Commentary Law and Policy

Reproductive Rights in New York: Governor Cuomo’s Pink Smoke and Mirrors

Heidi L. Sieck

This is no time for smoke and mirrors to cover a shameful history of inaction in a state that was once a national safe haven for people seeking an abortion.

A Supreme Court that includes Brett Kavanaugh is almost certain to overturn Roe v. Wade and return control over abortion access to states. Hostile anti-choice legislatures have already been chipping away at our reproductive freedom, passing over 400 bills to restrict access to care within the last decade alone. Today, 58 percent of people in the United States—that’s roughly 35 million women of childbearing age—live in a state that is hostile to their reproductive health. The threat is real and the impact is massive.

With at least four states poised to automatically ban abortion outright once Roe v Wade is overturned, state elected officials have an urgent responsibility to act quickly to protect the health and wellbeing of women and trans people who need reproductive health-care services. Thankfully, many states are stepping up. In Massachusetts, lawmakers just passed the “NASTY Women Act” to protect reproductive freedom by repealing antiquated laws criminalizing abortion. In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed a measure requiring insurers who cover maternity care to also cover abortion and birth control. And in New Mexico, lawmakers say they are committed to overturning a current state law criminalizing abortion in the next legislative session.

Now, we turn to New York, where I currently live. Data for Progress’ 2018 analysis of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies survey shows that 73 percent of New Yorkers believe abortion should always be allowed—”always.” This leads us to extrapolate from voter file analysis that 80 percent to 90 percent of New Yorkers consider themselves pro-choice at some level. On that fact alone, I am appalled that reproductive health in New York is not fully protected in state law. New York should be the most progressive state for reproductive freedom, yet it is not.

Abortion is protected in a limited way by a 1970 law in the criminal code. But in 2018, women in New York still have to leave the state for certain types of abortion care, putting their health at risk. Meanwhile, Black women are 12 times more likely to die from childbirth in New York City than white women, and the rate has been increasing for years. Most importantly, I am appalled at how our governor and state legislators are responding to this very real crisis affecting millions of their constituents.

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Observing from afar, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York must look like the most pro-choice, feminist politician in the United States. In the last two months, he held five pro-choice rallies. He launched a six-figure ad campaign touting his record on “women’s rights” and another campaign attacking anti-choice fake clinics, commonly known as crisis pregnancy centers. His staff has penned multiple op-eds and issued numerous statements about his support for women and reproductive rights, while he awkwardly gives speeches declaring, “God told me I was a feminist when he gave me three daughters.” Women throughout New York shared a collective cringe.

The governor has offered up an impressive display of pro-choice self-promotion—wrapping himself in pink scarves and investing in a proliferation of pink banners. As 2020 presidential hopefuls vie to outshine each other’s progressive credentials, it’s not hard to understand the governor’s motivations—he wants to be re-elected for a third term and then likely launch a presidential run. He knows very well that he cannot achieve either without women voting for him. But climbing to the top of the Democratic ticket in 2020 will take more than empty words and promises.

Cuomo has been governor for eight years. In that time, he hasn’t just ignored our reproductive freedom—he manipulated the state senate and, more infuriatingly, the reproductive rights community, to create an aura of pro-choice support around him while actively blocking legislation that could strengthen New York’s reproductive health protections.

New York’s constitution never actually affirmed the right to an abortion—so for the past decade, reproductive rights advocates have urged state legislators to pass the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) and codify Roe v. Wade into state law. And with a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, in a state with a hyper-majority of Democratic voters like New York, this legislation shouldn’t be a hard push through. But every year, it has failed to pass. Cuomo carefully times his calls to pass this legislation when the senate is either out of session or when he has no intention of putting it on the table during his “four men in a room” negotiations. He even said he would act on a constitutional amendment—a move that diverts attention from the RHA toward a mythical three-year constitutional amendment process that he has yet to move forward.

And there’s a simple reason why:

For eight years, Cuomo has actively worked to keep Republicans in power in the state senate, helping him maintain an iron grip on power in Albany and control over the state legislature.

He refuses to campaign for state senate Democrats to establish a Democratic majority—even bragging about how little he did to help. He encouraged a group of eight Democratic state senators (called the Independent Democratic Conference) to caucus with the Republicans, even when Democrats were in a numerical minority. And this session he pulled his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, from the senate floor in June when she could have cast the deciding vote to pass the Reproductive Health Act.

Cuomo has all the power he needs. What he wants done, gets done.

Every election year, Cuomo campaigns and stumps and pontificates as if he is an advocate for reproductive freedom who simply can’t get the senate to vote on the legislation. In 2014, he rode around New York on a pink bus that bore a striking resemblance to a tampon box, purporting to fight for the RHA and Women’s Equality. Now, he’s holding press conference after press conference demanding state legislators pass the RHA (never mind that the legislative session ended in June—and his pink press parade started in July). Most troubling is that, according to a recent tweet from a New York Times reporter, Planned Parenthood of the Empire State and NOW-NY Chapter each received $50,000 checks from the governor’s campaign in the same month the organizations endorsed him. To many observers, that’s unprecedented at best and a blatant act of buying an endorsement at worst.

Unfortunately, the governor’s enthusiasm for convincing voters of his pro-choice values is far stronger than his enthusiasm for actually passing the RHA. As soon as an election passes, Cuomo always goes right back to keeping Republicans in power—again ensuring that the legislation will never make it to the senate floor for a vote.

New Yorkers, and hopefully all U.S. residents, are starting to see the reality of his double-dealing. This is no time for smoke and mirrors to cover a shameful history of inaction in a state that was once a national safe haven for people seeking an abortion.

We live at a time where bad news is so frequent, even the imminent end to Roe v. Wade can get lost in a news cycle. We must remind ourselves every single day: Kavanaugh’s likely appointment to the Supreme Court will mean the end of reproductive freedom. Let’s remind our governors and state representatives every single day: They are now responsible for protecting our reproductive rights. This is a true crisis, and we need real pro-choice leadership on the state level. Pink signs and empty rhetoric are not going to cut it.

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