By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer
New York’s Catholic bishops and New York State Catholic Conference (NYSCC) officials will get their first taste this week of legislative debate under single-party rule. The November election brought a Democrat majority to the state Senate for the first time in 10 years. Because Democrats also control the Assembly, Catholic leaders expect to see new laws supported by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
At the top of the list is the Reproductive Health Act (RHA), which Cuomo, a Catholic, has repeatedly promised to enact within the first 30 days of the legislative session. It could become law by Jan. 22, the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion.
Supporters say the RHA brings state law, unchanged since 1970, into line with federal law. The bishops and the Catholic Conference, though, describe the RHA as an extreme expansion of the state’s abortion policy. Among many concerns: The law would allow abortion beyond 24 weeks of pregnancy when the fetus is non-viable or the mother’s health is threatened; the conference says this creates broad exceptions that could be misused. The conference also opposes moving references to abortion from penal law to public health law and allowing health care practitioners other than licensed physicians, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants, to perform abortions.
A companion bill would require health insurers to provide free contraceptive coverage. The conference opposes this bill, saying “it fails to provide religious liberty protections for employers who may have objections to financing insurance coverage of drugs they find morally objectionable.”
For the last six years, the Democratic-controlled state Assembly passed versions of the RHA, which the Republican-controlled Senate rejected. But Democrats now hold 39 of the Senate’s 63 seats, making passage a near certainty.
“The math isn’t there for us,” said Dennis Poust, director of communications for NYSCC, which represents the state’s bishops in matters of public policy. “We realize it will take a miracle to change their minds. It’s still important to say as Catholics we oppose abortion. If we can’t change the law, we can continue to try to change hearts and minds.”
The shift to single-party control in New York is “uncharted territory,” Poust said. “We can say with some certainty that full Democratic control is not good for us on issues involving the right to life.”
Also expected to pass this session is the Child Victims Act, another piece of legislation that the Republican-controlled Senate had blocked for several years. “There has been a degradation of justice for childhood sexual assault survivors who have suffered for decades by the authority figures they trusted most,” Cuomo said, according to the New York Daily News. “That ends this year with the enactment of the Child Victims Act to provide survivors with a long-overdue path to justice.”
The NYSCC “supports comprehensive legislation to protect children from sexual abuse in all areas of society” but has raised concerns about some versions of the proposed law. The conference supports mandatory background checks and specialized training for individuals working with children, and mandatory reporting by clergy, teachers, counselors and health care workers who encounter an abused child, according to the group’s website. The state’s Catholic bishops also support “legislation to prospectively extend the criminal and civil statute of limitations so that crimes against children can be punished when those children become adults and so that survivors have meaningful recourse through our civil courts.”
“We have expressed concerns about an unlimited retroactive window that applies only to private institutions,” Poust said.
In a December New York Daily News op-ed, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan called for victim-centered legislation that emphasizes “helping them heal, not breaking government, educational, health, welfare, or religious organizations and institutions.”
Dolan suggested the bill mimic the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which New York, Syracuse and three other state dioceses have implemented for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. “The compensation program, which we inaugurated in 2016, works well,” Cardinal Dolan wrote.
The Democratic-controlled Senate makes it likely Cuomo will sign into law a version of the Child Victims Act, Poust said, adding that last year’s disturbing revelations of clergy sexual abuse in the United States and elsewhere have added urgency. “As we’ve seen over the last summer, the problem isn’t completely behind us,” Poust said. “Society has come to a better understanding of abuse and institutions have come to recognize the cost of covering up. I think everyone wants to see a resolution to this issue.”
Poust expects legislators to address assisted suicide, but predicts its passage is less likely than the RHA. The conference opposes assisted suicide, and cites inadequate protections for patients most at risk of abuse and weak conscience protection for health care professionals and institutions in the legislation.
The NYSCC also supports the New York State Dream Act and the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. The Dream Act would provide opportunities for some immigrant students to be eligible for financial aid for institutions of higher education. The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act outlines measures to improve the quality of life for migrant workers.
The conference also called on Cuomo to present a state budget that funds a 2.9 percent human services cost-of-living adjustment; supports increases in the state’s minimum wage in human services contracts; continues investing in quality, affordable child care; and invests in the state’s aging infrastructure. NYSCC urged the governor to reject further funding cuts for health homes.
“Catholic Charities is where the rubber hits the road for the church,” Poust said, “It’s where we do our direct ministry as Jesus commanded to us to. The people in the human services sector are providing incredibly important work to vulnerable people.”
Renée K. Gadoua is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.