New York state on Tuesday evening passed legislation to codify federal abortion law into state law, exactly 46 years since the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States.
"We have president who has made very, very clear that he wants to overturn Roe v Wade," State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said at a news conference before the vote. "Today, here in New York, we are saying no."
The Reproductive Health Act (RHA) passed the Senate, 38-24, and was approved by the state Assembly, 92-47. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law less than two hours later. At his side at a hastily arranged signing ceremony was Sarah Weddington, the Texas attorney who successfully argued Roe before the nation's highest court.
WHAT DOES THE RHA DO?
The RHA replaces a 1970 state abortion law that was passed three years before Roe legalized abortion nationwide. It codifies many abortion rights laid out in Roe and other court rulings, including a provision permitting late-term abortions when a woman's health is endangered. The previous law, which was in conflict with Roe and other subsequent abortion rulings, only permitted abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy if a woman's life was at risk.
The new law also authorizes physician assistants to perform some abortions and moves the section of state law dealing with abortion from the penal code to health statutes.
"Always in my heart, I knew the Senate Republicans would never ever allow this bill to get to the floor," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said at the news conference. "So it's a point of personal satisfaction for me — and I know the members of the Assembly — because we kept passing it and putting it out there starting in 2006."
The Senate and Assembly also passed the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act and the so-called "Boss Bill," both of which require employers and health care providers to cover abortion and contraceptive services.
Nine other states, including California, Washington, and Oregon, have already put protections for abortion rights in their state statute, giving them a legal backstop should Roe be overturned.
THE PUSH FOR A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT
The governor has also proposed a separate amendment that would enshrine a woman's right to choose in the state constitution for generations to come. This is something Cuomo has actually proposed before, and advocates have urged a vote for years, but almost all abortion measures were blocked by Republicans, who previously controlled the state Senate.
A constitutional amendment would have to pass this legislature, then a new legislature in 2021 before going to voters in a referendum in 2022. Interestingly enough, that would be the same year Cuomo, should he choose, runs for a fourth term.
"We had to pass this law to protect our state, and that's why I believe we have to go a step further and do a constitutional amendment so no governor, no legislator, no political swing can ever jeopardize a woman's right to control her own body," the governor said at the bill signing.
WHAT OPPONENTS HAD TO SAY
Critics say the RHA goes beyond Roe v Wade, which is why Republicans blocked it all those years.
"Those who actually read the bill can see that it's not simply codifying Roe v Wade," said Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who represents parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn. "In fact, it removes a requirement that a doctor be present, it removes all criminal negligence if a woman loses her baby as a result of assault, and it allows abortion into the third trimester, for really any reason."
"Today, New York state has added a sad chapter to this already solemn date of January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade," the state's Catholic bishops said in a statement.
Republicans in the Senate tried to derail the bill and offered up proposals to create new legal penalties for harming a pregnant woman. They were joined at a press conference Tuesday morning by Livia Abreu, an Army veteran and Bronx resident whose ex-boyfriend stabbed her last year, ending her 26-week pregnancy. The man faces multiple charges, including violations of the state's 1970 law. Abreu said repealing the law would tie the hands of prosecutors in similar future cases.
"The loss of my daughter will be a non-factor," she said.
Supporters of the bill rejected those concerns, noting that the 1973 abortion law is rarely used in domestic violence cases and that charges including assault, aggravated assault and attempted murder could still be sought.
Proponents of the RHA say it will increase access to abortion in New York state, but critics say that's unnecessary because 25 percent of all pregnancies in New York state end in abortion — one of the highest rates in the nation.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.