ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has decided to save the bulk of his women’s equality agenda by creating a separate bill for the most radical expansion of abortion in New York state since the Roe v. Wade decision.
But the governor’s move is not enough for pro-life leaders to declare victory, pointing to previous 11th-hour negotiations that gave the governor his most controversial legislative triumphs.
Cuomo has divided the Women’s Equality Act into 10 bills, after negotiating with leaders from the state Assembly and the Senate. Cuomo backed down from his all-or-nothing position after it was clear the New York Legislature would not resolve an impasse over the WEA’s inclusion of a provision that would expand abortion access in New York.
“Gov. Cuomo’s decision to untether the nine other provisions of the Women’s Equality Act from the controversial abortion piece is the right thing to do,” Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, told the Register.
The conference said the nine other provisions, which tackle workplace and pregnancy discrimination, anti-housing discrimination, domestic violence and sex-trafficking, should not be held hostage to the abortion plank.
“We are pleased that they can now stand on their own. Our greatest concern is stopping the 10th provision, which would expand abortion in the state,” Poust said.
New Yorkers for Life, the broad pro-life coalition of Catholic, evangelical Protestant and secular pro-life allies, greeted Cuomo’s decision to split the bill into 10 parts and saw it as the vindication of a comprehensive education strategy that included rallies, social media and traditional outreach.
“It is clear today that efforts to expose and counteract Gov. Cuomo’s abortion agenda have proven fruitful and effective,” Kirsten Smith, spokeswoman for New Yorkers for Life, said, adding that the group won’t let up its efforts until the session officially ends.
Fight Isn’t Over
However, pro-life state Sen. Ruben Diaz, D-Bronx, said that the curtain has not closed on Cuomo’s plans for expanding abortion in New York.
“In this session, anything can happen,” Diaz said.
Diaz told the Register that the governor may still try to strike a deal with the Senate majjority leader, Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, so he can get his abortion-expansion bill a vote in the Senate. Under power-sharing rules between Skelos and the Senate’s co-leader, Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), both leaders have veto power over what bills get to the floor for a vote.
“If Sen. Skelos allows the bill to come to the floor, I’m afraid it will pass,” he said. In the event of the bill coming to the floor for a vote, the governor would apply heavy pressure on individual Republicans to get them to cave, just as he did in the same-sex “marriage” vote, Diaz explained.
“The abortion plank is still in,” a spokesperson for Klein commented June 19 to The Christian Post. “It's a stand-alone bill, but there's no guarantee that it will make it to the Senate floor. They're playing that out today, over the next few hours.”
But Skelos spokesman Scott Reif told the Register that the majority leader had no plans on budging and would allow only the non-abortion parts of the governor’s women’s equality agenda to get a vote in the Senate.
“We oppose bringing the abortion provision to the floor,” Reif said. “The other nine points have been agreed to with the governor and the Assembly.”
Angry Abortion Activists
Abortion activists have been livid that the abortion plank in the WEA is not getting a vote in the Senate. NARAL Pro-Choice New York's president, Andrea Miller, blamed Klein and the IDC, accusing the caucus of missing “the most definitive opportunity for them to act on those supposed pro-choice beliefs.”
“Opposition to codifying Roe v. Wade in New York is confined to a minority of extremists who want to see the clock rolled back on a woman’s right to choose,” said Miller, “as we see happening in state after state across the country.”
For his part, Cuomo told the Capitol Pressroom that Klein and the IDC would face consequences in the 2014 statewide elections for failing to pass his women's agenda.
"I think it is a serious mistake for the IDC, who are theoretically Democrats," Cuomo said in a June 17 morning radio appearance.
Klein and the IDC insisted it was not because of them that Cuomo’s abortion expansion has been unable to advance in the Senate. An effort to woo the vote of Sen. John Bonacic, R-Middletown, by amending the bill to ban partial-birth abortion fell through.
Without a single Republican to make up for “the few right-to-life members of the Senate Democratic Conference,” Klein said in a statement, he couldn’t get a majority to pass the bill. Finally, Klein opted to bring the WEA to the floor without the abortion provisions.
“We are prepared to do nine of the 10 points and believe that women should not be forced to wait any longer for progress on these important issues,” he said.
The abortion provisions of Cuomo’s original bill, now filed as S5881 state, “The state shall not deny a woman’s right to obtain an abortion, as established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade. Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, New York protects a woman’s right to obtain an abortion when the fetus is not viable or when necessary to protect a woman’s life or health, as determined by a licensed physician.”
The bill also removes abortion from the state penal law and declares that the act will not conflict with existing state or federal conscience protections for “health-care providers.”
The New York State Catholic Conference has warned the broad health exception would mean abortion on demand up to the moment of birth and that the law would pave the way for the New York State Department of Health to approve non-doctors to perform abortions and deprive prosecutors of the tools to punish domestic abusers that directly cause the death of an unborn child. It says the bill also does not do enough to protect the conscience rights of Catholic schools and charities and fails to define whether “health-care providers” covers individuals, institutions or both.
Poust said the Catholic Conference still remains concerned about legislators being misled about the bill until the session wraps up this week.
“Thankfully, Senate co-leader Dean Skelos has remained firm that the Senate will not vote on the abortion plank,” he said. “So we are holding onto that hope.”
Register correspondent Peter Jesserer Smith
filed this story from Denver.