As the gun control debate continues to dominate political discourse state- and nationwide, a stepped-up battle over abortion here in New York isn't getting as much attention.
In his 2013 State of the State address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a passionate appeal for the Legislature to pass his Women's Equality Act, a 10-point proposal that includes enactment of the controversial Reproductive Health Act. That bill, which has been in existence since 2008, would do the following:
-Remove abortion from the state's Penal Law and place it under Public Health Law.
At left is Colleen Miner, director of the Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg’s Respect Life Office. (Photo provided) At right is Martha Stahl, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of the North Country New York (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
-Safeguard a women's access to an abortion in New York should the federal government ever overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion that recently turned 40 years old.
-Create an exemption for late-term abortions when a woman's health is at risk.
-Allow qualified medical providers to perform abortions in the early stages of pregnancy. In the future, these providers could include more than just doctors.
In their own words ...
Reflecting on 40 years of Roe v. Wade
Martha Stahl, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of the North Country New York:
"I think we're at a really interesting point. Abortion is a really difficult thing for people to talk about. People have really strong personal feelings about that. And I think this is a really good time to stop and kind of acknowledge that and say, 'You know, we realize not everybody is going to agree on this issue.' And that is the way it is, and there is not a whole lot that we can do to change that. But we can change the conversation to really talk about what this is truly about, which is a woman's ability to make her own decisions, and recognize that we can't walk in that woman's shoes."
Colleen Miner, director of the Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg's Respect Life Office:
"One of the magnets I have on my fridge says, 'If the court says it's OK to kill babies, and you say nothing, who will speak up for you if the court says it's OK to kill you?' One of the things we do (when we go to March for Life) is go to the Holocaust Museum with the students, and we show them how abortion is the hidden holocaust. It's hidden away. Many people don't like to talk about it, it's done behind closed doors, and women and men hurt for years afterwards. We'd love to not have to go to Washington, D.C., for the March for Life, every year. ... We're hoping some day we don't have to. We're hope some day maybe we can march in celebration of life. That would be wonderful."
The bill has been championed by women's health organizations and blasted by religious organizations. Martha Stahl, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of the North Country New York, said the goal of the legislation is to strengthen women's ability to make their own health care decisions.
"Whether that's a decision about having an abortion, whether that's a decision about continuing a pregnancy, whether it's a decision about taking contraception - that's what this is really about," she said. "And we can't be in the room when those women make those decisions. That's a decision they need to be able to make for themselves, with their doctors, with their family - if they're a person of faith, with their clergy member. There's really no need for politicians to be involved in that."
Opponents see the bill as a dramatic expansion of abortion access in New York. Colleen Miner, director of the Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg's Respect Life Office, said approximately 111,000 abortions already happen per year in this state.
"(The bill) is something that pro-lifers are definitely opposing; we don't feel that abortion access needs to be expanded in our state," she said. "We have an after-abortion healing retreat that we offer twice a year, and the women and men share their stories, so we know that it's something that's not good for women. A lot of people say, 'All you care about is the babies.' That's not true. We care about the moms and the dads and the families this is affecting. That's something we try to keep in the forefront."
Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference in Albany, said Cuomo's push to enact the Reproductive Health Act is a "desperate attempt to push through an abortion expansion that's been around for six years and has failed to gain traction as a stand-alone bill.
"Make no mistake; this bill, first championed by Eliot Spitzer, is radical and far out of the mainstream, even by the standards of New York, a state with an abortion rate twice the national average," Gallagher said in a recent statement.
In the text of his State of the State speech, Cuomo argued that the bill would "protect the fundamental right of reproductive freedom and a woman's right to make private health care decisions.
"A woman facing an unplanned or problem pregnancy should have the opportunity to make the best decision for herself and her family, whether her decision is continuing the pregnancy, adoption or abortion," he said.
The bill was referred to the Senate Health Committee on Jan. 9. Dan Mac Entee, spokesman for state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, told the Enterprise that neither the Assembly nor the Senate acted on the measure in 2011 or 2012, and a companion bill hasn't been introduced in the Assembly.
If early reaction from Senate Republicans is any indication, the Reproductive Health Act faces an uphill battle. Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos told The Associated Press recently that the bill is "not a well-thought-out piece of legislation" and added that abortion is already legal in New York.
Little told the Enterprise in April 2012 that she will not support the measure.
"I don't think it's necessary, and I hope it doesn't get to the floor," she said.
Mac Entee said Friday that Little "continues to have concerns about the bill and would oppose it" if it came to the floor for a vote.
The latest version of the bill states that its purpose is to "codify the protections recognized by" Roe v. Wade that "confirmed the right of individuals to make reproductive determinations." It also seeks to establish a "fundamental, statutory right to privacy in making reproductive decisions" and "ensure that abortion is treated as a health matter."
Miner said organizations like hers are worried that the bill doesn't specify what a "qualified medical provider" is.
"It doesn't make sense," she said. "It doesn't seem like something that would have the woman's health in mind."
Stahl, whose organization has been working with lawmakers on the Reproductive Health Act for years, said if the bill passes, only physicians will be able to perform abortions until the state Department of Education and individual licensing boards decide to allow other clinicians to perform them.
Stahl added that current state law makes exceptions to late-term abortions for pregnant women whose lives are at risk. She said the bill would add an exception for non-life-threatening health risks.
"I really don't think there's anything controversial about it, because it doesn't extend women's rights in New York," Stahl said. "It just really codifies the existing New York state law."
Miner said opening up the law to allow late-term abortions for more reasons - including a woman's health - is risky.
"They're not safe," she said. "It's scary. ... We don't believe there are any exceptions for abortion."
Public sentiment on the Reproductive Health Act ranges widely, depending in large part on what polling data is at play. A poll released Wednesday by the Chiaroscuro Foundation, which was conducted by McLaughlin & Associates, shows that 80 percent of New Yorkers oppose unlimited abortions through nine months of pregnancy, and 75 percent oppose changing the law so that someone other than a doctor can perform an abortion.
The Chiaroscuro Foundation is a pro-life group based in New York City, and McLaughlin & Associates' list of clients includes state Republican committees and Republican senators and representatives from across the U.S.
Other recent polls, conducted prior to the 2012 election, found that 70 percent of New Yorkers supported the bill when more exact descriptions of the bill were read prior to polling questions being asked. Those polls were conducted by organizations like Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, Lake Partners, Global Strategy Group and Hart Research - many of which have close ties to the Democratic Party.
Contact Chris Morris at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.