ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s political blitzkrieg won victories for same-sex "marriage" and gun-control advocates, but mounting opposition by Catholics and their pro-life and evangelical allies have slowed down his efforts to expand abortion in New York.
Pro-life state Sen. Ruben Diaz, D-Bronx, said those efforts now give him a glimmer of hope that Cuomo’s plans to expand abortion in an omnibus women’s equality bill can be stopped.
"Little by little, the pressure is working," Diaz said.
Just a few weeks ago, Diaz said it looked like Cuomo had the votes to ram the legislation through the 63-member Senate. But strong public opposition led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and the New York Catholic Conference (NYCC) to Cuomo’s inclusion of the Reproductive Health Act in his women’s equality bill has raised awareness about the abortion expansion and generated unease among some lawmakers, Diaz said.
"I feel more positive that this bill will not pass, because many people are concerned with the late-term abortion part of it," he said.
The Catholic bishops of New York held a Jan. 28 meeting convened by Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany to discuss Cuomo’s intended expansion of legal abortion as part of his women’s equality agenda.
"The bishops vowed to do everything they can to fight this bill," said Kathleen Gallagher, spokeswoman for the NYCC. According to Gallagher, the meeting decided each bishop would take initiative within his own diocese to mobilize grassroots opposition.
Bishop Robert Cunningham of Syracuse released the New York Catholic Conference’s memo against the abortion expansion for priests to read to parishioners at Sunday Mass. Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo also wrote a personal letter to parishes asking the faithful to mobilize and voice opposition to the bill.
The Archdiocese of New York’s Family Life/Respect Life Office is following a seven-pronged grassroots strategy designed by Ed Mechmann, a public policy and legal expert for the archdiocese. The effort informs parishioners in both Spanish and English with flyers and parish bulletins and encourages Catholics to write legislators, visit local district offices, organize local rallies, write letters to the editor, reach out to local talk radio and news shows, and spread the word with social media.
Sister of Life Lucy Marie, the archdiocese’s respect-life coordinator, sent out the grassroots plan in a high-priority email to priests, pro-life coordinators and parishes of the archdiocese stressing it was "very important to act quickly."
"We should likewise be incorporating this effort and the defeat of this bill in our various prayers, Holy Hours, etc., that are conducted on a regular basis in parishes," she said.
Social media is the best tool a grassroots movement has to offset Cuomo’s political media machine, said Rev. Jason McGuire, an evangelical pastor and president of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms.
"Nothing beats social media to amplify your message," McGuire said. The social networks allow people to broadcast letters to the editor, news, editorials and other posts that generate buzz in a way traditional media cannot.
"You can really move a mass of people and activate them around this issue," McGuire said. "Moms at home wondering what they can do can Facebook, tweet and blog about this issue to their network of like-minded friends."
A free social-media training webinar called "Social Media Training for Life" was held Feb. 9 by McGuire and social-media consultant Sean Conboy, CEO of NuSvara.
Gallagher said word about the webinar had been spread to eight diocesan respect-life offices. The efforts build on the New Yorkers for Life Facebook page (Facebook.com/NYS4Life) and a Twitter account (Twitter.com/NYS4Life) the NYCC set up to mobilize social-media advocacy.
In early January, Cuomo promised to enact the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) as part of a women’s equality bill that would also include a higher minimum wage, tougher anti-housing discrimination laws and measures against domestic violence and sex-trafficking.
But the RHA would make abortion a "fundamental right" in New York law and remove all mention of abortion from the penal code. The bill would legalize late-term abortion after 24 weeks for health reasons, allow non-physicians to perform some abortions, and remove some criminal charges prosecutors use against individuals who kill an unborn child against the mother’s will.
The NYCC has warned the bill would preclude legal abortion restrictions, such as parental-notification laws, informed-consent laws, restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion and abortion bans of any kind. The conference also says it creates a legal basis for the state to pull the operating certificate of Catholic hospitals and agencies that refuse to perform or refer for abortions.
The governor has rejected the charge that he is expanding abortion in New York.
"This is not an expansion of abortion rights. It’s a codification of existing federal law," Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi told The Associated Press. "Any suggestion to the contrary is not only baseless, but a distortion of the facts."
Mechmann said Cuomo’s plans are out of step 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.
"No federal law has ever given permission to non-doctors to perform abortions. No federal law outlaws ‘discrimination’ against abortion in the granting of state licenses, provision of services, etc.," Mechmann stated in a rebuttal of Cuomo’s claims posted on the archdiocese’s website. "No federal law has virtually eliminated basic criminal penalties for involuntary or back-alley abortions. Yet the governor’s bill does all that, and more."
The Guttmacher Institute’s New York abortion data shows 33% of New York pregnancies end in abortion — nearly twice the national rate of 19%. New York City itself has an average abortion rate of 41%, with some areas as high as 67%, according to New York City Health Department data gathered by the Chiaroscuro Foundation.
State Senate Struggle
Cuomo’s bill, when the governor finally submits the legislation, is expected to sail through the Democrat-controlled Assembly. But pro-life advocates see their only chance to defeat the bill’s abortion expansion in the Senate, where 30 Republicans in coalition with six independent Democrats control the 63-member chamber.
Diaz said he secured the No vote of another Democratic senator and hoped he might be able to secure a few more with time. But right now, he said, Cuomo lacks the 32 votes he needs to pass his bill and would need to get Republican support.
The GOP’s majority leader, Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, has not polled Republican senators’ positions on the bill, said Skelos spokesman Scott Reif. But the inclusion of the RHA in the bill is a deal breaker for Skelos.
"Sen. Skelos has said he is opposed to that particular bill coming to the floor," Reif said.
Under a power-sharing agreement, Skelos and state Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, alternate leadership of the Senate every week.
Reif said the majority leader would block Cuomo’s abortion expansion under the power-sharing rules of the Senate that require both the consent of Skelos and co-leader Klein for active bills to come up for a vote.
But Diaz cautioned that Cuomo and Klein have an effective lobbying machine and would find a way to bring the bill to the floor "as soon as they have the votes."
The Senate is currently dealing with the state budget, which it may finish by late March, according to Reif.
But Mechmann told the Register that once Cuomo reveals his bill to the state Legislature, the governor could give little time for lawmakers to read and debate it by suspending the normal rules with a "statement of necessity."
"The governor will do that routinely to just short-circuit the process and have the Legislature do things his way," Mechmann said. He explained that Cuomo used the same tactic to ram through the gun control SAFE Act before opponents had a chance to organize.
"He has all the cards and doesn’t show them until the last minute," Mechmann said. "But we want to send people the message: Even if you are pro-choice, this bill goes too far and contains things that the vast majority of people are against."
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.