NY bill to declare abortion a “fundamental right” could threaten religious freedom
Cardinal Edward Egan of New York and Gov. Eliot Spitzer
Cardinal Edward Egan of New York and Gov. Eliot Spitzer

.- A New York state bill that would declare abortion a fundamental human right for women faces opposition from Catholics who believe the bill will leave Catholic hospitals and social agencies vulnerable to lawsuits and state sanctions, the New York Sun reports.

Some opponents argue that the bill privileges abortion rights even more than the right to free exercise of religion. 

A video produced by the New York Catholic Conference suggests the bill could force doctors and hospitals to perform abortion procedures and could compel insurance companies and employers to cover abortion procedures in health plans.

The bill, called the Reproductive Health and Privacy Protection Act, was drafted by the administration of Governor Eliot Spitzer. Signaling that the bill’s passage is a top priority for his administration, Gov. Spitzer recently called for its passage in his January State of the State address, while his wife Silda Wall delivered a speech dedicated to the legislation at a gathering marking the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

The legislation would establish abortion as a fundamental right for pregnant women prior to fetal viability and in later stages if the woman’s health is at risk.  Abortion regulations would be removed from state penal law to public health law.  The authority to perform abortions would also be extended beyond physicians to “qualified licensed health care providers.”

Its supporters say the chief purpose of the act is to ensure that abortion remains legal in New York if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

Opponents say the bill would eliminate the possibility of putting new restrictions on abortion, such as parental notification, informed consent laws, and waiting periods.

The part of the law that most concerns opponents is a section stating, "the state shall not discriminate against the exercise of the rights … in the regulation or provision of benefits, facilities, services, or information." 

Edward Mechmann, a legal coordinator for the Archdiocese of New York, said the bill would infringe on the freedoms of Catholic organizations.  "If they grant us a license, which is a state action, they will be discriminating," he said, according to the New York Sun.  "The right to abortion would have more protection under New York's law than the right to free exercise of religion."

Spitzer administration officials argued that existing “conscience clause” provisions in state law would protect Catholic hospitals and agencies from legal penalties.

"Nobody will be required to perform an abortion," said Lisa Ullman, an assistant counsel to the governor.

A spokesman for the New York Catholic Conference, Dennis Poust, said in an e-mail to the New York Sun that the guarantees were not specific enough.

"If the intent is not to force our hospitals and other facilities to perform abortions or make direct referrals or promote abortion, then why not amend the bill?" Poust wrote.

"Why not include specific language that says the bill does not apply to institutions owned, operated or sponsored by a religious institution? They are well aware of our concerns and have been shown zero interest in amending the bill. We have had lengthy discussions at the highest level of the administration on this and have gotten the cold shoulder," he said.

The Archdiocese of New York has launched an intense campaign opposing the bill.  It has organized a petition drive, delivered more than 100,000 pamphlets to parishes, and produced an advocacy video, viewable at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZ6j2srG2iA

The effort will peak in March, when Cardinal Edward Egan and the rest of the bishops of New York meet with Mr. Spitzer and urge him to reconsider the legislation, church officials said.

Kathleen Gallagher, the director of pro-life activities at the New York State Catholic Conference, said those who learned the details of the legislation reacted strongly.

"I've never seen anything like this. People, when they find out about this bill, get really incensed, and they want to do something," she said.

The bill is opposed by Republicans, who control the state senate. 

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