ALBANY, NY – A long-stalled effort to strengthen abortion rights in New York became reality Tuesday evening when the Legislature easily approved the measure after Republicans stymied it for years.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo immediately signed the Reproductive Health Act into law after Democrats pushed its passage for years.
The vote Tuesday came on the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade court case in 1973. The Senate passed the measure 38-24, while the Assembly passed it 92-47.
“We’re saying that here in New York, women’s health matters,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers. “We’re saying here in New York, women’s lives matter. We’re saying here in New York, women’s decisions matter.”
Approval in the Senate was made possible by Democratic victories at the ballot box in November, when the party was able to wrestle control of the chamber from Republicans for the first time in a decade.
In addition to the abortion bill, the Democratic-controlled Legislature was set late Tuesday to pass the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, which will require insurers to cover contraception for patients.
Lawmakers were also expected to pass the “boss bill,” which would ban employers from discriminating against employees over their reproductive health-care decisions.
Jan. 18: Anti-abortion activists play defense in Congress while waiting for Supreme Court decisions
Jan. 18: Thousands join the 46th March for Life in Washington
Here’s how abortion laws in New York will change upon Cuomo’s signature:
Stripping abortion from penal code
New York legalized abortion three years prior to the landmark Roe v. Wade case, but New York still kept abortion in its criminal code, making it a felony to perform late-term abortions.
The 1970 law defined homicide as “conduct which causes the death of a person or an unborn child with which a female has been pregnant for more than 24 weeks.”
The Reproductive Health Act strips abortions from the penal code and adds the following language:
“The legislature finds that comprehensive reproductive health care is a fundamental component of every individual’s health, privacy and equality.
“Therefore, it is the policy of the state that:
“Every individual has the fundamental right to choose or refuse contraception or sterilization. Every individual who becomes pregnant has the fundamental right to choose to carry the pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion, pursuant to this article.”
Cuomo wants to go even further, saying earlier this month that abortion rights should be added to the state constitution.
At his bill signing Tuesday night, Cuomo was joined by Sarah Weddington, who argued the Roe v. Wade case in front of the Supreme Court.
The new law will allow a licensed “health-care practitioner” acting under their scope of practice to perform an abortion when:
“According to the practitioner’s reasonable and good faith professional judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case: the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, or there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”
The act will codify Roe v. Wade protections into state law if the case were to be overturned by the Supreme Court, which Cuomo cited as the main reason for needing the new state law.
Jan. 5: Planned Parenthood billboards around Iowa ask people to ‘Say Abortion’
Dec. 10: Only abortion provider left in Tennessee’s capital suspends abortion services
“That’s why we had to pass this law, to protect our state,” Cuomo said at his bill signing. “And that’s why I believe we have to go even a step further and do a constitutional amendment.”
Prior state law only allowed physicians to perform abortions.
Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, said the act is critical to protecting the abortion rights of the New Yorkers.
“New Yorkers deserve to have safe and secure access to abortion care so they can make their own decisions about their reproductive lives,” she said.
Opposition raises concerns
New Yorker for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative group based in Spencerport, New York, has opposed the bill. So too did Senate Republicans.
The measure long languished in the Republican-controlled Senate as it passed repeatedly in the Democratic-led Assembly.
But now with Democrats in the control of both houses of the Legislature, the Reproductive Health Act was easily passed.
Republicans railed against the bill Tuesday.
New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms contended the act would repeal legal protections for a fetus after 20 weeks.
The group said it “believes that the right of every born-alive infant to receive medical care is an issue that all political parties and all sides of the abortion debate should be able to agree upon.”
It also said that by repealing abortions from the criminal code, it would limit prosecutors from applying criminal charges in the cases of so-called forced abortions, which can occur during domestic-violence cases when a woman loses a child during pregnancy.
Republicans stressed that concern Tuesday, holding a news conference at the Capitol with Livia Abreu, an Army veteran from the Bronx who lost her baby in a domestic-violence attack last year.
“It is unconscionable to think that anyone would deprive a pregnant domestic violence victim the justice she deserves,” said Sen Cathy Young, R-Olean, Cattaraugus County.
But Democrats said there are plenty of criminal charges that could be brought against suspects in domestic-violence cases involving pregnant women.
Dec. 11: As Ohio watches heartbeat bill, a second-trimester abortion ban could be on the way
Jan. 18: March for Life 2019: Vice President Pence makes surprise visit at DC rally
“You have to ask the question: Why would anybody actually use the abortion code to charge somebody with a heinous crime?” Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan. “We in the state of New York have many strict rules in our criminal code to deal with these kind of criminals.”
Another concern is letting abortions be conducted by health-care professionals other than physicians, with the group saying, “We believe it would place women’s health in jeopardy to allow non-physicians to perform abortions.”
Democrats, however, said they are confident the new law won’t be abused.
“By no means do we think that decisions around these very important life issues are to be taken lightly,” Stewart-Cousins said.
“We just understand who needs to be taking them, and we need to get out of the way and let people make those choices.”
Follow Joseph Spector and on Twitter: @GannettAlbany and @JonCampbellGAN