New York Legislature. New York Legislature. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

State lawmakers in New York moved on Tuesday to implement new safeguards that will guarantee women can choose to have an abortion in case the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade is overturned by a more conservative high court.

The New York State Senate and Assembly both passed what’s called the Reproductive Health Act, a bill long advocated for by Democrats in the Legislature that moves abortion from the state’s penal code to the public health law and expands abortion protections to women in the later stages of pregnancy.

The bill was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo within an hour of it passing both chambers, an action typically reserved for legislation of great importance or urgency to lawmakers. Cuomo attacked Republicans in federal government during a speech before signing the legislation.

“We shouldn’t be here in the first place. We should not have a federal government trying to roll back women’s rights,” Cuomo said. “That’s why we had to pass this law — to protect our state.”

It was sponsored by State Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, both Manhattan Democrats. The pair defended the legislation during floor debate for hours on Tuesday from Republican lawmakers opposed to the bill.

“Abortion is a medical procedure, and it’s long overdue that we treat abortion in that fashion,” Glick said.

Also on hand to see the bill passed in Albany on Tuesday was Sarah Weddington, the attorney who represented the plaintiff in Roe more than four decades ago.

“When I started working on what became Roe v. Wade, New York was one of the very few states that women could go to for good, legal [abortion] services,” Weddington said. “Now to see New York pass a bill to be sure that right is protected is just a dream come true.”

It’s the latest in a string of what are considered progressive bills passed by the new Democrat-controlled Legislature this year. Democrats have a majority in both the Assembly and Senate for the first time in nearly a decade after last year’s elections.

The RHA, as it’s been commonly referred to in Albany, has been pushed by Democrats in the Legislature annually but gained new momentum in recent years as the U.S. Supreme Court increasingly shifted to the right with the confirmations of Judges Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. Both were nominated by President Donald Trump since he took office in 2017.

Now, Democrats said on Tuesday, if the high court reverses the landmark ruling that guaranteed access to abortion in 1973, state law will be in place to protect abortion rights in New York.

“We have a president who has made it very, very clear he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester. “Here, today in New York, we’re saying ‘no.’”

Weddington said she was “frightened” by the idea of the landmark decision being reversed by the Supreme Court in the future, but that the possibility of such a ruling exists given the current composition of the court.

“You look at who’s on the Supreme Court now, and there’s several of them I don’t trust at all in terms of what they might vote,” Weddington said. “That’s why I’m very concerned.”

The RHA changes the state’s abortion laws in a few ways critical to both supporters of the legislation and prosecutors.

The bill is another effort by Democrats to put New York ahead of other states on certain progressive issues, such as abortion and civil rights protections. Less than a dozen other states have enacted similar protections, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading abortion research organization.

State law previously made abortion a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the method, if it was performed after the 24th week of pregnancy and the life of the mother was not at risk. The criminal charge, under that law, could be levied against the mother, the doctor, or another person who performed or caused the abortion outside the legal window.

That law, passed in 1970, was usurped by Roe. The RHA removes abortion as a chargeable offense, instead moving it into the state’s public health law.

The new law allows a woman to have an abortion in New York for any reason within the 24th week of pregnancy. After that point, an abortion is allowed if the mother’s life or health is at risk, or if the fetus is no longer viable. Those determinations will be made by a licensed medical professional.

Opponents of the legislation have criticized the provisions removing abortion as a crime under state law. They argue that it takes the option away from prosecutors to charge someone, such as a violent partner, who terminates a woman’s pregnancy through the use of force. Prosecutors wouldn’t have that specific charge on which to prosecute someone who stabs their partner to end an unwanted pregnancy, for example.

Sen. Cathy Young, R-Cattaraugus, outlined a bill at the capitol on Tuesday that would reinstate the option for prosecutors to bring specific criminal charges against someone who acts to forcefully terminate a pregnancy.

“There will be no justice or recourse for the harm inflicted,” Young said of the RHA. “Every woman must stand up and demand we protect all women.”

According to Young, her legislation would create the crime of assault on a pregnant woman, which would be chargeable as a felony under the state’s penal code. The bill’s proposed changes were called unnecessary by Democrats on Tuesday, making its chances of passing unlikely.

Supporters of the RHA have argued that prosecutors already have felony charges to use against someone who attacks a pregnant woman, like second- or first-degree assault. Krueger defended removing the statute from the penal code with the same argument on Tuesday. She said prosecutors could, instead, levy charges with even longer prison sentences than what was in the state’s penal law for the crime of abortion.

“We have very strict criminal statutes for when people attack people, whether it’s men who attack pregnant women, women who attack women, men who attack men,” Krueger said.

Lawmakers also codified into state law on Tuesday regulations promulgated by the state Department of Financial Services that require health insurance companies to provide coverage for contraceptives in New York. Both bills take effect immediately.

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