Tension builds over abortion proposal

Gov. Andrew Cuomo hasn’t released his proposed abortion bill, but rhetoric over what it would or wouldn’t do has already reached a boiling point.

In his State of the State address, Cuomo called for passage of a Women’s Equality Act, including enactment of a Reproductive Health Act. It’s unclear whether Cuomo wants the state Legislature to pass the Senate’s Reproductive Health Act, which has been in existence since 2008, or if he will put forth his own bill. The Enterprise has called the governor’s press office repeatedly over the last two week to seek clarification, but so far all calls have gone unreturned.

A statement issued last week by Cuomo’s legal counsel, Mylan Denerstein, does provide explanation, but there’s room for debate on whether it provides clarity. Denerstein refuted claims by abortion opponents that Cuomo’s is “attempting an ‘expansion’ or ‘radical extension’ of a woman’s right to choose.

“The statements made by the opposition are outrageous and disingenuous,” Denerstein said. “The Governor’s position is to purely codify existing federal law. To be clear, there would be no change whatsoever in law and practice now existing in the state of New York.”

In a statement of her own, Kathleen Gallagher, director of Pro-Life Activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, said the Catholic bishops and other opponents of the proposed bill have been “very clear and honest.

“And, yet again, (Denerstein) makes statements defending the substance of a bill that they have declined to make public,” Gallagher said.

State Sen. Betty Little and Assemblyman Dan Stec, both Republicans from Queensbury, are pro-life and say they would vote against Cuomo’s bill.

Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, R-Peru, is pro-choice. She told the Enterprise she believes Cuomo won’t release details of his abortion bill until after the state’s 2013-14 budget is adopted.

Duprey said she met with Cuomo representatives last week and asked for more specifics about his abortion proposal. She said her understanding of the bill is that it would match state abortion law with federal law. If that’s the case, Duprey said she would support the bill.

Denerstein called a women’s right to choose a “binary issue,” noting that people are either “pro-choice or anti-choice.” She noted that under Roe v. Wade, abortion is the “law of the land,” and Cuomo supports that.

“Let me set the record straight,” Denerstein said. “The Governor’s position is clear: he would simply realign state law to existing federal law and state practice because current state law is outdated. There is no editorial comment, no expansion, no radicalization and no interpretation.”

Some opponents of the Senate’s bill, and Cuomo’s proposal, have said the measures would allow for late-term “partial birth” abortions. Federal law bans such abortions except when a woman’s life is at risk, and Denerstein said Cuomo is not looking to change that in New York state.

“There is and can be no change to that whatsoever,” Denerstein said.

Nevertheless, Denerstein said another aspect of Cuomo’s proposal, creating an exemption for late-term abortions when the mother’s health – not just her life – is at risk, isn’t new, either. Federal law already provides such an exemption, she noted.

Another controversial proposal in the Senate bill would allow “qualified medical providers” to perform early stage abortions. Critics, like Colleen Miner of the Ogdensburg Diocese’s Respect Life Office, have expressed concern that someone other than a doctor could perform abortions. Supporters of the bill, like Planned Parenthood of the North Country New York Vice President of External Affairs Martha Stahl, say the state would have strict oversight of who can provide abortions.

Denerstein said state law already lets “certain non-physician medical professionals,” like physician assistants, perform abortions in “certain circumstances.”

Gallagher challenged that claim.

“New York state law specifically says that only a ‘duly licensed physician’ may perform an abortion,” she said. “The bill known as the Reproductive Health Act (S.438) specifically repeals that language and replaces it with ‘licensed health care practitioner,’ a category much broader than physician.”

Denerstein also said Cuomo will not try to undermine religious freedom in his legislation.

“The Governor would simply realign our outdated state laws to federal law and existing state practice,” she said. “No matter how hard opponents try to skew and mischaracterize that position, it’s really that simple.”

One of the main elements of the Senate bill that Cuomo seems determined to preserve is to make it so, if the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturns the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, the practice will still be legal in New York.

“The Supreme Court could always change and we want to protect a woman’s current right to choose,” Denerstein said.

Gallagher said it’s becoming “increasingly clear” that Cuomo’s bill will differ from the Senate version. She said opponents are concerned the bill will be misleading.

“We will not be caught off guard and we do not believe the members of the Legislature, which has not accepted the previous versions of this bill, will be either,” Gallagher said.

But some supporters say it’s opponents of Cuomo’s proposal that are spreading misleading information.

“It’s unfortunate that those opposed to a woman making her own personal, private health care decisions, including abortion, have presented misleading information about this proposal,” Stahl wrote in an email to the Enterprise. “This proposal makes New York’s abortion law consistent with federal protections because currently New York only has a life exception.”

Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or cmorris@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.


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