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April 27, 2013

Cuomo's abortion bid stirs debate

By Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — More than four months after Gov. Andrew Cuomo rolled out a “women’s agenda” that would strengthen abortion rights and equalize pay between men and women, state lawmakers and interest groups say they are still waiting for specifics of those proposals.

Although there are less than two months remaining in the current legislative session in Albany, Cuomo has not released the 10-point agenda in printed legislation.

Of the proposals touted by Cuomo in his State of the State speech, the one that has garnered the most attention — and stirred up the most controversy — is his call for what the state Catholic Conference calls “a radical expansion” of abortion rights.

That measure, according to its backers, is expected to strengthen abortion protections and cut out language from the Penal Law dealing with abortions while inserting it into public health laws.

The New York chapter of the National Organization for Women said the Cuomo proposal “will bring our state law into alignment with current federal law so that women are guaranteed access to abortion if their life or health is in danger. It will also take the regulation of abortion out of our criminal laws, and put it into the public health law where it belongs.”

Even though Cuomo has not released the sweeping legislation he says he would like to enact, his support for the stronger abortion protections has divided the state Senate. The upper house of the Legislature had already bottled up similar proposals, including one that had been advocated by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Spitzer, in fact, was about to meet with Roman Catholic bishops on the measure in 2008 when the sitdown was suddenly canceled because the New York Times reported that he had been implicated in an embarrassing prostitution scandal. He resigned from office within days.

Complicating the current debate is the fact that the Senate is ruled by a coalition of the Republican senators and a breakaway cadre of Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC). One of them, Sen. Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, was recently indicted on multiple federal corruption charges in one of the worst scandals to hit Albany in the past decade. While both the mainstream Democrats and the IDC Democrats have signaled their support for stronger abortion protections, GOP leaders have called the proposal extreme.

Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said he sees no current threats to New York laws governing reproductive rights, and questioned whether existing state statutes need to be amended or broadened.

“I really don’t see any need to rush into this legislation,” Seward said of Cuomo’s call for strengthened abortion laws. “But I have said to all groups that have come in, pro and con, that if this legislation ever reaches the Senate floor, I am going to review it, and I am going to delve into it.”

Seward, echoing comments that have been made by GOP leaders, said he expects to be supportive of several “women’s equality” measures outlined by Cuomo. He contended would fare better if the governor simply spliced the abortion measure out of the package.

The senator said existing bills dealing with an expansion of abortion rights that are being pushed by Democratic senators have been rendered “kind of irrelevant” since Cuomo has signaled he wants to be the author of the omnibus measure.

“We had this impassioned pleas from the governor in January, and now, four months later, we haven’t seen a bill,” Seward said.

Deb Marcus, chief executive officer of Family Planning of South Central New York, said she strongly supports Cuomo’s agenda for retooling the abortion statutes, noting they were codified in the early 1970s, prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Roe v. Wade.

“Abortion is a safe, legal medical procedure that should be governed by the public health law, like every other procedure,” Marcus said. “Clearly, this is not an extreme idea. It’s a technical fix. We are 40 years from where we were in 1972. It doesn’t make sense in 2013 to have abortion procedures in our criminal law.”

She also said the update is needed because of concerns that the Supreme Court could reverse itself on Roe v. Wade.

“It would guarantee the protections we have right now should the Supreme Court strike it down” and leave the abortion issue to the states, Marcus said.

Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, the lobby group for the bishops, accused Cuomo of “challenging the Legislature to accept a bill he hasn’t even shown them yet.”

“Very clearly, this 10-point plan is all about the 10th point — abortion,” Poust said. “It would never pass on its own, and Gov. Cuomo understands that, which is why he has packaged it in this way.”

“We fear that the governor’s ultimate bill will expand access to late-term abortions and allow non-physicians to perform abortions,” Poust added. “Those things were both in the Reproductive Health Act ( a measure sponsored by some Democratic senators that has not reached the floor of the upper chamber).”

Poust said the Catholic Conference has strong concerns about taking abortion language out of the Penal Law. For instance, he said, the current law imposes sanctions on violent assailants who assault a pregnant woman and end the life of the fetus.

“You would take away the ability to charge for the death of the unborn baby,” he said.

In a radio interview this week, Cuomo complained that “many of the legislators want to have it both ways.” He also argued their response to his proposal was governed by political considerations.

“They want to be pro-choice, but they don’t want to be on the other side of the Conservative Party,” Cuomo said. That was a reference to the fact that many Republican lawmakers, including Seward and Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie — and even some Democrats — run with the cross endorsement of the small but influential Conservative Party, which opposes abortion.

In addition to his call for stronger abortion protections, Cuomo said in January the “women’s agenda” legislation he plans to introduce would also:

Achieve pay equity for women doing similar jobs as men and make it tougher for employers to justify pay inequities in court.

• Stop sexual harassment in all workplaces.

• Allow for the recovery of attorneys’ fees in employment and credit and lending cases

• Strengthen human trafficking laws

• End family status discrimination

• Stop source-of-income discrimination

• Stop housing discrimination for victims of domestic violence

• Stop discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace, and protect victims of domestic violence by strengthening order-of-protection laws

An advocate for Cuomo’s “women’s agenda,” state Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, said even though Cuomo has yet to make public the language he intends to put in the legislation, there is still plenty of time for the package to be introduced so that it can be debated and voted on in the current legislative session.

Krueger, one of the sponsors of the Reproductive Health Act, also said she is convinced Cuomo’s strategy to stitch together all of the proposals into a single piece of legislation should help propel it to passage.

“I have carried four of these 10 bills, and they haven’t been moving on their own,” Krueger said, “and the other bills have been out there on there own as well. I simply can’t accept the argument that there is more of a chance to move them separately because we’ve tried it that way. With pretty clear messaging from the governor — that he is passionate about accomplishing this — it’s a better way to go.”