Andrew Cuomo's New Abortion Legislation May Not Be As Progressive As It Seems


Governor Andrew Cuomo is attracting much criticism for his proposed Reproductive Health Act, which would expand abortion rights in New York. The bill seeks to bring outdated state law in line with federal law, ensuring that women have access to late term abortions if their health is in danger or the fetus is not viable. In addition, the act would remove abortion from the state penal code and regulate it through public health law instead, allowing all licensed health care professionals to perform the procedure. For a state that already has the highest rate of abortions in the country, the governor has left many people wondering if these extra precautions go too far. 

The act is woven into part of the Women’s Equality Act, which Cuomo proposed in his State of the State address in early January. In addition to expanding the circumstances under which women can seek abortions, the bill also plans to end pay inequality, housing discrimination, and human trafficking among other things. But no single part has garnered more media coverage than the section on reproductive health.

While many opponents see the abortion section as unnecessary, others say that it is crucial to have state law reflect current federal regulations because of the increasing restrictions to women’s reproductive rights evident across the country. When asked about the governor’s motivation for the bill, a senior Cuomo administration official said this legislation would protect a New York woman’s right to choose abortion in the event that the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade.

So is this a reasonable fear? Current trends do show that legislation restricting abortion services has grown dramatically in the past two years. A study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute shows that 2012 marked the second highest annual number of new abortion restrictions in U.S. history, only surpassed by those enacted in 2011.

Some of these restrictions, like the law proposed by Virginia Gov. Bob McConnell requiring women to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound before getting an abortion, have been characterized as invasive and hostile. Ultimately this part of the bill was struck down, but nonetheless Virginia joined eight states that require a mandatory abdominal ultrasound prior to providing abortion services. The increasing commonality of laws like these, and the tens of thousands of protesters who join the annual March for Life each year, are among many of the reasons pro-choice advocates fear that a Supreme Court repeal could be imminent.

The decision to place this legislation within a broader Women’s Equality Act has caused many opponents to feel that Cuomo is burying the lead. Kathleen M. Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference issued a statement saying “Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s re-packaging of an extreme abortion bill into a so-called ‘women’s agenda’ 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.”

While it is hard to ascertain whether this proposal is out of line with the majority of New Yorkers, it will most certainly face an uphill battle in the State Senate. In November, Democrats won a majority of the Senate but then promptly split, with five members forming the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) –a bipartisan coalition that now holds majority control. This coalition comes as a chief disappointment to many Democrats because it was a particularly hard won majority.

However, abortion being the personal issue it is, even with a full Democratic majority the bill could still fail when brought to a vote, as not all Senate Democrats are pro-choice. The Women’s Equality Act is currently in the process of being written, so we will have to wait and see if Cuomo decides to include all of the ten points he outlined in his speech. In the meantime, the Reproductive Health Act, which was stalled during Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal and then again during the ‘coup’ under David Patterson’s administration, has been reintroduced this session by Senator Stewart-Cousins. 

Much remains to be seen. A chief concern many New York Democrats have is whether Cuomo (and subsequently IDC leader Jeffrey Klein) will be held accountable for their promises and bring this legislation to the Senate floor. In light of the new collation and the history of dysfunction in Albany, many remain distrustful of the governor’s new progressive agenda.

As Chris Hayes pointed out a while back, “One can’t help but suspect Andrew Cuomo actually does not want a Democratic majority in the State Senate because a Republican majority gives him more of an opportunity to burnish his bipartisan compromiser bona fides before launching his presidential campaign.”