Abortion rights and women's health have been hot-button issues in Washington for years, and the debate reached a higher pitch recently as a proposal to defund Planned Parenthood became a sticking point in the federal budget battle.
But the debate also has been raging on the state level, where pro-choice groups are lobbying for legislation that would protect a woman's right to choose or refuse contraception and abortion, no matter what action is taken by Congress.
In New York, advocates are calling for passage of the Reproductive Health Act, a bill sponsored by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) that would essentially codify into law the controversial 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy outlined in the Fourteenth Amendment extends to a woman's right to choose.
The court further tied state regulation of abortion to the term of pregnancy; once a fetus becomes "viable"—that is, capable of living outside the mother's womb—abortion is illegal. New York law draws the line at the 24th week of pregnancy.
The senator did not return requests for comment, but in a memo she wrote "the bill seeks to ensure that abortion is treated as a health matter and that women are free to make reproductive health decisions." The bill would remove many of the criminal penalties that can currently be levied against abortion providers and women who choose abortions.
But opponents of the bill say it goes too far.
"The bill makes it a fundamental right for a woman to have an abortion; that puts it in the category of the Bill of Rights and sets up a precedent where you can't regulate abortion, such as allowing a parent of a minor to say 'yes' or 'no'," said Alan Mehldau, the chairman of the Westchester-Putnam Right to Life Committee.
But Mehldau and his group do support a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) that would prohibit state grants from being awarded to Planned Parenthood or any other organization that provides abortions.
Beverly Katz, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Hudson-Peconic, which covers the lower Hudson Valley, said that Assemblyman Katz is "jumping on the bandwagon" with some of his more conservative constituents, even though the bill has no chance of passing in the Democrat-dominated Assembly.
She also said that only 4 percent of her organization's activities involve abortions; the other 96 percent include contraception and screenings for cervical cancer and sexually transmitted infections.
Assemblyman Katz was not available for comment, but in a bill memo he said that taxpayer money should be given to less divisive organizations.
"At a time when New York is desperately trying to revive its economy, there are much better areas for hard-earned taxpayer dollars to be used," he wrote.
But even some clergy members oppose the proposal.
“We condemn this backward initiative which would block the ability to get lifesaving cancer screenings, annual checkups, access to contraception, sex education and more,” said Rabbi Dennis Ross, the director of Concerned Clergy for Choice, a statewide group of more than 1,000 religious officials.
Ultimately, there may be little hope for either bill this year. The session ends June 20, and legislative leaders have not expressed any interest in taking up abortion legislation. Further, both bills are sponsored by lawmakers who are in the minority in their chambers.
Here's a look at what our local lawmakers were up to between May 20 and May 27:
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) and Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins at the Mount Hope Cemetery in Hastings on May 19 to pay tribute to members of the 71st National Guard Infantry Regiment who lost their lives while fighting in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
Assemblyman Bob Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge) introduced a bill that would allow primary care physicians to establish "retainer programs" to provide their services to patients for a flat fee.
Castelli on May 23 announced that Angela Falisi, a White Plains native and double major in biology and sociology at Cornell, was the recipient of one of four $1,500 scholarships awarded by the Conference of Italian-American Legislators.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) attended a ceremony of the Croton Jewish Center and First Hebrew Congregation. Both congregations have served generations of local Jewish residents.
The Assembly on May 23 passed a resolution sponsored by Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) that expresses concerns about the safety of the Indian Point nuclear power plant and calls for the creation of a commission to study alternative energy sources that could replace the power provided by the plant. Indian Point has come under increased scrutiny since a March earthquake and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan. Gov. Cuomo and many lawmakers—mainly Democrats—oppose the re-licensing of Indian Point once its current license expires in 2013. Jaffee said allowing the plant to operate is akin to "playing Russian roulette with millions of lives."
Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) was on hand for to celebrate the opening of a new wing of dorms at Green Chimneys, a group home for children with behavioral and emotional problems.
Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye) introduced two bills, one of which would allow military veterans to get free lifetime hunting and fishing licenses.
The second bill would require health insurance reimbursements for anesthesia provided by a registered nurse anesthetist.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) on May 22 the sacrifices of fallen police officers at the annual Eastchester Police Department memorial and awards ceremony.
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City) applauded Senate passage of a bill that would legalize mixed martial arts, or MMA, in New York. The popular sport, which pits practitioners of different martial arts styles against each other, is criticized by some for being too brutal. Some lawmakers, including Zebrowski, have called for its legalization in New York because of a potential windfall for the cash-strapped state, noting the sport has become considerably safer over the years. A tax on box-office sales would generate about $2 million a year, the bill's sponsors say. The assemblyman told Gannett News Service that the proposal is a "no-brainer."
Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson) introduced a bill that would require state and local agencies, as well as government contractors, to use the E-Verify program to screen potential employees. The Internet-based program, which is maintained by the federal government, is used primarily to verify the citizenship status of job applicants.
The Senate last week passed a bill sponsored by Ball that would suspend 33 cents of gas taxes per gallon purchased during Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day weekends. The proposal is sponsored in the Assembly by Albany-area Republican Jim Tedisco, but appears to have little chance of passing in the lower chamber. Ball framed the gas tax "holiday" as a way to boost tourism and provide some relief at the pump, to the tune of $5 or $6 off a tank of gas.
Ball told the Albany Times-Union that he may support a same-sex marriage bill if the measure explicitly allows religious institutions, such as adoption centers and catering halls, to decline to serve gay couples. Six Senate votes are needed to pass the legislation, which has the strong support of Gov. Cuomo, and Ball is seen as a key vote. He voted against same-sex marriage as a member of the Assembly in 2009.
Police after he received an envelope that had been sent from Dubai via Pakistan. The senator has held hearings probing the state's readiness for a terrorist strike that have drawn ire from some for focusing on Islamic fundamentalism. Last month, a Georgia woman sent Ball a strange package that included a hateful note, a vial of perfume and a stuffed monkey with a Star of David attached to it. The more recent package contained a book on Islamic teachings and a note, the contents of which were not revealed.
The senator has made the battle against animal abuse one of his pet projects (pun intended), and he's enlisted the cast of National Geographic's "Rescue Ink" to help him push for a bill that would strengthen Buster's Law, which increases penalties for animal abuse. "Rescue Ink" is about a group of Long Island-based bikers who travel around combating animal cruelty. Their aggressive tactics have come under scrutiny. Ball and Albany-area Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, who sponsored Buster's Law, are holding an advocacy event at the Capitol on June 1.
Ball and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino teamed up on May 26 to call for the passage of a bill they say would crack down on "no-fault" auto insurance fraud, in which people stage car accidents to collect payouts from their insurance companies. Advocates, including the Republican-backed group leading the campaign, say no-fault fraud is a tool of organized crime syndicates, and is the primary reason New Yorkers pay 50 percent more for auto insurance than the national average.
Ball will hold a town hall meeting on June 3 at the A&P on Route 22 in Patterson. The event will run from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. The senator will hold similar events throughout June in Amenia, Mahopac and Yorktown.
Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) will once again host a screening of the film "Gasland," which documents the alleged perils of hydrofracking, a controversial method of natural-gas drilling. The free viewing will be held on June 1 at 7 p.m. at the Nyack Center.
Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Port Chester), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, praised the release of a "SUNY report card" that measures strides the university system has taken in about 100 areas, including access, diversity, energy consumption and economic development. SUNY officials have framed the first-ever report card as a "starting point" that will allow them to identify areas in need of improvement.
The senator on May 26 hosted officials from the state Department of Transportation to discuss potholes in northern Westchester. She was also joined by Assemblyman Bob Castelli and officials from the town of New Castle. According to Castelli, who has already declared a "war on potholes," the DOT has agreed to include paving the potholes in its two-year plan, which is being drafted now. Of particular concern to the officials are Routes 117, 133 and 134.
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) joined 15 other Senate Democrats in calling on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate illegal speculation and price-fixing in the oil industry. In a letter to Schneiderman, the lawmakers said the recent spike in gas prices "raised suspicions of wrongdoing by market participants."
The senator's deputy chief of staff, 26-year-old Christoper Johnson, was nominated by Yonkers Democrats to run for a seat on the City Council.