Blue States Are Struggling To Deliver Abortion Rights Victories

Earlier this month, a controversial vote on an abortion bill sent reproductive rights supporters spilling onto the statehouse floor with furious chants of “vote them out.”

The scene, however, didn’t unfold in a red state passing an extreme abortion restriction — but in deep-blue Rhode Island.

The state is one of a handful where Democrats dominate the politics but are being slow to enact protections for reproductive rights. Progressive activists, fearing the assault on abortion rights may eventually reach a conservative U.S. Supreme Court, are urging legislators in many blue states to enact protections now.

But the potential threat doesn’t have Democrats universally motivated.

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The protests in Rhode Island came after a state Senate committee dominated by Democrats just refused to advance a bill protecting the rights established by Roe v. Wade. 

Hawaii Democrats, who hold a legislative supermajority, failed earlier this year to pass a bill allowing nurse practitioners to perform abortions. 

And two setbacks occurred in Illinois and New Mexico, where Democrats gained trifecta control of the government in the 2018 midterm elections and raised hopes that they could accomplish long-sought progressive goals.

Amid these roadblocks, abortion rights opponents have passed an unprecedented run of extreme legislation.

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In the past few weeks, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio enacted bills to ban abortion altogether or after the very first weeks of pregnancy. The aim of many of these bills is to provoke a Supreme Court challenge to Roe, the 1973 landmark case that established a right to abortion and appears in danger of being narrowed or overturned.

Rhode Island’s bill is one of many moving through state legislatures that would ensconce Roe’s basic tenets into state law — a preparation for the possibility that Roe is overturned.

Protests at the Rhode Island General Assembly over abortion rights legislation.

But the state bill was defeated 5-to-4, with four of the “nays” coming from Democrats.  

“What you have in Rhode Island is Democrats who had pledged to protect Roe, who turned their backs on us,” said Jordan Hevenor, a leader of the Womxn Project, a group supporting the legislation. 

A version has been debated in the Rhode Island General Assembly for several years. In its current version, it establishes a right to abortion before a fetus is viable; after fetal viability, it maintains the right to an abortion necessary for the life or health of the pregnant person. The bill also repeals a number of state abortion restrictions that have been invalidated by the courts.

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But a combination of misinformation about the bill — such as the claim it would expand access to abortions occurring after viability — and local dynamics disguised by the state’s national leanings, have left the legislation in limbo.

Rhode Island is heavily Democratic, said Hevenor, which causes lawmakers from a broad section of the political spectrum to identify as such. Several members of Rhode Island’s Democratic leadership are endorsed by the state’s chapter of Right to Life, an anti-abortion group. And the Catholic church maintains deep ties and political influence within the state. Several Democrats voting no on the legislation cited moral objections to the bill. One of them had pledged his support for reproductive rights when he faced a progressive female primary challenger.

In Illinois, the Democratic co-sponsors of a sweeping reproductive rights bill led a protest of their own party’s leadership for stranding their legislation in committee.

“We can’t wait. We can’t rest on our laurels in Illinois,” said state Sen. Melinda Bush at the protest. “It’s not a time to hold bills and wonder if maybe we should move them.”

The bill passed the Illinois House on Tuesday. 

The new governor of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham, and the new Democratic legislative majority made a repeal of the state’s antiquated ban on abortion one of their priorities after winning November’s elections. Under the outgoing Republican governor, a similar bill had gone nowhere.

The repeal effort failed by a two-to-one margin in the New Mexico Senate this spring.

As in Rhode Island, one factor in the defeat was the state’s deep ties to the Catholic church. 

Of course, some Democrats are scrambling to protect abortion rights and are aided by a wave of Democratic victories in the 2018 midterms.

In Maine and Nevada, where Democrats newly control the government, and in Vermont, lawmakers have successfully overturned pre-Roe bans on abortion or expanded existing abortion rights. Wisconsin’s new Democratic governor vetoed a raft of Republican-backed restrictions on abortion.

But the outlook in Rhode Island remains uncertain.

The president of the Rhode Island Senate, a Democrat who says he would vote against the bill, nevertheless said he would bring the legislation to the full Senate floor for a vote. The timing of that vote is still unclear, as is whether the bill he brings to the floor would require a compromise.

“I do not plan on supporting amendments intended to water down the bill,” state Sen. Gayle Goldin said before the Judiciary Committee vote. “My goal has been always to get this bill to the governor’s desk so that we protect a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion. I don’t intend to accept anything less.”

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