ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is flexing his political muscle to give abortion advocates their biggest state victory in 40 years since Roe v. Wade: a sweeping expansion of abortion law that, if enforced, could put Catholic hospitals and many state-funded ministries out of business.
Cuomo’s approval ratings have topped 70% for six straight months, and, with just two years in office, he has already pushed through controversial same-sex "marriage" legislation and the most restrictive gun-control law in the nation.
Cuomo, who is Catholic, now is setting his sights on succeeding where governors for the past six years have failed: passing the proposed Reproductive Health Care Act.
But Cuomo has included the act as part of his 10-point "women’s equality" agenda, which includes a raise in the minimum wage, tougher anti-housing discrimination laws and measures against domestic violence and sex-trafficking.
Catholic bishops in New York’s Catholic Conference and pro-life groups are raising the alarm that Cuomo’s proposals are both "radical" and "dangerous" to unborn children, women and religious freedom.
"Gov. Cuomo’s bill elevates abortion to a fundamental right and says New York state can’t discriminate on abortion in benefits or services or anything else it provides," said Kathleen Gallagher, the conference’s director of pro-life activities.
Cuomo’s legislation, she said, would make illegal abortion restrictions, such as parental-notification laws, informed-consent laws, restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion and abortion bans of any kind.
The law will allow licensed medical professionals other than a physician to perform first-trimester abortions.
The Democratic governor announced in his Jan. 9 State of the State address that he would expand legal abortion as part of a comprehensive women’s-equality bill, declaring three times, "It’s her body, her choice" to thunderous applause.
"Gov. Cuomo vociferously declared that women’s equality, safety and reproductive rights will be a priority for New York state in 2013," Andrea Miller, president of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, confirmed in a press release. Miller said the last election results showed New Yorkers recognized that without a right to abortion a woman "cannot participate fully in society."
Late-Abortion Green Light
Cuomo’s bill removes criminal penalties for third-trimester abortions after 24 weeks by adding a broad health exception. Current state law allows such late-term abortions if there is a danger to the mother’s life.
Chris Slattery, director of the Expectant Mother Care (EMC) pregnancy centers in New York City, said the new law will make New York City the late-term abortion capital of the world.
"It’s going to open up the third-trimester market," Slattery said. "It’s going to be huge, and people all over the world, not just out of state, are going to be coming to New York to have and perform these abortions."
Late-term abortions generally cost more than $2,000.
"It’s the fight of the pro-life movement’s life in New York," Slattery said. "This is worse than Roe v. Wade itself, and everyone needs to focus on defeating this bill."
The Guttmacher Institute’s New York state abortion data showed that 33% of New York pregnancies end in abortion — nearly twice the national rate of 19%. Only 53% of New York pregnancies resulted in live births, with the remaining 14% ending with miscarriage.
New York City itself has an average abortion rate of 41%, with some areas as high as 67%, according to New York Health Department data gathered by the Chiaroscuro Foundation.
A 2011 poll, conducted for the Chiaroscuro Foundation by McLaughlin and Associates, found 64% of New Yorkers — including 57% of women identifying as "pro-choice" — believe New York City’s abortion rate is too high; 74% believe the overall 60% abortion rate among minorities is too high.
The poll also found 69% of New Yorkers support informed-consent laws, 59% support mandating parental consent for minors seeking abortion, and 51% support having a 24-hour waiting period for abortion.
State Senate Battle
Cuomo’s legislation is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled Assembly, but pro-life advocates are focusing on the Senate, which Republicans control in a coalition with six independent Democrats.
Pro-life state Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., D-Bronx, predicts the abortion battle will happen in the next few weeks and not toward the end of the legislative session in June. He said pro-life prospects look grim if the Reproductive Health Care Act comes up for a vote.
"I’m the only solid pro-life vote among the Democrats," he said. "But if the Republicans allow this to come to the floor, then it is a done deal."
Diaz expressed doubts that Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, would keep the 30-member GOP caucus in line and predicted that one or two Republicans would join 32 Democrat senators to vote for the bill — a replay of voting patterns that resulted in the legalization of same-sex "marriage" in 2011.
Under a power-sharing agreement, Skelos and state Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, alternate leadership of the Senate every week.
"The week in which Sen. Jeff Klein becomes leader of the chamber — that week he will bring the bill to the floor," Diaz said.
Diaz said he had no hope the bill could be stopped in the Senate without personal lobbying from Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
In a Jan. 9 letter to Cuomo, Cardinal Dolan forcefully denounced the governor’s push for increased access to abortion.
"Dolan has a very powerful voice in the state," said Diaz. "I’m hoping he comes to Albany now and lobbies — and lobbies hard. I think he’s the only hope we have to convince people to not bring this bill to the floor."
No Conscience Protections
Gallagher warned that the state bill has no conscience protections for religious institutions and that the New York Catholic Conference’s legal analysts fear the state could use the law to shut down any Catholic institution (including Catholic hospitals, Catholic charities and schools) that gets state licensing or funding.
"State regulators, such as the state health department or state insurance department, could say, ‘We cannot give you that license to operate’ or ‘We cannot give you that funding’ because our pro-life mission means we’re discriminating against a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion," Gallagher said.
Bishop William Murphy confirmed that the Diocese of Rockville Centre is home to six hospitals on Long Island that could be crippled if the state simply withheld Medicaid dollars. The clash would be inevitable, because Catholic hospitals will neither perform nor refer people for abortions under any circumstances.
"It is another blow against a pro-life position, making that position officially ‘unacceptable’ or ‘bigoted’ or ‘intolerant,’" Bishop Murphy said, adding that the situation was "a very strange fruit in our society, where the majority of Americans, however they define it, call themselves pro-life."
If the bill expanding access to abortion is passed, pro-life medical professionals could also find their practices at risk.
"All the legal mechanisms are in place so that doctors are forced to abandon their practices," said Dr. Katherine Lammers, a Catholic obstetrician-gynecologist in Rochester, who has delivered 4,000 babies in her 25-year career. Lammers’ practice does not perform or refer for abortions.
She noted that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published an ethical memo in 2008 that directed doctors to provide abortion referrals if they are unable to perform the procedure.
"So it could happen this way: ACOG could say that this doctor is violating Ethical Bulletin 899. They could take your board certification away for ethical violations. The state board could then say, ‘This doctor is not medically licensed.’ So, theoretically, a doctor could be forced out of her business," Lammers said.
Rally in March
The New York State Catholic Conference has scheduled a March 20 "Catholics at the Capitol" rally to highlight the Catholic Church’s top legislative priorities.
The Legislature has until June, the end of its session, to pass Cuomo’s legislation, but it could be brought to the floor of the legislative body before then.
Gallagher said the state’s pro-life coalition is making a push to gather support through social media. On Jan. 15, pro-life advocates launched a "New Yorkers for Life" Facebook page and a Twitter account.
"We Catholic bishops will do our best to inform our people and rally Catholics and non-Catholics alike to express a preference for laws that safeguard women and children," Bishop Murphy said. "A society can flourish only when it keeps before its eyes that God who creates and sustains it."
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.