New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks during a news...

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks during a news conference in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany. (Feb. 27, 2013) Credit: AP

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's promise to safeguard abortion rights has sparked one of the most contentious debates of the 2013 legislative session. Yet nobody knows exactly what he's proposing.

Cuomo in January called for a 10-point "women's agenda" that includes a provision to protect abortion rights. That sparked a wave of action by abortion supporters and opponents, and a steady stream of rallies, news conferences and newspaper columns. National abortion rights groups and the Catholic Church have weighed in.

But Cuomo, a Democrat, has both sides guessing at what exactly he will propose.

The governor has asserted that he merely wants to put abortion rights protections into state law in case Roe v. Wade is overturned federally, though he has yet to submit a bill to spell out what he means.

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

While opponents criticize the governor as elusive on the issue, some political experts called it a strategy to tamp down criticism and give Cuomo the opportunity to negotiate before committing to specific provisions.

He used the same approach with gun control and the millionaires' tax: Announce support for a general idea, but don't put it in a printed bill that can be picked apart until you've reached an agreement with legislators.

"Why would you tell people what they don't need to know?" said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant. He said early criticism of Cuomo's abortion proposal might play to his advantage. "Sometimes it's good to smoke out the opposition," Sheinkopf said.

Abortion rights groups say they're confident the abortion proposal will be advanced at the appropriate time.

"We're certainly eager to make sure this comes forward," Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health and NARAL Pro-Choice New York, said. "We're hoping it's soon; of course, we can't speak for the governor."


Catholic group awaiting bill

The Catholic Conference, the church's lobbying arm, has called on Cuomo to produce a bill, while others say the governor should hold hearings on any proposal.

"We can't control when the governor will reveal his proposed legislation," said Jason McGuire, head of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, an evangelical-based group. "But we can say the pro-life community is coalesced in opposition to the governor's stated intentions."

Cuomo's initiative injects him as a liberal voice in a national tumult on abortion measures. So far, the spotlight has largely focused on states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas and North Dakota moving to restrict these rights.

The governor's "women's agenda" might not create controversy if not for the abortion plank -- which has met with Republican opposition. The other nine planks include equalizing pay between men and women, barring discrimination against pregnant workers and toughening laws against human trafficking.


Cuomo can be flexible

Cuomo has shown he can reverse course -- agreeing to impose higher tax rates on millionaires and allowing legislators to redraw election districts themselves. That has prompted speculation that he might separate the abortion measure from the other women's issues.

"The governor is wise insofar as he often stakes out positions as lines in the sand -- and then sort of kicks those lines and moves them," said Douglas Muzzio, a public affairs professor at Baruch College in Manhattan. Muzzio said the women's initiative will be a "test of his commitment to the [abortion] issue."

Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said: "Each plank of the Women's Equality Act is important, necessary and vital to moving New York forward."

After announcing his women's agenda in his State of the State address in January, Cuomo retreated from his initial pledge to enact the Reproductive Health Act, a broad bill drafted by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers).

Opponents said the Stewart-Cousins bill would expand late-term abortion rights. Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) declared that Republicans wouldn't support it.

Skelos, said his spokeswoman Kelly Cummings, "agrees with most New Yorkers -- including those who are pro-choice -- that extreme legislation suggested by some Senate Democrats to expand late-term abortion right up until the day of birth is completely wrong for New York State."

Skelos believes accords can be reached on the economic issues affecting women, she added.

Sen. Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), Skelos' co-leader, supports the "women's agenda."

Kerri Biche, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), said the Democrat-led chamber was looking forward to enacting a "comprehensive agenda that removes barriers to fairness and equity while protecting women's health and safety."

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