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Abortion rights: Why New York is swimming against the national tide

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has come under fire for proposing a bill relaxing abortion controls even as many other states push restrictions. His office says the bill aims to strengthen Roe v. Wade.

Former Gov. George Pataki, the Roman Catholic Church, and now Fox News host Bill O’Reilly have joined a growing chorus of voices blasting New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for championing an abortion bill that would provide access to late-term abortions if a woman’s health is endangered or the fetus is not viable.

The latest opponent to join the ring, Mr. O’Reilly, calledGovernor Cuomo “barbaric” last Thursday on theGlenn Beck show and said he wants “to legalize late-term abortion for any reason … a migraine headache, a hang nail, a panic attack.”

It’s no surprise the governor’s proposed Reproductive Health Act is gaining so much attention. The chorus of protests began after Cuomo outlined the proposed legislation in his January State of the State address, as part of a broader package of women’s rights initiatives. One of the country’s most liberal pieces of abortion legislation, the bill goes against the national tide, attempting to relax abortion controls at a time when many other states are seeking restrictions.

Last year 19 states enacted 43 provisions restricting abortion access, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion advocacy and research group. Not one measure was adopted to expand abortion access. In 2011, a record-breaking 92 abortion restrictions were enacted.

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“Pretty much all of the energy, all of the momentum, has been to restrict abortion, which makes what could potentially happen in New York so interesting,” Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, told The New York Times. “There’s no other state that’s even contemplating this right now.”

Cuomo’s office has said his Reproductive Health Act is an effort to reinforce Roe v. Wade to protect the reproductive rights of women should the Supreme Court overturn the court’s landmark abortion ruling.

“The governor would simply realign our outdated state laws to federal law and existing state practice,” said Cuomo’s counsel, Mylan Denerstein, in an Op-Ed. “The Supreme Court could always change and we want to protect a woman’s current right to choose.”

Cuomo’s office has said the legislation would not expand state laws beyond federal standards. New York State’s existing law, which was passed in 1970, currently allows abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy only if a woman’s life is at risk, while federal law allows late-term abortions to protect a woman’s health even if her life is not in danger.

The bill — one plank of a 10-part Women’s Equality Act that would also seek to install equal pay, anti-trafficking and anti-discrimination legislation would allow licensed health-care practitioners, not just physicians, to perform abortions. It would also remove abortion from the state’s penal law and enter it into public health law.

Opponents, led by O’Reilly, have declared war on Cuomo’s proposal, saying it would be a radical expansion of abortion laws.

“Andrew Cuomo is barbaric. He’s just barbaric,” O’Reilly said on the Glenn Beck show. “It’s so barbaric that people should be rising up, but you’re not going to see it because we’re too busy on our video games. We can’t pull ourselves away.”

Later, on his own Fox News show, the conservative TV host said, “He’s behind a proposed new law that would allow abortions in New York state to be performed at any time for pretty much any reason. Cuomo wants to decriminalize all abortion activity.… I do not want my country to be a place of barbarism, and I will fight against that!”

Taking another dig at Cuomo, O’Reilly added “the fact that he says he’s Roman Catholic is just staggering,” and “if there is indeed a judgment day, he better bring a good lawyer.”

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Cuomo’s Republican predecessor, former Governor Pataki, also expressed disapproval, saying the proposal amounts to “partial birth abortion.”

“It is the wrong thing to do and I hope that the legislature in its wisdom takes a hard look at this and decides that New York should not,” Pataki told conservative website Newsmax.

Even the Roman Catholic Church has weighed in.

“I am hard pressed to think of a piece of legislation that is less needed or more harmful than this one,” Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, said in a letter to Cuomo in January.

In a Jan. 24 Catholic New York column, he added, referring to Albany lawmakers, “It’s as though, in their minds, our state motto, ‘Excelsior’ (‘Ever Upward’), applies to the abortion rate.”

Cuomo’s office is fighting back, calling opponents’ claims “wildly false misinformation,” and insisting that the bill is not an expansion or radical change to existing law.

“The statements made by the opposition are outrageous and disingenuous,” Mr. Denerstein wrote in the Op-Ed. “The governor’s position is to purely codify existing federal law. To be clear, there would be no change whatsoever in law and practice now existing in the state of New York.”

The battle is just beginning for Cuomo’s bill, which to become law, must be passed by a split state legislature, including a Democratically-controlled House and a Senate dominated by a coalition of Republicans.