On the marble steps inside a packed Rhode Island State House on Tuesday, hundreds of protesters competed for legislative attention as the House Judiciary Committee gathered to hear hotly debated bills on reproductive health care. Above the chanting and horn-blowing of pro-life nuns, activist groups, including Planned Parenthood and The Rhode Island-based Womxn Project, shouted their support of the Reproductive Health Care Act (RHCA), a bill which aims to codify the legal implications of Roe v. Wade into state law. If passed, the RHCA would ensure Rhode Islanders the right to an abortion even if the landmark Supreme Court decision were to be overturned—a perceived judicial threat that is driving much of the newfound urgency of abortion advocates around the country. (Last week, for example, New York State passed similar legislation into law.) The RHCA would also eliminate several statutes that have been declared unconstitutional by Rhode Island courts, such as the criminalization of abortion providers and the spousal notification requirement—with spouses referred to as ‘husbands’ under Rhode Island law.
71 percent of Rhode Islanders support pro-choice law. This statistic, displayed on signs at the Tuesday protest, is a clear indicator of the RHCA supporters’ message: The majority of the people in Rhode Island feel differently than the state assembly, which failed to pass the RHCA last year. Indeed, despite Rhode Island’s public consensus in favor of reproductive healthcare, the state consistently ranks among the country’s worst providers of abortion access—a fact that is perhaps surprising considering that Rhode Island is governed by a Democratic House, Senate, and Governor. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, a political organization dedicated to expanding reproductive health care, Rhode Island deserves the shockingly low grade of “F” for its abortion care. In comparison, Massachusetts received a “C+” and Connecticut an “A-.” NARAL’s report reveals that an overwhelming 80 percent of Rhode Island counties have no abortion clinic and that both Rhode Island’s Senate and House are anti-choice, meaning that a majority of its legislators do not support abortion access.
In the attempt to mobilize Rhode Island’s existing pro-choice majority, abortion advocates are using a variety of creative organizing tactics. Amid the crowds at the State House, the College Hill Independent met with Jocelyn Foye and Jordan Hevenor, co-directors of The Womxn Project, a Rhode Island non-profit organization working to build a feminist, community-based movement for reproductive justice in the state. To further legislative campaigns like the RHCA, these organizers use art to foster community engagement—a strategy that involves everything from collaborative newspaper advertisements to protests to quilt-making. Their goal is to mobilize new voters in the state’s reproductive health care advocacy circles. Repeating a common story of recent politicization in the past two years, Foye describes the history of The Womxn Project and the challenges they face, from disconnected legislators to staunch Catholic lobbyists.
The following interview has been abridged for clarity.
The College Hill Independent: Can you describe the origins of the Womxn Project?
Jocelyn Foye: The Womxn Project started out of South Kingstown, out of Hera Gallery which is the fifth oldest women-started art gallery in the United States. When 45 got elected, we decided we would do this series of educational talks. We were shocked. We didn’t realize that 43 percent of the state is Catholic. We didn’t realize that the majority of the Democrats in the House and Senate of that last cycle were pro-NRA and anti-choice—and choice is really not the right word, it’s more like anti-abortion and anti-access.
A couple of us are academics and a couple of us are designers and a couple of us are policy people. So we started by saying: could we combine art and activism as a way to bring more people out who don’t normally get involved? It doesn’t have to be showing up at the State House; it doesn’t have to be talking in front of a panel; it could be making a quilt. We started doing things that were really accessible. We started doing quilt squares and we asked someone to sign their name, their town, and the date. What it allowed us to do was to have individual conversations with people and tell them a few big talking points. It built and it built and it built until the point where a movement was really created. We’re kinda going old-school and we’re kinda going new-school. We call it “artivism.” Just for like, being cheeky, but also being practical.
The Indy: What’s the advantage of using both old-school and new-school methods?
JF: We didn’t know what people would respond to in the state, so we put in an ad in the paper on Sunday and we asked people to donate $10. People were overcompensating like crazy to get their name in the ad. We got 1,100 signatures, people loved their name in the paper, and this is not what I expected when it came to a more old-school model of marketing and promoting. The new-school [model] realistically has been social media which anyone could tell you, but we’ve tried to do it in ways that are quirky and that people will look at.
The Indy: Can you give a broad definition of reproductive justice?
JF: I, first of all, as a white woman really shouldn’t be speaking on it. I really defer to my brown and Black sisters to basically answer how womxn—womxn with an x, so that includes transgender, gender-fluid spaces—really are going in and setting the tone for when there is a limit on how the body is being regulated. Until we basically open the floodgates to having bodily autonomy and having the option—not the choice but the option—to be able to control your body or the option to choose what is best for you, then so much else happens. And when it’s regulated, or when it’s told it cannot be X, Y or Z, there’s a series of other things that happen. It’s harder to get food; it’s harder to get these things because you are not able to choose how you are using your life because you are being forced to do it in certain ways.
The Indy: What has been the role of the Catholic lobbyists in the fight for the RHCA?
JF: They are speaking their mind; they are speaking for what they want and that’s understood. What’s funny is ultimately we’re here fighting for something we already have. We’re here asking for status quo; we’re asking for the state to continue protecting what is covered under Roe, and we’re asking for it to not go away if Roe is overturned. So this is funny to me [gestures at the protesters] because we really just want what is already here.
The Indy: Does the Reproductive Health Care Act go far enough? What’s missing in this Act?
JF: Let’s just say that the Womxn Project’s plan is to fight for getting us out of an “F” rating once [the fight for] our Reproductive Health Care Act is over. You continue the year after to really defend it, but we’re really motivated to fight for greater access. We’re looking forward to moving beyond the Health Care Act in a lot of great initiatives like supporting Black maternal health and access in the state.
The Indy: What does access mean?
JF: Access means that if people need to see a doctor and they can’t afford it, they can go to a clinic and have answers given to them that fairly represent every question they asked. That may speak to gender-modification questions, that may speak to Pap smears and the annual exam, that may even go so far as just folks who can’t afford to see a doctor can go to a clinic and have their kids checked out. Access is being able to afford to get medical help without religious—or without any institutional—oversight.
The Indy: Are there important aspects of this fight that you feel are underrepresented in national or mainstream media discourse? Is there anything you want to emphasize?
JF: It’s crazy that we’re just fighting for the status quo. That is: one clinic and two other spaces in the state— when there’s thirteen fake clinics—
The Indy: What does that mean, a fake clinic?
JF: A fake clinic is a clinic where they say they are here to support reproductive health in one form or another and then when you get there, you’re really forced into family planning.
The Indy: How important do you think local support for reproductive rights is relative to state level support or national support?
JF: It’s been surprising. Certain towns are coming out, like Barrington, which is a section of the state where people would expect a little more progressive things happening, or Providence—more progressive because it’s a city. But then Central Falls is a predominantly Catholic area, so it’s kind of expected that the resolution [of the City Council to support the RHCA] shouldn’t have passed. And it did. So the times are changing. Honestly when we talk about 71 percent [of RI voters in support], it’s the Providence Journal. It’s not like a pro-abortion group doing [the polling]. It’s also NPR. They came in. They used an agency that does polling on all topics across the state for every topic.
Jordan Hevenor: I think it’s all important because we should be having these conversations at our most local and basic level. When someone runs for office, we should know whether they believe that healthcare for 51 percent of the population is valuable or not. When someone runs for school community or town council, those are often offices where people go on to run for the general assembly or a federal office. It’s an important discussion to be having in every community because it really starts in our community. What was so interesting about watching the resolution in Central Falls last night is this is about public health and the ability of residents of Central Falls to have the right to control their own health care. If our laws move us backwards and start taking away health care rights from people, that’s going to impact the health of all of our communities.
The Indy: Pro-Choice America lists Rhode Island as having one of the more restrictive abortion laws in the country. What does that mean? What is the state of the law right now in Rhode Island?
JH: The metric that I’ve used a lot in discussing this is that Rhode Island gets an “F” from NARAL for reproductive health care. That’s because of the state of our right which is based on Roe v. Wade and that is tenuous based on the current makeup of the Federal Supreme Court. The second thing is that our state Medicaid plans and our state health insurance plans don’t offer coverage for abortion care and we only have access to abortion in Providence county. So those are the criteria that NARAL rated our state on.
The Indy: What is the importance of art in activism?
JH: Art has just been a really great way to help people feel that activism is something that they can engage in. It can really meet you where you are. We have this quilt project and the most basic thing you can do is sign a quilt square and then we can start sewing it together and when we sew together, we’re having opportunities to come together as a community and talk about issues that are important to us and how they overlap with our state and federal government. There’s not necessarily a lot of spaces that create that. It’s been really inspiring to watch—especially when there is so much going on at the federal level that’s attacking our rights—to see us taking matters into our own hands and engaging with each other and building that community together.
As The Womxn Project acknowledged in a press release, responsibility for Rhode Island’s lack of reproductive health care can be located in the state’s elected representatives and, more specifically, in the disconnect between government officials and the populations they represent: “We are concerned that the leadership is out of touch with the needs and the views of Rhode Islanders.” Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, for example, has said that he does not believe Roe v. Wade is in danger, despite the conservative majority now sitting on the Supreme Court bench. The problem of flawed representation—that despite a majority of popular support for abortion access, political leaders are unwilling to take action—suggests the limitations of physical protest. This evidence of a larger accountability problem reminds us that dropping quilts above the marble steps of the statehouse is only the beginning of the activism we need.
SARA VAN HORN B' 21 wants straight A's.