Legislators call for faster action on abortion rights

Gazette photo by Katherine Carroll

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a constitutional amendment that would permanently codify Roe v. Wade protections, assuring the continuation of pro-choice laws in New York regardless of what happens at the federal level.

He announced the plan at the Family Planning Advocates annual Day of Action on Jan. 30 in Albany.

More than 1,600 pro-choice advocates rallied at the Convention Center in Albany on January 30 to champion the cause of women’s health care in New York. Most sported pink scarves and brandished signs reading “I stand with Planned Parenthood.”

In order for the amendment to be approved, it must first pass the Legislature twice before going to public referendum, at which time the general public may vote directly upon the issue.

“As Washington seeks to limit women’s rights, we seek to protect them,” Gov. Cuomo said. “We will not allow the progress of the women’s movement to be stopped, and we must seize this opportunity to bring the state and the nation forward and stand up for women’s health. Make no mistake, we will always protect the right to choose in New York.”

The proposed amendment is the latest in Gov. Cuomo’s series of actions he calls “New York’s Promise to Women: Ever Upward,” designed to secure reproductive health services in New York.

On January 21, the governor announced a series of regulatory actions that ensure all contraceptive drugs and devices are covered by commercial health insurance policies without co-pays, coinsurance or deductibles regardless of the future of the national Affordable Care Act; that contraceptives are available in amounts exceeding one month’s supply at a time; and that all medically necessary abortion services are covered by commercial health insurance policies without co-pays, coinsurance or deductibles.

These proposed regulations were submitted to the New York State Register and will be finalized following a 45-day notice and public comment period. They will become effective 60 days following final issuance. Meanwhile, The Department of Financial Services has issued a letter reminding health insurers of their obligations to cover contraceptive drugs and devices without any co-pays or deductibles.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was at the Albany event and addressed the importance of turning a moment into a movement by harnessing the energy of the historic Women’s March that took place on Jan. 21, the day following the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Millions took to the streets in concurrent demonstrations in cities across the U.S. and on all seven continents.

“We’re still marching,” Richards said, “from Albany to Sacramento.”

In his first weeks in office, President Trump signed a series of executive orders targeting federally funded health coverage both at home and abroad.

For example, Trump ordered the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule on Jan. 24. Also known as the Mexico City Policy, the Gag Rule was first introduced by the Reagan Administration and bars foreign organizations from using federal funds to perform abortions or provide related reproductive health services overseas.

The Trump Administration has also openly discussed the likelihood of dismantling the Affordable Care Act, which has ensured coverage for reproductive health services for millions of Americans since its introduction in 2010.

The New York Civil Liberties Union released a report late last month featuring the stories of New York women who were unable to receive constitutionally protected abortion care because of the state’s outmoded abortion law. Their stories, relayed both by medical providers and by patients to the NYCLU, make the case for reforming New York’s law in order to bring it in-line with the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Strengthening New York’s abortion law is all the more critical given the ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency and the control of Congress by anti-abortion politicians.

New York was one of the first states to provide legal protection for those seeking and performing abortions, legalizing the procedure in 1970.

The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to abortion throughout pregnancy when the fetus is not viable or if she needs an abortion to protect her health or her life.

But New York’s abortion law — drafted three years earlier in 1970 and left unchanged — criminalizes abortion after 24 weeks unless the woman is dying. New York’s penal law does not allow for an abortion to protect the health of the woman or even if the fetus is not viable.

The NYCLU report notes that there are health risks that arise after 24-weeks of pregnancy that become exacerbated because of the pregnancy, such as cancers or aneurisms. Likewise there are fetal anomalies that can remain hidden until late in pregnancy. Yet hospitals and health providers in New York are reluctant to provide abortion care to women in these circumstances because New York’s penal code criminalizes this care on its face.

The New York Civil Liberties Union supports the proposed amendment and is urging New York lawmakers to remove abortion laws from the state’s Penal Code and move them to the Public Health Law.

“All women should be able to access abortion care if their health is at risk or their fetus isn’t viable,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “New York should be a progressive leader for women now that the Trump regime cannot be counted on to respect a woman and actually threatens to repeal Roe v. Wade. But our abortion law has been out of date and shamefully inadequate for decades.”

The report, entitled “Critical Conditions,” features the stories of women who were denied care, including a woman who was already receiving treatment for five different types of cancer prior to her pregnancy, rendering the fetus unviable, and a 12-year-old victim of sexual assault whose pregnancy went undiscovered until 26 weeks.

“She was a tiny girl with anemia, and she faced health risks if she were forced to carry her pregnancy to term and deliver vaginally,” said Lauren Mitchell, co-founder of the Doula Project, who is quoted in the report. “But a C-section would also be a health risk. It would likely weaken her uterus and jeopardize her ability to have children later in life. Termination was the best course, but it wasn’t available to her in New York.”

Progressive lawmakers are again pushing to adopt the Reproductive Health Act (S.2796/A.1748), sponsored by Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, both Manhattan Democrats, which calls for the alignment of New York’s Public Health Law with legal protections established under Roe v. Wade.

Krueger notes the legislation could be a faster route than a constitutional amendment to protecting the right to choose in New York.

“There’s no doubt that women’s reproductive rights are under attack all over this country,” Krueger said. “President Trump has promised that he will appoint a Supreme Court justice dedicated to overturning Roe v Wade; and as this week has demonstrated, the President intends to keep his promises no matter how much damage they do to the American people. So I applaud Governor Cuomo’s support for a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights.

“But such a constitutional amendment wouldn’t take effect until 2019 at the very earliest — and likely much later,” she continued. “That’s simply too long for New Yorkers to wait to have their fundamental rights enshrined in our laws. Some women are already forced to travel outside of New York to receive care because of New York’s outdated abortion law.

While the Reproductive health Act has already passed the Assembly this session, it remains in the Senate Health Committee.

“I thank my colleagues in the Assembly for passing the Reproductive Health Act,” Krueger said. “Now it is up to the Senate. I call on Majority Leader Flanagan to allow a vote on the RHA, and I urge my fellow New Yorkers to hold your senators accountable. New York families have waited long enough – we can pass this bill, and the time to act is now.”