In the wake of the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in his Amherst home last fall, Gov. Pataki Friday proposed strengthening protections around abortion clinics.
The legislation, modeled on a federal law, appears to closely mirror a bill already passed in the State Assembly. That bill, however, would specifically include additional penalties for intimidating or harassing abortion doctors and nurses at their homes. Pataki administration officials insist their bill, while not specifically including residences, would have the effect of protecting health-care workers at their homes, as well as the clinics where they work.
The governor's bill creates additional state criminal penalties for anyone convicted of injuring, intimidating or interfering with a patient or health-care worker trying to enter an abortion clinic. It also adds houses of worship to the places protected by the bill. First-time offenders would face up to a year in state prison, with second and subsequent offenses penalized by up to four years in prison.
Additionally, the bill, like the Assembly version, would make it easier for health-care workers and patients to sue protesters who try to block their access to an abortion clinic.
Health-care and women's groups said the Slepian murder has highlighted the need for additional protections for abortion workers and patients. While they say the new bill would not have saved Slepian, they said a state law is needed to supplement the federal law because local police have not been able to enforce the provisions of the federal statute.
"Protecting New Yorkers against all forms of violence and intolerance is government's primary obligation. The cowardly murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian last year is a tragic example of how a single, violent, terrorist act can destroy a family and disrupt a community," Pataki said.
Besides Pataki's backing, the state's top law enforcement officer, State Police Superintendent James McMahon, suggested the bill would have broad support among police agencies because it would "provide troopers and other law enforcement agencies with the ability to ensure safe access to clinics and places of religious worship, and protect New Yorkers from violent, wanton acts."
JoAnn Smith, executive director of Family Planning Advocates, which represents Planned Parenthood groups, said she hopes the governor will include specific provisions for penalizing individuals who intimidate or harass health-care workers at their homes.
But Senate Republicans, from Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno of Brunswick to Dale Volker of Depew, have opposed the measure, saying it is not necessary.
Anti-abortion groups have said the clinic access bill is an affront to the First Amendment and, with other criminal laws pertaining to harassment and trespassing already on the books, is unnecessary.
While Bruno recently indicated he may be willing to negotiate a clinic access bill, he said the Senate's first response will be to pass an anti-stalking bill next week.
"This bill would provide real protection before a crime is committed, rather than just civil recourse after the fact," Bruno said.