Hodges: RI is lagging New England on reproductive health

By Paula Hodges

Paula_Hodges_cropRhode Island is considered one of the most “blue” states in the country, ranking eighth most Democratic in Gallup’s 2013 State of the States report, and the Democratic supermajorities in the General Assembly would seem to indicate progressivism. Yet in stark contrast to this progressive marker, women comprise only 27% of General Assembly members. This critical lack of gender parity in positions of power and elected office – along with decades-old state laws and recent fights over healthcare reform – point to a more disturbing picture.

Alarmingly, when it comes to reproductive justice Rhode Island is comparable to conservative Midwest states such as Missouri, Arkansas or Oklahoma. Advocates in the Ocean State find ourselves similarly forced to defend annually against bills that would politicize abortion and make the procedure more difficult to access. Although 2013 will go down as a landmark year when Rhode Island became the 10th state to pass marriage equality, 20 years after that struggle began – and 40 years after Roe v. Wade – the cloud of religious-refusal clauses and discrimination recently overcome by marriage-equality advocates still threatens to rain down on women’s reproductive health.

Everything is not as it seems

Rhode Island merits a D+ grade from NARAL, with the most stringent abortion laws in all of New England. Conservative New Hampshire outpaces us with a C+, while Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut all receive A grades.

Put simply, Rhode Island has more in common with Wyoming, Louisiana and North Carolina – all of whom also earned a D+ – than with our New England neighbors. True, court challenges have kept a long list of unconstitutional and unenforceable laws from going into effect in Rhode Island. But those laws technically remain “on the books,” and arguably could be enforced if federal court decisions are reversed.

In 1973, for example, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law in response to Roe v. Wade declaring that life begins at conception and banning all abortions. That law was overturned in the Doe v. Israel case.

In 1984, the General Assembly passed a law requiring women to obtain consent from their spouses before seeking an abortion, which was overturned in Planned Parenthood v. Board of Medical Review.

A 1986 case, Planned Parenthood v. Calderone, successfully challenged a state law prohibit¬ing health insurers from providing abortion coverage except as an optional rider at an additional premium. Additionally, in 1986 Rhode Island voters rejected by a 2-to-1 margin a proposed constitutional amendment to make abortion illegal that was intended to challenge Roe.

On top of such unenforceable laws, Rhode Island prohibits state funding for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. Minors need parental consent to obtain an abortion, or else must seek a judge’s consent. Healthcare workers may refuse to participate in the provision of reproductive health services. “Informed consent” is required by state law prior to an abortion, something providers already offer patients as a medical standard of care.

Real problems merit real solutions

Since 2010, thousands of abortion restrictions have been proposed across the country, and last year a record 92 state laws passed restricting abortion. Earlier this month, as happens every year, Rhode Island’s own House Judiciary Committee heard similar bills that would mandate a woman undergo an ultrasound prior to having an abortion; create a 24-hour waiting period prior to an abortion; create additional restrictions on rare late term abortions; and establish “fetal personhood.”

Rhode Island is nothing like North Dakota, Arkansas or Mississippi. Politicians should not be involved in a woman’s personal medical decisions, and should not mandate that information be provided with the intent of coercing, shaming or judging a woman. Instead we need to ensure each woman has access to critical information and education to help her make decisions for herself, to enable her to take care of her health and wellbeing, and to prevent unintended pregnancies. And we need to ensure that abortion remains a safe and legal medical procedure for a woman to consider, if and when she needs it.

Studies show 99% of women use birth control and one in five women rely on Planned Parenthood at some point in their lives. Recent polling shows the majority of Americans agree that these are deeply personal and often complex decisions that a woman should make in consultation with her physician, her family and her faith. Politicians should not be involved in a woman’s personal medical decisions. Women are watching and they are voting on these issues, and it’s only a matter of time before the tide will turn in the Ocean State.

Rhode Island has the highest rates of unintended pregnancy and teen pregnancy in New England. To curb teen and unintended pregnancies, Rhode Islanders need access to effective programs. We need a vision for making reproductive health services, including contraception, more readily available for all women and families, regardless of income.

If politicians want to reduce unintended pregnancies in Rhode Island, they should expand access to the state’s Medicaid family-planning program. Currently Rhode Island covers family-planning services for Medicaid recipients who deliver babies for only two years post-partum. After that period women lose access to basic reproductive health services, annual exams, Pap tests, breast exams, tests for sexually transmitted infections and – yes – contraception, to help space their families.

With more than 62,000 Rhode Island women in need of publicly supported contraceptive services, and a projected cost savings of $3.74 for every $1 invested in family planning, that would be a win-win for a state that’s been on the losing end of this fight for too long. •

Paula Hodges is the Rhode Island public policy and advocacy director for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. She came to Rhode Island from Missouri in 2011. PPSNE’s Rhode Island health center is located at 111 Point St. in Providence and is open six days a week. Ted Nesi will return June 4.

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