The Republican lawmakers of New York once understood that leadership meant facing the most controversial, emotional issues of the times. The issues that so directly affect individual lives. The issues that the majority of the public cared about above the narrow narrative of routine politics.
These lawmakers understood that more than four decades ago, when state GOP leaders made key decisions which led to the liberalization of abortion laws in New York. It was a time when lawmakers of both parties put principle ahead of their careers. It was a roll-call drama Albany would not see again until the same sex marriage vote.
They understood that in 2011, when a Republican-led State Senate finally allowed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage to be called for a vote. Wrapped in the drama of uncertainty, Albany's passage of the Marriage Equality Act, like the abortion reform of 1970, reverberated around the nation.
Now, two years later, the state GOP is disregarding its historic role in advancing equality by refusing to allow a vote on the proposed Women's Equality Act. This is a bill to make sure access to abortion remains safe and legal in this state, regardless of what happens in the intensifying national effort to roll back access to abortion. Allowing a vote is necessary for the GOP to stay relevant.
Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Senate Majority Leader Earl Brydges and Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea Jr., Republicans all, were critical players in the effort to liberalize a 19th-century law that was a near-total prohibition against abortion -- a law that made it a crime for a doctor to perform one and a crime for a woman to attempt to end her pregnancy.
Long before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that a woman had a constitutional right to an abortion, Rockefeller joined the reform movement by appointing a commission to gather data about abortions in New York City. His commission found that affluent white women gamed the system to get a hospital abortion -- usually by convincing a committee of doctors that continuing the pregnancy would make them suicidal -- or had the means to travel out of the country. Meanwhile, 75 percent of those who died from the hundreds of thousands of illegal abortions were women of color. The disparity, Rockefeller said in vetoing a 1972 attempt to repeal the reform, "was promoting hypocrisy and, ultimately human tragedy."
After an attempt to decriminalize abortion failed, Brydges, the Senate leader, crafted a bill the next year that was broad and simple: A licensed doctor could perform an abortion within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy; after that time, abortion was legal only if the life of the mother were in danger.
For strategic reasons, however, the bill avoided an outright repeal of the criminal statutes. Those were soon made unenforceable, however, because of Roe. The 1973 Supreme Court ruling also went further than the state's 1970 law by allowing abortion after 24 weeks to protect not just the mother's life, but her health as well.
Now Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants to complete the reforms started by Rockefeller by removing the criminal statutes and including the health-of-the-mother provision in state law. The changes are contained in the final provision of the Women's Equality Act, whose nine other provisions have strong bipartisan support. Those other provisions provide equal pay, stronger laws against human trafficking, and more protections against sexual harassment in the workplace, and credit and housing discrimination.
But why the resistance to the abortion law changes? Senate co-leader Dean Skelos, a Republican from Rockville Centre, is adamantly refusing to allow a vote on the full bill because of the abortion provision. Even though Skelos shares leadership power with a Bronx Democrat, Jeff Klein of the Independent Democratic Coalition, under their agreement, both must agree on which measures are called for a vote.
Skelos says the provision is unnecessary because abortion "is already safe and legal." Although members of his party introduce measures every year to limit access, other Republicans say Roe is not going to be overturned, so why worry? And GOP strategists further contend the fight is all about Cuomo's national political ambitions, a way to curry votes with women.
Of course, it's political for Cuomo. It's a political reaction to the onslaught of efforts by national and state Republican lawmakers to make abortions difficult and costly to obtain. On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives approved a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and House GOP leaders promised a floor vote on it by the end of the month. The bill was revised Friday to allow exceptions for rape and incest.
New York Republicans can no longer stand apart from this national movement. The "why worry?" refrain is ignorant at best and cynical at worst. Their side started this fight in many statehouses.
Still, there is room for compromise. The Cuomo bill initially ignored the federal ban on so-called partial-birth abortion, a procedure called "dilation and extraction" that is usually performed late in the second trimester. The ban was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007. Now the governor has agreed to incorporate the ban into the act. The bill also should restate, specifically in the abortion section, existing state protections for individuals or institutions that oppose abortion based on religious or moral beliefs.
Much has changed since the 1970s. Hundreds of thousands of women are no longer dying of botched abortions. And there are growing concerns about the scope and frequency of abortions -- especially late-term ones, when the health of the mother is not at issue -- as advances in medicine enable many fetuses to survive outside the womb at 24 weeks of development. Yet, polling data reveals there is little doubt that the consensus in New York is that abortion should remain legal.
That's why Skelos, just as Brydges did in 1970, must allow the lawmakers to vote their consciences. Brydges eventually voted against reform. But he knew standing in the way of what New Yorkers wanted was a losing strategy.