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Support for abortion rights could be issue in NY governor's race

National Public Radio
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement is putting pressure on the future of Roe v Wade.

President Donald Trump is set to announce his choice for a new Supreme Court justice, which he has said could eventually result in the reversal of the abortion rights case Roe v. Wade.

New York has had legal abortion since 1970, three years before the landmark ruling, but advocates and many Democratic politicians say it is not enough - and it could become an issue in this year’s governor’s race.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a statement, said it has been a “goal” of the Trump administration to appoint a justice to replace the retiring Anthony Kennedy who would not only support overturning Roe v. Wade, but also would work to limit access to other reproductive health care and contraception. The governor urged Democrats in the U.S. Senate to not confirm another “partisan,” “political” judge to replace Kennedy.

“We want a justice of the Supreme Court who is fair and objective and open-minded, and makes a decision on the facts of the case, as opposed to coming with a predisposition and a political ideology that they either bring themselves, or they're transferring from the president,” Cuomo said. “The Supreme Court was not supposed to be a political arm of the president of the United States.”

Cuomo pledged to do everything he could as governor to “protect access to all reproductive health services,” saying Washington is waging a “war on women.”

For the past several years, Cuomo and Democrats in the Legislature have pressed for a measure that would codify the abortion rights provisions in Roe v. Wade into New York law. It’s known as the Reproductive Health Act.

While New York was one of the first states to legalize abortion, advocates have said that the law is antiquated and needs to be updated.

“We don’t have the right laws in the right places,” said Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health. “We treat abortion as a crime, still, in our criminal code, instead of the health code, where it belongs. And we don’t fully ensure that birth control is affordable and accessible to everyone.”

Miller made those comments at a lobby day for the Reproductive Health Act at the State Capitol in late May. The measure has been blocked, though, by Republicans who lead the state Senate.

Cuomo, in a statement issued after Kennedy’s retirement was announced, condemned the GOP state senators for refusing to pass what he said is “critical legislation.”

But Cuomo’s challenger in the Democratic primary for governor, Cynthia Nixon, said the governor did not do enough during the past eight legislative sessions to achieve a Democratic-led state Senate that could have approved the Reproductive Health Act.

She said Cuomo condoned a group of breakaway Democrats who helped Republicans stay in power in the Senate.

“He’s completely empowered the Republican Party,” Nixon said during an interview with public radio in April. “At a time when we really need to be combating Trump, he’s unable to do it other than rhetorically.”

The breakaway Democrats returned to the mainstream Democrats after the budget was passed last spring, but the Republican coalition still holds the majority by one seat.

Former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, a Democrat who is running as an independent for governor, also supports the Reproductive Health Act.

Meanwhile, the Republican candidate for governor, Marc Molinaro, does not back the measure. He said it would expand the right to choose abortion late in a pregnancy. He also said that in some cases, it would allow health care professionals who are not doctors to perform some procedures.

“I oppose the expansion to late-term abortions, and I have real hesitation about having non-doctors provide those services,” said Molinaro, who added he supports better access to all types of health care for women.

Molinaro is personally against abortion, but said he would not block those rights for others. He likens his position to the beliefs of the current governor’s father, the late former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who was also against abortion but said he would not interfere with a woman’s right to choose the procedure.

Even with Kennedy retiring, Molinaro said he believes the right to choose abortion is “settled law.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.