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Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivering his State of the State address on Jan. 9, 2013. Photo: Gov. Cuomo's office via <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/governorandrewcuomo/">Flickr</a>
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivering his State of the State address on Jan. 9, 2013. Photo: Gov. Cuomo's office via Flickr

Catholic lobby disturbed by Cuomo's Womens Equality Act

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Governor Cuomo's proposal for a Women's Equality Act has been praised by many legislators and women's groups. But not everybody is applauding.

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Reported by

Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

The announcement of a Women's Equality Act at Governor Andrew Cuomo's State of the State speech drew some of the biggest cheers.

"Because it's her body, it's her choice!", the governor chanted repeatedly to enthusiastic applause.

In addition to strengthening the state's right to choose abortion laws, Cuomo is also proposing an equal pay law, with triple damages paid if a lawsuit proves gender pay discrimination, a zero-tolerance anti-sexual harassment measure, and strengthening of human trafficking laws, among other things.

"Maybe it's a man's world," Cuomo said. "But it's not a man's world in New York. Not anymore."

The state Catholic lobby, though, is dismayed that all of those items, including the abortion rights provisions, are part of the same package. The Catholic Conference's Kathy Gallagher says the church has worked with the governor on many issues in the Women's Equality Act, including preventing domestic violence and ending pregnancy discrimination, which she says are all "laudable objectives."

"But we would argue that this is nine tenths about abortion," Gallagher said. "This is just a vehicle that he's creating to push through a bill that didn't have any traction or any legs for six years."

In fact, the Catholic conference, which represents the state's bishops and cardinals, has dubbed the proposal the "abortion expansion plan". Gallagher likens the situation to the recently enacted sweeping gun control laws, where lawmakers could not pick and choose which parts of the comprehensive plan that they wanted to support, but had to approve or reject the entire package.

Gallagher says if what was previously known as the reproductive health act were introduced as a stand-alone bill, it would fail in the legislature.

"People don't want abortion expansion in New York State," Gallagher said. "It's really unnecessary in a state with the highest abortion rate in the country."

Gallagher says Catholics fear that the bill, as it's written, would put Catholic hospitals out of business, because they would be forced to either perform abortions or close down, something supporters deny.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who backs the bill, spoke at a rally held by Family Planning Advocates. She says opponents are trying to paint the portion of the Women's Equality Act known as the Reproductive Health Act as something "scary", but she says they are wrong. She says it instead protects women's right to choose abortion in New York by upgrading the state's 1970 abortion laws, should Roe v Wade ever be overturned by the Supreme Court.

"It's our right to control our bodies," said Sen. Stewart-Cousins.

Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy, who represented Governor Cuomo at the Family Planning Advocates event, likened the push for the Women's Equality Act to the successful fight for same sex marriage in New York.

"When the governor passed marriage equality in 2011, he put together a team, he brought together all of the advocates," said Duffy. "He had a plan in mind and really pushed that forward."

The Catholic lobby, which opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage, ultimately found itself on the losing side of that debate. Gallagher, with the Catholic Conference, says the bishops and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan will try to make sure that does not happen to them again in 2013. Thousands of Catholics plan to come to the Capitol in March to make their views known.

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