June 4, 2013

Cuomo’s Proposal Aims to Protect Late-Term Abortion Access in NY

After months of anticipation, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has introduced a proposal that seeks to guarantee access to abortion in the third-largest U.S. state.

The governor first floated the idea during his January 2013 State of the State address, when he outlined a 10-point Women’s Equality Act – introduced in full on June 4 – to break down what Cuomo and others say are discriminatory barriers facing women in employment and other areas. The bill also includes provisions against sex trafficking and domestic violence.

Aides to the governor have said that the proposed abortion language is meant to bring New York state law up to the standards established by the Supreme Court in its abortion rulings, particularly Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision guaranteeing a constitutional right to abortion at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Roe guarantees a right to abortions at 24 weeks or later in cases where a mother’s life or health is in peril. Under current N.Y. law, which dates from 1970, a woman who has been pregnant for 24 weeks or more can obtain an abortion only if her life is in danger.

Cuomo said his bill would essentially codify Roe in state law, meaning that abortions would be allowed at 24 weeks or later if a woman’s health – including her emotional health – is in danger or if the fetus she is carrying is not expected to survive after birth. Even though Roe and other court decisions already give women in New York access to these types of late-term abortions, an official in the Cuomo administration contends that the proposal is necessary in case Roe is one day overturned or narrowed by the Supreme Court.

The measure also contains language reaffirming current protections for medical workers who wish to refrain from participating in abortion procedures due to religious or other objections. “I support and respect religious freedom,” Cuomo said in a written statement issued June 4. “Therefore our bill does not change any existing state and federal laws that permit a health care provider from refraining from providing an abortion due to religious or moral beliefs.”

Even before it was introduced, Cuomo’s proposal encountered strong criticism from abortion opponents. On March 19, the governor met with New York’s Roman Catholic bishops, who urged him to abandon his efforts to pass the proposed changes into law. “This is not something that New York needs and I’d go as far as to say that it’s not what New York wants,” said Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, on Long Island.

But abortion-rights supporters have applauded Cuomo, arguing that his measure is needed to ensure that women’s reproductive rights are protected. “As elected officials across the country continue to push legislation that makes life harder for women, particularly by attacking women’s reproductive rights, we are proud to have a governor who is clearly dedicated to putting New York at the forefront in the nation in helping women and their families lead better, safer, healthier lives,” said Andrea Miller, president of NARAL Pro-Choice New York.

Cuomo may have a tough time pushing his proposal through the New York legislature before its session ends on June 20. While Cuomo’s fellow Democrats hold a clear majority in the lower house, the state Senate majority is made up of a coalition of Republicans and some breakaway Democrats, making passage of an abortion-rights proposal in that chamber less certain. Indeed, the Senate majority coalition leader, Dean Skelos, has said that he and fellow Senate Republicans will oppose even holding a vote on the measure.

Cuomo’s measure bucks a nationwide trend toward more restrictions on abortion in the states. For example, 10 states have enacted recent laws requiring physicians to perform an ultrasound prior to the termination of a pregnancy. In addition, a number of states now outlaw abortion – with very narrow exceptions – beginning 20 weeks into a pregnancy or even earlier.

Pew Research Center polling continues to show that while most Americans do not want to take away a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy, they are not entirely comfortable with abortion either. A January Pew Research survey shows, for example, that most Americans (63%) do not want the Supreme Court to strike down Roe v. Wade. Only about three-in-ten (29%) think the high court should completely overturn the ruling. But at the same time, nearly half (47%) of American adults say it is morally wrong to have an abortion, according to the same poll. Just 13% of adults view abortion as morally acceptable, while 27% say abortion is not a moral issue, and 9% volunteer that the morality of abortion depends on the situation.

This analysis was written by David Masci, Senior Researcher, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.