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Abortion opponents gather in DC – but their minds are on Albany

More than 300 abortion opponents from the Buffalo area traveled to the nation's capital this week for the annual March for Life on Friday – but many of them had their hearts and minds on what's happening in New York's state capital.

At a time when Washington's partisan stalemate is likely to mean little movement on the abortion issue in Congress, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is pushing an expansion of abortion rights in New York State, including a proposal to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution.

So as the abortion opponents – most of them devout Christians – came to the nation's capital, they did so promising prayers for their home state.

"It's kind of upsetting," said Camille Pontrello, 53, assistant director of the Center for Service Learning at Canisius College. "All we can do is stay the course and fight this."

What they will be fighting is a two-pronged proposal  from the governor.

One part is a revived version of legislation that has failed in the past, but that has a better chance of passage than ever before now that Democrats wrested control of the State Senate from Republicans in November's election.

Under the proposal called the Reproductive Health Act, abortion would no longer be regulated under the state's criminal code, but under its public health laws. In addition, late-term abortions that are currently banned would be allowed to preserve the health of the mother, or if the fetus was not viable.

State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation, tweeted that the bill is necessary "to ensure that the complex and personal decision of whether to have an abortion is made by a woman and her healthcare provider, not the government."

But Stasia Zoladz Vogel, the president of the Buffalo Regional Right to Life Committee, called the bill "the most radical abortion expansion law – to permit abortions up to the moment of birth at nine months."

While abortion rights supporters say those moves are meant to protect mothers, and would just update state abortion laws to bring them in line with other states, Cuomo also wants to go one big step farther than that.

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

Such a state constitutional amendment would guarantee the right to abortion in New York even if an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court were to someday overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision declaring a constitutional right to abortion.

A change in the state constitution is necessary, said Robin Chappelle Golston, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, an advocacy group.

"The threat to our health care is real and requires immediate action," said Robin Chappelle Golston, the organization's president and CEO.

But to abortion opponents who travel to Washington annually to protest Roe v. Wade, there's little the state could do that would be more abhorrent than enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution.

"I think it sets a dangerous precedent," said Seth Atisha, 19, the treasurer of the Students for Life group at Canisius. "It would make it extremely difficult for the pro-life movement to fight back if abortion was part of the state constitution."

On Friday, though, the abortion opponents were to once again join a larger, national battle, joining with tens of thousands of people from across the country for a rally to be followed by a march to the steps of the Supreme Court.

Still, their minds were back home.

Cheryl Calire, director of pro-life activities for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, said abortion opponents aren't optimistic that they will be able to thwart Cuomo's efforts.

"Most are praying hard, but realize that this may move forward," she said.

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