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From the rotunda, a handmaid’s tale

Despite the failure of the R.I. Senate Judiciary Committee to vote in favor of the Reproductive Health Care Act to codify Roe v. Wade as Rhode Island law, the fight is not yet over

Photo by Steve Ahlquist,image courtesy of Uprise RI

Handmaidens at the R.I. General Assembly on May 14.

By Toby Simon
Posted 5/20/19
As more and more states enact harsh anti-abortion laws, including Alabama, Missouri, Georgia and Ohio, the fight to codify Roe v. Wade as Rhode Island takes on more significance. Despite the recent vote by the R.I. Senate Judiciary Committee against the Reproductive Health Care Act, the House version of the law may be approved.
Will the statewide health planning group convened by the Rhode Island Foundation reaffirm a woman’s right to determine her own health care choices? Will the rights of women to make their own decisions about their health care emerge as the top political issue in the 2020 elections? Will a Missouri state legislator, who claimed that there were “consensual rapes” in supporting his state’s new restrictive abortion law, lose his job in the next election? Will the ratings for the TV series, “A Handmaid’s Tale,” soar for the third season beginning next month? What will be the consequences, if any, for a board member of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, who is paid $10,000 a year to serve on the board, for helping to organize a dinner celebration with anti-abortion activists, attended by state Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, following the defeat of the Reproductive Health Care Act by the Senate Judiciary Committee?
One of the responses to the harsh Alabama state law on abortion was the response by actor Busy Philipps, who spoke up about her own abortion when she was 15, created a viral hashtag, #youknowme, with the message: “1 in 4 women have had an abortion. Many people think they don’t know someone who has, but #youknowme. So let’s do this: if you are also the 1 in 4, let’s share it and start to end the shame. Use #youknowme and share your truth.”
Is this a moment that will take hold, in the nation and in Rhode Island, where women speaking out will change the dynamics of the conversation? And, how will men respond, with the equally powerful potential men to speak up in support of women they may know [without violating someone’s privacy] who have had an abortion?

PROVIDENCE – On Tuesday, May 14, the R.I. Senate Judiciary Committee voted against Sen. Gayle Goldin’s Reproductive Health Care Act. In order for the bill to move to the floor for a vote, it needed to pass in the Judiciary Committee.

Although the vote was 5 to 4, the fight is not over. The legislation is now being “held” since there is also a House version of the Reproductive Health Care Act, and the hope is that it will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee again, where it may have a different outcome.

Sens. Erin Lynch Prata [chair of the Judiciary Committee] and Josh Miller [chair of the Health and Human Services Committee] released a joint statement asking the committee to continue to work together to develop revised language that fully codifies the status quo.

False narratives

If we want to attribute blame on the failure of the committee to allow the vote go to the floor, we only have to look at Sen. Stephen Archambault, a Democrat from Smithfield, North Providence and Johnston.

Archambault apparently bought into the false narrative about post-viability abortion care, and put forth misinformation, saying he will be introducing an amendment that will ban post-viability abortions. He had been considered the swing vote and voted against it; Sen. Goldin was on record that she would not accept any amendments or compromises on her bill.

While running for office in 2018, Archambault said what he needed to say to get elected: “It is imperative that the General Assembly move expeditiously to pass the Reproductive Health Care Act when the new session begins in January.”

And, as many politicians do, once elected, he changed his tune. Archambault now claims he can’t accept any post-viability abortions based on what he claims are “undefined health reasons.”

Last I checked, Archambault is a defense lawyer whose legal practice specializes in defending people charged with DUIs, according to his website. He is not a physician and in no position to judge whether a physician and her patient are capable of deciding on the continuation of a pregnancy that could severely and negatively impact the mother’s life.

As Amanda Skinner, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, said of Archambault’s decision to vote against the bill: “Abortion care later in pregnancy is extremely rare and women and their families in these situations face devastating decisions. They deserve compassion and support – and certainly not politicians telling them what to do or attempting to imprison their physicians.”

Skinner continued: “You cannot call yourself pro-choice while supporting a bill that insults the dignity of women, criminalizes abortion providers, retains unconstitutional restrictions on the law books and undermines the basic legal foundations that protect safe, legal abortion.”

The view from the gallery
I fought for Roe v Wade the first time around in the early 1970s. Like many women my age, we thought the fight was over. But now we continue; we persist.

I arrived at the State House on Tuesday around noon. There weren’t many people yet but my first task was to sit in one of the seats outside the room where the committee would hold their hearing. About 30 people are allowed in to the room.

The Right-to-Lifers lined up before the State House was open that morning so they could get as many seats as possible. Wearing baby blue shirts that said LIFE, they sat next to a smaller group of us. They would be the first 12 people let in the room. Almost all of the 12 were men; they appeared to be from Central or South America, they were bused to the State House by the Right to Life organizers, and they appeared not to understand any English. It was unclear to me whether they really knew what was going on at all. Politics makes strange bedfellows, for sure.

The Choice leadership is represented by several Rhode Island groups of highly organized, diverse, energetic and welcoming people. I had volunteered to be a Handmaid for the day.

[The Handmaids are characters drawn from the dystopian novel, A Handmaid’s Tale, written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood, in which the bodies of fertile women are politicized and controlled – they are enslaved, raped and forced to birth babies for childless couples.

The story is told in a first-person narrative by a woman called Offred, or “of Fred.” In an era of declining birth rates due to increasing infertility brought about by environmental pollution and radiation, women such as Offred are forcibly assigned to produce children for the ruling class of men, known as “Commanders.” In the novel, Handmaids are forced to dress in ankle-length red dresses and to wear white bonnets.

The novel has been made into a TV series being aired by Hulu, with Season Three beginning on Wednesday, June 5.

In response to the draconian anti-abortion law passed by the Alabama State Senate and signed into the law by the governor, Calif. Sen. Kamala Harris, a 2020 Democratic candidate running for President, wrote: “This isn’t a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale. This is happening in Alabama – in our county – in the year 2019.”]

All across country, we have now become accustomed to seeing women dressed as Handmaids to point out the Draconian and obscene laws that are being put in place around the country. These laws have zero dignity or respect for women.

When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale 34 years ago, I’m not sure she envisioned the day we would actually be living in a patriarchal, totalitarian and anti-female society.

Make no mistake about it. We now have states that ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Yet we do not have a ban on assault weapons. This tells us everything we need to know about our priorities and what we value.

I proudly wore the robe and cap of a Handmaid. There were many of us that day. In some ways, it was a very affirming, empowering gesture. It made me even angrier about our current state of affairs. Many of the Right to Lifers appeared to have no clue why we were in red robes; they thought it was a religious thing.

When they did ask about it, other people around us answered their questions, as the Handmaids have no voice. And, one of the good-guy legislators at the State House told me that only about 30 percent of the senators and representatives knew what the robes stood for.

Mostly stares
Mostly we got stares and not much hostility. The one exception was when I was standing alone on the second floor of the State House. In the Rotunda was a Right to Life zealot who had donned a robe herself and considered herself some sort of high priestess. As she danced and sang alone in the Rotunda, she looked up at me and incorporated the following words in to her song: “And there you are dressed up as a used tampon.” Lovely.

Work to be done
There’s more work to be done. Anyone who has time this week to be a volunteer for either Planned Parenthood, The Coalition for Reproductive Freedom or the Womxn’s Project should reach out to these groups immediately. Volunteers are needed to phone bank, canvass, leaflet, and show up at the State House to lobby.

Elie Mystal is the editor of Above the Law. He’s a brilliant writer and said this recently in response to the Alabama law and the attack on Roe V. Wade:

“For the Real Democrats, this is the hill we fight on. This is the hill we die on, if it comes to it. Republicans have shown that there is no more room for compromise. Democrats must see that there is no more room for retreat. Every single vote for a Republican at the local, state, or national level is a vote to reduce born women to the status of medical incubators with mouthparts. Democrats who are unwilling to make the case need to get out of the way and make room for a woman who can.”

Mystal continued: “Republicans and their judges are coming for women’s rights now. Not tomorrow, not theoretically, not only in red states, but now and everywhere and for real.”

Gov. Raimondo, Sens. Ruggerio and McCaffrey: Are you listening? Sens. Archambault, Lombardi, and Raptakis: Do you hear us?

Or, as Leslie Jones said on latest episode of Saturday Night Live, "We are all handmaids now."

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