The ACLU of Rhode Island today filed a court brief seeking to beat back an effort to overturn a state law that protects an individual’s right to an abortion.  The filing comes amidst an organized campaign across the country by opponents of reproductive freedom to restrict access to the procedure and overturn Roe v. Wade.

In 2019, the R.I. General Assembly enacted the Reproductive Privacy Act, which codifies the principles of Roe v. Wade into state law.  The law was promoted for years by pro-choice advocacy groups as a necessary safeguard against the now-confirmed fear that the federal courts might allow states to eviscerate the constitutional right to an abortion guaranteed by Roe.

However, even before the bill was signed by then-Governor Gina Raimondo, a group of anti-choice opponents of the law filed a lawsuit against it, making a hodgepodge of legal arguments, including that the General Assembly had no authority to pass the statute, that it violated the U.S. Constitution, and that members of the public had the right to vote on any law protecting the right to an abortion. After Superior Court Judge Melissa Darigan rejected those and other arguments of the law’s opponents, they appealed to the R.I. Supreme Court, where the ACLU’s “friend of the court” brief in opposition to the appeal was filed today.

The plaintiffs in the case include two then-fetuses at the time the suit was first filed. In a short brief filed today, ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger noted that “nothing in the RPA requires, nor could require, any pregnant person to terminate a pregnancy that they wish to continue,” and, in terms of standing to bring suit, Roe v. Wade specifically held that “the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn.” The brief, which also refutes a handful of other arguments made by the other plaintiffs in the suit, supports the position taken by the Attorney General’s office, which is defending the statute’s legality.

Before the 2019 law was enacted, the ACLU had successfully challenged in court a half-dozen statutes enacted by the General Assembly since 1973 that sought to erode abortion rights. Pro-choice advocates are now pressing the legislature to pass a companion bill to the RPA which would repeal current laws that restrict government funding for abortions for state employees and the poor.

ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger said today: “Thirty-five years ago, Rhode Island voters, by a two-to-one majority, made clear that they support reproductive choice and rejected an attempt to insert an abortion ban in the state Constitution.  It took another thirty years to convince the General Assembly that the threat to Roe v. Wade was sufficiently large that the State needed to act to preserve reproductive choice in Rhode Island.  Despite that clear history, the anti-choice advocates bringing this case claim that our Constitution contains the very prohibition that was resoundingly defeated in 1986. We are hopeful the court will reject this attempt to rewrite history.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “This case highlights the unfortunate truth that, as is the case in the rest of the country, the fight for reproductive freedom in Rhode Island is far from over. The effort by anti-choice zealots to overturn this important law is a clarion call for the General Assembly to take further action to protect this critical privacy right.”

More info on the case, including court filings, can be found here.

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