New York’s Abortion Rights Bill, Then and Now—and a Warning for the Future

Advocates for women in New York are split over how to move forward with the Women’s Equality Act, which is being held up over a provision on abortion that would align state law with the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling. Some advocates argue that the provisions ensuring pay equality and cracking down on sexual harassment and trafficking are too important to sacrifice to the contentious abortion provision and want it sacrificed to ensure that the rest of the measures pass. Others argue that abortion is essential to the full package of women’s rights and are willing to sacrifice short-term progress in the interest of ensuring the inclusion of abortion.

It’s a split that’s eerily similar to the arguments over the state’s original abortion reform law, a groundbreaking piece of legislation passed in 1970, which I detail in my book, Good Catholics. Abortion was illegal in the state, as in much of the nation, except if a woman’s life was in danger. For years, the state’s powerful Catholic conference had managed to derail bills that would make abortion a bit more accessible by allowing it in cases of rape, incest, or fetal deformity. But such measures still required at least two doctors to sign off on the procedure—in other words, women had to seek a man’s permission, since almost all doctors were men, to get an abortion.

But in 1969, abortion rights supporters enlisted the support of Republican legislator Connie Cook to introduce a bill based on an idea that was just gaining traction in the feminist, medical, and progressive religious communities: remove abortion completely from the penal code and let it be regulated as a health matter. The bill placed no gestational limits on abortion and even let non-physicians perform the procedure. As Lawrence Lader noted in his book Abortion II, the Washington Post reported at the time that a similar bill in Maryland “treats abortion as a medical problem, and puts the responsibility for making whatever choice is involved squarely where it belongs—on the individuals directly concerned.”

But the bill couldn’t get out of committee, so Cook came back the following year with a new bill that had a better chance of passing. This bill kept abortion in the penal code and required doctors to perform the procedure; eventually a 24-week limit was added to gain the votes needed for its passage. But the bill cleaved the feminist community. Radical feminists argued that it was a sell-out. They said allowing the government to put conditions on abortion access was a mistake that would allow a gradual erosion of rights as more and more conditions were added. Groups like New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal pleaded with Cook and backers like Lawrence Lader, who had recently founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, to hold out for a true repeal bill.

In the end, politics won out. The chance to pass what was at the time the nation’s most liberal abortion law was too good to pass up. The bill, which was basically a compromise between the go-slow position of reforming abortion laws to allow a few more conditions under which abortion could be performed, and the repeal position of scrapping abortion limits entirely, became the model for Roe v. Wade three years later.

But in the long run, the radical feminists were right. Putting conditions on abortion did allow the gradual erosion of abortion rights. More and more conditions, from waiting periods to state-scripted harangues on the supposed mental and physical dangers of abortion, to invasive ultrasound laws have chipped away at abortion rights. And expensive new clinic regulations and admitted privilege laws are dramatically reducing access to abortion. According to the nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute, “[a]n unprecedented wave of state-level abortion restrictions swept the country over the past three years,” with 70 new anti-abortion measures enacted in 2013, 43 in 2012, and 92 in 2011. As a result, the “majority of women now live in states hostile to abortion rights,” with these restrictions falling particularly hard on women in rural areas in the South and middle part of the country who are disproportionally young, poor, and women of color.

So it’s ironic that the bill currently before the legislature would do exactly what Cook tried to do more than 40 years ago, when many of these same populations of women couldn’t access legal abortion: remove abortion from the penal code and put it where it belongs in the public health code. This would remove the specter of doctors being prosecuted for performing later abortions for women who need them to protect their health. With abortion rights under threat around the country, it’s a goal that is too important to sacrifice to political expediency.

But it’s a sad testament to the state of abortion rights that the measure doesn’t go nearly as far as Cook’s original bill, which would have broadened access by allowing non-physicians to perform abortions. Decades after it was first advocated by feminists, California recently passed a measure to allow physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and midwives to perform early abortions, a move that puts abortion care to where it belongs—with the medical professionals who care for women.

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  • aspromised

    Did you know that Canada has 3 major parties? Two of those parties have recently adopted platforms that a representative MUST align pro-choice to run under their banner. The majority of Canadians do not want any tinkering with laws already in place.
    Then again, Canada doesn’t have a plethora of Evangelical religious and is much better at separating religion and politics.

    • blfdjlj

      So they wouldn’t let someone be anti-choice even if they agreed with them on everything else?

      • aspromised

        That’s my understanding. I will see if I can find a link or two and it lets me post them.

      • aspromised
      • Arekushieru

        To clarify, I am an NDP, not a Liberal, supporter, but I agree with Trudeau’s position. However, what Trudeau has proposed is not that no party member can express their views if they are anti-choice (which, contrary to conservative views, actually DOES protect their freedom of speech) but that they must be willing to align themselves with the party position on future votes, bills and proposed motions, if they expect to become party members. Which is, again contrary to what most conservatives (and, I admit, some liberals) would have us believe, ALL that Mr. Trudeau has been saying ALL along. They are trying to discredit Justin Trudeau by saying that he’s fumbling on an issue without addressing any real concerns on the ACTUAL issue, itself.

        • blfdjlj

          Soo…. mandatory party discipline? That seems a little strange, especially on a moral issue like this one.

          Anyway, has the current Canadian government proposed serious abortion restrictions, like a 20-week ban, forced ultrasound, parental consent, waiting periods, admitting privileges etc. ?

          • Arekushieru

            Um, are you seriously going to be that ignorant? Abortion is NOT a ‘moral’ issue. It’s a question of women’s rights. That’s IT, that’s ALL. The only person’s conscience that matters is the pregnant WOMAN’s. Otherwise, you are just imposing your ‘freedom of conscience’ on someone else. And that is NOT freedom. Justin Trudeau understands this, unlike too many of his male brethren, apparently..

            Did you also not read my above post (or my post to you, in its ENTIRETY) to aspromised? Talk about being disingenuous. Do you not know what freedom of speech ACTUALLY entails? Do you NOT know that the closing of the Morgentaler clinic affects not only the women of New Brunswick but the women of PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND, as well? Do you NOT know that New Brunswick denies not only the women of BOTH provinces, but women ACROSS THE COUNTRY, what is legally required by the LAW, due to their intransigence? Any imposition on women that restricts them from legally exercising their autonomy is an act of discrimination. I said that in that post, too. So, just as those restrictions that you mentioned are discrimination so are the ones that Justin Trudeau effectively prevented from growing. If “one” told these women they had to wait until restrictions were actively being imposed upon them, you would be shoving the responsibility and the sacrifices onto the VICTIMS of these laws. So, to reiterate, you are ignorant, disingenuous AND a victim-blamer. Does that about sum it up for you?

          • blfdjlj

            Fine, let’s have the Canadian-born Ted Cruz take charge for abortion policy:

    • Arekushieru

      I have posted recently on that precise subject, myself being a Canadian. However, I do believe that Canada needs a law that enshrines a woman’s right to bodily autonomy in the law, itself, and the constitution as determined to be an act of non-discrimination. Especially given the recent kerfuffle over the closing of the Morgentaler clinic in New Brunswick. Given that the legislators of the province can seemingly ignore the laws that are actually on the books with impunity AND that Harper has pledged not to reopen the debate, going EITHER way, I can see the necessity of this.

  • mwdennett

    Patricia: Thanks so much for pointing out the glaring parallel – and the history-lesson that so few even know exists and fewer are learning from!. I’m Cindy [Lucinda] Cisler, and I was very active on abortion and contraception issues and strategy and writing “back then,” and in early Second Wave feminism generally, through NY Radical Women, NOW, and lots of other groups, having gotten my activist start with the estimable Bill Baird. I’m “posting” here as MWDennett to honor my idol, the protean Mary Ware Dennett (1872-1947), who stood for contraception law repeal when Margaret Sanger would not. Dennett was a remarkable Cassandra about so many concepts that she analyzed and worked for.

    It was NYC NOW’s Abortion Committee that began the statewide group New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal early in ’69 (shortly before the big national conference where NARAL was founded) to “oppose all legislation and practices that would compel any woman to bear a child against her will,” and I was an officer in NYALR throughout that group’s life. And it was Ruth Cusack of NOW-NYC who enlisted Ithaca’s Assemblymember Connie Cook into introducing that first-ever repeal bill; her State Senate co-sponsor was Franz Leichter of Manhattan. The story of how all that later occurred, during a dense and passionate time, came to pass – especially 1970’s enactment of the Big But Non-Repeal Reform – is complex, paradoxical, even tragically ironic. It set the stage for everything since, in fact. And we all used the actual word “abortion”!

    Some of those most punitive toward us Crazy Repealers were various liberal politicos who saw themselves as Owners of the Issue, and public figures who favored abortion rights (like Betty Friedan, Lader’s old chum), but who wanted Something Done Right Now, and despised us as “radical fringies” for opposing ’70’s reform once our efforts to get it put back to repeal failed, (We did this partly on principle and foresight – but also to keep alive a group of strong federal court cases challenging NY’s law as unconstitutional; these were snuffed out when reform was enacted.) Cook, by the way, always sponsored our repeal bills in later years. even immediately post-Roe&Doe.

    The thoroughgoing book on what actually happened, how, and why in New York has never yet been written; it needs to be done, and I have a keen memory and feel obliged to tackle the project, in part to dispel the fairy-tales that encrust pivotal events in abortion history. All of my papers (and all other belongings) were destroyed when I was illegally evicted some years ago (so as to deregulate my NYC apt. rent);

    Incredibly, I have very recently again been evicted illegally, after years in a sort of useless exile out of state and a return to the city, but I certainly want to undertake this important chronicle and analysis if I have a place to live and to work.

    As I write, I’m in a NYC rehab-place, after surgery, but by 18 June I must leave it, and will then literally be flat-out homeless, unless some better option miraculously arises this week. Maybe it will? Having a leg missing, I really can’t live in a shelter. Please do contact me at once* if you have leads…or want to just buy me a cheap Old-LES co-op apartment (I can handle modest maintenance!) And no, I’m not kidding one bit; I’m just desperately frank!

    Thanks a million if you can think how to help; I’m not done yet! – Cindy

    *At; I own no PC, so will have only spotty internet access once I leave rehab.

    • CharlotteT

      Dear Cindy, I am so sorry you are in such a bind. I know you have made so many contributions to women’s rights. I would love to read your book!

    • Arekushieru

      And THAT, Ms Dennett (Cisler) is a very good reason to oppose Margaret Sanger on an issue, rather than the ones that Pro-Lifers REGULARLY trot out and are so inarguably false.

      Also, I live in Alberta. A province that has deregulated rent for a long time, now. And was the other reason I was evicted from my own apartment and became homeless and lived in shelters for a long period of time.

      The people who wanted Something Done Right Now, kinda sound similar to the Suffragettes for some reason (disclaimer: I do have somewhat of an inkling of why, however, just not sure if it’s entirely correct or appropriate, though)….