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Abortion Rights Among Priorities For 2019 NY Senate

NYS Capitol
New York State Capitol

One of the first items expected to be voted on when the New York state Legislature convenes for the 2019 session is the Reproductive Health Act.  It would codify the abortion rights in the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into state law.

Andrea Miller, a long-time advocate for abortion rights, and now president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, says she expects the measure to be acted upon quickly after the new year. The bill was held up in the past by Republicans, who controlled the Senate. But with the Democrats now solidly in charge in the chamber after winning several seats on Election Day, and the state Assembly also under Democratic control, that will change, says Miller.

“New York state’s elected leaders now have a real mandate to make passage of the Reproductive Health Act a first order of business when the Legislature returns in January,” Miller said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, said shortly after being re-elected last week that he wants to see the measure passed by the end of January.

And the Senate Democratic Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is set to become Majority Leader of the Senate in 2019, says she wants to act quickly on the measure. She says the U.S. Supreme Court is becoming increasingly conservative, with the recent appointment by President Trump of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And she says some fear that Roe could be overturned.

“We want to make sure, especially in this environment, that women know they have reproductive rights here in New York,” Stewart-Cousins said, in a November 8 interview with public radio.

Miller, with the National Institute for Reproductive Health, says many New Yorkers don’t understand why the Reproductive Health Act might be necessary. Abortion has been legal in New York since 1970, when New York became one of the first states to decriminalize the procedure. But, the state’s abortion laws are in New York’s criminal code, and are not part of the state’s health laws.

“The problem now is that New York’s laws treat abortion like a criminal matter with exceptions, as opposed to treating it as a health matter,” she said. “And it also fails to make an exception if a woman’s health is endangered later in pregnancy.”

New York’s law permits late-term abortions to save the life of the mother. But, unlike the protection in Roe v. Wade, New York state law does not allow abortions after 24 weeks to preserve the woman’s health, even when doctors determine that the fetus will not be able to live once it is born. Miller says that gap has led some women to go to other states, like Maryland or Colorado, to have the later term procedure when their health was endangered.  

Miller says New York also has the opportunity to be the first state to act to protect a women’s right to choose abortion, since Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court. She says challenges to Roe are already advancing in the federal courts.

The approval of the Reproductive Health Act in New York is no guarantee that the statute would not be challenged in federal court. But Miller says states still do have autonomy, under the Constitution, to make many of their own rules for their residents. And she’s confident the new law would stand.

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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