By: Stephanie Schweitzer
We are in the middle of a marathon. First, we rode the roller coaster that was the 2012 election cycle. Now, we are swimming in a sea of municipal campaign gossip, candidate endorsements and mayoral forums, Albany-based political scandals, and state and federally focused issue campaigns. Next year we look forward to a push to the finish line with the Midterm elections.
The amount of activity is overwhelming… and we are only half way there.
If we are going to stay committed to the values, legislation and progress we believe in, we need to take a deep breath – break this down, prioritize and take action step by step.
First priority: The New York State Legislative Sessions end June 20th. For the next few weeks, its time for us to focus on Albany.
The Women’s Equality Act
We may be a bit disheartened with our State governance, but in the next three weeks, there is a bold, progressive, highly passable political agenda that needs our attention and support. As introduced by Governor Cuomo in his State of the State Address on January 9th, 2013, the Women’s Equality Act (or Agenda, as it is also known) is a package of ten initiatives that aim to break down barriers, prevent discrimination and address inequality based on gender. Governor Cuomo has expressed his commitment to passing these initiatives as one omnibus piece of legislation. The ten points of the Women’s Equality Agenda (WEA) include:
- Protect a Woman’s Freedom of Choice by Ensuring that New York’s Abortion Law Reflects Federal Protections and Current Medical Practice
- Achieve Pay Equity
- Stop Sexual Harassment in All Workplaces
- Allow for the Recovery of Attorneys’ Fees in Employment and Credit and Lending Cases
- Strengthen Human Trafficking Laws
- End Family Status Discrimination
- Stop Source-of-Income Discrimination
- Stop Housing Discrimination for Victims of Domestic Violence
- Stop Pregnancy Discrimination Once and For All
- Protect Victims of Domestic Violence by Strengthening Order-of-Protection Laws
The first, most pressing question at the moment seems to be, “Where’s the language?” While the WEA was first presented in January, the specific bill language has yet to drop. With approximately three weeks left in the session, what’s the holdup?! For many this is disconcerting. “People want to see what’s in the legislation,” says Senator Diane Savino, a member of the power sharing Independent Democratic Conference, which in collaboration with the Republican Caucus, forms the Senate Majority Coalition. “In the past, we’ve been criticized when we act too quickly; we’ve been criticized when we take too long. Well, you can’t vote on ideas — you vote on legislation. So we’re hoping that the governor will send us his legislation as quickly as possible, so we can begin the process of looking at it, vetting it, making sure there are no mistakes… and making sure that we can then get it to the floor and get as many votes as possible to pass this.” Members of the 750 organizations who have formed a coalition in support of the bill highlight its complexity and collaborative nature. According to Tara Sweeney of NARAL-NY, “Advocates working on the ten issues represented in the Women’s Equality Agenda have been working closely with the Governor on language that includes the core points of bills that have been circulating in Albany for years, as well as new language on issues for which there were no preexisting bills.” Clearly this has been a complicated process…. and language is expected very soon. But could its late arrival stunt any chances for its passage?
WEA on reproductive health – will it make or break it?
Late bill language is frustrating, as any mention of “choice,” “reproductive rights,” or “abortion,” sends anti-choice groups into high alert. It is the reproductive health element of the bill that has been the foremost point of lobbying against the Act. Some Assemblymembers and Senators in swing districts have been handling the entire Act with “kid gloves,” worried at how any association with “choice” legislation may hurt their reputation and electability.
The future of the entire Women’s Equality Act may hinge on the reproductive health element of this bill.
What is lost in the spin, however, is what the reproductive health element of the Women’s Equality Act actually aims to accomplish. To clarify, some history on abortion law in New York State:
“New York decriminalized abortion in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade was decided, and has never been brought in line with the federal protections granted by Roe. While Roe ensures that a physician can provide medical care necessary to protect a woman’s health later in pregnancy, New York State law fails to recognize this constitutional principle, and regulates abortion in the penal code rather than the public health law code, where other aspects of medical practice are regulated. This combination deters medical professionals from providing necessary care if a woman’s health is endangered later in pregnancy,” says Sweeney. The reproductive health element of the Women’s Equality Agenda aims to align New York State law with the federal protections of Roe v. Wade, ensuring that no physician is deterred from providing the care a patient needs because of concerns about exposure to litigation on a state level.
Anti-Choice groups like to categorize this as “late term abortion” legislation or an “expansion of abortion act,” however in reality, the proposed bill simply brings New York State legislative language into line with what has been instituted at a federal level for over 40 years.
At the end of the day, the Women’s Equality Act will easily pass the Assembly; the true viability of this bill, however, depends on two people: Senator Dean Skelos (R) and Senator Jeffrey Klein (IDC). Due to the power sharing agreement currently being observed in the New York State Senate, whether or not the bill will be allowed to come to a vote on the Senate floor, is highly questionable. Skelos has explicitly expressed that he would prevent a vote occurring under his watch, however Klein might be swayable.
The bottom line here is, we only have a few weeks before Albany closes up shop. And an agenda which initially generated a wave of headlines seems to have gotten lost in a turbulent political sea. Now is the time to focus our energies, change the tides, and pass the Women’s Equality Act.