Legislation Wars

the paper battle over Rhode Island reproductive rights

by by Sam Adler-Bell & with reporting by Stoni Thompson

illustration by by Diane Zhou

On Wednesday April 11, the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee considered nine separate abortion-related bills. Although committee hearings were officially scheduled to begin at 4:30 pm, activists on both sides of the debate started filtering into the State House as early as 2 pm. The atmosphere in the cramped hearing room was tense, but cordial. Choice advocates hoisted up pink “I Stand with Planned Parenthood” signs, while anti-abortion mothers and their children sported t-shirts that read “pro-woman, pro-children, pro-life.” Members of Rhode Island’s chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, huddled together holding “I Defend Life” signs at their chests. A group of serious-looking Brown University Medical Students wore their lab coats. More than sixty people signed up to testify before the committee, while a room dedicated to overflow—where activists watched the hearings on a live video stream—quickly filled to capacity. The hearing lasted more than four hours, after which the committee voted unanimously to hold the bills for further study.

Among the nine bills up for consideration—seven have support from opponents of abortion and two have pro-choice support—the one that has attracted the most attention among activists and the media is H7205, dubbed the “Ultrasound Informed Consent Bill.” Sponsored by Democratic State Representative Karen L. Macbeth, the bill would require physicians to perform obstetric ultrasounds on every patient considering an abortion and display the ultrasound images “so that the pregnant woman may view them.”  Doctors would also be required to provide a “medical description” of the images, describe the dimensions of the fetus or embryo, and note the presence of “external members and internal organs” if visible. Doctors who fail to abide by these procedures would be liable for up to $100,000 in civil fines.

The bill states that neither the physician nor the woman would be subject to any penalty if the woman simply “refuses to look.” But as Dr. Sarah Fox, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Alpert Medical School described, “The patient would have to close her eyes and cover her ears if she [did] not want that information.”

For Dr. Fox and other medical professionals who spoke at the hearing, the law is an unnecessary and potentially destructive state intrusion into decisions that should remain between doctors and patients. Dr. Fox fears that some women would be forced to undergo unnecessary extra ultrasounds because doctors, fearful of liability, would perform the procedure even if patients have already received ultrasound results from other physicians. As one medical student put it, the ultrasound bill would “hijack the doctor-patient relationship to further political goals.”

For Susan Lloyd Yolen, vice president of public affairs and communications for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, the true aim of the ultrasound bill is transparent. “The sponsors of this bill are well-known opponents of abortion,” she said in her testimony before the Committee. “The intent of this legislation is to dissuade women from choosing abortion.” She added that her organization opposes “any legislation which would allow politicians—with all due respect—not doctors, to make decisions” about their patients’ reproductive health.

But proponents of the ultrasound bill framed their arguments around informed consent. For Becky Miller, the education coordinator for Rhode Island Right to Life, arguments against H7205 are based on “the ultimate paternalism, the ultimate sexism.” Miller, who testified with her six month old baby in her arms, characterized resistance to the bill as an effort to “censor a woman’s right to full information about her healthcare decisions.” She told the Independent that when her husband received a testicular ultrasound, the technician showed him the screen and explained what he was seeing. “That’s standard medical care,” she said, “It’s sexist to withhold the same information from female patients.” Dr. Fox noted in an interview that it is already standard practice in all Rhode Island clinics to offer women the opportunity to see their ultrasound. Forcing them to do so would be “humiliating” and “abusive to a woman in a very vulnerable situation.”

Other supporters of the bill brought printed ultrasound images to the hearing, displaying them to counter claims by opponents that the legislation is intended to humiliate or traumatize women who are considering abortions. Holding aloft a blurry, black and white image of an unborn fetus, one speaker asked the committee, “Does this offend you?”

The other bills supported by opponents of abortion included one that would prohibit any woman from being “coerced, pressured, or threatened” into having an abortion against her will (H7009), and another that would ban abortion as a means of sex-selection (H7114). Dr. Fox told the Independent that these bills legislate against “non-existent problems.” Although women “sometimes regret having an abortion,” Dr. Fox emphasized that Rhode Island’s clinics have extensive pre-procedure counseling programs to ensure that patients make a well-informed and thought-out decision. They are not “being coerced.” And while sex-selection-motivated abortion may be prevalent in “other parts of the world. It is not happening in Rhode Island.”

Another set of bills, including the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” (H7006), the “Fetal Protection Act” (H7091), and the “Punish Assault on Pregnant Women Act” (H7110), would increase the criminal penalties for violence against a pregnant woman that harms her unborn child. While all of these bills—some of which have analogues at the federal level and in other states—provide explicit exceptions in the case of legal abortion, anti-abortion groups have historically been their principle proponents. Meanwhile, pro-choice advocates like Planned Parenthood have warned that by defining the term “child in utero” as a “member of the species of homo sapiens, at any stage of development, carried in the womb” and elevating the legal status of a fetus to that of an adult victim of violence, legislation of this kind seeks to secure a legal shortcut to establishing fetal personhood, which could undermine Roe v. Wade.

On the other side, two bills sponsored by House Judiciary Committee chairwoman Representative Edith Ajello sought to strengthen women’s reproductive rights. The first, H7041, would outlaw interference on the part of the state, or any of its political subdivisions, in a “woman’s personal decision to prevent, commence, or continue a pregnancy or terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability.” The other, H7754, which received considerable criticism from abortion opponents, would allow minors to “seek authorization for an abortion from either a judge of the family court or a physician or certified counselor” if the pregnant woman’s parents or guardians refuse to consent to her choice or if she elects not to seek the consent of her parents or guardians.

Despite all of Wednesday’s legal and rhetorical posturing, a statehouse source told the Independent that none of the bills proposed were likely to get very far in the legislature. In Rhode Island, where widespread Democratic Party loyalty consistently conflicts with staunch Catholic social values, there has long been an unspoken détente regarding issues of reproductive freedom. Every year, a slew of anti-abortion bills are proposed, but most of them never leave committee.  In some ways, Wednesday’s hearing was little more than a cathartic charade, unlikely to have any serious legislative consequences.

But considering the 2011 legislative season, in which 26 states enacted 69 different anti-choice measures, the fears of pro-choice activists may be well-founded. The last few months have seen a surge in legislation regulating pre-abortion ultrasounds, including Virginia’s controversial bill, which would have mandated an invasive vaginal probe. Though outcry against the invasive procedure—which was characterized as “state-sponsored rape” by opponents—led to revisions, the Virginia bill eventually passed in a form similar to the bill proposed in Rhode Island. As of April 1, twenty states have ultrasound mandates on the books, and eleven more are considering them now.

Representative Chris Blazejewski, who sits on the committee that heard the bills, told the Independent he suspected that “the Republication nomination process and the relentless attacks by Romney and Santorum on women’s rights have highlighted the issue for many Rhode Islanders.” For Blazejewski, the huge turnout for Wednesday’s hearing was unsurprising. “We saw more citizens coming out to support choice because they have seen that a woman’s right to her body and health cannot be taken for granted and must be vigorously defended.”

Representative Ajello echoed her colleague’s comments, connecting state-level activism to the national debate. “With Republican Presidential candidates vowing to create a Supreme Court that will repeal Roe v. Wade, I want Rhode Island to codify the guarantee that government will not interfere in personal decisions regarding reproductive health care.”

SAM ADLER-BELL B’12.5 fights the good fight.