In the early 1970s, New York erupted into a hotbed of pro-life activism when it became one of the first states to legalize abortion. Forty-three years later, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Reproductive Health Act has once again thrust New York to the forefront of the ongoing debate over abortion policy in the United States. However, the Reproductive Health Act differs in many important ways from the legislation that green-lighted abortion in New York in 1970. These differences demonstrate how abortion politics have changed during the past 43 years. Indeed, it is evident that supporters of abortion are now making abortion-on-request a far greater priority than the health, safety and well-being of women.
The legalization of abortion in New York in 1970 had a profound impact on the rest of the country. At the time, abortion was relatively rare in the United States. Even in the handful of states where it was legal, it was difficult for out-of-state residents to access abortion services. In Hawaii and Alaska, abortion was legal, but it was only available to in-state residents. California had expanded abortion access in 1967 but required that women seeking abortions go through a two-physician psychiatric review. As such, relatively few women from other states traveled to California to obtain abortions.
When New York legalized abortion in 1970, however, there was no residency requirement. Consequently, the law expanded access to abortion to both New York women and women living in states near New York. Supporters of legal abortion knew that this would dramatically increase abortion totals in the United States. They were also aware of the scrutiny they faced and did not want reports of botched abortions or abortion-related injuries to hamper the prospect of legalizing abortion elsewhere. So safeguards were included in the 1970 legislation — safeguards which would be either weakened or eliminated by the Reproductive Health Act.
First, the 1970 law legalized abortion only through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy — unless the abortion was necessary to save the woman’s life. In contrast, the Reproductive Health Act would officially change New York law to make abortion legal throughout all nine months of pregnancy. This is despite the fact that a substantial body of research indicates that late-term abortions pose significant physical and mental health risks to women.
Second, New York’s 1970 abortion law clearly specifies that only physicians can perform abortions in New York State. The Reproductive Health Act would allow nurse practitioners and midwives to perform abortions. This could have an adverse effect on the health of women, particularly women who suffer complications during the abortion procedure.
There’s another important difference between 1970 and today, namely that pro-lifers are now much better organized politically. That organization is paying off: The tireless efforts of pro-lifers have resulted in long-term increases in public support for the pro-life position in the decades since the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide. This is true even in blue states like New York.
Indeed, the Chiaroscuro Foundation released a poll in February which shows that many aspects of the Reproductive Health Act remain unpopular with New York residents. The bill’s defeat would be a powerful testament to the growing influence of the pro-life movement and an affirmation that some abortion proposals just go too far.
Michael New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan – Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New