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NYS Legislature Acts On Abortion Rights Bill

Pro- and anti-Reproductive Health Act protesters chant outside the New York state Senate chamber with voting on the measure underway.
Karen DeWitt
Pro- and anti-Reproductive Health Act protesters chant outside the New York state Senate chamber with voting on the measure underway.

The New York state legislature was voting Tuesday to codify the abortion rights in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into New York law. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign it.

The measure establishes in New York State law the right to choose abortion without restriction up to the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy, and after that, if the life or health of the mother is threatened, or the fetus is determined not to be viable.

Senate Democratic Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who achieved her post when Democrats won several seats in last November’s elections, says the bill is a top priority at time when President Donald Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court threaten the landmark decision.

“That moment where they actually, on a national level, might reverse women’s rights, is here,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Today, here in New York, we are saying 'no.'”

The Democratic-led Assembly has already approved the measure several times. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, speaking at a packed press conference attended by supporters, says for 12 years Republicans, who used to lead the Senate, blocked the bill from coming up for a vote.

“Always, in my heart I knew the Senate Republicans would never, ever allow this bill to get to the floor,” Heastie said.  

During debate on the Senate floor, several newly elected Democrats rose to explain their vote, saying the measure is long overdue. Freshman Senator Allesandra Biaggi says she was a junior attorney in the governor’s office working on the Reproductive Health Act, just a couple of years ago, where she was told by others that the measure would never pass. She says, now that has been rectified.

“I hope that all of New York is watching today, and that they recognize that elections have consequences,” Biaggi said. “When you vote for people who stand up for your rights, your rights become protected.”  

Several Republican Senators voted 'no,' including Senator Daphne Jordan, who said strengthening abortion rights contributes to what she calls a “throw away” culture.

“A baby inside its mother is not an inanimate object, it’s a life,” said Jordan. “It has a heartbeat. It can hiccup. It can kick. It can hear it's mother's voice and music. It can feel pain. The next time you throw something away or hear a baby cry in pain, think of what you’re allowing to be tossed away with a 'yes' vote.”

Some GOP Senators also expressed concerns over what they say is an unintended consequence of the bill. The measure decriminalizes all forms of abortion in New York, even in domestic violence cases where an attack on a woman leads to the loss of her fetus.

Senator Kathy Young, a Republican from Olean, says because of that, the bill takes away some rights from pregnant women. She offered an amendment that would make it a class D felony for “knowingly assaulting a pregnant woman," whether or not the fetus is lost. 

“Why aren’t we protecting pregnant women from having their babies taken away from them, especially in such a violent manner?” Young asked.

The amendment was voted down along party lines.

The Senate sponsor of the Reproductive Health Act, Liz Krueger, says all of the state’s major anti-domestic violence advocacy groups back the measure. She says there are already multiple crimes that the perpetrator of assault on a pregnant woman can be charged with.   

“We have very strict criminal statutes for when people attack people,” Krueger said.  

Advocates were exhilarated by the vote. Robin Chappelle-Golston, with Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, the lobby group for Planned Parenthoods in New York says it’s a “great day.”

“It’s huge,” Chappelle-Golston said. “People have been working on this issue for over a decade.

Opponents, including the Catholic Church and some evangelical protestant groups, says they are saddened by the vote.  

Both houses of the legislature also approved a measure, known as the Comprehensive Contraceptive Care Act that would ensure that New York’s women have access, through their health insurance policies, to affordable contraceptives.

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