Capitol Watch: Lawmakers Set To OK Abortion Rights Measure
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — In New York state government news, Democrats in the state Senate aren't wasting any time in using their new power to pass bills long blocked by the old Republican majority.
On Tuesday, the chamber plans to take up the Reproductive Health Act, which would codify the abortion rights protections from Roe v. Wade, as well as legislation to require insurers to cover contraceptives. The Democrat-controlled Assembly, which has passed the bills in earlier sessions, is expected to pass them again as well.
Meanwhile, lawmakers have called a hearing on sexual harassment to hear from victims and experts about how the state can address the problem.
Here's a look at stories making news:
ABORTION RIGHTS: Lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly will vote on legislation Tuesday that will codify abortion rights protections guaranteed by Roe v. Wade in state law.
The bill, known as the Reproductive Health Act, would also permit nurse practitioners and physicians assistants to perform some types of abortions.
Lawmakers will also vote on a bill to require insurance companies to cover the cost of contraception.
The Senate blocked the bills repeatedly until this year, when Democrats took over the chamber.
The state's existing abortion laws were passed in 1970, three years before the Supreme Court's Roe decision, and don't include all the rights spelled out in that landmark case or the many abortion-related rulings since. Supporters of the RHA say it's needed to update the state's antiquated law should today's more conservative court overturn Roe. The bill has the support of the New York State Academy of Family Physicians.
The RHA is likely to pass easily thanks to broad support in both the chambers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Democrat, supports it and has proposed going further with a state constitutional amendment protecting a woman's right to seek an abortion.
"We are going to make sure that New York's laws recognize that women's rights are human rights," said Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, who took over in January as the first woman to lead a legislative chamber in New York. "We will pass the Reproductive Health Act and the Comprehensive Contraceptive Care Act."
Abortion rights opponents say the bill will expand access to late-term abortion by removing some of the state's old — and moot, because of Roe — rules governing the procedure. They also object to allowing medical professionals other than doctors to perform some abortion procedures.
"Words are insufficient to describe the profound sadness we feel," the state's Roman Catholic bishops wrote in a joint statement about the RHA. "We mourn the unborn infants who will lose their lives, and the many mothers and fathers who will suffer remorse and heartbreak as a result."
HARASSMENT HEARING: The Senate and Assembly have scheduled a Feb. 13 hearing to hear from victims, legal experts and others on sexual harassment, an issue that's getting more attention in Albany thanks to some former legislative staffers who demanded action after experiencing harassment themselves.
Last year lawmakers adopted a new uniform policy prohibiting harassment at all levels of government. The rules prohibit secret harassment settlements and require officials found liable for harassment to pay for their own settlements. But some advocates — and some lawmakers — said the changes don't go far enough. Critics also noted that no women were involved in final, closed-door negotiations over the rules.
The group of former staffers all say they were harassed by lawmakers. They have been demanding a joint hearing so victims, experts and others can weigh in on the problem and the best solutions.
"We are happy to see the Senate and Assembly taking this important first step to truly craft the strongest sexual harassment laws in the nation," said the group, known as the Sexual Harassment Working Group. "As targets of harassment and sexual violence, we know that New York cannot have meaningful, effective laws without hearing directly from the people impacted by them. Survivors are done serving as props, and we look forward to a robust process that brings victims, advocates, and experts together."
Several bills have already been announced that would attempt to help victims get justice and prevent future misconduct.
One would ensure that anyone asked to sign a confidentiality agreement be given information about the legal rights they are signing away.
Another would give victims more time to file discrimination complaints with the state Human Rights Division, while a third would require that all sexual harassment and assault settlement agreements be referred to the state attorney general, who could investigate any defendant listed in three or more settlements.
The bills are sponsored by Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas and Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, both Democrats.
National attention on sexual misconduct in the workplace had spurred calls for change in Albany, which has a long history of secret harassment settlements, sometimes paid with taxpayer money. That arrangement allowed lawmakers to resolve the claims without public scrutiny. In 2012, Democratic leaders of the state Assembly were criticized after approving a secret $103,000 settlement of harassment complaints against former Assemblyman Vito Lopez by former staffers.