By Veronica Lewin
A legislative caucus formed earlier this year has legislators from both houses and both sides of the aisle fighting to protect reproductive health rights and helping advocates to educate New Yorkers about them.
"Women's rights and women's reproductive rights are not a bipartisan issue. It's a health care issue," said Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro. "It's an issue that government should be working together on to make sure that our children have proper information that they need to keep themselves safe and to keep themselves healthy."
The Bipartisan Pro-Choice Legislative Caucus, headed by Sen. Liz Krueger, hosted a Reproductive Rights and Health Information Fair and press conference on May 9. The lawmakers argue that providing information on reproductive rights will counter misinformation that circulates.
Twenty organizations participated in the information fair in the Legislative Office Building, including Family Planning Advocates of New York State.
"With the formation of the Bipartisan Pro-Choice Legislative Caucus, New York state has again proven itself a national leader in advocating for access to comprehensive reproductive health care," said Family Planning Advocates CEO and President M. Tracey Brooks. "This information day is the first of many ways that members of the pro-choice caucus will inform colleagues and legislative staff about the variety of issues that encompass access to reproductive health care."
The caucus is comprised of 26 senators and 48 members of the Assembly and was formed two months ago with the goal of protecting a woman's right to choose in New York.
"Despite the fact that the state has a long history of protecting a woman's fundamental right to privacy and ability to make reproductive medical decisions free from unwarranted governmental intrusion, this caucus is necessary," said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan. "Since Roe v. Wade was decided, forces have been trying to chip away at the decision with an intent to strip women of our hard-fought rights."
Some lawmakers shared personal stories at the press conference about the importance of giving women the freedom to choose. Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said she once had to decide if she was going to keep her child.
"I remember as a young teenager who had no choice in 1970. … The choices that were out there were extremely scary, but because there was no choice, I had to entertain illegal, scary, harmful options. It was a long journey," said the senator. "I had my child ultimately, kept my child, but in the interim, New York passed legislation that allowed me to walk into a facility designed to talk to people like me, whatever they were thinking about and give information, give intelligent assessment, give me the whole range of options and let me know whatever I chose would be my choice, and a choice that would not be life-threatening."
"Young women who are growing up today have only known that because of New York's leadership, certainly national leadership, but now we are at that point where if we're not vigilant, what we understand to be part of what makes us who we are will be eroded and taken away. We can't let it happen," said Stewart-Cousins.
When Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee was in ninth grade, one of her friends received an illegal abortion and ultimately died from it.
"Ever since that day when I discovered what happened it became my mission, in terms of fighting for a woman's right to choose," said Jaffee, D-Suffern. "We continue in so many areas to fight and fight, and reproductive rights are facing such unprecedented attacks in New York state as well as throughout the country."
The caucus is taking a stance against the proposal to cut federal funding from Planned Parenthood. According to Senate Minority Leader John Sampson, D-Brooklyn, 90 percent of the care given at Planned Parenthood is preventive care, such as breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings, and providing contraception to women.
The lawmakers are also against the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which would ban U.S. Affordable Care Act funding from being used for abortions, except in cases of incest, rape or when the health of the mother is at risk.
"We see the writing on the wall around the country. In Washington, D.C. and in statehouses across the country, there are attacks on women's reproductive rights, on families' reproductive rights, the right to access to health care, the right to contraception, the right to abortion," said Krueger, D-Manhattan.
The caucus plans to continue the fight to protect a woman's right to choose in New York.
"When it comes to protecting women, access to safe, legal and affordable reproductive services, there's only one choice. When it comes to protecting essential and life-saving health services, there's only one choice. And when it comes to protecting choice for millions of women, there's only one choice, and that is pro-choice," said Sampson.