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Women's Equality Act supporters say there's still work to do

New York State Senate

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act saw some successes in the legislature in 2015, after the most controversial of the measures -- an abortion rights provision -- was separated out from the rest of the items.

Eight of the of the 10 provisions in the Women’s Equality Act passed in 2015, including anti-human trafficking laws, protections for pregnant workers, broadening anti-sexual harassment laws  in the workplace, and making it easier for women to sue for equal pay, says the co-chairwoman of the Women’s Equality Coalition, Suzy Ballantyne. 

“We’re energized that we really made a lot of progress this year,” said Ballantyne. “It had been a slow painful past three years, when there hadn’t been a lot of issues passed.”

What changed this year is that the original package, which contained an abortion rights provision, was broken up into ten separate measures.

The Women’s Equality Act was first proposed by Cuomo in 2013. At the time, he called for all 10 of its provisions to be approved as one omnibus bill, including a measure to codify into state law the rights included in the federal Roe v. Wade decision.

Cuomo campaigned for the measure in his reelection effort one year ago.

“And if you want to be against those 10 points, you be against those 10 points at your political risk,” Cuomo warned.

The governor won re-election. But Senate Republicans, who had refused to bring the abortion rights provision to the floor for a vote, also were successful in the 2014 campaigns, and they won the minimum 32 votes needed to control of the Senate.

In the first months of his second term, Cuomo separated the abortion rights proposal from the rest of the measures, letting each bill stand on it’s own. Assembly Democrats , who had also wanted all 10 of the provisions to be passed together, also agreed to separate the measures, and that broke the logjam.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a pro-choice supporter and former member of Congress who withstood pressure over the issue in her conservative western New York district, says the decision to decouple the abortion rights provision from the rest of the measures was simply “pragmatic politics."

“There was a disappointment, but also sometimes the political reality hits you hard and you have to adapt to it,” Hochul said.

But the lieutenant governor says that doesn’t mean  she’s giving up on the abortion rights provision. She says opponents’ claims that it would make it easier to obtain late term abortions is a distortion.

“It’s been mischaracterized as an expansion of abortion rights which is not true,” said Hochul, who says the aim of the bill is to make sure New York’s 1970 abortion laws are updated and are consistent with the current federal protections, in case the U.S. Supreme Court ever reverses Roe v. Wade.    

Hochul admits the GOP senators’ opposition is “a point of frustration."  But she stops short of saying that the Republicans should be replaced by Democrats in the Senate, saying you can’t “control what people do when you walk in a polling place," and it’s a “political reality," that some portions of  the state will continue to be Republican.   

Ballantine says while she thinks women’s lives will be better after the 2015 session, she says there’s still “more to do."

“I don’t think anybody in New York state would say it’s an equal playing field for women, still, at this point,” Ballantyne said.

In addition to the abortion rights provision, she says her group will get busy to make sure the other issue in the Women’s Equality Act that was left off, paid family leave, is approved next year.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.