State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins at Barnard College in...

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins at Barnard College in Manhattan on Jan. 7. Credit: AP/Kathy Willens

ALBANY — New York State legislators overwhelmingly approved a new abortion law on Tuesday — the anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision.

And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed it into law.

Here are some key things to know about the legislation:

Though abortion already is legal in New York, the bill does change state law.

Supporters say the bill primarily codifies abortion rights as provided under Roe v. Wade in 1973. In doing so, the bill would go further than the abortion-rights law on the books in New York, which was adopted three years earlier.

A primary change in the 2019 law permits for a late-term abortion to preserve the health of the mother. Supporters say this conforms with Roe v. Wade; opponents say it wrongly expands access to late-term abortions.

The new law also shifts the abortion law from the state’s penal code to its health code — thereby removing doctors and others from the threat of prosecution, advocates say.

Further, the new law would permit physician assistants, nurse practitioners and midwives to provide nonsurgical abortion care.

It’s happening now because of changes in Albany and Washington.

The bill, dubbed the Reproductive Health Act, was first introduced by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, way back in 2007. It was always blocked by the Republican-controlled State Senate.

Two major developments in the last two years changed the playing field. First, Republican President Donald Trump appointed two conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court. One replaced Anthony Kennedy, who was the swing vote in the 1992 Casey decision that reaffirmed Roe. Without Kennedy, some believe Roe could be overturned eventually by the court. On Friday, Trump addressed the "March for Life," vowing to fight proposed abortion-rights laws. 

Second, Democrats in New York routed the GOP in November to gain firm control of the State Senate for the first time in decades. They quickly announced approving Reproductive Health Act would be one of their first actions. The Democrat-dominated Assembly always supported it.

“We have a president who has made it very, very clear he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. Today, New York is saying, ‘No!’ ” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said at a pep-rally style news conference before the vote.

The Senate approved the bill, 38-24, largely along party lines with two Democrats voting no. The Assembly later approved it 92-47.

Opponents say it doesn’t just codify Roe.

They said the new law expands abortion rights in New York and takes away a prosecution tool in domestic violence cases. Specifically, opponents focus on the passages that add health of the mother as a consideration and add other health professionals to the list of providers.

“The so-called ‘Reproductive Health Act’ will expand our state’s already radically permissive law, by empowering more health practitioners to provide abortion and removing all state restrictions on late-term procedures,” New York’s eight Catholic bishops said in a statement about the law.

Senate Republicans said the act removes penalties even when abortion is the product of an assault on a pregnant woman. Liv Abreu, a Bronx resident, who was 26 weeks pregnant and lost her child when she was stabbed by her then-boyfriend, appeared at a State Capitol news conference to say removing abortion from the penal code would mean the man couldn’t be prosecuted for the death of the unborn child.

It was a pitched atmosphere in Albany, though the outcome wasn’t in doubt.

The scene: Hallways lined, from early morning on, with activists, carrying signs and portable microphones — with opponents sometimes chanting and singing at each other. Multiple state troopers patrolling the Capitol’s second floor (governor’s offices), a German shepherd police dog sniffing up and down different floors of the building. Giant screens, specially mounted in a second-floor chamber, to stream closed-circuit Senate proceedings for an overflow crowd. Impromptu news conferences in an open space near an elevator bank near the Senate doors.

Democrat legislators and advocates took the rare step of staging their event in the cavernous “Assembly Parlor,” the only meeting room in the Capitol big enough to hold the nearly 300 in attendance.  

One of them was Sarah Ragle Weddington, the attorney for “Jane Roe” back in 1973.

“It’s a dream come true,” she said of New York’s action, adding that she is afraid Roe will be overturned.

“It’s not about women’s health,” said Ella Mae Hedgpeth, 79, who made the 90-mile trip from Middletown and walked several blocks in 10-degree temperatures to display a sign calling abortion a “holocaust.”

Some NY abortion statistics:

In 2016, there were 82,189 abortions statewide, down from 93,299 in 2014 and 97,502 in 2012, according to the most recent state Health Department statistics.

Although much of the debate is over late-term abortions, state records show 2 percent or fewer abortions every year are performed five months or later in pregnancies.


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