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Amid a Deteriorating Landscape for Abortion Rights, a Critical Victory in New York

reproductive health act
By: Donna Lieberman Executive Director

On the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that secured the right to abortion, the nationwide picture could not look grimmer. That’s what makes Tuesday’s victory in New York, which protected and expanded abortion rights in the state through the Reproductive Health Act, so important.

Across the country, anti-abortion politicians have been eroding abortion rights in state after state. Since 2011, they have quietly passed more than 400 restrictions, creating a web of barriers to safe, respectful, and affordable abortion care. These politically motivated laws force doctors to lie to patients; require multiple, medically unnecessary appointments; and impose far more onerous restrictions on abortion providers than other health care providers, causing clinics to shut down.

Emboldened by the prospect that the Supreme Court might eviscerate or overturn Roe, some states are now trying to ban abortion outright. Take Kentucky, where we represent the sole remaining clinic in the state. Just this month, Kentucky politicians introduced a bill that would ban abortion before most women even know they’re pregnant. And Kentucky isn’t alone — legislators in many other states have introduced similar bills.

But as threats to legal abortion increase, we are championing policies that safeguard the ability of women to make our own decisions. Passage on Tuesday of the Reproductive Health Act (RHA), along with two other bills expanding contraceptive coverage and protecting employees’ reproductive decisions, makes New York the first of several states — including possibly New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont — to proactively protect abortion rights and access to reproductive care in the coming year.

With the RHA, the protections of Roe will finally be part of New York state law. This reform is critically necessary in order to preserve New Yorkers’ access to abortion if Roe falls or is severely weakened, and it also sends a message to policy-makers nationwide that we shouldn’t play politics with women’s health care.

Many people may assume that abortion rights were already well protected in New York — a solidly progressive state. But actually, New York’s law governing abortion was enacted before Roe in 1970. While it was cutting-edge at the time — New York was one of the first states to legalize abortion — it hasn’t been reformed since, making it woefully out of date and out of step with today’s medical realities and constitutional requirements.

The RHA recognizes abortion as a fundamental right and fixes several flaws in New York’s outdated abortion law. It helps ensure that women can get the health care they need throughout their pregnancy, including when their health is at risk or the fetus is not viable — in line with the protections of Roe. It takes abortion out of the criminal code and puts it where women’s health belongs, in the public health law. And it acknowledges that the medical field has changed dramatically in the past 50 years by making it clear that qualified health care professionals, like nurse practitioners and physician assistants, can provide abortion care that is within their training and scope of practice, rather than limiting the practice to licensed physicians.

The RHA, for which the New York Civil Liberties Union and its coalition partners have fought for more than a decade, will make New York a safe haven for women from New York and all over the country — a place where abortion is available and regulated according to best medical practice. It will make health care more accessible to low-income and rural New Yorkers and ensure that patients — not politicians — are able to make the informed health care decisions that are best for them and their families.

But access to abortion should not depend on where you live. The RHA should send a message to lawmakers throughout the country — that the time to protect reproductive freedom is now. 

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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Civil Liberties Union