New York’s arcane abortion law must be updated

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As President Donald Trump was taking office in January and vowing to roll back reproductive rights, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a dramatic promise to women across his state. He vowed to “protect Roe v Wade in the state of New York.” 

Yet six months later, on the last day of Albany’s legislative session, the state Senate has yet to take up a bill that could protect abortion rights for New Yorkers. The Reproductive Health Act would enshrine the right to choose abortion as originally recognized in Roe v. Wade in New York state law, and would protect women and abortion providers by treating abortion as health care, not a criminal act.

The Assembly passed the bill in January. If Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan lets this session end without taking this bill up, he could put millions of women at risk, including 500,000 on Long Island alone. The fact is, New York has one of the most arcane abortion laws in the country on its books.  

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A troubling and antiquated gap in our current law prohibits providing abortion care to a woman for health reasons at any time during pregnancy. That means women facing serious health complications later in pregnancy are still forced to leave New York state – at great financial expense – to get the care they need. That is what happened to Erika Christensen, who, at 30 weeks pregnant, discovered that her fetus suffered from a fatal anomaly, forcing her to fly to Colorado to have the abortion that New York law made impossible to get here at home. And it’s happened to scores of other women in similar positions. 

Another provision in our current law treats abortion as a crime, not as a matter of health. This is a critically important distinction at this moment.

Proposals on the federal level to defund Planned Parenthood, reverse free contraception coverage and deny federal family planning funds to facilities that also provide abortions impact the ability of women, particularly those from marginalized communities, to afford and find the care they need. It’s true in red states, in blue states and in the Empire State. 

And when women are denied care, we know what happens: they don’t stop getting abortions; they do start taking matters into their own hands. 

In Texas, for example, where more than half the clinics have closed due to anti-abortion laws, as many as 240,000 women report having tried, at some point, to self-administer an abortion, according to a University of Texas study released in 2015. This isn't limited to Texas. A 2014 study found that at least two percent of women nationwide who were seeking abortion care at a medical facility had, at some point, taken something to try to end their own pregnancies.

Under current state law, if a woman in New York were to attempt to end her own pregnancy, she could face prosecution and even jail. 

At least five women in New York have been criminally charged with self-administering abortion, the most recent in 2011, and that number could indeed rise as actions by politicians in Washington over the past few months threaten to undermine our access to care. 

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With the increased attacks on access to abortion care, and increased access to information about how to safely end a pregnancy using medication abortion, we have a higher likelihood of more New York women taking advantage of these self-administered methods – and risking jail. 

This is the future Donald Trump described when he said on the campaign trail that women should face “some sort of punishment” if they have an abortion if the procedure is outlawed. The comment was widely viewed as “out of touch” by even the most ardent anti-abortion activists. Jeanne Mancini, the president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund said at the time, “No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion.” 

Yet New York State would. And has. 

Passing the Reproductive Health Act in Albany today would remove that threat. 

For New York to live up to the promise the governor made in January and New Yorkers’ expectation that their rights will always be protected here, state senators need to bring the Reproductive Health Act to the floor for a vote. With Washington moving to reduce access to abortion at a rapid clip, the Reproductive Health Act becomes more critical to the health and safety of New York women with each passing day. 

Andrea Miller is the president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH).