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In some Democrat-led states, lawmakers differ on abortion

May 28, 2019 at 5:05 a.m. | Updated May 28, 2019 at 5:05 a.m.
In this Thursday, May 23, 2019, photo, Nancy St Germain, 71, right, of Warwick, R.I., leans forward to show her sign to a driver leaving a fundraiser for the Rhode Island Senate Democrats political action committee in Providence, R.I. Her sign reads, "This fight isn't over." Protesters gathered at the fundraiser to pressure legislative leaders to bring a bill seeking to protect abortion rights to the Senate floor for a vote. (AP Photo/Jennifer McDermott)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A bill seeking to preserve abortion protections in state law fails to pass a key committee. Lawmakers cite God, church and faith in proclaiming their opposition to it. Abortion-rights groups protest outside a gathering of lawmakers.

What sounds like a legislative fight in a state controlled by anti-abortion Republicans is actually quite different.

The bill seeking to protect abortion rights is in Rhode Island, a state controlled by Democrats at all levels of political power, and it’s stalled.

“This is an issue, I think, where it’s very difficult to draw a line down party lines,” said Democratic state Sen. Erin Lynch Prata, a committee chairwoman who voted in favor of the bill. “It’s a very personal issue to a lot of people.”

Rhode Island is not the only state led politically by Democrats where abortion-rights legislation has died or stalled this year. A bill to remove a dormant criminal ban on abortion in New Mexico was voted down in March by the Democrat-led state Senate, despite a push to shore up abortion rights by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. In Hawaii, where all but six of the 76 lawmakers are Democrats, a bill allowing advanced-practice registered nurses to perform some abortions passed the Senate but died in a House committee.

To be sure, some Democratic-led states are taking steps to enshrine the right to an abortion should the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Among them are Nevada, New York and Vermont.

However, the enthusiasm and recent success of anti-abortion activists to pass near total bans on the procedure in about a half-dozen Republican-dominated states provides a stark contrast to the more muted response in states controlled by Democrats.

In those states, the legislative records and personal views of Democratic lawmakers are mixed, much to the disappointment of abortion-rights supporters.

Jocelyn Foye, co-director of The Womxn Project in Rhode Island, said she thinks while many politicians run as Democrats in the state to win, they don’t always vote like Democrats, particularly on abortion rights. She said she is frustrated the abortion-protection bill has not progressed.

“At the same time, it has empowered me, as well as the community we have working with us, to really just not let up,” Foye said. “We’re going to keep fighting.”

Members of The Womxn Project staged a protest last week outside a fundraiser for the Rhode Island Senate Democrats political action committee, intended to pressure the legislative leaders to bring the bill to a floor vote. Foye said it also was a way to hold the senators accountable for taking care of the women of Rhode Island.

“The only thing standing in the way of this bill is Democrats, and they need to know that,” said Liz Gledhill, a member of the Rhode Island Democratic Party Women’s Caucus who was among roughly 150 people attending the protest. “You can’t call yourself a Democrat and vote against a bill like this.”

The Rhode Island bill says the state will not restrict the right to an abortion prior to fetal viability or afterward if an abortion is necessary for the health or life of the mother. It also would repeal older state abortion laws deemed unconstitutional by the courts.

Passage is far from assured in a heavily Catholic state where many lawmakers cite their faith as a guide to their political decisions.

Democratic Sen. Harold Metts, a Baptist deacon whose statehouse office is decorated with crosses, said he would never vote for an abortion-rights bill because “abortion robs God of his glory by substituting man and government in God’s place to determine life and death.”

Similar sentiments doomed the abortion-rights legislation in New Mexico earlier this year.

Eight Senate Democrats joined with Republicans to defeat the bill, which would have overturned a 1969 statute making it a felony for an abortion provider to terminate a pregnancy. Opponents, including the local Roman Catholic Church, highlighted provisions that would allow late-term abortions to continue.

The outcome caught many of the bill’s supporters by surprise and makes it likely the state’s dormant abortion ban will stand at least through the 2020 election, in a state where Democrats control the Legislature and every elected statewide office.

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