With a large group of protesters filling the State House rotunda on Tuesday afternoon, one holding a sign comparing abortions to the mass killings of Adolf Hitler and others chanting religious hymns praying for “sinners”, it sure didn’t appear that a 71 percent majority of voters in Rhode Island supported codifying abortion rights for women as written in the landmark federal case Roe v. Wade into state legislation.
But despite the clamor in the hallways, inside the meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, the debate was civil and based on facts the committee had gathered in talking to advocates and those opposed to the proposed bill – which would copy language from Roe v. Wade to guarantee a woman’s right to seek an abortion, but only up to the point of fetal viability.
The bill passed the Judiciary Committee by a slim margin, 9-7, and will now be brought to the full House for a possible vote at some point today. If it passes there, it would head to the Senate for likely more debate. If it were to pass there it would almost certainly be signed by Governor Gina Raimondo – who has long been an open advocate for the legislation – which would enshrine abortion protections in the heavily Catholic state of Rhode Island whether or not any changes occur federally via the new conservative-majority Supreme Court.
Rep. Evan Shanley (Warwick), who is first vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee and was one of the votes in favor to send the bill to the House floor, said that the issue is an inherently polarizing one that brings out strong emotions from each side.
“Whether you’re a woman talking about having control over your own body or you’re somebody else talking about the rights of a fetus, it’s such a raw emotional issue for many people on both sides that it’s difficult to have a discussion because you often stake out one position or another,” said Shanley.
However, he said the decorum and discussion within the committee hearing was respectful and based on the facts at hand, as gathered from many discussions with advocates and those in opposition to the legislation.
“Everybody on the committee had a different perspective or opinion but everyone was respectful and there was a real dialogue,” he said. “That’s not what we saw in the State House hallways and that’s not often what you see everywhere else...Nobody was yelling at each other.”
Those coming out in opposition of the bill, or at least hesitant to voice their support of it, include House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi. Mattiello, in a column penned in the Feb. 26 edition of the Beacon, said he would not support terminology that allowed “late-term abortions up until the day before birth.” Shekarchi said on Wednesday he would likewise not support an expansion of protections beyond Roe v. Wade.
However, Shanley reasoned that he voted in support of the bill to progress because it is a “conservative” and stringent codification of Roe v. Wade that does not reach beyond those boundaries when it comes to late-term abortions – which occur in any period of time after which a fetus is considered medically viable, which can be any time between 21-28 weeks.
The bill would only allow an abortion after the fetus is viable – or able to live outside of the mother – if the abortion is necessary to preserve the health or life of the mother. In other words, if a C-section or an induced delivery could be performed without risking the life of the mother, those procedures would be required before an abortion could be utilized as a last resort. This is identical to the language presented in the federal legislation, Shanley said.
“[Late-term abortions] would have to be medically necessary, and that’s the current standard in federal law and that’s the standard we put in our bill,” Shanley said. “Anybody that tells you that it’s expanding the federal bill is not being accurate. I’m not saying they’re intentionally be misleading, but it’s just not accurate…The most we could have possibly done in restricting late term abortions is what we did.”
However others, like Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (Warwick), who also sits on the Judiciary Committee and was one of the seven who voted in opposition of moving the bill to the House floor, does not agree. Vella-Wilkinson said on Wednesday that she couldn’t support the bill as presented because she felt it could potentially leave room for medically viable abortions to be conducted outside of a direct health risk to the mother.
“It did not specify that it was purely physical health,” she said. “It could be someone who was anxious about being pregnant or if it was a mental health issue.”
Vella-Wilkinson said she had received three separate petitions including signatures from around 13,500 people total that joined together in opposition to the bill. She also drew on her own personal experience giving birth to a healthy son at the end of the second trimester.
“Medicine has changes dramatically since the 70s [when Roe v. Wade was passed],” she said. “I’m concerned about a group of lawyers determining what viability is.”
Vella-Wilkinson also said that part of the goal in her advocacy is to remind people that unborn fetuses should still be thought of as people.
“I don’t understand how people have a difficult time understanding that the pre-born is a person. We’re using words like viable. It’s a pre-born being,” she said. “My intent is to hopefully let people realize you’re talking about a person, a baby.”
Shanley said that the committee heard testimony from medical professionals that showed very few abortions occur after the fetus is viable. When they do, they only happen in “rare and exceptional,” or “horrific” situations where either the fetus has a terminal defect or the mother has a life-threatening medical condition such as advanced cancer or a blood clot that would make surgical, natural or induced delivery impossible without a significant risk of death.
Doctors Emily White and Beth Cronin, who chair and co-chair the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and practice as OBGYNs in Providence, penned an editorial that ran in Tuesday’s Beacon where they outlined the rare occasions in which late-term abortions actually occur – and only 1.3 percent of abortions take place after 21 weeks, they report.
“Fetal developmental problems or genetic anomalies are often not detected until later in pregnancy as many of the diagnostic tests are not available until almost 20 weeks. Many of these anomalies are incompatible with life, meaning the fetus will not survive outside the uterus,” they write. “When testing confirms a severe fetal anomaly, the medical decisions patients must subsequently make are complex and it is essential that they are able to consider the full range of appropriate treatments, whether that is an abortion or delivery. These diagnoses are devastating for patients and their families and they deserve compassion, not stigma.”
White and Cronin criticized the misleading nature of bill opponents who suggest that the bill would allow full-term abortions “up until the day before a birth,” and criticized Mattiello directly.
“Speaker Mattiello parrots the extremist rhetoric being pushed by opponents of safe, legal abortion swarming in the media,” they write. “Physicians do not perform abortions on viable fetuses up until the moment of birth. It is callous to suggest that healthy women would request this or that physicians would comply.”
Still, as Shanley pointed out in his interview Wednesday, these facts are not of particular consequence to people who morally oppose abortions as a practice as a whole – like some of those who gathered at the State House on Tuesday who equate all abortion as an unforgivable act of sin.
“At a certain point, we came to the understanding that no matter what we did, people that are fundamentally opposed to abortion will never be okay with the bill, and I respect that and understand that. Many of my colleagues hold that position,” he said. “But at the end of the day, this was a vote to match up federal law with state…The debate that can be had another day was whether or not Roe V. Wade was the right decision.”