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Democratic Complacency While Women’s Rights at a Vulnerable Crux

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This past January, the Equality for Abortion Coverage Act (EACA) was presented in the Rhode Island Assembly by Representative Katherine Kazarian alongside 42 additional co-sponsors for the fourth year in a row. The EACA will ensure that individuals covered by Medicaid and state health insurance plans will have coverage for abortion procedures. The crusade follows a nationwide trend of proposed abortion state legislation since Roe v. Wade’s overturning last year, leaving the longstanding constitutional right to abortion to state decision. Despite recent legislation to protect women’s rights such as the EACA appearing promising, the fact that states have to mobilize these measures in the first place is a dismal omen for our country. With abortion rights becoming a state issue, Democratic legislators need to acknowledge the situation as dire and employ a sense of urgency to protect women’s rights.

Historically, Rhode Island has held a pro-choice stance. In 2019, Rhode Island passed the Reproductive Privacy Act (RPA), a success that codified abortion protections in the state. However, the Rhode Island legislature press release on the EACA revealed a critical weakness in the legislation—while current state legislation permits abortion procedures, state employees and Medicaid recipients are prohibited from using their insurance to cover procedures. The RPA’s legislation follows the federal Hyde Amendment which prohibits federal funding of abortion services, adding language that specifies that no federal funds shall be used to pay for them, with the exceptions of cases of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother would be endangered. 

The Rhode Island Planned Parenthood chapter found that these bans on insurance coverage impact nearly 80,000 enrolled in Medicaid and 6,500 on the state employees plan of reproductive age in the state. These numbers indicate a significant portion of Rhode Island’s population, disproportionately affecting low-income communities and people with disabilities. This legislation means that these people must pay out-of-pocket for an abortion procedure, which is implausible: The Women’s Health and Education Fund (WHEF) has stated that the average cost of an abortion in RI is $600. Many individuals and families simply do not have extra money to utilize if their insurance won’t cover their abortion. Therefore, this right is inaccessible for nearly one out of three Rhode Islanders. The EACA would add abortion coverage to RI’s Medicaid program, drawing on funds from the state, and repeal the current bans on abortion coverage for state employees and their dependents. It is imperative for the EACA to pass because, after all, rights are only as significant as they are accessible.

Ultimately, however, legislator support and action is often the determining factor on whether or not abortion legislation gets passed. In 2019, the RPA faced significant opposition, the debate spanning several months from the House to the Senate and then back again. The Providence Journal reported that at the time, “deeply held religious beliefs collided with the anger and fervor of women’s rights activists in the Trump era.” 19 Democrats ended up voting against the legislation, including then-Speaker of the House Nick Mattiello, and present Senate leaders President Dominick Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey. Although RI government ultimately passed the legislation, it was not without resistance.

It is in this context that the EACA has been proposed. The bill was introduced in the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 2020 and failed to pass in both 2021 and 2022.  Last year, the bill was reportedly not even a priority on political observers’ radars, but once a draft of the Supreme Court judgment overturning Roe surfaced in May, pressure to pass the EACA increased. Rhode Island has two Democratic US Senators and a majority of Democratic Representatives in the House of Representatives, but several Democratic RI lawmakers have expressed anti-abortion stances, including Senate President Ruggerio and Senate Majority Leader McCaffrey. Governor Daniel McKee also refused to enact a special legislature return for a session in September last year to have a better chance of the EACA passing sooner and also did not include the act in his budget proposal, despite stating his support for the EACA. Rhode Island’s history of stalled and muted responses to pro-choice legislation has been echoed throughout the country, with similar scenarios playing out in New Mexico and Hawaii. Though Rhode Island consistently votes blue, its abortion policies fail to match its progressive electorate, and the EACA’s long tenure stuck in the congressional system proves so.

Jocelyn Foye, co-director of The Womxn Project in Rhode Island and a fervor supporter of EACA, said,“while many politicians run as Democrats in the state to win, they don’t always vote like Democrats, particularly on abortion rights.” Liz Gledhill, a member of the Rhode Island Democratic Party Women’s Caucus who was among roughly 150 people attending the protest, put it simply: “The only thing standing in the way of this bill is Democrats, and they need to know that.” Evidently, the abortion debate doesn’t always necessarily play out along partisan lines, with many Democratically-controlled states failing to pass legislation, much to the disappointment of abortion-rights supporters and many constituents. 

However, the mass national attention brought to abortion rights by the overturning of Roe v. Wade has led to increased mobilization around pro-choice legislation, producing tangible hope for this session in RI. The organization Planned Parenthood Votes! Rhode Island reported this year that two-thirds of Rhode Island voters support passing the EACA: 72 percent of voters believe that patients enrolled in Medicaid should have the same coverage for abortion as people with private insurance. This support holds true across demographics including race, age, and gender. In anticipation, Governor Daniel McKee has now included health coverage for abortion for state employees and Medicaid users  in his proposed budget for 2024. Additionally, the Rhode Island Coalition for Reproductive Freedom hosted a rally on what would’ve been the 50th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, where McKee, Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, Secretary of State Gregg Amore, General Treasurer James Diossa and General Assembly members joined in rallying for the EACA. While these displays of support are encouraging for the future of the EACA, there is still expected opposition, including the Rhode Island Right to Life Committee, the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, and a handful of legislators—mostly Republican, many of whom opposed the bill in previous years. 

Already, 16 states have enacted legislation that enables Medicaid programs to cover abortion procedure costs. While giving states the right to pass their abortion legislation has led to even greater protection in some places, other states have seized the opportunity to restrict it, such as Kansas. Kansas has a number of laws that limit a woman’s right to abortion enacted in 2013, including mandatory waiting periods, counseling requirements, parental consent laws, and restrictions on the use of public funds for abortion. These laws persist despite Kansas’ population voting to keep abortion legal in 2022, holding true to their vote in 2019. But despite the Kansas Supreme Court having ruled and voters having expressed that the procedure should remain legal in the state, Kansas lawmakers continue to circumvent state protections on abortion. The most recent effort was launched in January of this year, when Kansas Senator Chase Blasi introduced a bill that would let any city or county in Kansas “‘regulat[e] abortion within its boundaries.’” Giving the states the right to pass their own laws has given people further protections in some states, but leaves other women, namely in red states, vulnerable.

Ultimately, while some more progressive states have moved to protect women’s right to an abortion, the fact that this right is now a state’s issue is concerning and should not be disregarded. Rhode Island has committed itself to protecting abortion rights, but women in red states haven’t been so fortunate. The vote in Kansas reflects this phenomenon: Some conservative representatives can adamantly push for pro-life legislation regardless of their constituents’ opinions, while some Democrats’ demonstrate a lack of fervor to pass pro-choice legislation. The fact that the EACA is now in its fourth consecutive session demonstrates RI Democrats’ lack of proactivity in the defense of our rights. For Rhode Island to live up to its “pro-choice” representation, legislators must address the lack of accessibility to abortion and pass the EACA.