ALBANY, N.Y. — A pro-life coalition in New York has achieved a major victory in its two-year-long battle with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to expand legal abortion, now that the state assembly has agreed to split the governor’s “women’s equality agenda” into 10 separate bills.
And as a direct result, the abortion component of the agenda is expected to die, as it lacks the political support to succeed legislatively.
“We were able to hold off unrestricted, late-term abortion in New York state, and that is a pretty major victory in a state like New York,” said Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference.
On March 16, the New York State Assembly abandoned trying to pass the governor’s Women’s Equality Act, a 10-point bill that included a massive expansion of legal abortion, alongside other provisions, such as a raise in the minimum wage, tougher anti-housing discrimination laws and measures against domestic violence and sex trafficking.
Instead, the Democratic-controlled assembly is opting to break the bill into 10 pieces, starting with the human-trafficking legislation.
“I’m glad they’ve found the light, and I’m happy with that,” said pro-life state Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., D-Bronx, who was a key figure in helping Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, keep the abortion expansion in the Women’s Equality Act from coming to the floor for a vote.
For two years, the Republican-led Senate (where Republicans had a coalition with some independent Democrats, until taking outright majority control of the chamber in January 2015), broke the governor’s legislation into nine parts, excluded the abortion plank, and sent individual bills to the assembly. But the legislative body took an all-or-nothing approach, refusing to take up any of the bills until now.
Diaz said he is glad that women can “finally get the benefits” of the legislation without its abortion measures.
“For two years already, we in the Senate approved this agenda for women — the nine points — but for two years, the assembly Democrats stopped it.”
A Juggernaut Denied
The pro-life victory in New York is considerable, given the high waves of political success and popularity Cuomo was riding in January 2013, when he introduced the Women’s Equality Act. He had already notched major victories by muscling through a same-sex “marriage” bill and sweeping gun-control legislation, when he promised to deliver abortion advocates their biggest state victory in 40 years since Roe v. Wade. The sweeping expansion of abortion law the governor had tied into his “women’s equality agenda,” if enacted, could have put Catholic hospitals and many state-funded ministries out of business.
Cuomo was seeking to succeed where previous New York governors had failed, by finally getting the state Reproductive Health Act (RHA) enacted, since the bill had failed to make any headway as stand-alone legislation.
Instead, the RHA was turned into the 10th plank of Cuomo’s legislation. It would have eliminated criminal penalties for third-trimester abortions after 24 weeks by adding a broad health exception. The law now on the books allows such late-term abortions if there is a danger to the mother’s life.
Cuomo’s abortion expansion also would have made illegal abortion restrictions such as parental-notification laws, informed-consent laws, restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion and abortion bans of any kind.
Licensed medical professionals other than physicians would also have been authorized to perform first-trimester abortions.
Although the governor framed his bill as not expanding legal abortion, but as codifying federal law, the pro-life coalition opposing the legislation pointed out the sweeping abortion provisions actually were out of line with existing federal law that provides legal protection for unborn victims of violence, bans partial-birth abortion and restricts federal funds from paying for most abortions.
Keys to Victory
The keys for the pro-life victory in New York were forged through a Catholic-evangelical partnership, when the New York State Catholic Conference and the Evangelical Christian group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, led by Rev. Jason McGuire, joined forces to create an umbrella group called New Yorkers for Life. This provided a banner to unite the state’s various pro-life organizations into one voice for this issue, so they could effectively oppose the governor’s political machine.
“We did a lot of things correctly: We formed a coalition early; we took control of the message,” said Gallagher. “We used women wherever we could, and that worked very well; we used medical professionals up front, and that worked very well.”
McGuire, an evangelical Protestant minister, said there was “tremendous unity on this issue.”
“We felt all the pro-life organizations really surrendered their own turf to stand together on this common issue.”
He added that controlling the message was critical. Swift action from the New Yorkers for Life coalition to define the terms of the debate early on, describing the governor’s bill as “abortion expansion,” was “very helpful.”
“We were consistent on that messaging, no matter who we spoke to, no matter who was speaking about this issue among the various organizations,” he said. “We always referred to it as Gov. Cuomo’s ‘abortion expansion act,’ and accurately defining it, rather than using the preferred language the governor chose, we were able to get ahead of it and win the argument in the public marketplace of ideas.”
Power of Prayer
McGuire made clear that the final credit goes to God: “This was as much a prayer movement as it was a work movement to stand for life.”
Amid the pro-life coalition’s efforts, the Women’s Equality Act’s viability turned on the actions of three men in Albany: the governor, the senate majority leader and the assembly speaker.
When the bill was first introduced, Diaz had feared that the governor had the votes to strong-arm the legislation through the 63-member senate. All he needed was an opportunity to get a vote on the senate floor.
Soon after Cuomo’s announcement of his women’s agenda, Skelos, who controlled the senate with a coalition of Republicans and independent Democrats, made clear that he would deny the governor that opportunity. He called the abortion expansion “an extreme measure” from the “radical left” and held firm under pressure.
“He came out very strongly and said we’re not going to expand abortion in New York state,” Gallagher said. “He stood by that conviction, and we, the pro-life community, affirmed him in that over and over again.”
As the fight dragged on, Cuomo abandoned the abortion plank in 2014 and urged the assembly to pass the nine planks of the Women’s Equality Act and get them into law. But then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver denied the governor’s request, saying it would be all-or-nothing.
“Not allowing that omnibus bill to be broken up in nine separate bills was hurting victims of human trafficking, domestic violence and all the other issues,” said Kirsten Smith, spokeswoman for New Yorkers for Life. “That became a sticking point for them, and they had to make a choice.”
Silver, however, was forced to resign from office this year, after he came under federal investigation for bribery. This paved the way for his successor, Carl Heastie, to take the speakership and finally approve the decision to vote on separate bills.
The abortion expansion will also get its vote in the assembly as stand-alone legislation, but it is expected to die, as Skelos, for the past two years, has refused to allow any abortion expansion to get a floor vote in the senate.
Looking to the Next Battle
New Yorkers for Life will be keeping an eye on any attempt to resurrect plans to expand abortion in New York.
“The issue is not going to go away,” said Smith. “It might spring up in another area, because the governor has been forthright in wanting to keep abortion paramount in his mind with women.”
Gallagher said that they might assemble another coalition under the New Yorkers for Life banner: this time to fight the looming threat of legalizing assisted suicide.
“We think we’re going to take New Yorkers for Life in that direction, because it is the next battle, right here on the horizon.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.