Will New York Have the Most Liberal Abortion Laws in the World?

Legislators may enact new abortion-expansion law championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in time for Jan. 22, the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

New York State Capitol
New York State Capitol (photo: Shutterstock)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — For 12 years, New York state’s pro-life activists successfully kept the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) at bay — a bill that would not simply make New York have one of the most abortion-permissive legal regimes in the world, but also go beyond the Roe v. Wade decision to strip away existing protections for pregnant women and unborn victims of violence.

Now, the state’s pro-life movement is on the back foot, but undeterred in generating awareness about the pending legislation’s impact on New Yorkers.

The burden largely falls on the grassroots: The Senate’s most dedicated pro-life voice, Democratic state Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr., retired and became a city councilor in 2017, and the Senate’s Republicans have not been outspoken in opposing the abortion-expansion bill.

“It’s hard to find anybody talking about it,” Cecelia Hayes, a Catholic wife and mother of five who is working to galvanize New York’s Catholics and pro-life activists, told the Register.

Hayes said she became active in pro-life engagement two years ago, joining Feminists Choosing Life of New York (FCLNY). She leads the local FCLNY “Sunday Salon” for pro-life and pro-choice small-group dialogue and the pro-life book club.

Hayes is now FCLNY’s vice president and has been sending out information via email and social media to equip people with information about the RHA and encouraging them to contact their legislators.

 “If people don’t hear about the bill from us, they won’t hear it at all,” she said.

The New York State Catholic Conference (NYSCC), the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church in New York state, has issued a bulletin insert for parishes in dioceses across the state. Kathleen Gallagher, director of the NYSCC’s pro-life activities, said that, barring a miracle, “This bill will pass.”

Gallagher explained that all 39 members of the Senate’s new Democratic majority are solidly behind the legislation, which is co-sponsored by incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

The bill could be introduced as early as Jan. 9, when the legislative session begins, with an expected vote in both houses on Jan. 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion throughout the U.S.

Still, Gallagher indicated it was crucial for Catholics to raise their voices so lawmakers in Albany realize the pro-life issue is still crucial for voters.

“We’re urging Catholics all over the state to protest this bill to the governor and their legislators,” she said.


Legal Changes on Horizon

Michele Sterlace-Accorsi, an attorney and the executive director of Feminists Choosing Life of New York, told the Register that New York’s current abortion law already permits abortion for any reason during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Beyond this point, the state allows late-term abortion by a licensed physician in a hospital, to save the life of the mother.

Sterlace-Accorsi explained the RHA not only creates a broad health exception to allow abortion beyond 24 weeks for almost any reason, but repeals other provisions of New York law that will have the “unintended consequences” of harming women and their unborn children.

Because the law removes abortion completely from the state’s criminal code, Sterlace-Accorsi said, RHA deprives women of the choice to hold violent partners accountable for killing their wanted unborn children. Women and girls forced to abort their unborn children by sex traffickers will also lose another mechanism to punish the people who enslaved them.

She added the RHA also repeals requirements to provide lifesaving care for a child born alive during an abortion. And it removes the requirement that only a licensed physician, in a hospital setting, can perform a late-term abortion.

“It allows non-doctors to perform a third-trimester abortion,” Sterlace-Accorsi said, noting that late-term abortion poses far greater risks to the mother’s life than early-term abortion. She pointed to a study in Obstetrics and Gynecology,Risk Factors for Legal Induced Abortion-Related Mortality in the United States,” that showed the risk of maternal death from legal abortion increases by 38% each additional week of the child’s gestation.

The law also repeals regulations that prevent the advertisement of contraceptives to minors under 16 years old or prohibit the sale or distribution of contraceptives to minors by anyone other than a licensed pharmacist.


12-Year Battle

The Reproductive Health Act has been on the legislative agenda of abortion advocates in New York state since it was introduced by then-Gov. Elliot Spitzer in 2007.

New York state politics is known for its “three men in a room” governance: While the governor is politically influential, both the state Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader wield enormous power over their respective chambers. Successful legislation generally requires New York’s governor, assembly speaker and senate majority leader to achieve some kind of agreement to get a bill to the floor of each chamber.

The pro-life coalition in New York had been able to block abortion-expansion legislation by putting enough bipartisan pressure on the state Senate, particularly when the chamber was under the control of the Republican Party, or the GOP and a coalition of independent Democrats that caucused with them.

However, the Independent Democratic Conference disbanded in April, under heavy pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, to abandon their alliance with the GOP and unite with the main Democratic caucus when it became clear state voters would punish Republicans in the midterms.

And at a news conference Jan. 7, where he pledged to push for passage of the RHA within 30 days, Cuomo went even further: He promised to codify Roe v. Wade into the state constitution, in a bid to further entrench abortion rights in the Empire State.

Pro-life advocates point out that women in New York have no difficulty accessing abortion. According to Guttmacher Institute statistics, New York state’s abortion ,rate (at 29.6 per 1,000 women) is twice the national average (14.6 per 1,000 women).

 “Why are women looking to abort? That is the big crucial question,” Sterlace-Accorsi said. Guttmacher’s own statistics show low-income women account for 75% of abortions, 86% of women were unmarried, and 62% had a religious affiliation. The RHA proposes abortion as the answer to women’s unplanned pregnancies, Sterlace-Accorsi said, when “there are economic, political and social constructs that we can work to reconfigure” to help women choose life.

Sterlace-Accorsi said strengthening family-leave policy, providing on-site child care, supporting flexible working hours, addressing maternal health, and ensuring women receive compensation equal to men working the same jobs are some valid ways to address known “push factors” behind abortion.

“All these are very practical solutions that are far short of having to destroy your unborn child,” she said. “A progressive modern society has to find better ways than just destroying human life.”


The Next Frontier

Gallagher said that because the pro-life community held off this bill for 12 years, lives “undoubtedly” were saved. The state’s Catholic conference is asking Catholics to pray for the intercession of St. Gianna Molla, an Italian Catholic wife and mother and patron of the unborn, to change hearts and minds.

Gallagher said the conference is also calling Catholics to actively work to provide life-affirming choices for women in their communities, such as pregnancy-center support services and social support through Catholic Charities, as well as promoting abortion-healing programs such as Project Rachel or Rachel’s Vineyard.

“Even if we lose this [legislative fight], there are important steps we can take to build a culture of life,” Gallagher said. “We want to build a culture where no woman feels she needs to avail herself of abortion.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.