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New York, with a newly empowered Democratic legislature, legalized late-term abortion on Tuesday and removed criminal penalties for botched abortions or other violence that leads to an in utero baby’s death. The sweeping law would remove the state’s ability to prosecute a Kermit Gosnell–type offender or a person who kills a child in utero through domestic abuse, for example.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, was not bashful about putting his signature to the new abortion law, wearing a pink tie, cracking jokes about how many years it took to pass the law, and ordering the World Trade Center to be lit in pink in celebration.
Meanwhile, the Catholic church next to Cuomo’s governor’s mansion tolled its bells in mourning for the babies’ lives that would be lost and “for the women of our state who are made less safe under this law.”
The New York State Catholic Conference and the evangelical group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms have lobbied against the bill for 12 years, sometimes seeing its defeat by the margin of one vote. We followed the lobbyists around Albany back in 2014 when they helped defeat the measure during that legislative session.
The Catholic conference made the vote personal in its statement after the bill’s passage on Tuesday night:
“Many of the state Senators and Assembly Members who voted for this abortion expansion are mothers themselves, who felt their child toss, turn and kick in their womb, and delighted in the progress of their pregnancy. Many others, as well as our governor, are fathers, who held their partner’s hand as they viewed the ultrasound videos, watched their child squirm and rejoiced at the first sound of a heartbeat. Many of these same officials were themselves born into less-than-perfect conditions—poverty, health problems, disabilities, broken families. All overcame these issues to rise to leadership in our state, because their parents chose life for them.”
The fight has focused on the New York Senate, where until recently Republicans held power with a coalition of breakaway Democrats. Now Democrats have full control, and Cuomo had promised to make the bill a priority in his gubernatorial primary where he faced pressure from the far left. Opposition to the legislation was almost entirely along party lines: Every Senate Republican voted against the bill (even though some of those Republicans describe themselves as “pro-choice”), along with two Democrats.
“So heartbroken today,” said Kathleen Gallagher, a lobbyist for the New York State Catholic Conference who had worked on blocking this measure for 12 years. But she added: “It gives me great comfort to know that over those 12 years we have undoubtedly saved some human lives and spared some mothers from pain and heartache.”
The new law, called the Reproductive Health Act, includes these measures:
• The legalization of abortion after 24 weeks. The law stipulates that third-trimester abortions should only take place for the health of the mother, a broad definition under Supreme Court precedent that applies to almost anything, including emotional health. New York’s previous law criminalized abortion after 24 weeks.
• The legalization of abortions performed by health practitioners other than doctors.
• The removal of abortion entirely from the criminal code. If a health practitioner botched an abortion or injured a woman, he or she would be held liable under the health law rather than the criminal code. A second-degree abortion, where an abortion is performed without the mother’s consent, is removed from the criminal code. That also means that if an abusive man assaulted his pregnant spouse, causing the death of the baby, he would only be held liable for the violence to the mother. Under previous law, someone who murdered a pregnant woman faced homicide charges for both the mother and the baby, which is no longer the case.
• A medical examiner is no longer allowed to investigate a death caused by “suspected criminal abortion.”
• The law defines abortion as a “right,” whereas before it was merely legal in New York.
Much of the news coverage described the law as “codifying Roe v. Wade,” a talking point from pro-abortion groups. Those groups had raised the specter of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe as impetus to pass the bill. But New York legalized abortion in 1970, so it would still be legal in the state if the Supreme Court overturned Roe. This new law goes further by enshrining abortion as a “right.”