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Cuomo seeks constitutional change to protect abortion rights

ALBANY – New York lawmakers this month expect to pass a sweeping bill enhancing and expanding abortion rights and access, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Monday that he wants to take the effort a step further by getting the protections placed into the state constitution.

Cuomo, at an event with former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, said he wants the far-reaching abortion rights language placed into the constitution to protect against what he called “this crazy political world” that in the years ahead could simply undo the statutory change both legislative houses say will pass this month at the state Capitol.

“I want to pass this year a constitutional amendment that writes into the constitution a provision protecting a woman’s right to control her own reproductive health,’’ Cuomo said at Barnard College in Manhattan.

A constitutional change requires two separately elected sessions of the state Legislature to approve an amendment before a statewide referendum is held. If first passage by the Assembly and Senate occurred this year, the earliest voters would consider an abortion amendment would be the fall of 2021.

The Reproductive Health Act has been a source of partisan battles since then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed the measure in 2007.

It's billed as codifying into law the Roe v. Wade abortion decision in the event the U.S. Supreme Court should ever reverse that landmark 1973 decision, but critics say the pending Reproductive Health Act goes much further. They say it will increase late-term abortions and let nurse practitioners, physicians and nurse midwives – rather than just physicians – perform abortions.

The abortion bill, along with an accompanying measure requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for all FDA-approve contraceptive drugs, devices and products, is on a fast track now for only one reason: the partisan flipping of the Senate to Democratic control.

On Wednesday, the 2019 legislative session begins and the two sponsors of the abortion-rights measure – Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, both Manhattan Democrats – say they hope the measure will be passed on Jan. 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.

“This has taken much more time and work than it should have,’’ Glick said Monday at the Manhattan event.

“Of course we are passing the Reproductive Health Act and, of course, it’s going to become law in New York State,’’ added Krueger.

Leaders of both houses have said the measure will be approved in the next few weeks.

Even one of the chief opposition groups to the bill concedes the long legislative battle is over and is moving on to other responses in anticipation of the measure becoming law.

“We’ll never toss in the towel in terms of protecting human lives and stopping abortion,’’ said Kathleen Gallagher, the director of Pro-Life Activities at the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the church’s bishops in New York.

“In terms of the so-called Reproductive Health Act, we’re realistic and see there are more than enough votes to pass it in both houses,’’ she said Monday.

Gallagher said inserts are going into church bulletins this week warning of the bill’s imminent action. She said the Catholic Church will enhance efforts to “help women who are faced with unplanned pregnancies to choose life.’’

In the Buffalo diocese, the two-page letter to congregants at its 160 churches asks them to make a last-minute outreach to lawmakers, but the bulletin insert notes the "political reality" of the results of the 2018 elections that make the bill's passage this month all but certain. The letter also gives contact information for parishioners to give to women considering abortions for what the diocese calls "life-affirming" outreach centers, which an official for the diocese said Monday served 1,500 families last year.

“This bill has been around for 12 years. It was Spitzer who first proposed it in 2007 and we take great comfort in knowing we stopped it for 12 years. Undoubtedly, we saved lives,’’ she said.

New York was three years ahead of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling in 1973 in protecting reproductive rights for women, so some have questioned the need for the new law. Even if the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, they say New York, especially given its ever-increasing Democratic tilt over the past several decades, would always ensure access to abortions.

But Cuomo said the Trump administration has been clear in his rhetoric and Supreme Court appointments that it wants to stop abortion rights.

“We have an extremely conservative agenda in Washington," Cuomo said. "It’s their morality, it’s their interpretation of religion, it’s their interpretation of ethics and they’re going to oppose it on you.’’

Clinton agreed. “Our right to make the most deeply personal decision is facing the most significant threat in recent memory. This (Trump) administration has rolled back access to reproductive health services at home and around the world,’’ she told the gathering.

The pending abortion measure also takes regulation of abortions out of the criminal code and puts it under the public health law, which advocates say is a protection for health care providers.

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat who on Wednesday will become the new Senate majority leader, said she sponsored the original Reproductive Health Act bill when she first came to the state Legislature in 2007.

“I didn’t understand why women’s rights were still in the criminal code,’’ she said.

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