As Supreme Court Shifts Under Trump, Cuomo Vows to Expand Abortion Rights

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With Hillary Clinton to his right, female elected officials seated before him and cheering women filling the audience, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday promised to protect women’s reproductive rights by expanding the state’s abortion laws within the first 30 days of the new legislative session.

Mr. Cuomo’s vow was not exactly new. But the pageantry of the occasion seemed to reflect the circumstances that had prompted it: a Legislature newly controlled by Democrats raring to broaden reproductive rights, and a federal government increasingly looking to rein them in, all against the backdrop of a state with abortion laws that are not as liberal as many perceive them to be.

“The Republican Senate said, ‘You don’t need a state law codifying Roe v. Wade. No administration would ever roll back Roe v. Wade,’” Mr. Cuomo said at the event at Barnard College, describing why previous efforts had languished for so long. “So help me God, this was the conversation.”

That Republican-led State Senate is no more, ousted in November in favor of an overwhelming Democratic majority and the chamber’s first-ever female leader. The federal administration, meanwhile, is indeed seeking to roll back Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion: President Trump has appointed two conservative judges to the Supreme Court, and women’s rights activists are warning that the decision is in peril.

Eighteen states already have laws that could restrict abortion if the landmark case were overturned. In Texas, abortion providers have sued the state for what they call unduly burdensome restrictions; there is only one abortion clinic in the entire state of Mississippi.

“Advancing the rights of women and girls is the great unfinished business of the 21st century,” said Mrs. Clinton, a former secretary of state and presidential candidate.

Other liberal states have recently moved to cement reproductive rights at a state level: Massachusetts’s Legislature last year decriminalized abortion; and Oregon in 2017 expanded cost-free insurance coverage for abortions, regardless of the woman’s citizenship status.

All of this has added fresh urgency to Mr. Cuomo’s and his fellow Democrats’ longstanding promises to reinforce New York’s abortion laws, which abortion rights advocates consider antiquated and weak.

The state’s abortion laws have not been updated since 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade. They do not include some provisions that Roe v. Wade guaranteed, including permission for a late-term abortion to preserve the health of the mother. Other states allow abortions late in the pregnancy when the fetus is not viable, an exception that New York does not make.

Although New York has not attracted the same headlines as conservative states for curbing abortion rights, state legislators have introduced unsuccessful bills aimed at restricting Roe v. Wade or cutting insurance funding for low-income women, according to Andrea Miller, the president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health.

About 10 percent of New York’s women lived in a county without an abortion provider in 2014, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

New York was once a destination for women seeking abortions that they could not obtain elsewhere; now some women find themselves forced to leave New York to seek treatment.

“New York certainly has a far more strong public persona of being supportive on this,” Ms. Miller said, “but it is not true that everyone who needs abortion care is able to get it here.”

That is almost certain to change this year. A bill known as the Reproductive Health Act, which has the strong support of the Democratic majorities in the State Senate and Assembly, would create exceptions for the mother’s health or the fetus’s viability. It would also move New York’s abortion regulations from the penal code to the health code, recognizing abortion as a public health issue rather than a crime from which the state had carved out exclusions, Ms. Miller said.

The act has been passed by the Assembly for years, but did not come to a vote in the Senate when it was controlled by Republicans.

A companion bill would require insurers to provide free contraceptive coverage.

Mr. Cuomo, who vowed not to sign the state budget in April unless the Reproductive Health Act and the contraception coverage acts had been passed, also called on the Legislature to go one step further and enshrine reproductive rights in the State Constitution. That would take longer and be more complicated: A constitutional amendment must be passed in two different legislative sessions and also be approved by voters in a ballot measure.

The vast majority of other states that have recognized a constitutional right to abortion have done so because of litigation, rather than an affirmative desire to protect the right, Ms. Miller said.

Monday’s event was not the first time that Mr. Cuomo had called for a constitutional amendment on reproductive rights, but, like the Reproductive Health Act, it was the first time such a call was actually politically viable. State Senator Liz Krueger, who has unsuccessfully sponsored the R.H.A. in the Senate in the past, said Mr. Cuomo had announced his support for an amendment before but that his office had never followed up with bill language.

A group opposed to abortion, Feminists Choosing Life of New York, issued a statement on Monday decrying the R.H.A. as an overreach and criticizing what it said were too-broad exceptions for third-trimester abortions.

Mrs. Clinton, who spoke briefly before Mr. Cuomo, made clear that the new political circumstances — both on the state and federal levels — would demand much more than just the promised expansion of reproductive rights.

“The struggle for women’s equality is not simply something to be read about in the pages of your history books,” she said. “It continues to be the fight of our lifetime.”