An old adage is to avoid discussing politics and religion. A debate on abortion usually entangles both politics and religion, which is why even politicians may try to avoid it. Therefore, some were surprised when for the first time in a quarter century, the Rhode Island House of Representatives voted for abortion rights legislation. This column will explain why this legislation is now advancing at the State House.
Some will argue that abortion rights legislation is advancing because of public opinion and point to a poll conducted in 2018 which indicated that 71 percent of voters support legalized abortion. Poll numbers alone do not move legislation. If high poll numbers were enough to move legislation, then based on a 2016 poll showing 66 percent of voters supported a line-item veto, it would already be law. Also, polls can show different results if the questions are asked differently. For example, a poll conducted for a pro-life organization seemed to indicate that a majority of Rhode Islanders did not support abortion beyond the first three months of pregnancy.
An event can also trigger legislation to advance. The retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was the swing vote on the U.S. Supreme Court, and his replacement by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, was such an event. The angst generated by Kennedy’s retirement has been used by some to argue that Rhode Island state law must be changed because Roe v. Wade could be overtly overturned or covertly undermined.
Similarly, after Justice Thurgood Marshall was replaced by Justice Clarence Thomas, abortion rights advocates were able to get legislation voted out of committee and onto the House floor in 1992. After the U.S. Supreme Court issued Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the right to an abortion by a 5 to 4 vote, abortion rights legislation passed the House in 1993. But, following retirement of Justice Bryon White, who had dissented from Roe v. Wade, it died in the Senate.
Weak legislative leadership creates an opportunity for controversial legislation to advance. The split among House Democrats has weakened the dominance of Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. Of the 19 Democrats who refused the vote for Mattiello to be speaker, 18 of them voted for the abortion rights legislation. Also, Mattiello would not have been elected speaker without the support of 12 Democrats endorsed by Planned Parenthood. Furthermore, Mattiello cannot obtain the 50 votes needed to pass a budget, in its entirety, without the support of some legislators endorsed by Planned Parenthood. These circumstances gave pro-choice Democrats leverage over the Mattiello to get a floor vote on abortion. Mattiello may have allowed a vote to occur in order to maintain control over the House.
Likewise, a weakened leadership and internal division existed when House floor votes occurred on abortion legislation in 1992 and 1993. In 1992, Speaker Joseph DeAngelis, who had been weakened by ethics controversies, could not prevent abortion rights legislation from reaching the House floor. In 1993, after House Democrats split between John Harwood and Russell Bramley, Speaker Harwood allowed a vote on abortion rights legislation sponsored by Rep. Linda Kushner, a Bramley backer.
Over the long run, it has become harder for culturally conservative State House Democrats to act as a firewall on abortion rights legislation because their party is becoming increasing pro-choice. The polarization of the two parties at the national level on abortion has seeped down to the state level. This evolution began decades ago.
During the 1960s and 1970s, efforts to liberalize Rhode Island abortion laws were led by Republicans like Rep. Theodore Low. At the time, Rhode Island Republicans tended to favor liberalizing abortion laws while Democrats, who were predominately Catholic, tended to oppose any change. For example, a 1972 Rhode Island poll showed that 57 percent of Republicans supported liberalizing abortion laws while only 36 percent of Democrats did.
In 1976, both the national Republican Party and the Rhode Island Democratic Party adopted pro-life party platforms. But, over time, the state parties began to reflect the position of the national parties on abortion. In 2018, a poll showed that 86 percent of Democrats supported legalized abortion but only 48 percent of Republicans did. Today, the national Republican Party’s platform remains pro-life, but the Rhode Island Democratic Party’s platform is now pro-choice. The recent vote in the House on abortion legislation reflects the impact of national politics. House Republicans opposed the legislation by a vote of 8 to 1, while House Democrats supported it by a vote of 43 to 22. Of the 22 House Democrats who voted against the abortion legislation, 14 came from districts carried either by President Trump, or in which Trump came within 5 points of winning.
Finally, abortion rights legislation has advanced due to a potential erosion in the moral influence of the Roman Catholic Church after the child sex-abuse scandals. In the past, the Catholic Church acted as a moral bulwark against advance of abortion rights legislation in Rhode Island. In 1970, after legislation liberalizing abortion laws failed in a House committee by a vote of 8 to 7, the Providence Journal reported that the Catholic Church was a “formidable hurdle to any revision” of abortion laws. In 1992, Bishop Louis Gelineau warned Catholic legislators that voting for abortion rights was a “serious sin.” Subsequently, the House voted to send the legislation back to committee.
Today, when Bishop Thomas Tobin takes to Twitter to advocate for a pro-life position, he is routinely attacked for the Catholic Church’s role in covering up child sex abuse. The church’s failure in the past to properly protect children from pedophile priests has undermined its ability to advocate for the protection of unborn children today.
Whether abortion rights legislation can be stopped in the Senate is uncertain. What is certain is that culturally conservative voters should not rely on Democrats to indefinitely block legislation supported by the base of their own party. Culturally conservative State House Democrats are not a firewall, but a mere speed bump.
Steven Frias is Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian and recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism.