Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Local advocates for women’s reproductive freedom aren’t waiting around for Washington, D.C., to roll back hard-fought protections over their bodies.
With the election of Donald Trump, all three branches of the federal government appear poised to erode women’s rights to an abortion and access to contraceptives. To preempt those actions, members of the General Assembly, Planned Parenthood and women’s rights advocates held a demonstration Feb. 1 at the Statehouse, with the goal of getting the Legislature to pass a bill that among other things would make it legal to have an abortion in Rhode Island.
“We need to protect women in Rhode Island now, because of our fear of who would be next and what Republicans in Congress may do,” Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, told the crowd.
Her bill, the Reproductive Health Care Act, makes Roe v. Wade the law in Rhode Island. The legislation has failed in previous years due to a strong anti-abortion contingent in the House and Senate. However, the election of seven pro-choice members during the past two elections is expected to produce enough votes for the bill pass.
“The tide has changed; we have momentum now with these new members who will vote for choice, who will vote for freedom,” Ajello said. “I’m pleading with you — let’s get this done.”
Ajello offered a potent personal experience regarding her reproductive rights. In 1965, when abortion was illegal, she spoke of being pressured into having sex for the first time, getting pregnant and making the decision to have an abortion.
She praised her doctor for performing safe abortions for thousands of women from across a large, rural region of Pennsylvania. At the time, women risked their health and lives to have the prohibited procedure.
“Too many women have died. We cannot go back,” Ajello said.
Grace Engelman, a 19-year-old student at Brown University, said she has only known a time and country that affords women control of their bodies and access to reproductive services. She praised the lawyers, activists and women who fought for the decisive U.S. Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973.
“We must continue and expand their work and we cannot move backwards,” Engelman said.
That decision of 44 years ago has been eroded in many states, and Rhode Island received an “F” last year from the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation.
“Each body out there is a possession. Not the government’s possession. Not Trump’s possession. Not Congress’s either,” Engelman said. “It is only the possession of the one person it belongs too. We cannot be free if we do not own our bodies.”
Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence, applauded Ajello for sharing her story publicly for the fist time. Goldin also criticized Trump for objectifying women. His executive orders and his appointments of like-minded cabinet members and judges are proof of his commitment to harming reproductive rights, she said.
“Women should always have autonomy over their own bodies, no matter what words this president says, what paper he signs or who he puts on the Supreme Court," Goldin said.
After the speeches, the protestors walked through the Statehouse to the offices of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and Gov. Gina Raimondo.
“Let Rhode Island be a model, an inspiration, a leader in efforts to keep abortion legal,” Engelman said.