Testimony in favor of Equality in Abortion Coverage Act dominates Senate committee hearing

Reproductive rights activists turn out to make their voices heard at State House

By: - May 9, 2023 9:34 pm

People queue outside Room 313 in the State House to provide testimony on five abortion bills before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, May 9. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade\Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — Norine Duncan said she never worked as a political activist before retirement from her career as a librarian at Brown University. 

Nonetheless, she felt it important to speak in favor of a bill expanding abortion care coverage in Rhode Island before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday evening.

“This bill is really a matter of equity,” she said in an interview before the Senate Judiciary Committee sat Tuesday evening to hear testimony on five abortion-related bills. “I never worked in anything political but I am a mother and grandmother. 

“I never needed an abortion, but I would like other women to have that option.”

Duncan and the majority of the 100 or so people registered to testify spoke in favor of S32, the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act. 

Sponsored by Sen. Bridget Valverde, a North Kingstown Democrat, the legislation would allow state Medicaid dollars to go toward abortion care and lift a prohibition on state employee-sponsored health insurance to cover pregnancy termination.

“The entire point of Medicaid is to provide health coverage to individuals and families who could not otherwise afford it,” Valverde said in testimony before the committee. “It is cruel, and unjust, to make it more likely that Medicaid patients will be forced to have a child when they cannot afford it.”

The hearing followed the April 27 passage in a 49 to 24 floor vote on its version of the bill by the House of Representatives. Gov. Dan McKee indicated then he would sign the bill into law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously that all bills be held for further study.

Two Democratic senators widely believed to hold the deciding votes on the committee, Sen. David Takoian, of Smithfield, and Sen. John Burke, of West Warwick, said little during the evening. 

Deputy Senate Minority Leader Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, made a spirited argument that bill proponents have misrepresented Rhode Island abortion law.

“Proponents of the EACA have misled the state to believe the state does not already provide abortion,” de la Cruz said, adding state Medicaid funds can be used for abortions in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother. 

“We do in fact provide abortions to that population,” she added, referring to Medicaid-recipients and those covered by the state employees health insurance plan.

Jean McDonald, a Rhode Islander who testified against the bill, said her Roman Catholic faith guides her opposition to the bill.

“This bill would force your fellow Rhode Islanders to be complicit in abortion,” she said. “You would force Rhode Islanders to fund actions that are contrary to their beliefs and their faith.

“This is an egregious overstepping of authority and an attack on religious liberty,” McDonald continued. “The fact that abortion is legal in Rhode Island does not obligate people to pay for it.”

You would force Rhode Islanders to fund actions that are contrary to their beliefs and their faith.

– Jean McDonald, a Rhode Islander who testified against the bill

Supporters of the legislation said the bill was about ensuring everyone who needs access to abortion care has it. Several pointed to a report released in December by the Kaiser Family Foundation which found 38% of Black Americans from birth through age 64 used Medicaid for their healthcare, versus only 20% of their white counterparts in 2021.

About one-third of Rhode Islanders are covered under Medicaid and an additional 8,000 state employees use state health insurance.

“Every week in our clinic, this is what we’re dealing with,” Andrea Arena, a family medicine doctor based in Pawtucket, said in her testimony. “Helping patients get the care they need despite financial barriers.”

Arena said that her own experience within Catholicism pushed her to support the legislation. 

“What I learned from being Catholic is to fight for justice and against oppression,” Arena told the committee. 

What I learned from being Catholic is to fight for justice and against oppression.

– Dr. Andrea Arena, a family medicine physician based in Pawtucket who testifed in favor of the legislation

Gretchen Raffa, vice president of public policy, advocacy, and organizing for Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island, the organization’s local advocacy wing, said that abortion would not truly become a right until all who seek one can afford it.

“We are doing our work to ensure that every senator in the building knows this is a popular piece of legislation,” Raffa said. “We need to make sure it’s a right everyone can access.”

Anti-abortion bills

Four other bills introduced by Senate Republicans related to abortion were discussed at the hearing. They included:

  •  S298, sponsored by de la Cruz, would require clinics that perform abortions to meet “the licensing requirements of similar facilities” and allow random inspection by the Department of Health. The bill would allow for revoking the license if they don’t pass inspection.
  • S347, sponsored by Sen. Elaine Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican, would charge medical professionals who do not give treatment to an infant born alive with felony manslaughter.
  • S392, sponsored by Morgan, would guarantee infants born alive during an abortion procedure access to the same medical care as infants born alive naturally.
  • S397, sponsored by de la Cruz, would prohibit the termination of pregnancy when a fetus is capable of feeling pain unless the life of the mother is at risk.

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 data does not account for a patient’s state of residence. 

De la Cruz said the S298 clinic licensing and inspection bill sprang from an interaction with the Department of Health where she inquired as to the licensure of clinics where pregnancy terminations are performed.

“My legislation would require abortion facilities to have a standalone statute for inspection,” she said. “Right now, DOH is telling me abortion clinics are treated like a health care facility. I do not subscribe to the oft-said statement that abortion is health care.”

Raffa said the Republican bills were attempts to sidetrack the debate.

“These anti-abortion bills that are proposed are right out of the playbook of the national anti-abortion movement,” Raffa said. “The General Assembly needs to focus on ensuring that people have access to the procedure.”


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.