NY Blog 3

Celebrating a Win for Advocacy in New York State

by Ronnie Pawelko

Before I came to Bolder Advocacy to work with nonprofits to help them understand the rules and laws that apply to their advocacy, I spent almost 20 years as a reproductive rights advocate in the state of New York. On the anniversary of Roe v Wade, I traveled from Washington, D.C. to Albany, New York to witness the passage of the Reproductive Health Act (RHA). I have worked on many pieces of reproductive-health related legislation, but I see RHA as my most significant work.

This is a view of the icy Hudson River on the train from New York City to Albany.

I was one of the attorneys who worked to draft the original version of RHA more than a decade ago. The version that was passed and signed into law last week is nearly identical to the draft that I had worked on with the input of many other advocates, including those from the New York Civil Liberties Union, National Institute for Reproductive Health, Planned Parenthood and numerous other organizations and individuals.  Importantly, the new law codifies the right to abortion, as well as contraception, in the public health laws, not the criminal code. It ensures that advanced practice clinicians, when acting within their scope of practice, can offer abortion care. And importantly, the statutory language of the bill is gender neutral, protecting the right of all individuals to make fundamental decisions about their reproductive health care. The bill text can be found here.

I had an assigned seat at the bill signing!

RHA updates the state’s 1970 abortion statute to bring it into alignment with the protections in the Roe decision. When New York passed its abortion law in 1970 it did not include an exception to allow for abortion after 24 weeks to protect a patient’s health. Since 1973, the state has relied on the health protections in the Roe v Wade decision, but with the shift in the federal courts that we have seen after two years of Trump nominees, that was no longer an acceptable solution. As we know, President Trump vowed to appoint judges who would overturn the Roe decision, so relying on Roe to protect the health and rights of New York women was no longer a reasonable option for a progressive state.  We believed New Yorkers should be protected by a law that met the constitutional requirements of the landmark Roe decision, and preserved those rights in New York, should the Supreme Court, with its two Trump-appointed judges, rule to limit abortion rights.

From the Senate gallery, right after the bill passed. Sarah Weddington is at the edge of the floor, to the left.

The passage of this bill is an example of how sustained advocacy can create momentum and support for an organization’s key priorities. For more than a decade, advocates came to Albany to urge legislators to update the state’s law, but efforts were blocked by a Republican-controlled Senate that refused to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Finally, frustrated by years of deadlock on many issues, New York voters elected a Democratic majority to the State Senate, allowing long-stalled bills, including the RHA, to pass.

RHA is signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo with Sarah Weddington, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul looking on.

The day the bill passed, January 22, 2019, was the culmination of the work of literally thousands of advocates who educated the public and lobbied legislators about the importance of passing this bill. Advocates packed the Assembly and Senate galleries to observe as the bill was debated and passed.  Sarah Weddington, the attorney who argued the Roe case before the U.S. Supreme Court, watched from the Senate floor as the bill was passed.

At the Governor’s mansion discussing RHA with Governor Cuomo and Kelli Owens, Director of Women’s Affairs at New York State Governor’s Offices.

After the bill had passed in both houses, Governor Andrew Cuomo wasted no time in signing it into law in a room packed with legislative sponsors and advocates. We all then  headed to the Governor’s Mansion for a reception and celebration of all the work that went into this victory.

Without advocacy, this victory would not have happened. January 22 was a day to celebrate the efforts and dedication of countless advocates. Advocacy works!