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NY lawmakers endorse proposed abortion rights amendment

The proposed amendment, which would also preserve gender expression rights, passed in the Senate on Friday by a 49-14 vote. The Assembly approved it 98-43.

ALBANY, N.Y. — New York lawmakers took the first step Friday toward amending the state constitution to enshrine abortion rights following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Both houses of the Democrat-controlled Legislature approved a resolution to begin the process of passing the amendment, which would expand the state constitution’s Equal Protection Amendment by banning discrimination based on “pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes and reproductive healthcare and autonomy.”

“This is a massive step forward for our state while others move backwards, and an important stance against the Supreme Court’s attacks on our rights,” Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, said in a statement.

The proposed amendment, which would also preserve gender expression rights, passed in the Senate on Friday by a 49-14 vote. The Assembly approved it 98-43. Under the state's amendment process, lawmakers would have to pass it again during next year's session to send it to voters in a statewide referendum.

"It has to pass through two separately elected legislatures... after you get through those steps it would go on the ballot in the next November election," said Shawn Donahue a Clinical Assistant Political Science Professor at the University at Buffalo.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said the measure would “protect reproductive health in New York for generations to come” and assuage the fears of residents concerned about what might happen next on abortion at the federal level.

“They’re scared, and they’re looking to us for leadership,” the Democratic governor said at a press conference.

State law currently allows abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy, but abortion rights supporters say they want a guarantee that a future legislature won’t be able to pass more abortion restrictions.

Donahue said he believed the soonest the legislation could be put to a referendum is November 2023 but added that waiting until 2024 could result in a better turnout.

"It would be a Presidential turnout, rather than an off-year turnout so that's something to consider but I think given the charged nature I don't think turnout would be an issue on either side of this," Donahue said.

New York is taking a different approach from California, where voters will decide whether to amend their constitution to add the “fundamental right to choose to bear a child or to choose and to obtain an abortion.”

But Katharine Bodde, New York Civil Liberties Union assistant policy director, has said New York's approach will hold up better in court and prohibit more kinds of discrimination against pregnant people.

And New York will also add ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to the state's Equal Protection Amendment. Right now, the state constitution currently prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, creed or religion.”

Backers say the intent would also be to create legal grounds for barring the government from trampling on transgender rights, among other things.

Efforts to add constitutional protections against sex discrimination have failed for years in New York and elsewhere amid opposition from conservatives.

Some Republican lawmakers in the state senate and assembly expressed concerns about certain religious views on abortion that may conflict with the amendment, although religion is already a protected class in the state constitution. A compromise was struck to ensure religion and the potential additions of sexual identity etc. would be on equal footing.

Capitol Region Assemblymember Mary Beth Walsh said she felt the potential amendment would be redundant under New York's existing Human Rights Law and could open the state up to future litigation.

"I think that legislation is in its nature more flexible but once it's enshrined in the state constitution it's not as subject to change and that could be seen depending on your point of view as a positive or a negative," said Walsh Friday.

Hochul, a Democrat running for her first full term as governor in November, has vowed in campaign ads to protect the right to abortion in the state constitution.

New York's amendment would protect affirmative action programs, and also make clear that its protections do not interfere with, limit, or deny other people's civil rights.

The leaders of an anti-abortion Catholic group have been urging lawmakers to oppose the amendment, partly over concerns that health care workers who, for religious reasons, don’t want to provide abortions or gender transition care.

Health care workers with religious concerns are already somewhat protected under federal and state law, but Catholic Conference Executive Director Dennis Poust said those protections aren’t enough.

Kristen Curran, director of government relations for the New York State Catholic Conference, said the state should focus on helping women and families rather than promoting abortion.

“Unfortunately, this bill solidifies the message that New York has been sending women for some time now: Abortion is positive, empowering, and the key to success,” Curran said in a statement. “This couldn’t be further from the truth.”

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