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With 16 days to go, Cuomo launches abortion-rights push

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, talks with

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, talks with attorney Sarah Weddington, who argued Roe vs. Wade, after a news conference in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany. (June 4, 2013) (Credit: AP )

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo jump-started an effort Tuesday to expand abortion rights in New York by making state law comport with federal protections, although the proposal faces strong opposition in the politically divided State Senate.

Flanked by leaders of numerous women's groups, Cuomo officially introduced his 10-point "women's agenda." The package includes measures to fight sexual harassment, human trafficking and pay inequity.

Cuomo had promised to promote the agenda during his State of the State speech in January. The only one of the 10 points that has generated serious controversy is the abortion proposal.

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Cuomo and women's groups said the proposal merely ensures rights currently available if Roe v. Wade -- the landmark abortion-rights case -- is ever overturned. Hundreds of proponents held a rally Tuesday afternoon on the State Capitol lawn.

"It's a very simple decision. On this language you're either pro-choice or you're not," Cuomo said during a news conference at his offices. "It is that binary, in my opinion."

That contention sparked a war of words. Cardinal Timothy Dolan said he was "profoundly distressed" by what he called a proposal to "ease" access to late-term abortions and urged the 7.2 million Catholic New Yorkers to "fully oppose" it.

Some Republicans said the "women's agenda" should include removing Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) for mishandling recent sexual harassment allegations against a prominent legislator.

Further, a spokeswoman for Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said Cuomo's decision to load all 10 items into one take-it-or-leave-it piece of legislation amounted to a "political maneuver."

The governor is making the push with just over two weeks to go in the 2013 legislative session.

Currently, New York law only allows late-term abortion (after 24 weeks) if a woman's life is at risk; federal law permits it if a woman's life or health is at risk. Cuomo wants state law to match federal protections.

Critics say the proposal is an expansion of late-term abortion rights.

"We are profoundly distressed by the introduction of a bill in New York State today that would ease restrictions in state law on late-term abortion and runs the serious risk of broadly expanding abortion access at all stages of gestation," Dolan and the Catholic bishops of New York said in a statement. "This legislation would add a broad and undefined 'health' exception for late-term abortion."

The National Organization for Women called that a mischaracterization.

"Federal law ensures a woman's health, as well as her life, are protected. This proposal makes New York's abortion law consistent with that federal precedent without changing federal or state laws that ban most late-term abortion," said Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York chapter of NOW. "The public deserves to know the truth."

Cuomo's proposal should face little opposition in the Democratic-dominated state Assembly. But its fate in the Senate is unclear.

Under a coalition arrangement, the Senate co-leaders, Skelos and Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), must both agree to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. Skelos has repeatedly said a bill reaffirming Roe v. Wade rights is unwarranted at this time.

Shortly after the governor officially unveiled the proposal Tuesday, Kelly Cummings, spokeswoman for Skelos, signaled the GOP could find room for agreement on every issue -- except abortion.

"Introduction of the abortion provision, however, is a political maneuver designed to curry favor with the extremists who want to expand late-term abortion, and open the door to non-physicians performing abortions. It's wrong for New York," Cummings said.

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