ALBANY, N.Y. — This year’s legislative battle over abortion in New York enters its final phase, now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has revealed the Women’s Equality Act, which includes provisions that the Catholic Church and its pro-life allies say will greatly expand abortion in the state.
As the New York Legislature session was winding down, Cuomo unveiled the full text of legislation June 4, which reflects the 10-point "Women’s Equality" agenda he set forth in his January State of the State Address.
However, at the news conference with the governor and his Women’s Equality Commission, Cuomo made it clear that changing New York’s abortion law was equally important as the other nine provisions in his bill, which tackle workplace and pregnancy discrimination, anti-housing discrimination, domestic violence and sex-trafficking.
"This is a decision of the coalition from day one. They are all important. All 10 must pass," Cuomo said. He denied to reporters three times that he would compromise on the abortion section in order to let the other nine points pass.
"We don’t believe you have to give up any of the 10 [points]," Cuomo said, insisting that the bill was only codifying the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into New York state law.
The abortion provisions in the Women’s Equality Act 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 protects for "health-care providers."
Endorsements from several prominent abortion-rights activists were featured in a press release about the bill posted on the governor’s official website.
"Today is a historic day for the 10 million women in New York," said Andrea Miller, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New York on June 4. "This is the culmination of a lot of hard work on behalf of the coalition and the governor’s office, and we couldn’t be more thrilled that New York is on the cusp of protecting reproductive choice once and for all and improving the lives of women and men across the Empire State."
The release of the Women’s Equality Act drew a sharp response from the Church in New York and its pro-life allies. A statement signed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and the bishops of the New York Catholic Conference declared Cuomo was expanding access to abortion, easing all restrictions on late-term abortion and leaving women without any legal protection from forced or coerced abortion.
"As the pastors of more than 7.2 million Catholic New Yorkers, we fully oppose this measure and urge all our faithful people to do the same, vigorously and unapologetically," they stated. "We invite all women and men of good will to join in this effort and defeat this serious attempt to expand abortion availability in our state and to codify the most radical abortion proposals of any state in the nation."
The Register obtained a copy of an analysis of Cuomo’s bill prepared for the New York Catholic Conference, which indicates the Women’s Equality Act expands abortion even more than the language from the Reproductive Health Act, which many pro-life advocates believed would be reflected in the bill. The Reproductive Health Act is a stand-alone bill that would make abortion a "fundamental right" in New York state law, but it has never achieved enough support on its own in the state Legislature to become law.
"The new language accomplishes the same result with less limitations," the analysis notes. It explains that the Women’s Equality Act, in adopting Roe’s broad health exception (which Roe’s companion Doe v. Bolton case said includes "all factors — physical, emotional, psychological, familial and the woman’s age — relevant to the well-being of the patient") would essentially mean abortion on demand up to the moment of birth.
The analysis notes the state Health Department would have the power to qualify non-doctors to perform abortions and even late-term abortions with the removal of the "duly licensed physician" requirement in the state penal law. Moreover, the analysis says that removal of abortion from the penal law would prevent prosecutors from going after domestic abusers who directly cause a pregnant woman to lose her unborn infant.
The analysis adds that the concerns over conscience protections remain, since the bill does not define whether "health-care provider" includes health-care institutions, individuals or both. It says that Catholic schools and charities could still find themselves faced with the choice of referring for abortion or losing state contracts and licenses that keep their doors open.
Battle for Public Opinion
The Women’s Equality Act was expected to sail through the state Assembly, where Democrats enjoy a strong majority.
Passage of Cuomo’s bill, however, hangs in the 63-member state Senate, where a power-sharing agreement between Republicans and an independent conference of Democrats means that the Senate’s majority leader, Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, and his coalition partner, Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, have veto power over what legislation comes to the floor.
Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., D-Bronx, a Hispanic minister and the Senate’s sole pro-life Democrat, told the Register the week of the news conference that Cuomo does not have enough Democrats to vote for the bill and will have to put pressure on the Senate’s 30 Republicans.
"He needs 32 votes. Two Democrats — including myself — will not vote for it. So he will need at least one Republican," Diaz said.
Diaz, however, said that Cuomo would not allow the bill to come to the floor of the Senate unless he believes he has the necessary GOP votes. The New York state legislative session ends June 20.
"If [Cuomo] brings it to the floor, it’s a done deal," Diaz said, referring to what happened when Skelos allowed the same-sex "marriage" bill to hit the Senate floor.
"I’m calling on the Catholic leadership and Cardinal Dolan to intensely lobby Dean Skelos and the GOP leadership to stop the bill from coming to the floor."
But Cuomo is determined to regain the advantage in the battle for New York public opinion, since Cardinal Dolan, Church leaders and pro-life allies have been making the case that the bill is something that even pro-abortion-rights people would find unreasonable.
Instead, the governor said his bill would be the ultimate test for New York lawmakers on abortion rights. "If you are pro-choice, you will support this; if not — you’re pro-life, and you will not support this," he said.
Skelos, according to the Albany Times Union, told reporters that Cuomo’s proposal was not "pro-choice," but an "expansion of partial-birth abortion, in from the radical left," which he called both "extreme" and unnecessary.
Cuomo lashed out against opponents of the bill who have warned it would expand or extend abortion rights, saying they are the "extremists."
"The language does none of that," he said. "None of that is accurate."
However, when the governor was asked if he would call his largest opponent, the Catholic Church, "extremist," he demurred.
"A pro-life Catholic Church will oppose any law that affirms abortion because they oppose abortion," he said, claiming instead that the Church hadn’t actually said the law was expanding abortion access.
However, Cuomo also disputed the Church’s claims that New York’s abortion rate was already too high.
"Their point is that they oppose abortion and think there are too many abortions. I understand that position, but I disagree with it," he said.
Abortion data gathered by the Guttmacher Institute shows 33% of New York state pregnancies end in abortion — nearly twice the U.S. rate of 19%.
However, New York City has an even higher abortion rate of 41%, with some areas showing 67% of pregnancies ending in abortion, according to New York City Health Department data.
Diaz condemned Cuomo’s remarks and told the Register that abortion was devastating the black and Hispanic communities he represents. He said Cuomo was holding the women’s bill hostage because he knows New Yorkers don’t want any more abortion.
"They’re killing our babies and are stopping the growth of our communities. Most of the babies they’re killing are black and Hispanic," the Democratic state senator said.
"Everybody else is saying there are too many abortions in New York. Is the governor the only one who doesn’t understand that?"
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.