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Legislature acts on abortion rights bill; Cuomo signs it

Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs the Reproductive Health Act into law during a ceremony Tuesday evening in Albany.

The New York State Legislature voted Tuesday to codify the abortion rights in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into New York law. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the measure immediately after the vote.

“The most aggressive women's equality platform in the nation is going to be in law in this state,” Cuomo said at a bill signing ceremony immediately following the vote. “ And that's the way it should be.”

The measure establishes in New York state law the right to choose abortion without restriction up to the 24th week of pregnancy, and after that, if the life or health of the mother is threatened or the fetus is determined not to be viable.

Senate Democratic Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who achieved her post when Democrats won several seats in last November’s elections, said the bill is a top priority at time when President Donald Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court threaten the landmark decision.

“That moment where they actually, on a national level, might reverse women’s rights, is here,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Today, here in New York, we are saying no.”

The Democratic-led State Assembly already had approved the measure several times. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, speaking at a packed press conference attended by supporters, said Republicans who used to lead the Senate blocked the bill from coming up for a vote for 12 years.

“Always, in my heart, I knew the Senate Republicans would never, ever allow this bill to get to the floor,” Heastie said.

Credit Karen dewitt / WBFO Albany Correspondent
WBFO Albany Correspondent
Protesters waited outside Senate chambers Tuesday as the state Legislature voted on the Reproductive Health Act.

During debate on the Senate floor, several newly elected Democrats rose to explain their vote, saying the measure is long overdue. Freshman Sen. Alessandra Biaggi said she was a junior attorney in the governor’s office working on the Reproductive Health Act just a couple of years ago, and she was told by others that the measure would never pass. She said that now has been rectified.

“I hope that all of New York is watching today, and that they recognize that elections have consequences,” Biaggi said. “When you vote for people who stand up for your rights, your rights become protected.”

Republican senators voted no, including Sen. Daphne Jordan, who said strengthening abortion rights contributes to what she calls a “throwaway” culture.

“A baby inside its mother is not an inanimate object, it’s a life,” Jordan said. “Think about what you’re allowing to be tossed away with a yes vote.”

Some GOP senators also expressed concerns over what they say is an unintended consequence of the bill. The measure decriminalizes all forms of abortion in New York, even in domestic violence cases where an attack on a woman leads to the loss of her fetus.

Sen. Cathy Young, a Republican from Olean, said because of that, the bill takes away some rights from pregnant women. She offered an amendment that would make it a class D felony for “knowingly assaulting a pregnant woman,” whether or not the fetus is lost.

“Why aren’t we protecting pregnant women from having their babies taken away from them, especially in such a violent manner?” Young asked.

The amendment was voted down along party lines.

The Senate sponsor of the Reproductive Health Act, Liz Krueger, said all of the state’s major anti-domestic violence advocacy groups back the measure. And she said there are already multiple crimes that the perpetrator of assault on a pregnant woman can be charged with.

“We have very strict criminal statutes for when people attack people,” Krueger said. 

Advocates were exhilarated by the vote. Robin Chappelle-Golston with Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, the lobby group for Planned Parenthoods in New York, said it’s a “great day.”

“It’s huge,” Chappelle-Golston said. “People have been working on this issue for over a decade.”

Opponents, including the Catholic Church and some evangelical Protestant groups, said they are saddened by the vote.

Both houses of the Legislature also approved a measure known as the Comprehensive Contraceptive Care Act that would ensure that New York’s women have access, through their health insurance policies, to affordable contraceptives.

Credit Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the GMMC Bridge lit in pink in honor of the signing.

Credit Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the WTC lit in pink in honor of the signing.

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.