Gov. Dan McKee speaks during a rally to mark the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision at the State House on Jan. 24, 2023. McKee joined other state officeholders in supporting the Equality in Abortion Coverage Protection Act, which would add coverage of abortion to Rhode Island’s state Medicaid program. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — Legislation expanding Rhode Islanders’ access to abortion care passed the House of Representatives in a 49 to 24 vote after an hour long debate at the State House Thursday night.
The Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, sponsored by House Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian, of East Providence, seeks to allow state Medicaid dollars to pay for abortion care and lift a prohibition on state employees’ sponsored health insurance coverage of abortions.
“This is a very simple bill and it does a very simple thing,” Kazarian said during the debate. “This bill is about trusting women and making sure they can make those decisions about their health with their doctors.”
Federal law currently prohibits federal Medicaid money from being spent to cover abortions with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.
A companion bill in the Senate, S32, sponsored by Sen. Bridget Valverde, of North Kingstown, is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Gov. Dan McKee tweeted after the vote his intent to sign the bill into law after a hoped for passage by the Senate.
“I made a commitment to include the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act in my #RIReady budget and I’m proud to see this legislation pass in the @RIHouseofReps tonight,” he tweeted. “Now, let’s get it over the finish line in the @RISenate and sent to my desk for signature.”
Now, let’s get it over the finish line in the @RISenate and sent to my desk for signature.🖋️
— Governor Dan McKee (@GovDanMcKee) April 27, 2023
The tweet reaffirmed support he voiced in a letter submitted to the House Judiciary Committee before the bill’s March 6 hearing.
“Rhode Island is a state that protects a woman’s right to reproductive health care,” he wrote in the letter. “Whether a person is receiving medical assistance through Medicaid or a state employee health plan that person should not be barred from accessing all aspects of reproductive health care. This bill removes this inequitable barrier and provides access to reproductive healthcare for Medicaid recipients and state employees.”
Opponents of the bill questioned if abortion was a right and if financial barriers to abortions were actually an issue.
“There’s a notion that’s been more or less promoted by the proponents of this bill,” said Deputy Majority Leader Rep. Arthur J. Corvese, a North Providence Democrat. “That, somehow, if a person cannot afford an abortion, then the right to an abortion does not exist.
“I can’t possess a firearm if I cannot afford it,” he continued. “Likewise, if a woman cannot afford an abortion she cannot get one. But that does not take the right away.”
Rep. Patricia A. Serpa, a West Warwick Democrat, said she worked with many pregnant girls during her 28 year-career in public schools and questions of affordability never cropped up in her experience.
“Unless I’m really missing something, I’m just not understanding this lack of access to abortion,” she said. “I don’t know of one of them who has said to me: I cannot have access to an abortion.”
Democratic Rep. Karen Alzate, of Pawtucket, a co-sponsor of the legislation, countered Serpa by citing the number of pregnancies she observed while growing up.
“I grew up with tons of girls in my community who had to have children because they could not afford an abortion,” Alzate said. “I have people in my community talking about how they cannot afford rent because they have to have another child.
“This is not only about abortion, this is about equity.”
Public opinion in favor
In comments to the press after the vote, Kazarian said she was thrilled with the results.
She cited an August poll conducted by Impact Research that found 72% of Rhode Islanders agreed that Medicaid and state employee insurance should cover abortion care, though slightly less, 66%, supported the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act.
“Today is a great day for Rhode Islanders,” she said. “I keep saying this, it’s a simple thing.”
The poll was funded by the Planned Parenthood Foundation of America and Planned Parenthood of Southern New England.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 16 states currently fund all or most medically necessary abortions with state Medicaid funds. Rhode Island would become the eighth to do so voluntarily should the bill become law. The New England states of Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts, already allow abortion coverage through Medicaid.
“This is a huge win for abortion access,” Gretchen Raffa, vice president of public policy, advocacy, and organizing for Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island, the organization’s local advocacy wing, said in an interview. “A right is meaningless if you cannot access it.”
Corvese called the vote a sad moment for Rhode Island.
“I’m obviously disappointed,” he said. “Disappointed for the innocent human lives that are going to be lost and disappointed for the taxpayers that will now have to fund abortions.”
A right is meaningless if you cannot access it.
– Gretchen Raffa, vice president of public policy, advocacy, and organizing for Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island
The approval is among a series of political moves supporting the right to access abortion care in Rhode Island at a time when reproductive rights are being challenged.
The 2019 Reproductive Privacy Act codified the protections of Roe v. Wade into state law, safeguarding the procedure’s legality following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case. That decision made abortion care an issue to be decided by the states.
On April 17, McKee and the Rhode Island Department of Health reassured Rhode Islanders that the state supply of abortion drug mifepristone remains stable.
The announcements happened more than two weeks after Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled April 7 that the FDA improperly approved mifepristone in 2000 and issued an injunction pausing the drug’s approval nationwide. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed that ruling on April 12.
No date has been set yet for a hearing on Valverde’s bill in the Senate.
“The Senate President has an open mind on the issue,” said Greg Pare, spokesman for Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio.
According to the most recent data from the Rhode Island Department of Health, there were 2,175 induced terminations of pregnancy performed in the state in 2021; a drop of 1,325 since 2017. Of those, 1,057 were surgical, 1,115 were medical, and three were unspecified.
The number does not account for a patient’s state of residence.
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