R.I. lawmakers review eight new bills concerning abortion policy
Brown students and Rhode Island residents on both sides of the abortion debate descended on the State House March 11 to hear the House Judiciary Committee discuss eight reproductive health bills. All eight have since been recommended for further review, according to the General Assembly’s Legislative Status Report.
One of the bills discussed, entitled “Informed Consent for Abortion” and sponsored by five legislators including Rep. Karen MacBeth, D-Cumberland, has garnered significant media scrutiny. The legislation would require physicians to present an ultrasound to women seeking abortions prior to performing the procedure. The measure is similar to legislation recently enacted in Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia, though MacBeth’s bill would not require women to view the ultrasound image.
Two bills reviewed included measures to abolish the current stipulation requiring women to obtain spousal consent for abortions and prohibit state involvement in women’s personal matters. Other bills called for the enactment of the Fetal Protection Act, which would criminalize abortion procedures, ban sex-selective and partial-birth abortions and prohibit abortion coverage through state or federally funded insurance plans, except in cases of rape or life endangerment.
Sara Matthiesen GS, an American Studies doctoral candidate completing a dissertation on policy debates over women’s reproductive rights, said MacBeth’s push for informed consent is characteristic of the pro-life movement’s 1990 agenda.
“The pro-life movement has done a good job since the mid-to-late 90s rebranding itself as women-friendly, especially since the late 80s and early 90s when anti-abortion violence peaked,” Matthiesen said.
After repeated arson incidences, murders of abortion providers and bombings of abortion clinics, the pro-life movement needed to salvage its reputation, Matthiesen said. This was accomplished in part by emphasizing women’s rights in addition to fetus rights.
But both Matthiessen and Carolyn Mark, president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women, said MacBeth’s bill has received attention because it aligns closely with debates in other states.
There is no particular reason for the bill to appear now in Rhode Island, Mark said. It is a domino effect — one state’s legislative battle becomes a catalyst for another’s, she said.
Rhode Island Receives a D
According to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Rhode Island’s predominantly pro-life Senate, mixed House as well as several laws restricting abortion service and coverage earned the state a D grade.
Ranking 25th out of the 50 states on women’s reproductive rights, Rhode Island places only one spot above North Carolina and two above Arizona, which enacted four pro-life measures in 2012. Both Arizona and North Carolina enacted laws that forbid allocating state funds toward health centers that provide abortions, according to a NARAL report. A similar bill was introduced to Rhode Island’s General Assembly March 11.
Rhode Island has already enacted insurance restrictions, required parental consent for minors and ban abortions after 12 weeks. The state also requires women seeking abortions to receive descriptions of the abortion procedure, including the age of the fetus and a statement outlining alternatives, such as adoption.
“We may be a blue state, but we do not have the support of the General Assembly” on this issue, Mark said. Given a legislature more sympathetic to pro-choice measures, restrictive legislation would “never (see) the light of day,” she added.
The Guttmacher Institute reported in 2011 that 80 percent of Rhode Island counties, in which 37 percent of the state’s women reside, do not have abortion clinics. Rhode Island NOW is working with Planned Parenthood of Southern New England to expand family planning in order to service low-income women and help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies across the state.
The Highest Rate in New England
According to data from Guttmacher, 55 percent of pregnancies in Rhode Island were unintended in 2008, with 48 percent of these resulting in live births and 39 percent resulting in abortions.
The state’s rate of teen pregnancy is particularly high — the highest in New England. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy ranks Rhode Island 11th in the country for teen pregnancy rates. Guttmacher statistics indicate there were 17,180 sexually-active women under the age of 20 in 2008, 2,170 teen pregnancies and 740 teen abortions.
Though the teen pregnancy rate has fallen 38 percent since 1988, it has dropped only four percent since 2005.
“The key to helping our teen pregnancy rate is comprehensive sexual health” education, said Kafi Rouse, director of public relations and marketing for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. “We have learned that that is the most effective way to prevent teen pregnancy.”
Rhode Island also provides free contraception through community health centers, and 4,330 teens received contraception in 2010, due in large part to the federal Title-X family planning program. Under state law, any plan covering prescription medication must also provide coverage for FDA-approved prescription contraception.
Rhode Island law currently forbids health insurance plans from covering abortion procedures.
As Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17, a staunch pro-choice leader and former board member of NARAL, steps down from his position this year, gubernatorial candidates will have the opportunity to engage in a renewed discussion on abortion.
“We believe very strongly that we are not going to see the kind of advocacy that we want to see until we get more women and feminist male allies elected,” Mark said.
But despite the possible triumphs of pro-choice gubernatorial candidates, such as Clay Pell and Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island has a large Catholic faction and maintains a conservative Catholic majority in the General Assembly. With 44.1 percent of residents aged 18 and older declaring themselves Catholic, Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in the country, according to GALLUP.
“Powerful” Catholic churches in Rhode Island also have “a history of shaming and excommunicating (pro-choice) legislators,” Mark said.
But with several pro-choice bills having reached the General Assembly March 11, Mark has a positive attitude, though she said the Statehouse needs more female representation. Currently women make up 27.4 percent of Rhode Island’s legislature, one of the lowest percentages in New England.
“Without more women voices at the Statehouse, I think we will see very little change.”