This is why Assembly Democrats should have agreed two years ago to pulling apart Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 10-point Women’s Equality Act, rather than hold fast to an all-or-nothing approach.
With Senate Republicans adamantly opposed to the agenda’s 10th point – codifying the right to abortion – there was no way the Equality Act was going to pass. Meanwhile, the bill’s other critical items, including a human trafficking component, were held hostage to one politically charged dispute that could not be resolved.
That changed last week. Under the influence of the Assembly’s new speaker, Carl E. Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, the Assembly approved the bill on human trafficking and, in so doing, threw out a lifeline to thousands of women who may be drowning in a sea of sexual abuse or other forms of slavery.
Figures are hard to come by, but estimates from within the Assembly are that 17,000 people are brought to the United States each year and enter the sex trade, involuntary servitude and other aspects of human exploitation. How many of those people are in New York is a mystery, but New York is the nation’s fourth most populous state and it contains what is, by far, its largest city. So the answer is: a lot of them.
The bill includes provisions to strengthen penalties for labor and sex trafficking and creates a new defense for prostitutes who are deemed victims of such exploitation. In a sign of how important the Assembly believes this legislation to be – and as evidence that the linkage to the abortion provision was unwise – members passed the bill unanimously, 141-0. It will now go to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for his signature.
Now the Assembly is expected to pass the other components of the Women’s Equality Act. The Senate, which has supported all but the abortion section, will likely approve them as well. They will continue to argue about abortion.
Those other eight components, all worthy of approval, focus on achieving pay equity, stopping sexual harassment in workplaces, removing barriers to remedying discrimination, ending family status discrimination, stopping housing discrimination for victims of domestic violence, stopping source-of-income discrimination, strengthening order-of-protection laws and stopping pregnancy discrimination.
Whatever anybody thinks about abortion, few people of good will would argue with the intent of the other nine points of Cuomo’s agenda. And abortion remains readily available in New York; its inclusion in the agenda was only preventing action on nine other important issues while doing little to protect abortion rights.
This was the right decision. Moving against human trafficking is important all on its own. It deserved its own vote. Now, the Legislature should go on to the other eight measures, and it can continue to argue about abortion.