Abortion Rights 2013: Women's Equality Act in New York Shakes Up the Abortion Debate Once Again


"It is hard to believe that in 2013 women are still fighting for basic human rights. The Women's Equality Act should be a no-brainer for anyone who has a mother," declared NOW-NYS President Zenaida Mendez. Mendez was referring to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s groundbreaking “bill of rights” proposal for the women of his state. Unfortunately, because of its contentious topics including abortion, the bill stands almost no chance of passing without being broken down into multiple segments to be voted on separately. 

The legislation aims to achieve total pay equity, stop sexual harassment, prevent pregnancy discrimination, strengthen protections for domestic violence and human trafficking victims, end family status discrimination and — most controversially — protect a woman’s freedom of choice. While the majority of the bill is generally agreed upon and might have the ability to take great strides for women's rights, the addition of abortion into the mix may be the single amendment that will topple the entire proposal, particularly because this political hot spot will certainly have consequences that will reach into the 2014 elections in the nearly deadlocked State Senate.

Over the years, Cuomo has recognized that New York has lost its position as a progressive leader in women’s rights legislation and firmly believes that the inclusion of every aspect of the bill will "restore New York as a leader in women’s rights.” Nonetheless, the job is easier said than done.

Of the 63 state senators, 30 Republicans do not traditionally support the right to abortion as established by 1973 Supreme Court Case Roe v. Wade, while 33 Democrats do. The bill's supporters and the Cuomo administration argue that the bill only codifies federal abortion law, while opponents say it expands abortion rights. Greg Pfundstein of the Chiaroscuro Foundation, a New York state pro-life group, details the position of those opposed to the bill. "As defined under Roe, the health exception is very broad … if you enact that here in New York … it seems like you would allow easier access to abortion in the third trimester."

With significant political pressure from pro-life and “profoundly distressed” groups like the Catholic Church, Senate Republicans could simply block the bill from coming to the floor. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, called the abortion plank "a political maneuver designed to curry favor with the extremists who want to expand late-term abortion ... and open the door to non-physicians performing abortions."

However, the Republican votes needed to block this bill might not be there , since New York's Senate Republicans have already stepped outside party lines on a number of issues, including a controversial gun-control bill earlier this year. Although he has “no assurance” that this bill would pass in the Senate with the abortion provision included, Cuomo is not fazed. "I think there are certain Republicans who are pro-choice Republicans … And if you are a pro-choice Republican, you will support this."

Based on the pressure from several hundred of the bill's supporters who rallied in Albnay's West Capitol Park — including state lawmakers, actress-advocate Cynthia Nixon, and feminist leaders including Sarah Weddington, the plaintiff’s attorney in the landmark Roe case— we will likely see some version of the Women's Equality Act passed. However, the bill faces a much more difficult run if the abortion affirmation stays tacked on. Without any compromise or a decision to break the bill down into parts, the rest of its lofty goals may suffer a fate of constant rejection in the Senate.