NARAL, Clergy for Choice continue push for action on the Reproductive Health Act
The Reproductive Health Act received a push from supporters last week, with pro-choice advocates lobbying their legislators to back the bill.
NARAL Pro-Choice New York held its annual lobby day April 17, hoping to sway legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to prioritize the Reproductive Health Act in the remaining time of this legislative session.
The Reproductive Health Act, sponsored by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-Greenwich Village, would guarantee women the ability to make personal, private health care decisions, including the right to choose or refuse contraception and access to abortion care. The bill also treats regulation of abortion as a public health and medical issue instead of a criminal issue in state laws.
“We are here to make sure Albany takes notice, to urge our elected officials to take seriously and to take action to safeguard women’s reproductive rights and health,” said Andrea Miller, president of NARAL Pro-Choice New York. “New York needs to send a powerful message that at least one state is willing and able to stand strong and stand up for women’s health and rights.”
Miller said it is time to “push back” against the nation’s “extreme anti-choice agenda.”
“There, as you know, has been an unprecedented onslaught across the country that truly threatens to set us back decades,” she said. “New York has a truly unique opportunity to say loudly and clearly ‘no way, not so fast, not on our watch.'”
Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, a founding co-chair of the New York State Bipartisan Legislative Pro-Choice Caucus said the co-founders of the caucus “came together saying ‘Oh my God, look what’s going on in the rest of the country. The crazies are going to try to storm Albany.'”
According to Krueger, “when they get here, they’re going to discover there is a very strong coalition of advocates and legislators saying ‘no way, walk on by, you are not passing your god-awful, anti-reproductive health, anti-women legislation.”
Krueger applauded the advocates’ efforts. “Sometimes,” she said, “you have to stand up to stop bad things from happening, at the same time as you push to make sure important, good things are happening.”
Stewart-Cousins, a co-chair of the caucus, asked for a show of hands: those who remember a time before women had a choice regarding reproductive health and then those who have always had a choice.
“You’re representing people who’ve always had it this way and don’t ever think it will be different,” Stewart-Cousins said. “So we are fighting so that we don’t go back to the days where the other half of the room raise their hand and say ‘you know what, I know what it was to watch women suffer, to watch people exploit women, kill them, take money, resources – drain them because there was no choice to terminate a pregnancy.'”
The Reproductive Health Act is one of more than 300 Democrat-sponsored bills the Senate Majority moved from their respective committees last month, placing them all in the Rules Committee. In order to see a vote, the Chair of the Rules Committee, Sen. Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, needs to put it on the legislative agenda. Stewart-Cousins hopes to expedite the process by collecting 38 signatures from her Senate colleagues, forcing a vote on the issue.
“Remember,” she told the crowd, “we are on the right side of this issue. Remember that.”
Newly-elected Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, said the hardest task the activists face is convincing legislators to support the bill. “It does not matter what they personally think about the rightness or wrongness so much as it is a personal right that belongs to their constituents who they represent regardless of their personal views,” she said.
Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro, the third co-chair of the caucus, said she has fought this fight before. “I was one of those women who fought the fight for women’s rights. I don’t want to fight it again. And I don’t think the other half who haven’t fought it should have to fight it. And so, as a unit, we need to do something to make change.”
According to Sayward, her pro-choice stance is consistent with her membership in the Republican Party. “We need to make sure that we get back to the values that I joined the party for, which is everybody should have their rights to government and much more freedoms,” Sayward said.
“I am a Republican, I will die a Republican and I’m not going away,” she said, before adding: “Pro-choice Republican.”
In addition to being a member of the Legislature, Assemblyman Joel Miller, R-Poughkeepsie, also works as a Planned Parenthood escort.
“These people who picket, they haven’t caught on. This country is supposed to have a separation of church and state,” Miller said. “If you have a government that picks one tenet of one religion and decides to impose that on individuals that do not believe that, you have a government religion and it has no place in this country.”
“For some people, the world is flat, the sun still revolves around us, there is no gravity and everything is wonderful. Ignorance is just an incredible thing,” Miller said.
Dr. Renee Mestad, a board certified OB/GYN and abortion provider, says the portrayal of her and her colleagues is inaccurate. “The reason I put out here that I am a board certified OB/GYN and abortion provider is that the anti-choice community has portrayed those of us that perform abortion as incompetent, untrained, unskilled physicians who can’t get a job anywhere else. We’re in it for the money, we’re in it for the cash and we’re sneaky little devils who hide in the shadows,” said Mestad.
According to Mestad, laws regulating women’s health should be based on medicine, not ideology. “Such legislation makes physicians follow standards that are not consistent with health care practices. They make us lie to our patients,” she said.
“Recently, the only people who seem to be showing up are the noisy, anti-choice people. They’re the squeaky wheel. They’re the ones getting the oil,” Mestad said. “We aren’t saying enough. We aren’t being loud enough. We need to start making more noise, we need to shout them out.”
Last Wednesday, Concerned Clergy for Choice lobbied legislators to support the Reproductive Health Act.
Rabbi Dennis Ross, director of Concerned Clergy for Choice, a multi-faith network of more than 1,000 clergy advocates, said the Reproductive Health Act protects religious liberty of New Yorkers to a chorus of “Amen!” from religious leaders.
“We know that when a woman is convinced that a pregnancy is not right for her, she deserves good medical care and spiritual support not a judgmental sermon,” said Ross. “Some clergy are using their religious teachings as an excuse to deny health care to others and we want everyone to know that they do not speak for us.”
Ross said there is a gap in New York’s laws regarding women’s health. “When a woman experiences a serious complication with her pregnancy she may well be forced to choose between protecting her health or continuing a very wanted, but risky pregnancy. When this happens late in pregnancy, New York law compounds the tragedy, making it a potential crime to provide an abortion to protect her health,” he said. The Reproductive Health Act will ensure that she can get safe, legal abortion care if that’s what she decides she needs consistent with her faith, her spiritual wishes and her religious leader’s recommendation. This is all about religious liberty, because the Reproductive Health Act helps her honor the teachings of her faith.”
Sarah Hutchinson, director of domestic programs of Catholics for Choice, said the vast majority of Catholics disagree with the Catholic hierarchy on matters of sexuality, reproductive health and the role of religion in public policy.
“There are 271 active U.S. Bishops. There are 68 million Catholics in the United States and 7.2 million here in New York state. We are the church,” she said. “The large majority of Catholics support public policies like this one: legislation that allows us to make conscience-based decisions about our health and the health of our families.”
Hutchinson said Catholic tradition is steeped in advocacy and respect for religious pluralism. “Religious freedom has been in the news lately, but as we reflect on it, we need to remember that it is expansive rather than a restrictive idea,” Hutchinson said. “It has two sides: freedom of religion and freedom from religion. It is not about telling people what they can and cannot believe or practice, but rather respecting an individual’s right to follow his or her own conscience, religious belief and practice.”
The Reproductive Health Act is in the Assembly Health Committee and the Senate Rules Committee.
This article was originally published in the Legislative Gazette.