonomy, including the poor and those who are employed by the state.”

“This ban is a backdoor means of denying reproductive rights, and it should be eliminated,” Cassar added. 

The legislation is aimed at eliminating sections of the law that expressly prohibit state employees’ and Medicaid recipients’ insurance from covering abortion, except in cases of rape or incest or where the life of the mother would be endangered, as required by federal law. In compliance with the federal Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortion services, it adds language that specifies that no federal funds shall be used to pay for them, except as authorized under federal law. 

The law would take effect upon passage.

“We worked so hard as a movement and in coalition to make sure that in Rhode Island our right to abortion is protected, no matter what happens at the federal level,” said Jordan Hevenor, co-director of the Womxn Project — one of many organizations that have come together in an effort to expand access. “As we commemorate Roe and see the endless attacks on this right, we believe we have to draw the line and fight back.”

“It is time to get rid of harmful policies that take away coverage for abortion,” she continued. “When people can’t afford care because they are denied benefits, that takes away their right to make their own decision. We won’t stand by and let this happen. We will continue to organize and make change together.” 

While Rhode Island and more than a dozen other states have codified the landmark ruling, if the decision were to ever be “weakened or overturned, abortion rights would be protected in less than half of the U.S. states and none of the U.S. territories,” according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. 

The advocacy group identifies 24 states and three U.S. territories as being hostile toward abortion access. Five states and Puerto Rico are listed as “not protected” if Roe v. Wade were to ever be overturned. In these states, like New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia, abortion would likely remain accessible but without legal protection. 

Seven states have not only passed legislation to protect access but expand it as well, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. 

Despite opposition from some in Democratic leadership, including Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey and Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, the Rhode Island General Assembly was able to pass the Reproductive Privacy Act. Similar legislation, the Reproductive Health Care Act, failed to pass committee. 

A month before the reproductive privacy act was signed by Gov. Gina Raimondo, similar legislation narrowly failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 5-4 vote. 

While the eventual passage was celebrated by many across the state, opponents to the bill promised to continue fighting against abortion access. 

Shortly after the Reproductive Privacy Act was passed, Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin called the vote “profoundly disappointing, a very dark day in the history of our state” in a tweet. He urged pro-life advocates not to be discouraged by what he believes will be a “very temporary setback.”

This proposed legislation is part of a campaign coordinated by The Womxn Project, and is supported by the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island, the ACLU of Rhode Island, the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus, COYOTE RI, the National Council for Jewish Women, the National Association of Social Workers, RI Chapter, the United State of Women (Rhode Island), CaneIwalk, Rhode Island National Organization for Women (NOW), the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, The Collective and Swing Left Rhode Island. 

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