Rhode Island Faith Leaders: Pass ‘Roe’ Protections Now

“The blessing of the Roe decision was that Roe recognized the moral agency of women. We cannot let that go away. We simply cannot allow women to become invisible again."

Religious leader speaking at podium
Rev. Brendan Curran, associate minister at the Barrington Congregational Church, UCC, gives the closing prayer at the press conference. Auditi Guha

While conservative religious figures mount a nationwide assault on reproductive health care, Rhode Island faith leaders gathered at the state house this week to publicly back the Reproductive Health Act (RHA), which would protect abortion access should the U.S. Supreme Court one day overturn Roe v. Wade.

Members of the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, an interfaith organization working to protect reproductive rights, called on leaders of the general assembly to pass the RHA (S 2163/H 7340), which would repeal antiquated anti-choice laws and codify the protections of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade into state law. The coalition also voiced support for legislation to protect access to contraception (S 2529 /H 7625). The bill would require health insurance plans to provide for a 12-month supply of birth control without co-pay irrespective of what happens to the Affordable Care Act.

“Our Catholic faith teaches that a woman is a person with rights, responsibilities and a conscience that must guide her as a moral agent. She must be allowed and empowered to make the best decisions for herself based on her conscience, in the light of her own circumstances and following her own beliefs,” said Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, vice president of Catholics for Choice, in a written statement read on her behalf at the press conference.

Equality, fairness, compassion, and social justice are Catholic values, and a majority of Catholics across the United States and Rhode Island agree that abortion should be legal, she added, urging the speedy passage of the RHA. 

“As a person of faith, I know the right to self-determination is a human right,” said Rev. David L. Helfer from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County during the press conference. “As a religious professional, I recognize the need for the dignity inherent in choice, as codified in Roe v. Wade. As a queer and trans individual, I recognize here the intention of others to constrain the freedoms of those they deem unable to do so for themselves.”

Retired Episcopal priest Rev. Dr. David A. Ames recalled how women struggled with unplanned pregnancies and how self-induced abortions often led to sepsis or death prior to Roe, when he served as a member of the clergy consultation service that counseled women in New York City in the late 1960s.

“With the passage of Roe, women had the right to choose, and, as a result, pregnancy terminations could be accomplished in medically safe clinics under the care of physicians and other health care personnel,” he said. “My years of experience, along with fellow clergy and professional counselors, in providing pastoral care to women and families demonstrate the significance and importance of reproductive health care and family planning. Government officials have no business imposing their personal faith or moral restrictions about medical services into legislation that restricts moral decisions affecting our private lives.”

Rabbi Sarah Mack, of Temple Beth-El in Providence and president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, said all women deserve the right to make decisions about their own bodies and health just as she has been privileged to do as a mother of two.

“All life is sacred in Judaism. While an unborn fetus is precious and to be protected, it’s essential to remember that Judaism places a higher value on existing life than on potential life. The life and well-being of the mother are paramount. Women are commanded to take care of their own health and well-being above all else,” she said.

“These are simply not choices that should be legislated,” Mack said.

Camille Brousseau and Sabrina Goncalves, high school students and congregants at Temple Habonim, talked about the importance of passing this legislation to protect future generations of women in the Ocean State.

“As young women living in Rhode Island, we acknowledge that there is a chance that we could end up in a situation where we have to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. We both want the opportunity to make an educated and meaningful decision regarding our futures. We believe that women are capable of making the right decision and that politicians should not be making the decision for us,” Goncalves said.

All of those who spoke urged the passage of the RHA, introduced in January and due for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on April 10.

Some said the passage of the bill would be difficult. Rhode Island is considered the country’s most Catholic state, and four of its most powerful politicians in the general assembly are staunchly anti-choice. So far, the governor’s response has been tepid, and similar bills have not reached the state senate floor in a decade. But advocates told Rewire.News they are hopeful for change at a time when the Women’s March, #ShePersisted, and #MeToo movements have gathered momentum, sending a strong message to lawmakers nationwide.

“A lot of women are focusing on this issue and want their legislators to pass it,” state Sen. Jeanine Calkin (D-Warwick) told Rewire.News after the call to action.

State lawmakers should realize that the majority of the state supports the bill and its passage, said state Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (D-Providence).

A dozen lawmakers last week publicly announced their support of the bill in the state house. 

Among them was Rep. Jason Knight (D-Barrington). “I feel very strongly that Roe is in danger and that we need to preserve women’s right and access to healthcare,” he told Rewire.News after the press conference.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Dan McKee’s recent comments on the bill have been condemned by area advocacy groups. Interviewed last week on Rhode Island Public Radio’s “Political Roundtable,” McKee questioned the necessity of the RHA and whether it would hold up in court. He described the legislation as “more of a gesture.”

Jocelyn Foye, co-founder of non-profit The Woman Project, said members are “shocked” by his “out of touch statement.”

“Did he miss that a 15-week abortion ban was passed in Mississippi? Did he hear that four pregnant teenagers have been detained by ICE and were denied their right to receive abortion health care? Does he know that there is legislation pending in Ohio that could completely ban abortion? I hope Mr. McKee will start paying attention. Reproductive health care is under attack, and women and marginalized communities are already feeling the impact,” she said in a statement.

State Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence), who is challenging McKee in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor with support from Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, told Rewire.News he is a strong supporter of women’s rights and the RHA. “While it was important before, since November 2016 we know that this is urgent,” he said. “You cannot have economic justice without reproductive justice.”

Since 2011, states have enacted more than 400 abortion restrictions, according to a press release from the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a nonprofit devoted to advancing progressive causes. At least 39 bills have been introduced across 19 states to restrict or ban abortion in 2018.

These attacks on Roe have prompted 250 state legislators who are members of the Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council, a national network of state lawmakers embracing leadership on reproductive rights, to call on their colleagues and the courts in an open letter this week to stop abortion bans.

They include four lawmakers from Rhode Island—state Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-Providence) and state Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence) who sponsored the RHA; Sen. Dawn Euer (D-Newport), who sponsored the contraception bill; and state Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown).

Faith leaders in Rhode Island Tuesday evening said it is a shame that laws to protect women are necessary in 2018, at a time when women make up half the nation’s electorate. They also noted that women of color and low-income women are the most negatively affected by abortion restrictions. 

“The blessing of the Roe decision was that Roe recognized the moral agency of women. We cannot let that go away. We simply cannot allow women to become invisible again,” said Rev. Gene Dyszlewski, pastor at Lime Rock Baptist Church in Lincoln.