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NY State Sen. Betty Little. NCPR File Photo: Mark Kurtz
NY State Sen. Betty Little. NCPR File Photo: Mark Kurtz

Battle over Women's Equality Act heats up

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As the gun control debate continues to dominate political discourse state- and nationwide, a stepped-up battle over abortion here in New York isn't getting as much attention.

In his 2013 State of the State address, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a passionate appeal to the legislature to pass his Women's Equality Act, a 10-point proposal that includes enactment of the Reproductive Health Act. But so far, Cuomo hasn't put forth his version of the bill, leaving people on both sides of the abortion debate wondering what, exactly, the governor will propose.

In the meantime, discussion about the Senate's version of the bill has ramped up.

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Reported by

Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent


The Reproductive Health Act has been in existence since 2008. It's currently sitting idle in the Senate Health Committee, controlled by the Republican Party.

A similar bill hasn't been put forth in the Democrat-controlled Assembly yet this year.

Martha Stahl is vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of the North Country, a group that's worked closely with lawmakers in drafting the bill.

She said the bill does something symbolically important, moving abortion out of the state's criminal code and into Public Health Law.

"And then it just puts in an exception for the health of the woman," Stahl said. "So right now, in New York state law, there is an exception for the woman's life – so if she will do if she doesn't get abortion care, she can do that – but there is no formal exception for her health. So that's really, really important in the long-term. That's really the only change, and it just codifies and brings New York state's law up to where Roe v. Wade federal law stands."

Stahl said the bill's larger goal is to strengthen a woman's ability to make her own health care decisions.

"Whether that's a decision about having an abortion, whether that's a decision about continuing a pregnancy, whether it's a decision about taking contraception – that's what this is really about," she said. "And we can't be in the room when those women make those decisions. That's a decision they need to be able to make for themselves, with their doctors, with their family – if they're a person of faith, with their clergy member. There's really no need for politicians to be involved in that."

Opponents see the bill as a dramatic expansion of abortion access in New York.

Colleen Miner is director of the Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg's Respect Life Office. She said approximately 111,000 abortions already happen per year in this state.

"(The bill) is something that pro-lifers are definitely opposing; we don't feel that abortion access needs to be expanded in our state," she said.

The New York State Catholic Conference has also come out against the bill, calling it a "desperate attempt" to push through a "radical" abortion expansion.

Early reaction from Senate Republicans may foreshadow an uphill battle for the legislation. Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos has called the bill unnecessary.

State Senator Betty Little has opposed the measure in the past, and will continue to do so.

She hopes Cuomo won't package abortion measures with his Women's Equality Act, parts of which Little supports even though specifics haven't been released.

"I would hope that it would come in separate pieces of legislation, so that it would not be an all-encompassing bill that would include the Women's Reproductive Act," she said. "Because that legislation is quite controversial, and certainly I am pro-life and I would not be voting for that."

Little said she supports equal pay initiatives and more access to contraception.

One of the big concerns about the Reproductive Health Act is a proposal to allow all "qualified medical providers" to perform early stage abortions.

Colleen Miner of the Catholic Diocese said she's worried the bill could allow someone other than a doctor to perform an abortion.

"I mean, to think of a chiropractor doing abortions – you know, it doesn't make sense," she said. "It doesn't seem like something that would have the woman's health in mind."

But Martha Stahl said if the bill passes, the state would have careful oversight over who would be given a license to carry out an abortion.

Public sentiment on the bill ranges widely, depending on what polling data is at play, and the wording used by pollsters. A poll released this month by the pro-life Chiaroscuro Foundation shows that 80 percent of New Yorkers oppose unlimited abortions through nine months of pregnancy.

But other polls that used more exact quotes from the legislation show that 70 percent of New Yorkers support the bill. Those polls were by and large conducted by organizations with ties to the Democratic Party.

Reporter Chris Morris' reporting is courtesy of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. For more of his work, go to

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