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New York just protected access to abortion — even if Roe v. Wade gets overturned

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed New York’s Reproductive Health Act into law on Tuesday, just minutes after the legislature passed it.

by Carter Sherman
Jan 23 2019, 4:57pm

As much of the United States worries about a future where Americans no longer have a guaranteed right to abortion, the New York state Legislature just passed a law to protect access to the procedure.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed New York’s Reproductive Health Act into law on Tuesday, just minutes after the legislature passed it — and 46 years after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. In addition to creating a right to abortion under New York’s public-health law, the Reproductive Health Act strips punishments for abortion from the state’s penal code. Providers will also be able to perform an abortion within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, or later, if a health care practitioner believes that the pregnancy threatens a patient's life or health.

The Reproductive Health Act has floated around among New York legislators for years, but lawmakers only secured enough votes to finally pass it this year. That’s thanks to the wave of freshmen Democratic legislators who won office in the midterm elections and secured substantive majorities in both houses.

New York legalized abortion in 1970, three years before the Supreme Court decided Roe, but the law has remained untouched for years. Abortion rights advocates feared that access to the procedure could vanish if the Supreme Court overturned Roe, now that conservative justice Brett Kavanaugh is on the bench.

"That's why we had to pass this law, to protect our state," Cuomo told the Democrat and Chronicle during the bill signing. "And that's why I believe we have to go even a step further and do a constitutional amendment."

But enshrining the right to abortion in the New York state constitution is a far more ambitious undertaking than passing the Reproductive Health Act was. Majorities in both state legislative houses must approve such an amendment, twice, before handing it over to voters to approve.

In the months since President Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Massachusetts has also successfully passed a law to protect abortion access in case Roe is overturned, while states like Rhode Island, Maryland, and New Mexico have started lobbying to do the same.

But across the aisle, anti-abortion activists are also preparing for a United States where Roe is no longer the law of the land: In November, voters in West Virginia and Alabama passed ballot measures that eradicated their states’ constitutions of protections for abortion.

Critics of New York’s Reproductive Health Act contend that it will deprive prosecutors of a tool to target domestic abusers. Keeping punishments for abortion in the penal code could, arguably, have allowed domestic abusers to be charged with inducing abortion in the event a survivor miscarries.

On Tuesday, Republicans held a press conference with Livia Abreu, a Bronx woman who survived domestic violence last year — though her pregnancy did not.

“Why would anybody actually use the abortion code to charge somebody with a heinous crime?" asked Democratic state Sen. Liz Krueger, arguing that domestic abusers could be charged under several other crimes in the New York penal code.

Cover image: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, gestures as he speaks, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, at Barnard College in New York, where he called for codifying abortion rights into New York State law. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)