Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Assembly Should Vote On Abortion Legislation

Jun 1, 2018

Americans have jousted over abortion for decades. Some supporters of abortion rights thought the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that permitted legal abortions would end the debate. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says they were wrong.

The debate over abortion never went away.  It has become a flashpoint in the nation’s culture wars, still a litmus political issue. In Rhode Island, the nation’s most Roman Catholic state, abortion rights and women’s reproductive topics are back again at the Statehouse.

Legislation advanced by Rep. Edie Ajello and Sen. Gayle Goldin, both Providence Democrats, would reshape state law to ensure that abortion remains legal in the Ocean State even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Roe V. Wade standard.

The rhetoric over the topic is up, but abortions are way down. The state Health Department says abortions are down 53 percent over the last decade. In 2007, Rhode Island residents had about 3,700 abortions. Ten years later that number dropped to about 1,700.

Each side in this contentious debate repeats talking points on this big decline. Anti-abortion activists assert that protests and political pressure accounts for the drop. Supporters of abortion rights point to advances in birth control—including IUDs and implants injected under women’s skin -- in avoiding unplanned pregnancies.

For years, there has been a truce of sorts at the Statehouse. Activists on both sides submitted legislation to extend or restrict abortions. But the Democratic leadership has kept these measures from coming to a vote. One reason is that many lawmakers don’t like to publicly take a stand on this fraught issue.

In New England, other culture clashes don’t seem to linger as abortion does. Despite a vigorous lobbying campaign against gay marriage by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, particularly Bishop Thomas Tobin, that issue has faded. No serious lawmaker is trying to restrict gay marriage. The public has largely accepted it.

Yet some lawmakers who supported same-sex marriage paid a price. House Speaker Nick Mattiello, a Catholic Cranston Democrat, was stripped of a leadership position in his parish over his support for gay marriage.

Now Mattiello says he doesn’t want a vote on abortion rights because it would be too divisive. But a coalition of women’s rights groups are pushing against the speaker. They say the status quo allows the federal government to chip away at abortion rights.

Representative Ajello says things have changed because President Donald Trump’s administration is aggressively targeting not only abortion rights but  a bevy of other regulations that govern contraception and family planning.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Trump was very clear in his campaign that he would restrict abortion rights. Since taking office his administration and Republicans in Congress have focused on remaking policies on reproductive health. He has appointed conservative judges to the federal bench, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. The latest move is a proposal to bar clinics financed by the government from referring women for abortions and allowing more employers who cite religious or moral reasons to deny women health insurance coverage for birth control. Trump’s administration is also boosting abstinence-only sex education.

Some of this is aimed at Planned Parenthood, the women’s health provider. Nationally, just three percent of Planned Parenthood’s caseload is admitted for abortions. The Rhode Island figure is about six percent, says a spokesman for the group.

Some deep crimson states in the south are even taking things further than Trump and trying to criminalize the medical procedure. Iowa has approved an abortion ban after six weeks of pregnancy. Arkansas seeks to ban the use of abortion-inducing drugs.

Are we really ready to go down the slippery slope where the government intrudes on the doctor-patient relationship? States have already enacted more than 1,000 anti-abortion laws in the years since Roe V. Wade.

It’s about time Rhode Island lawmakers take a stand on abortion rights. Mattiello should allow a vote on the reproductive rights legislation. Lawmakers were elected to make tough decisions.

The sad element here is that the anti-abortion rights movement will never stop abortion, particularly for women of means. They can travel to places where the procedure is legal. As is usually the case, the burden for the continuing attack on abortion rights will be borne by poor women seeking safe medical treatment.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his political commentary and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at