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The Empire

Abortion Rights Groups Seek Cuomo's Support

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Abortion rights advocates promoting the Reproductive Health Act say they are counting on Governor Andrew Cuomo to help the bill become law this year.

The Reproductive Health Act, first introduced by former Governor Eliot Spitzer, would set in state law the right to accept or refuse contraception and the right to have a late-term abortion, if a doctor determines that the health of the mother is at risk. It was originally proposed as a clean up and expansion of New York’s original, first-in-the-nation 1970 law legalizing abortion.  Supporters say it would  guarantee a number of reproductive rights for women in New York should the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturn Roe v. Wade.

The bill faces its stiffest challenge from the Republican controlled state Senate, where it has been creeping slowly through the committee process and is currently sitting with the Rules committee.  Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the bill sponsor, told a group of abortion rights lobbyists from NARAL that she plans to circulate what’s called a petition for chamber consideration, which would force action on the Senate floor if 38 Senators sign on to the petition.  But Governor Cuomo’s backing is seen as crucial.

NARAL’s Andrea Miller told the crowd of mostly women lobbyists that with the national debate once again raging over women’s access to contraception and abortion, including a proposed law in Arizona that would declare that life begins at ovulation, it’s important that state leaders pass the act this year.

“New York needs to send a powerful message that at least one state is willing and able to stand strong and stand up for women’s health and rights,” said Miller to applause.

Governor Cuomo reaffirmed his support for the Reproductive Health Act in his State of the State message. But when he was asked about the issue on a radio show hosted by the New York Post’s Fred Dicker, Cuomo hesitated, saying he “didn’t know” if he’d taken a public position on the bill.

The governor spoke just before a meeting with New York Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan , an opponent of the bill.

Later, Cuomo clarified his stance in an interview with public radio.

“I fully support the Reproductive Health Act,” Cuomo said. “I’ve been a long supporter of pro-choice initiatives going way, way back, and I always will be.”

Cuomo said he “disagrees” with Cardinal Dolan about choice issues, but tries to focus, instead, on what the two have in common.   

Cardinal Dolan, speaking after his meeting with Cuomo in mid March, said he told the governor that he was “worried” about the Reproductive Health Act.

“We feel a high responsibility to speak up for the baby in the womb,” said Dolan, who added the act seems to be “predicated on almost a paranoia that the abortion license is being restrained.”

“We kind of wish it were, and it’s not,” Dolan said. “If anything, we keep seeing it being expanded.”

The governor was in Albany Tuesday, but did not address the advocates. He did send a deputy secretary of civil rights, Alphonso David, to speak instead. David thanked the group for their hard work and enthusiasm.

“It’s our hope that as we proceed we will actually see it come to fruition,” David said.

NARAL’s Miller says she takes the governor at his word.

“There’s no question in our minds that the governor supports this act,” said Miller. She added it’s now “incumbent” upon her group and other abortion rights advocates to demonstrate the depth of the support.  She noted polls show three-quarters of New Yorkers support the bill, including 70 percent of Catholics.

Neither Miller nor any of the other pro-choice lobbyists had meetings scheduled with Cuomo, though she hopes to get one soon and that the governor will lend his political capital to the issue.

“We need him on this,” Miller said.

In the meantime, the groups hope to convince some Republicans, who are in the majority in the State Senate, to agree to vote for the bill. The Democratic dominated Assembly likely has the votes for the act to pass.

Miller said some GOP Senators have told her privately that they would support the bill, but do not want to come out publicly until they are assured that a majority of the senators will vote yes.

Brigid Bergin contributed reporting