© 2021 WRVO Public Media
Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics and Government

New York poised to strengthen abortion rights

Matt Ryan
New York Now (file photo)

The New York State legislature is poised to approve a bill to codify the abortion rights in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into state law. For supporters, including the majority of Senators and Assemblymembers, it’s been a long time coming. But for opponents, it’s a bitter disappointment.

The legislation was blocked for a dozen years in the state Senate, because Republicans who held the majority did not permit the bill to come to the floor for a vote. Now, with the election of several new Democrats to form the ruling party in the State Senate, they’ll join the Democrats who lead the Assembly to likely pass the bill on the anniversary of the Court’s 1973 decision on Roe v. Wade.

Andrea Miller, President of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, worked for years in Albany to get a vote on the measure to update the state’s 1970 abortion laws, which abortion rights supporters say are antiquated. 

“It’s a very exciting moment for New York, and frankly, the country,” Miller said. “This will have an immediate impact in stopping the harm that is currently happening for women with issues late in pregnancy who have had to leave the state in order to get the care they need and deserve.”

The state’s current laws decriminalize the procedure for pregnancies up to 24 weeks. After that, abortion is only permitted to save the life of the mother. It is not allowed to preserve a woman’s health. As a result, some New York women with rare conditions that led to late term pregnancies that were considered dangerous to their health had to go out of state to get an abortion.  

The Reproductive Health Act would permit abortions for any reason for the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. After that, abortions could be performed if the fetus is determined not to be viable outside the womb, and to protect the mother’s life or health.

Miller said the New York legislature’s swift action on abortion rights can motivate other states to act, during a time when President Donald Trump’s recent appointments to the Supreme Court increase the chances that Roe v. Wade could be overturned.

“To have New York come out of the box fast, early in the legislative cycle and make this definitive statement can be really inspiring,” Miller said, especially in wake of midterm elections where many candidates ran and won on the issue. 

Opponents include some religious groups, like the Catholic Church. Kathy Gallagher, who is director of Pro-Life activities with the New York State Catholic Conference, said it’s a “very sad day” and could lead to more women having the procedure. She says the state already had a higher rate of abortion than many other states, at double the national average.

“Thankfully the number of abortions in New York State and around the country had been trending downward for at least the last ten years,” Gallagher said. “We think the Reproductive Health Act is going to undo all that good and move things in the opposite direction.”

Gallagher said the Reproductive Health Act goes beyond the rights established in Roe v Wade.  She says a provision that permits a “licensed, certified, or authorized practitioner” to perform an abortion means it would allow health professionals other than doctors to provide the procedure. She says it could also weaken criminal penalties in cases where domestic violence leads to the loss of a fetus, because the procedure would be removed from the state’s criminal statues and instead be under the public health laws.

Gallagher said it’s “ironic” that the Democratic-controlled legislature is acting on the Reproductive Health Act while moving toward expanding rights for voting, access to college, and even legalizing marijuana.

“We’re going to have the right to early voting and the right to free education and the right to smoke pot,” Gallagher said. “But fewer New Yorkers will actually have the right to be born under this particular law.”

Gallagher concedes that the measure is all but certain to pass. She said the next step for Catholics who oppose abortion, is to help provide more services and choices, like financial help and help with adoption, for women who find themselves with unwanted pregnancies.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who backs the measure, is expected to sign it as soon as it passes the Senate and Assembly, and is even planning to hold a reception at the executive mansion Tuesday afternoon to celebrate its passage.