By Jessica Bakeman
ALBANY Gov. Andrew Cuomo said an abortion bill he's working on will be different from an existing, controversial proposal, and critics are challenging the Democrat to release his plan to the public.
Cuomo announced in his State of the State speech Jan. 9 that he would push a 10-measure "Women's Equality Act," which would include a piece that codifies in state law women's abortion rights as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court. The package includes other points, including legislation enhancing pay equity, cracking down on sex trafficking and ending pregnancy discrimination.
WEB EXTRA: Watch Maryalice Demler's commentary on the Women's Equality Act in the video player above
While fielding questions on his abortion proposal Sunday night, Cuomo cautioned reporters not to refer to his bill as the Reproductive Health Act. It's not the same, he said, as the bill that has been carried unsuccessfully for several years by Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers.
Abortion opponents call the Reproductive Health Act an "abortion expansion act," claiming it would increase access to abortions, particularly in the third trimester of pregnancy. Cuomo and supporters say they're simply updating current New York statute, which is more restrictive than federal law, rendering it obsolete.
"Be careful when you give it a name, because that suggests it's likened to another bill," Cuomo said Sunday while attending a reception for the Black, Puerto-Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus. "This is going to be a separate position, and all this position does is codify the federal law. I can't say it enough."
As for how his bill varies: "I'm not going to go line by line," he said, "but to the extent some people believe that (the Reproductive Health Act) goes further than the existing law -- it would be different."
Opponents of the abortion bill -- mainly conservative groups and the Catholic church -- want to see Cuomo make his bill public so it can be vetted.
"The governor ought to put the bill out there, if he has a bill, and let people see what it is instead of this secrecy, which we've seen so much of lately," said Dennis Poust, director of communications for the state Catholic conference.
Poust said he hopes the women's rights bill won't be hastily passed through the Legislature. He pointed to the state's new gun laws, which were introduced, approved by both chambers and signed by Cuomo in less than 24 hours.
Public hearings on the bill would allow for adequate debate, said Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative policy group with Christian leadership.
"We've long talked about this process of good governance, and the governor has this mode where he throws the legislation out there, and there is little time for comment. There is little time to act," McGuire said. "And then he rams a bill through."
Poust and McGuire criticized the governor for saying now that the bill will be different, when he committed to passing "a Reproductive Health Act" in his State of the State.
Women's groups that say they are working closely with Cuomo on the legislation explained that the 10-point package is large and complex. It cannot be crafted quickly, they said.
Cuomo said Sunday he would not separate the abortion piece from the 10-point women's agenda, a move that supporters laud as a demonstration of his commitment to the issue. Pro-life groups accuse the governor of holding the other provisions "hostage."
"All ten (measures) are important, and we are negotiating that right now as one package," Cuomo said.
Tracey Brooks, CEO of the state's Family Planning Advocates, said the governor's focus is on the budget now. Meanwhile, groups such as hers, which lobbies for Planned Parenthood, are providing input on all pieces of the larger bill, not just the abortion measure.
"We have the goals, the intentions and the provisions of the Reproductive Health Act. We have nine other issues that come out of at least nine other bills if not more," Brooks said. "We are working together on a comprehensive package to address inequality for women in the state of New York."
The women's rights groups are not concerned that Cuomo's bill will be watered down.
Andrea Miller, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, said she's confident the bill's language and framework will safeguard women's abortion rights. She said abortion rights are paramount in order to ensure women's equality.
"We have been so appreciative that from the beginning the governor has recognized and articulated that a woman cannot be equal in New York if she can't protect her health and make reproductive decisions," she said.
McGuire doubts the governor can come up with bill that will be palatable to both the women's groups and Republicans. He said he doubts GOP lawmakers will vote for the bill.
Cuomo said he's in talks with lawmakers now and hopes they'll "make progress" by the end of session. The purpose of passing an abortion bill would be to guarantee New York women the rights they have now should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, he said.
"Maybe not this year, but it could happen," he said, "and if you have a state law, you're protected."