Abortion Protections Are at the Center of Rhode Island Governor’s Primary Challenge (Updated)

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Abortion Protections Are at the Center of Rhode Island Governor’s Primary Challenge (Updated)

Auditi Guha

Rhode Island scored an “F” grade from NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2016 for its “severely restricted access." Matt Brown says that’s a result of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s lack of leadership on abortion rights.

UPDATE, September 13, 8:36 a.m.Gov. Gina Raimondo on Wednesday won the Democratic gubernatorial primary with 56 percent of the vote. She will face Allan Fung in November’s election. 

In a year that has seen a push for reproductive rights protections in Rhode Island, one gubernatorial candidate has made his pro-choice stance very clear while claiming that Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s record speaks otherwise.

Former Rhode Island secretary of state Matt Brown, who is looking to unseat Raimondo in the September Democratic primary, released a letter last week taking aim at Raimondo as insufficiently pro-choice. The letter is signed by 50 women, including prominent women’s rights advocate Gloria Steinem; Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America; and Barbara Roberts, a professor at Brown University and former physician at Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island.

“I am unequivocal in my position that we need to not just protect but expand reproductive freedom in the state” as lawmakers around the country pass legislation to restrict access, Brown told Rewire.News. “That needs to change.”

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Raimondo, who was endorsed last month by the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women, called Brown’s allegations “laughable,” the Providence Journal reported.

In his letter, Brown said Raimondo “campaigns as pro-choice but governs as anti-choice.” Raimondo certainly campaigned on a pro-choice platform and was endorsed by Planned Parenthood in 2014. She has been largely silent on abortion rights since being elected governor, but this year she confirmed her support for the Reproductive Health Care Act, or S 2163. Yet her campaign website does not mention reproductive health care.

Raimondo recently said she would sign pro-choice bills like the RHA if passed by the state legislature. To Brown, that’s a hollow promise that she made “knowing full well that without her leadership [the bill] is not going to come to her desk,” he said.

Brown said he would be a leader who doesn’t sidestep the issue and would bring the discussion to the statehouse, where anti-choice Democrats have stymied efforts to protect abortion rights. He promised he would “work to close the gap between the public’s support for reproductive freedom and the government’s support of it.”

Brown was among four of five male candidates who voiced their support for reproductive rights at a debate last week hosted by the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. The two women, Raimondo and Republican Patricia Morgan, did not attend, the Providence Journal reported.

Despite 60 percent support for reproductive rights in the state, Rhode Island scored an “F” grade from NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2016 for its “severely restricted access.” Brown says that’s a result of Raimondo’s anti-choice politics and lack of leadership on abortion rights.

“This governor campaigned saying she was pro-choice but has been an anti-choice governor. She personally intervened to push the first anti-choice legislation in the state in 15 years—that’s according to the ACLU. So you can’t lead if you say one thing during election season but govern in the opposite way,” he said.

He pointed to Raimondo forcing insurers in Rhode Island to offer nine plans restricting abortion coverage through the Affordable Care Act’s health-care exchanges, a move that risked abortion coverage for 9,000 Rhode Islanders and was the state’s “first anti-abortion legislation in over 15 years,” according to the ACLU.

Emily Samsel, Raimondo’s campaign press secretary, said the governor has always been an advocate for reproductive rights.

“This month she threatened to sue the Trump administration if they restrict funding for Planned Parenthood. In recent months she has spoken out against the Trump administration’s efforts to get between a woman and her doctor, called on the General Assembly to codify abortion rights into state law and phone banked in support of pro-choice legislation. So far in her 2018 race, she has endorsements from pro-choice groups RI Now and Emily’s List,” Samsel said in a email.

Kyrie Perry at Health Source Rhode Island said there are no small employer plans that exclude abortion coverage in the state. Twelve of the state’s 18 individual market plans cover abortion services, Perry said. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 31 states have no plans that cover abortion on their ACA marketplaces. 

Rhode Island is considered the country’s most Catholic state. Four of its most powerful politicians in the general assembly, all Democratic men, have been silent on Trump’s efforts to roll back reproductive freedoms.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, and Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey have all signed on to legislation over the years that would restrict abortion rights, and they have all been endorsed by anti-choice organizations at some point. Just last month, the Democratic Speaker said he does not believe Roe. v. Wade is under attack, despite myriad efforts from state-level Republicans to pass total abortion bans. Bills like the RHA have not reached the state senate floor in a decade under this anti-choice Democratic leadership.

A hearing on the RHA this month brought out pro- and anti-choice groups delivering testimony well into the night. Advocates urged lawmakers to follow Ireland’s lead in codifying abortion rights in Rhode Island. The bill is stuck in committee; many fear it will die there.

“There’s enthusiasm and growing support for this agenda. This is an issue we need to fight for constantly, not just in election years but in governing as well.” Brown said. “It requires leadership, and the current governor has not demonstrated that.”

Pro-choice advocacy groups NARAL and Planned Parenthood have not yet endorsed anyone in the Rhode Island governor’s race. The Woman Project, a nonprofit created last year to advocate for the RHA, is remaining focussed on the bill’s passage and does not plan on making any endorsements.

“The battle lines in the war on reproductive freedom run right through our General Assembly. We have fought alongside many of the women who signed that letter—to take the fight directly to the powerful Speaker of the House and Senate President who stand in our way. And we are humbled by those that paved the way for us, since Rhode Island women have been defending Roe v. Wade since the day it was decided,” Jocelyn Foye, co-founder of The Woman Project, told Rewire.News.

“The RHCA is not being held up by Governor Raimondo, but by the Speaker of the House and the Senate President—two right-to-life endorsed leaders,” Foye continued. “One of those leaders recently said debating the RHCA would take up all the oxygen in the room. What was missing in Matt Brown’s statement is what can he do differently to convince leadership, who are on the other side, who do not think the threat is real, and who question the legitimacy of the debate to move this bill forward.”