Abortion Rights Supporters Squabble Over Bill

February 21, 2010

The New York Times - City Room | Nicholas Confessore

ALBANY — For years, lawmakers in New York have been trying to pass legislation that would protect existing abortion rights by codifying the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which guarantees rights broader than the laws still on New York’s books.

The legislation, never a winner when Republicans controlled the State Senate, has been the top priority of abortion rights groups since Democrats took control of the chamber last year.

But as Albany’s legislative session draws to a close, a split is emerging between the abortion-rights group Naral Pro-Choice New York and the Senate Democrats, who have not yet scheduled the bill for a vote on the floor.

Under current state law — overriden by the 1973 Supreme Court decision but still on the books — women in New York can have a late-term abortion only if their life is in immediate danger. The new bill would add to that an exception for a woman’s health, as currently permitted under Roe. 

Advocates say the legislation would clear up confusion that exists among some health care providers while guaranteeing abortion rights if the Supreme Court reverses its decision in the future.

After weeks of trying to whip up the 32 votes needed for passage, Naral has asked for an immediate up-or-down vote on the bill — and let the chips fall where they may. 

“Our feeling is that going into an election year, on an issue that is as fundamental as women’s reproductive rights, voters need to know where their legislator stands,” said Kelli M. Conlin, the group’s president. 

The advocates are motivated, in part, by the Senate Democrats’ willingness to bring to a vote other bills where the margin of support was uncertain, including a bill supported by gun control advocates that went to the floor last week, only to be pulled midvote when it seemed likely to fail.

“We think we have the votes,” Ms. Conlin said. “We feel good about getting some Republican votes. We’re just asking for the Democratic leadership to put it to a vote, as they have on other issues this year.”

But that stance is at odds with other reproductive rights advocates working on the issue, such as the Family Planning Advocates of New York State, which wants more time to lobby lawmakers, especially the Republicans needed to push the bill over the top. (At least two of the chamber’s 32 Democrats have said they will vote against it.) The bill’s Senate sponsor, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat, has the same view. 

“The bill hasn’t come on the floor because it doesn’t have the votes to pass,” Senator Stewart-Cousins said. “When the advocates came to me, they had about 20 Democrats. I spoke to my Democratic colleagues, and I got 26 sponsors on the bill. We just need the votes. I think it is really too important to put a bill out there, again, that for whatever the reason, fails.”

Tracey Brooks, the president of Family Planning Advocates of New York State, said she also wanted to see an up-or-down vote before the end of session. But Ms. Brooks said that her group, a coalition of dozens of health care providers and civic and religious groups, was waiting before asking for a floor vote.

“Family Planning Advocates is not asking for the bill to be moved because we’re not done with the work we need to do to get it to the floor,” Ms. Brooks said. “We are confident we will pass it this year.”

Ms. Brooks added: “There are other advocates who show up in town once in a while. We’re the ones who are there five days a week. When we walk into the leadership and ask for the bill to move, the bill will move. It’s just not there yet.” 

One reason for the difference? Naral is in some respects the most politically oriented of the state’s abortion-rights groups: The group and its affiliated political action committee spent roughly $800,000 during the last election cycle, while its endorsement of a candidate functions as seal of approval for an important bloc of wealthy female donors based in New York City. The group is thus eager to get lawmakers on the record, especially any Republicans who have privately pledged their support for the bill.

“I’d like to know where our Republicans stand,” Ms. Conlin said. “I don’t want to work against Republicans who are for this bill.”

But Senate Democrats have other concerns. Last year’s failure to pass a bill legalizing same-sex marriage — after votes promised by gay-marriage advocates failed to materialize — still sears them. 

This year, they say, Republicans have previously offered votes in private and then left Democrats hanging on the floor, embarrassing the party and its Senate leader, John L. Sampon, a Brooklyn Democrat. They also fear that a failure on the abortion bill, known as the Reproductive Health Act, could sap political momentum for abortion rights. (The matching Assembly bill is considered a much easier lift because Democrats hold a much wider majority there, but it has never passed that chamber before, either.)

“The advocates say, get people on the record,” Ms. Stewart-Cousins said. “And maybe that’s what advocates do. I’m a legislator. I’m trying to pass the bill.”