More than two decades after Operation Rescue, the steps of Buffalo City Hall last week again became the scene of the abortion debate, but this time around, the talk was political, not confrontational.
And it was similar to a conversation heard around New York State in recent months as the debate is rekindled by what’s known as “Point 10” of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed Women’s Equality Act.
“This preserves the health care and health care system we have in New York,” M. Tracey Brooks, head of Planned Parenthood Advocates of New York State, said of the abortion measure stirring so much controversy. “It does not expand what is already the law.”
Not so, says Kathleen M. Gallagher, director of Pro-Life Activities with the New York State Catholic Conference.
“This will expand abortion,” Gallagher responded from her Albany office. “If they are OK with the law now, then why do they want to change it? Why are they pushing so hard for it?”
Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act has 10 points – and just about all politicians support the first nine. But the 10th point, the one that replaces New York’s abortion law with the exact wording of Roe v. Wade, is stirring controversy.
In Buffalo, representatives of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice stood on the City Hall landing to endorse State Senate candidate Mark C. Panepinto, a Democrat who supports what is being called the codification of Roe v. Wade as part of Cuomo’s 10-point women’s agenda.
“I want my daughters and their doctors to make health care decisions,” said Panepinto, who describes himself as pro-choice. “It does not expand abortion. It merely codifies the Roe v. Wade law.”
Panepinto’s two opponents for the 60th District Senate seat have a different view.
Mark J. Grisanti, the incumbent senator running on the Independence line, says he is personally opposed to abortion, but supports a woman’s right to choose under Roe v. Wade, and views abortion as a decision between a doctor and a woman. But Grisanti opposes the 10th point, which he says will expand third-trimester abortions.
Republican candidate Kevin T. Stocker also expressed his personal opposition to abortion, but said he supports Roe v. Wade and doesn’t think politicians should impose their values on others. Stocker said he’s not fully familiar with details of Cuomo’s 10th point, but would vote against late-term abortion because women he’s spoken to in the senate district oppose it.
“I’ve asked women voters – Democrats – if they would want me to vote to support late-term abortion up to nine months. They have told me no,” he said.
Back in 1992, a massive abortion debate occurred in Buffalo, with pro-choice and pro-life forces converging on the city. Clinics were blocked. Hundreds were arrested. Two protest leaders walked around carrying a 20-month-old stillborn fetus. It was part of a national “Operation Rescue” movement to prevent as many abortions as possible in the United States.
Today’s abortion debate is focused only on third-trimester abortions, and it is centered largely around the interpretation of a single word: health.
Yet, as with most abortion debates, this one is just as polarizing, with the two sides leaving little room for common ground.
It appears the 10th point is, as supporters claim, an attempt to codify Roe v. Wade in order to preserve the existing rights of New York women and to clarify the law for doctors. But what effect the measure will have might not be known unless or until it is enacted.
New York law, adopted in 1970, says third-trimester abortions are permitted only to save the life of the mother.
Under the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, third-trimester abortions are permitted only “where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”
The federal court decision trumps state law, so New York since 1973 has permitted third-trimester abortions based on the Roe v. Wade decision – to preserve life or health of the mother, Brooks said.
New York needs to codify Roe v. Wade, Brooks said, basically replacing the 1970 New York State law with words from the Supreme Court ruling, to ensure New York retains its current health system should Roe v. Wade be overturned or eroded.
Also, she said, the discrepancy between the state law and Roe v. Wade – “health” not being in the 1970 state law – creates confusion among physicians over when they are permitted in New York State to perform third-trimester abortions.
“It’s had a chilling effect,” Brooks said. “There’s always concern that there might be criminal prosecution even though the federal law allows the health exception. We don’t want doctors to have to figure out what the law is. We want it very clear for doctors to know they can provide women with health problems with options.”
Such clarification, she said, would improve access, but not necessarily increase the number of late-term abortions performed. “The same number of women will have health problems,” she said.
New York does not currently keep statistics on third-trimester abortions, but Brooks said they represent about 0.02 percent of abortions nationally.
The state does keep statistics on abortions performed after 20 weeks. Of 97,502 abortions performed in New York State in 2012, 2.6 percent occurred in the 20th week or later.
Opponents of the 10th point of the Women’s Equality Act argue it would allow more third-trimester abortion because “health” is vague and could be interpreted to mean economic, social, physical or mental health.
“A woman’s age can be her health. Anything goes. That is our big problem,” Gallagher said.
Brooks responded: “What she is saying is that doctors would allow a woman to abort willy-nilly, and that is not the case. Sometimes late in a pregnancy, something goes terribly wrong. It’s a doctors’ determination.”
Brooks also argued that those opposing the 10th point oppose all abortion rights, but don’t want to acknowledge it because a majority of Americans, including New Yorkers, support abortion rights laws.
“Sen. Grisanti is trying to walk both sides of the line,” Brooks said. “You can’t say you are for Roe and not vote for the 10th point. He is trying to mislead the voters to think he is with them when he is obviously not.”
“As far as I know, she is not a lawyer,” Grisanti, an attorney, said of Brooks. “I support Roe v. Wade. This 10th point expands it. Planned Parenthood wants everyone to believe this is just codifying Roe v. Wade. I don’t believe it.”
Brooks also accused Stocker of misleading voters by posing a loaded question.
“He set it up for people to say no,” she said. “He didn’t say ‘Would you like me to support it if a woman’s life or health is in danger during pregnancy?’ That’s what we are talking about, if a woman’s health or life is in danger. If you ask the question appropriately, more than 70 percent want that option.”
Stocker disagreed. “Ms. Brooks has never heard me speak to the women of this district so she cannot possibly have an informed opinion,” he said. “I respect women’s rights and their ability to determine their own health care choices after consulting with their doctors. The women of this district are smart and I want them to tell me what their thoughts are based upon what may come up in future bills.”
One of 10 points
Adding to the controversy over the abortion measure is that it is just one point of Cuomo’s 10-point health plan.
The first nine points have broad support. Those points require women receive equal pay to men for equal work, outlaw workplace discrimination against parents, strengthen laws against human trafficking, create a pilot program allowing victims of domestic violence to testify remotely and end pregnancy discrimination.
Nine of the 10 bills passed the State Senate, with Grisanti among those voting for the nine. Only the 10th was not approved in the Senate.
“The 10th point is not necessary at this time and should not hold the other nine noncontroversial points hostage since Roe v. Wade is still the law today,” Grisanti said. “Let’s pass the nine noncontroversial points immediately.”
Brooks rejected that suggestion.
“Women should not be a political compromise,” she said. “Politics should not stand in the way.”
The Assembly, unlike the Senate, voted on all 10 bills as one package. The package passed.
Among those voting for the package was Buffalo Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who said women in the Assembly wanted all 10 bills considered together.
“I am opposed to abortion, but not opposed to women having a choice for themselves,” she said. “I am not going to make decisions for another woman. That should be between her, her husband and her doctor.”
Peoples-Stokes also said she does not believe the 10th point expands abortion coverage.
“I think they are reaching to impose their moral view on the entire society,” she said of opponents of the 10th point. “I don’t think God wants other people to make those kind of judgment calls.”