THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


A Secret Yesterday, A Movement Today

The fight to ensure reproductive rights for Rhode Islanders

by Katrina Northrop

Illustration by Claire Schlaikjer

published March 10, 2017


In the spring of 1965, Edith Ajello became pregnant after having sex for the first time. She was 21 years-old, unmarried, and a college student at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. Ajello wasn’t ready to be a mother. Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that guaranteed the right to an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, would not enter the court system until 1973. She was stuck.

Ajello, now a Democratic Rhode Island State Representative, is a co-sponsor of the Reproductive Health Care Act, a bill that was proposed on February 2, 2017, to ensure every woman’s right to an abortion in Rhode Island—regardless of whether Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court. According to the language of the legislation, “This act would prohibit the state from interfering with a woman’s decision to prevent, commence, continue or terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability.” It would also prohibit the state from restricting any medically recognized form of abortion or contraception. 

Because of the current Supreme Court vacancies to be filled by President Trump, the court will likely tilt towards a pro-life majority in the next four years. To fill the seat of the deceased Justice Scalia, President Trump nominated Colorado federal appellate judge Neil Gorsuch on February 1, 2017. Although Gorsuch has never ruled on abortion in his judicial career, he upheld the right of companies not to provide contraceptive coverage due to religious objections in the 2013 case of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius. Under Trump’s court, there is a real possibility that Roe v. Wade will be overturned in the next four years. If so, the national right to an abortion would no longer be guaranteed, and individual state legislatures would determine abortion laws.

Ajello received the upsetting news of her pregnancy at the end of her junior year in college. At the time, she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to finish her final papers and exams. She went to one of her professors in a panic, hoping he would let her finish the class’s coursework over the summer. She found herself divulging her secret, and after a lengthy conversation, the sympathetic professor suggested the possibility of an abortion. It was an idea Ajello had not considered. 

The professor referred Ajello to a doctor in a neighboring town who would perform the procedure safely. Though the abortion was illegal, Ajello was lucky to have access to a qualified and willing physician, unlike many others who were forced to risk their lives by attempting self-induced abortions. Ajello remained at Bucknell after the semester ended. She took summer classes so she could graduate a semester early. Her boyfriend was fully supportive of her decision at the time, but they broke up soon after the operation. None of Ajello’s friends were on campus, and she remembers crying often. “I felt very alone,” she told me over the phone. 

Ajello didn't share the story of her unplanned pregnancy with her friends. Rumors circulated around Bucknell, but she ignored them, hoping that her friends would ignore them too. Ajello didn’t publicly acknowledge her abortion until one night fifty years later, at a Rhode Island Planned Parenthood annual dinner event. At the dinner, a speaker challenged everyone in the room who had undergone an abortion to stand up. Ajello hadn’t intended to ever make her abortion public, but something in the moment moved her. She stood up.

“That was a seminal moment,” Ajello told me. Looking around, she saw that other women, some friends and some strangers, were standing alongside her. “I realized that this is something that many women have in common, although they’ve never talked about it.” 

 

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On February 1, 2017, Rep. Ajello shared the story of her abortion in front of the Rhode Island State House in a televised press conference. Originally, the conference was only supposed to include the legal details of the Reproductive Health Care Act. But when Rep. Ajello offered to share her personal story in front of the cameras, State Senator Gayle Goldin, the bill’s Senate sponsor, agreed that it would humanize the polarizing issue and increase support for the bill.

The Reproductive Health Care Act is co-sponsored by 36 of the state’s House Representatives. The same legislation has been proposed at every session for decades in order to make clear Rhode Island’s commitment to reproductive rights and to protect against anti-choice federal administrations. The bill has never received adequate support or public attention in Rhode Island, but the sponsors are more optimistic this year due to the threat of President Trump’s restrictive reproductive rights policies. “It is even more important now because of the election of that man,” Rep. Ajello told me. The Illinois and New York state legislatures have recently proposed similar legislation, attempting to ensure abortion rights within their own states, even if Roe v. Wade is challenged.

The Reproductive Health Care Act must be approved by a committee first in both the Rhode Island House and the Senate, before reaching the floor for a vote. Some legislators worry that House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello will block the vote, as he was endorsed by Rhode Island Right to Life (RIRTL) this past election cycle, and has refrained from commenting on the bill thus far. In the Rhode Island State Senate, Senator Gayle Goldin is working hard to eliminate roadblocks to the bill’s passage. “There is a different kind of momentum this year,” she said to me over the phone, citing the election of new state representatives and the community’s desire to push back against the Trump administration. If the bill reaches the Senate and House floors, the votes could take place anytime before the end of the legislative session in June. 

 

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Many women have expressed to Rep. Ajello that they feel less alone and more comfortable sharing their stories with friends and family after her announcement at the State House news conference. Although it shouldn’t be necessary to have a personal connection to support abortion rights, Ajello tells me, “the more people who know someone who has had an abortion…the more real it gets to people, and the more sympathetic it gets.” 

One woman from East Providence even called to say that she went to the same Pennsylvania doctor for an abortion as Rep. Ajello had. The only negative response she has received came from a blocked number. After she picked up the phone, a male voice said, “You should have been aborted.” Ajello hung up. “I decided that we didn’t really have much to talk about,” she said.

The most outspoken opposition to the bill has come from RIRTL. Affiliated with the Catholic Diocese of Providence, the group works to lobby against any state legislation that legalizes abortion and supports candidates who share that goal.

Rep. Ajello often speaks to constituents that oppose abortion on religious grounds. “I respect that religious belief. But I don’t share it, and I don’t think our laws should share it,” she said. “I’m not advocating that religious people have abortions. I’m not advocating that anyone has an abortion.” At the same time, Ajello feels strongly that everyone who becomes pregnant should have the opportunity to make their own choice. Barth Bracy, the executive director of RIRTL, believes that granting women this choice is a mistake. Over the phone, he spoke in unequivocal terms. “This is the most extreme bill that has ever been filed in this state.”

Bracy acknowledges that there is more public attention to the bill this year, but he doesn’t believe that this translates into legislative success. He blames this attention on “hysteria that has been preyed upon by Planned Parenthood and Representative Ajello.” In painting women’s concern over losing abortion rights as “hysteria,” Bracy does not acknowledge the substantial consequences of lacking control over personal life decisions. This is not a removed legislative battle, as he depicts it, but a personal struggle to ensure that women have both the right to abortion and the right to have the option available. 

 

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Democratic Representative Susan Donovan, one of the other co-sponsors of the bill, said to me at her State House office, “to be honest, I didn’t think that we would ever be at this juncture again.” Roe v. Wade was decided when Representative Donovan was in college, and she remembers when it was necessary for women to cross state lines to get an abortion. Because there is a real chance that abortion rights will be taken away in the near future, she said that “it is time to think about this again, and to start asking people where they stand.”

Rep. Donovan said that her political stance comes down to the important distinction between wealthy women and disadvantaged women. Low-income women do not have equal access to abortion, and thus they have lower rates of abortion than their high income counterparts, according to the Brookings Institution. This, along with the fact that low-income women are twice as likely not to use contraception, leads to low-income women’s disproportionately high rate of unplanned pregnancy. Contributing to the vicious cycle of poverty, unplanned pregnancies limit women’s career opportunities and earning potential. 

“If we legislate against abortion, women with means will always be able to cross state lines to get [one],” Rep. Donovan told me. But women living near and below the poverty line don’t have the same resources or mobility. “Imagine living in a state with a lot of restrictions, where you would have to drive 700 miles to get an abortion, and you don’t even own a car. That’s scary stuff to me.” The challenge of having to drive across state lines in order to have an abortion is not purely a logistical issue—this type of barrier further exacerbates the systemic oppression at work. Low-income women are not only forced to pay for this trip, they are forced to take time off work, and undergo a difficult procedure far away from any emotional support system. These factors impose a structural bind on all women, but low-income women, and especially women of color, suffer more due to their lack of resources, access, and political voice.

 

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Planned Parenthood is the leader in advocating for reproductive rights in Rhode Island and an active supporter of the Reproductive Health Care Act. Opponents of the bill have criticized Planned Parenthood’s advocacy, saying that the organization is reaping economic rewards from its abortion services. “This is all mixed up and not accurate,” Rep. Ajello says, responding to these critics. In fact, the Hyde Amendment, which is a 1976 legislative provision, prohibits federal funds from going to abortions, unless in the case of rape, incest, or risk to the mother’s life. Additionally, Rhode Island state laws prohibit any state funds from going to abortions. Because of these provisions, Planned Parenthood’s abortion services are funded solely by private donors and individual patients.

On March 6, Planned Parenthood rejected President Trump’s offer to preserve federal funding if the organization stops providing abortion services. Due to this rejection, Planned Parenthood will likely lose all federal funding under Trump’s American Health Care Act, which was released on March 7 to replace the Affordable Care Act. This loss of funding would even extend to services other than abortions, such as pap smears, HIV testing, and maternal care. Most federal funding of Planned Parenthood comes in the form of Medicaid reimbursements for low income patients. If President Trump follows through on his promise to defund Planned Parenthood, the organization could not receive reimbursement for serving low income patients who rely on Medicaid. According to a report by Planned Parenthood, 79 percent of the organization’s patients are at or below the poverty level. Without federal assistance, low income patients will not be able to access Planned Parenthood’s basic health and preventive services. Lacking necessary preventative care, disadvantaged women’s rate of unplanned pregnancy will rise, further exacerbating the impact that poverty has on a woman’s access to healthcare.

Craig O’Connor, the Director of Public Policy and Government Relations for the Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, acknowledging that many disadvantaged women rely on Planned Parenthood for their basic health needs, released a written statement asserting that regardless of defunding, “we are here for our patients—our doors stay open, no matter what.” 

 

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After the pivotal Planned Parenthood dinner, when Rep. Ajello first publicly divulged her abortion, she decided to tell her daughter. “It was a very matter-of-fact discussion,” mostly concerning the details of an abortion and why some people decide to take that step. 

“I think it is impossible for younger women, like my daughter, to comprehend how different things are now,” she said. It was important for Ajello to make her daughter understand the difference in today’s environment. “I hope women who get abortions now don’t feel as alone as I did back then,” she said. Unfortunately, women still face immense societal stigma around abortion. And although there has been measured progress on the dialogue surrounding reproductive rights, women of color and low-income women still face disproportionate marginalization and economic hardship as a result of these structural barriers.

In the event that the bill fails, Rep. Ajello will reintroduce the legislation again next year, and organizations like Planned Parenthood will continue the fight to provide sustainable health services and develop advocacy platforms for reproductive rights issues. In Ajello’s opinion, compromise isn’t possible on this issue. 

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, it will not be people like Representative Ajello who will face the most harmful consequences, it will be marginalized women who are already impacted by forms of systemic oppression. “We cannot go back there,” Ajello said. 

 

KATRINA NORTHROP B’19 believes in the right to choose.