Ease abortion limits, says N.Y.'s Cuomo

02/17/2013 12:00 AM

02/17/2013 8:40 AM

ALBANY, N.Y. – Bucking a trend in which states have been seeking to restrict abortion, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is putting the finishing touches on legislation that would guarantee women in New York the right to late-term abortions when their health is in danger or the fetus is not viable.

Cuomo, seeking to deliver on a promise he made in his recent State of the State address, would rewrite a law that currently allows abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy only if the pregnant woman's life is at risk.

The law is not enforced because it is superseded by federal court rulings that allow late-term abortions to protect a woman's health, even if her life is not in jeopardy. But abortion rights advocates say the existence of the more restrictive state law has a chilling effect on some doctors and prompts some women to leave the state for late-term abortions.

Cuomo's proposal, which has not yet been made public, would clarify that licensed health care practitioners, and not only physicians, can perform abortions. It would also remove abortion from the state's penal law and regulate it through the state's public health law.

Abortion rights advocates have welcomed Cuomo's proposal, which he outlined in general terms as part of a broader package of women's rights initiatives in his State of the State address in January. But the Roman Catholic Church and anti-abortion groups are dismayed; opponents have labeled Cuomo's proposal the Abortion Expansion Act.

The legislative prospects for Cuomo's proposal are uncertain. The state Assembly is controlled by Democrats who support abortion rights; the Senate is more difficult to predict because this year it is controlled by a coalition of Republicans who have tended to oppose new abortion rights laws and breakaway Democrats who support abortion rights.

New York legalized abortion in 1970, three years before it was legalized nationally by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. Cuomo's proposal would update the state law so that it could stand alone if the broader federal standard set by Roe were to be undone.

"Why are we doing this? The Supreme Court could change," said a senior Cuomo administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the governor had not formally introduced his proposal.

But opponents of abortion rights, already upset at the high rate of abortions in New York state, worry that rewriting the abortion law would encourage an even greater number of abortions. For example, they suggest that the provision to allow abortions late in a woman's pregnancy for health reasons could be used as a loophole to allow unchecked late-term abortions.

"I am hard-pressed to think of a piece of legislation that is less needed or more harmful than this one," the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, wrote in a letter to Cuomo last month. Referring to Albany lawmakers in a subsequent column, he added, "It's as though, in their minds, our state motto, 'Excelsior' ('Ever Upward'), applies to the abortion rate."

National abortion rights groups have sought for years to persuade state legislatures to adopt laws guaranteeing abortion rights as a backup to Roe. But they have had limited success: Only seven states have such measures in place, including California, Connecticut and Maryland; the most recent state to adopt such a law is Hawaii, which did so in 2006.

"Pretty much all of the energy, all of the momentum, has been to restrict abortion, which makes what could potentially happen in New York so interesting," said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. "There's no other state that's even contemplating this right now."

In most statehouses, the push by lawmakers has been in the opposite direction. The past two years has seen more provisions adopted at the state level to restrict abortion rights than in any two-year period in decades, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Last year, 19 states adopted 43 new provisions restricting abortion access, while not a single significant measure was adopted to expand access to abortion or to comprehensive sex education.

"It's an extraordinary moment in terms of the degree to which there is government interference in a woman's ability to make these basic health care decisions," said Andrea Miller, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice New York. "For New York to be able to send a signal, a hopeful sign, a sense of the turning of the tide, we think is really important."

Abortion rights advocates say that even though the Roe decision supersedes state law, some doctors are hesitant to perform late-term abortions when a woman's health is at risk because the criminal statutes remain on the books.

A number of anti-abortion groups have also formed a coalition called New Yorkers for Life, which is seeking to rally opposition to the governor's proposal using social media.

"If you ask anyone on the street, 'Is there enough abortion in New York?' no one in their right mind would say we need more abortion," said the Rev. Jason J. McGuire, the executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which is part of the coalition.

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