On the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, amid a landscape in which the fate of abortion rights becomes increasingly uncertain, a nearly decade-long effort to amend an archaic New York state law came one major step closer to fruition. The New York State Senate voted Tuesday to pass the Reproductive Health Act, amending a law that effectively criminalizes self-managed abortions and abortions performed after 24 weeks. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who urged the legislature to pass the bill in early 2019, is expected to sign the bill into law. Once enacted, residents will no longer have to flee like criminals to obtain essential reproductive healthcare. Furthermore, the law will protect abortion “regardless of what happens with the Supreme Court and the future of Roe v. Wade,” Andrea Miller, President of National Institute for Reproductive Health, told Jezebel.
New York became a leader in abortion rights in 1970, when the state updated its criminal code to exclude “justifiable abortions”—making exceptions for abortions within 24 weeks of a woman’s pregnancy, or those required to save the patient’s life—from punishment. But after Roe v. Wade deemed abortion into a constitutionally-protected right, New York’s law quickly became regressive. As a result, New York is one of only seven states that directly criminalizes self-managed abortions. “It’s really important to remove these outmoded criminal statues,” Miller said, especially “when we’re facing a hostile Supreme court, a hostile federal administration, and at least half the states being hostile to women’s reproductive freedom.”
The Reproductive Health Act accomplishes three major things: First, it removes abortion (including self-managed abortion) from the penal code, ensuring the procedure is regulated and protected as a healthcare right. Second, the bill removes a physician-only clause that prohibits other qualified providers, like midwives, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants, to administer the procedure. “We’re all super hopeful that that will help us get access in places in New York where access is currently limited because we have the opportunity to train more providers,” said Anne Davis, Consulting Medical Director at Physicians for Reproductive Health. “We always need more providers, especially in places where there may not be an obstetrics gynecologist or another type of doctor who is trained.”
Lastly, the bill allows abortions post-24 weeks for patients who are carrying an unviable fetus or when considered medically necessary by an abortion provider. “Our abortion laws, once groundbreaking, are now almost 50 years old. They do not meet the standard set by Roe v. Wade, and they do not reflect modern medical practice,” New York State Sen. Liz Krueger, a co-sponsor of the Reproductive Health Act, said in a statement emailed to Jezebel by her spokesman. “We will never know how many New York women have suffered and even died because our outdated laws prevented them from getting the care they desperately needed. Today we turn the page.”
Reproductive rights activists’ efforts have repeatedly stalled in Albany due to a previously Republican-controlled State Senate, most recently last year. In the newly Democratic-controlled Senate, though, lawmakers and activists hope they can extend abortion protections without limitations. Oregon, for example, is the only state to guarantee abortion without restrictions since 1969, and now requires that insurers cover abortions without charging a co-payment.
“A first step is to pass the Reproductive Health Act because we need relief now, we need clarity now that our laws in the state protect decisions about a person’s reproductive lives, but we know that our work is not done,” said Miller. “We need to look at what other barriers might exist that prevent women from making these decisions and accessing the care that they need.”