By Bethany Bump
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, flanked by Democratic leaders of the state Legislature, on Tuesday night signed into law a series of measures codifying abortion protections and expanding reproductive health rights for women and their health care providers.
The vote, made possible by the new Democratic majority in the Senate, came 46 years to the day after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v. Wade decision. It also updates state abortion laws that were nearly half a century old and, according to Democratic lawmakers, needed to be changed especially in light of recent changes on the nation's highest court.
As he prepared to sign the legislation in the state Capitol's Red Room, which was packed with supporters, the governor thanked Sarah Ragle Weddington, a Texas attorney and law professor who, at the age of 26, represented "Jane Roe" -- Norma McCorvey -- in the milestone constitutional case in which the Texas woman challenged a state law banning abortion.
Weddington, the youngest attorney to successfully argue a case before the Supreme Court, sat next to Cuomo as he signed the bill just before 7 p.m. Earlier in the day, she sat in the front row of the Assembly Parlor as Democratic leaders announced they would pass the measures that make up the Reproductive Health Act.
"It's bittersweet. There is a bitterness because we shouldn't be here in the first place," Cuomo said. "We should not have a federal government that is trying to roll back women's rights ... This administration (of President Donald Trump) defies American evolution."
Cuomo said he believes that the federal protections of Roe v. Wade are at risk of being overturned with a Supreme Court that, under Trump, has shifted to a more conservative viewpoint. He predicted that this week's 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that temporarily upholds a ban on transgender U.S. military members is a split "you're going to hear over and over."
Just before signing the bill, Cuomo presented Weddington with a New York Public Service Award.
"When I started working on what became Roe vs. Wade, New York was one of the very few states that women could go to for good legal services," Weddington said earlier Tuesday. "So I was one of the people helping to raise money for women to be able to get to New York. ... So now, to see New York pass a bill so that right is protected, is just a dream come true."
Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins, who carried a bill on the legislation in 2007, echoed Cuomo's concern that the federal protections are at risk of being overturned and that New York needed to act.
"We're saying that here in New York, women's health matters," Stewart-Cousins said. "We're saying here in New York, women's lives matter. We're saying here in New York, women's decisions matter."
The Reproductive Health Act does three things. First, it strips abortion from the state's criminal code and places it entirely within the realm of public health law. Second, it expands who can perform the procedure from beyond just physicians to any licensed, certified or authorized health care practitioner for whom abortion is within their scope of practice.
Finally, it legalizes abortion after 24 weeks in cases where it would protect a woman's health or where a fetus is not viable. State law previously only allowed abortions after 24 weeks if the woman's life was in jeopardy.
The anticipated passage generated passionate debate in the halls of the Capitol Tuesday, where protesters and supporters armed with signs crowded hallways and fired off competing chants and songs.
Supporters praised the decision, saying it brings New York into modern times and reassures women who may have feared for their rights under the Trump administration and newly configured Supreme Court. They also said it reassures providers, who previously feared criminal liability in cases where the procedure was performed in line with federal law but not state law.
Opponents, which included religious and conservative groups, were bitterly disappointed, claiming the law strips unborn children of their rights and jeopardizes women's health by allowing non-physicians to perform the procedure. They also said it limits options for prosecutors in domestic violence cases.
"May almighty God have mercy on the state of New York," someone yelled inside the Senate parlor, after the bill passed and riotous cheers and applause faded.
The Senate came out 38-24 in favor of the bill, almost entirely along party lines. The Assembly, which has passed versions of the bill for a dozen years straight, voted 92-47 later Tuesday afternoon after several hours of debate.
The last time New York updated its abortion laws was in 1970, to legalize the procedure up to 24 weeks. It was seen as progressive at the time, occurring three years prior to Roe v. Wade and making the state a safe haven for out-of-state women with unwanted pregnancies.
Because Roe v. Wade allowed abortions after 24 weeks to preserve a woman's health, Republican state lawmakers frequently argued that New York had no need to update its laws. Federal law trumps state law, and Roe v. Wade was settled law.
But the recent appointments of pro-life justices to the Supreme Court had many abortion rights advocates worried, and so the fight for the Reproductive Health Act was taken up anew in New York. After the 2018 midterm elections handed Democrats control of the state Senate for the first time in nearly a decade, Cuomo vowed to pass the bill in the first 30 days of the 2019 legislative session.
"We cannot overstate how important it is for all New Yorkers to have the ability to control their own bodies and determine their own destinies," said Robin Chappelle Golston, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts. "As we continue to face challenges to reproductive health care access on the federal level, it is paramount that New York is the beacon and state model of what reproductive health care should be."
Republican state Sen. Catharine Young argued Tuesday that the bill fails to protect pregnant victims of domestic violence, and shared the story of a Bronx woman who was stabbed by her ex-boyfriend when she was 26 weeks pregnant. Her baby died, and under the new law, prosecutors would be unable to charge her attacker with abortion under the criminal code.
But Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger, a sponsor of the Reproductive Health Act, noted that there are other criminal charges in New York that would apply and that carry far higher penalties than abortion, such as felony assault and attempted murder.
"I'm very confident that our courts, our (district attorneys) and our criminal code give us a broad range of penalties for those who commit heinous crimes against pregnant women," she said.
Two other reproductive health bills that were previously held up by Republicans also passed the Legislature Tuesday.
The Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act enshrines into law existing regulations that Cuomo pushed in 2017 requiring all New York health insurers to cover contraception without co-pays, co-insurance or deductibles. The Boss Bill, meanwhile, prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee or their dependent for a reproductive health decision.
Rachel Silberstein contributed reporting.
(c)2019 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)