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Cuomo's Move to Protect Abortion Rights Isn't Speedy Enough, Advocates Say

By Nicole Levy | February 1, 2017 11:16am
 Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his speech at a pro-choice rally held in Albany Monday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his speech at a pro-choice rally held in Albany Monday.
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Flickr/Gov. Andrew Cuomo

NEW YORK CITY — A proposed constitutional amendment writing abortion rights established by Roe v. Wade into the New York state constitution is getting blowback from pro-abortion advocates and lawmakers who say the measure introduced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo Monday wouldn't move fast enough.

Cuomo's proposal came a day before President Donald Trump announced Judge Neil Grosuch as his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, a move that could lead to the reversal of the 1973 ruling that protects a woman's right to an abortion throughout pregnancy when her health or life are at stake, or the fetus is non-viable. 

"As they threaten this nation with a possible Supreme Court nominees who will reverse Roe v. Wade, I want them to know today ... that we’re going to protect Roe v. Wade in the State of New York," said the governor in a speech announcing the proposed amendment at a pro-choice rally in Albany Monday. "And let’s put in on the ballot and let the people decide because this is still a democracy, and New Yorkers want to protect a women’s right to choose.” 

While the governor can sign bills into law, only a majority vote by the public would ultimately ratify Cuomo's constitutional amendment.

But activists and legislators say the amendment process will take too long under the current political climate.

The system by which New York would amend its constitution is “cumbersome, lengthy and probably doomed to failure," said Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College's Marxe School of Public and International Affairs.

The first of two ways an amendment can be incorporated into the state constitution takes at least four years: two separately elected state legislatures must first vote to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot; then the majority of New Yorkers must vote on it and pass it by referendum.

The shorter of the two routes — which requires voters to first decide they want to hold a constitutional convention, elect delegates, and send those delegates to Albany, and then hold a popular vote to ratify the amendment — might reach New York voters by November 2019.

Read More: New York Prohibits Most Late-Term Abortions — But That Might Change Soon

"Ultimately a constitutional amendment would offer important protection," said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman, whose organization published a report last week that argued New York's current abortion law jeopardizes residents' physical, mental and financial well-being. "But women’s health cannot afford to sit in limbo for years as part of an amendment process."

Two and a half years is, in state Sen. Liz Krueger's opinion, "simply too long for New Yorkers to wait to have their fundamental rights enshrined in our laws."

Krueger is a co-sponsor of the Reproductive Health Act, a bill proposed before Cuomo's constitutional amendment announcement, that would update New York's 1970 abortion law that criminalizes abortion after 24 weeks a unless a woman is dying to bring it in line with Roe v. Wade. 

The political reality is that both the RHA, which was recently passed by the state Assembly, and the amendment face opposition from a Republican-controlled state Senate, which has previously blocked a chamber-wide vote on RHA. Democrats may outnumber Republicans in the Senate, but a coalition of Democrats headed by state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, called the Independent Democratic Conference, caucuses with Republicans and gives them the majority.

While Krueger's fellow bill co-sponsor Assemblywoman Deborah Glick said she appreciates Cuomo's effort to push for a constitutional convention, she added, "I’d actually prefer to see the governor working closely with the Senate to actually get Senator Klein to make [RHA] a priority for the IDC and to see it actually enacted into law this year."

Asked for comment, an IDC spokeswoman said in an email, "As the only 100 percent pro-choice conference in the Senate, the Independent Democratic Conference supports the Governor's effort."

An amendment backed by the people — at least 70 percent of whom support Roe v. Wade — holds more legal weight than legislation, Muzzio said, "but the odds are you’re never going to get the amendment, so you hope you can pass the legislation."

Of Cuomo's motivation for proposing the amendment, the political scientist said, "Cynically, he did it so we wouldn’t have to deal with the current legislation and he puts it off for two years or more. It gives him kudos for his stand, but it’s not going to happen.”

Advocates from the National Organization for Women New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health applauded Cuomo's proposal.

"A courageous and critical move," National Institute president Andrea Miller called it in a statement.

A spokeswoman for NOW New York president Sonia Ossorio said she supports both the amendment and the bill, working "in tandem."

"Anything to bolster women’s rights in the face of a president and administration that is seeking to diminish women is welcomed and needed," the spokeswoman said in an email.