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Lawmakers Push For Tighter Abortion Laws in Rhode Island

Saturday, May 04, 2013


Five new bills being presented next week to the House Judiciary Committee take aim at Rhode Island women's access to abortion. Of these, three are most likely to have the most widespread effects for Rhode Islanders. Lead sponsors on the bills are Representative John G. Edwards (D) District 70, Representative Patricia Serpa (D) District 27,  and Representative Karen MacBeth (D) District 52.

Edwards said he feels it is important to Rhode Islanders that the unborn are protected from violent acts, and that his bill (H 5104 AN ACT RELATING TO HEALTH AND SAFETY -- FETAL PROTECTION ACT)  “tweaks language to mimic federal law.”

Serpa, sponsor of H 5334 AN ACT RELATING TO HEALTH AND SAFETY - PARTIAL - BIRTH ABORTION, seeks to replace Rhode Island's existing statute regarding Partial Birth Abortion with broader ban on the procedure.  “According to the scientific literature from the AMA that was provided to me," Serpa said, "there does not appear to be any identified situations in which it is appropriate to induce abortion at this late stage of the baby's development and ethical concerns have been raised.” Serpa said that she believed that as legislators, "“we have an implied duty to protect all living things. Whether it involves taking steps to sustain our environment, granting civil rights to all Rhode Islanders, passing laws that treat animals humanely and, yes, protecting the unborn who cannot speak for themselves.”

Planned Parenthood's Paula Hodges

Planned Parenthood Director of Public Policy & Advocacy, Paula Hodges said, “All of these measures would, if passed, create serious hurdles for women seeking safe, legal abortion. Most of these bills have been raised for many years, and propose requirements (unnecessary or redundant counseling, waiting periods, or requirements that a patient view or listen to a description of an ultrasound). Patients seeking abortion already receive ample counseling and diagnostic imaging and information prior to abortion. These bills would not only impact women’s access to services but would hamper the work and professional judgment of physicians, in some cases stipulating stiff criminal or civil penalties, which would deter providers from offering full reproductive health services.”

In Rhode Island, many of the same bills for hearing are reincarnated annually. Most do not make it past committee to the house floor. However, abortion is certainly a sensitive legislative section when it comes to clinics that offer care of women’s health and reproductive physical needs. Barth Bracy, the Executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life said that some incarnations of the bills, such as a Woman’s Right to Know, have been referred to committee for hearing since 1996. Bracy said, “We always have hope for floor debate but (Speaker of the House) Fox is in the camp of unlimited legal abortion.”

3 Rhode Island Bills to Watch


This act places many of the same legal ramifications on individuals who cause the death of an unborn fetus as apply to those who cause the death of any other full term individual. It includes sections covering Murder of an unborn child, Voluntary manslaughter of an unborn child, Involuntary manslaughter of an unborn child, Battery of an unborn child, Assault of an unborn child.

There are some exceptions. This chapter does not apply to: (1) Acts which cause the death of an unborn child if those acts were committed during a legal abortion to which the pregnant woman consented; and (2) Acts which are committed pursuant to usual and customary standards of medical practice during diagnostic testing or therapeutic treatment.

Barth Bracy said that this bill reflects a California case involving the domestic violence resulting in the death of an unborn child. Most commonly referred to as Laci and Connor’s law, the case revolved around the issue of “validation of loss.” The resultant death of the mother is definitively considered murder. The question was whether the fetus (already named Connor by the mother) has personhood status in the eyes of the law and is, thereby, considered a second murder. Bracy said “The average American believes that this is murder.”


This act repeals the current laws entitled “Partial Birth Abortion” in its entirety and replaces them with new legislation.

The key point included in the current law that has been stricken from the proposed legislation is the Life of the mother exception. This exception stipulates that any legal ramifications of a partial birth abortion shall not apply to a partial birth abortion that is necessary to save the life of a mother because her life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself; provided, that no other medical procedure would suffice for that purpose.

The proposed legislative amendment includes no exception for the life of the mother. Rather the language limits it by saying partial birth abortions are prohibited. Any physician who knowingly performs a partial-birth abortion and thereby kills a human fetus is guilty of a felony. A female upon whom a partial-birth abortion is performed may not be prosecuted under this chapter.

However, a redundancy in the unchanged portion of legislation does give exception in the event of risk to the life of the mother. Bracy said that the previous version of the legislation did not comply with federal regulations. The revised language was designed to do just that.


Added language to the current legislation includes the following:

"… prior to a woman giving informed consent to having any part of an abortion performed, the physician who is to perform the abortion, or certified technician working in conjunction with the physician, shall: (1) Perform an obstetric ultrasound on the pregnant woman; (2) Provide an explanation of the results of the ultrasound; (3) Display the ultrasound images so that the pregnant woman may view them; and (4) Provide a medical description of the ultrasound images, which shall include the dimensions of the embryo or fetus and the presence of external members and internal organs, if present and viewable. (d) No requirement to view ultrasound images.- Nothing in this section shall be construed to require a woman to view the ultrasound images. Neither the physician nor the woman shall be subject to any penalty if she refuses to look at the presented ultrasound images.

Hodges said, “Planned Parenthood has testified that it is already the medical standard of care to offer ultrasound prior to abortion. This is a medical protocol… designated and implemented by doctors not lawmakers. Women don’t turn to politicians for advice about mammograms, prenatal care or cancer treatments. Politicians should not be involved in women’s personal medical decisions or defining treatments or procedures relating to pregnancy.”

Testimony given on the floor of the Rhode Island House of Representatives on March 8th, 2012 by one of the current sponsors of the legislation, Rep. Karen MacBeth spoke to the same issue at hand. Macbeth said, “The current proposed bill seeks to add this current requirement that the physician who is to perform the abortion or a certified technician working with the physician shall perform an obstetric ultrasound on the woman… Note carefully, the physician or certified technician.” MacBeth went on to say, “As quoted from the American college of radiology and the radiological society of North America. “Ultrasound imaging is a noninvasive medical test.”” The Representative was called for further comment, but was unavailable for comment.

The bill also includes the following language amended to involve punitive measures for medical professionals. The section entitled Liability of physician reads, “Any physician who knowingly violates the requirements of this chapter shall be deemed to have engaged in "unprofessional conduct" for the purposes of section 5-37-5.1. The willful failure to provide the woman with the substance of the information pursuant to the requirements of section 23-4.7-3 shall be prima facie evidence of failure to obtain informed consent in an action at law or in equity, and shall be sanctioned as follows: Upon a finding by a court that a physician in an action commenced under this chapter has knowingly violated a provision of this chapter, the court shall notify the Rhode Island board of medical review. A civil penalty not to exceed one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) for the first offense shall be imposed, the penalty for a second and/or subsequent offense shall not exceed the sum of two hundred fifty thousand dollars ($250,000).

National Influence

Recent laws passed in states like North Dakota and Virginia have led to unprecedented restrictions on women’s access to termination of pregnancy. Such actions have subsequently resulted in limiting access to many other services provided by clinics at which abortion is just one of many health and educational opportunities offered.

Hodges of Planned Parenthood said, “It is true that an unprecedented onslaught of anti-abortion legislation has originated in state legislatures in recent years. It’s not unreasonable to say that the forces opposed to women’s health are similar from state to state. But we like to think that Rhode Island is less like North Dakota or Virginia, and has more in common with our New England neighbors, states where women’s lives and reproductive health have been much better protected.”

Contrasting Views

Bracy stressed the point of not making the mistake that the policies advocated by the Rhode Island Right to Life organization are based on emotion. He said, “We base ourselves on the principle that deliberately taking innocent life is unjust and should therefore be illegal. This comes from the words of the Declaration of Independence.”

Hodges, however, on behalf of Planned Parenthood said, “We’d like to remind readers that the best way to prevent the need for abortion is to make sure women have ready low or no cost access to reliable contraception. We’re using this opportunity to urge support for Rhode Island’s expanded Medicaid family planning program which, when approved, would offer low-income RI women family planning services, STD testing and treatment, and all methods of birth control ---without copayments. Every public dollar spent on family planning saves about $4 within a year, by preventing the costs of unintended pregnancy. This is where our lawmakers should put their energy: investing in prevention!” 


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