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Supreme Court Abortion Decision Triggers NYS Debate

(WBEN/AP) The recent Supreme Court decision striking down 35 foot protest free zones outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts is restarting a briefly stalled debate in New York State over a woman's right to choose.

Within hours of the ruling, New York State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver took the opportunity to use the ruling as a way to criticize Republicans over their rejection of Governor Cuomo's women's rights package.  The bills debated heavily last year, were to have included broader access to abortion services, including a hotly debated provision on late-term abortion.  

The measures are part of a 10-point women's equality bill in the Assembly that also includes a contentious abortion-related provision that would match state law with the rights spelled out in the Roe v. Wade decision

"I am calling upon my colleagues in the State Senate to vote on the Governor’s omnibus, ten-point Women’s Equality Act legislation, to ensure that the rights of women will not change in New York State no matter what happens in Washington.  " Silver said in a prepared statement.

His statement  (below)  also included a mention of the 1998 Buffalo-area slaying of Dr. Barnett Slepian, an obstetrician who performed abortions, and triggered a quick response from Dean Skelos, the Republican leader of the NYS Senate.   

"Speaker Silver chose politics over progress and held these bills hostage for two years while insisting on a bill that would allow an infant to be aborted right up until the time of birth, and enable non-doctors to perform abortions, which would put women’s health at risk," Skelos wrote.

The nine non-abortion-related provisions enjoy broad support in both the Assembly and Senate. A proposal on human trafficking would strengthen penalties for forcing someone into sexual servitude and help victims defend themselves if charged with prostitution. Other pieces of the bill would combat wage discrimination, require that employers offer reasonable accommodations to pregnant women in the workplace, and help victims of domestic violence.

The Senate unanimously passed the human trafficking and pregnancy rights measures in mid-June,  just as it did last year. Several Republican senators blasted Assembly leaders for what they said was an "all or nothing" approach and said good proposals to help women were being held hostage by the abortion provision.

NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's statement:

McCullen v. Coakley is a step backward and compromises the safety of women making private medical decisions with their doctors.

Striking down a Massachusetts law establishing buffer zones around abortion clinics is disconcerting and should alarm every New Yorker who is pro-choice. Women have the right to make their own reproductive health choices, free from fear, intimidation or governmental interference. We should be doing all that we can to protect women and to keep our clinics safe and accessible.  

I believe that the Justices have given insufficient weight to the threatening lengths some anti-choice advocates have gone to block women from obtaining reproductive health services. Acts of violence directed toward clinics and providers are well-documented and we should never forget the 1998 slaying of Dr. Barnett Slepian, an obstetrician who treated women in the City of Buffalo.

This decision is why we must bolster our efforts to protect reproductive freedoms. To that end, I am calling upon my colleagues in the State Senate to vote on the Governor’s omnibus, ten-point Women’s Equality Act legislation, to ensure that the rights of women will not change in New York State no matter what happens in Washington

 And a response from NYS Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos:

The state Senate has passed all nine bills of our Women’s Equality Agenda on two occasions.  It should be alarming to women across New York that the state Assembly refuses to join the Senate in passing these bills that would stop human trafficking, ensure equal pay for equal work, stop domestic violence, and prevent discrimination against women who are pregnant or caring for family members.
Instead, Speaker Silver chose politics over progress and held these bills hostage for two years while insisting on a bill that would allow an infant to be aborted right up until the time of birth, and enable non-doctors to perform abortions, which would put women’s health at risk.
It is sad that Senate Democrats never called on the Assembly to act on the Senate legislation, and that Speaker Silver ignored repeated calls from members of his own conference, particularly from Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who repeatedly urged the Assembly to act.

The Assembly should go back to Albany to approve the Senate’s women’s equality bills, and the Governor should be urging them to do so as well.

 NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat,  also joined the debate with  statement on the Supreme Court ruling: 

"While we are pleased that the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that states may protect their strong interest in ensuring that citizens have full and safe access to necessary reproductive health care services, we are disappointed that the Court rejected  the particular approach adopted by Massachusetts. New York’s clinic protection laws are not implicated by today’s decision, but my office remains committed to supporting the ability of a state to provide other kinds of protection as required by its own experience.”


The Supreme Court unanimously struck down the protest-free zone outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts Thursday, declaring it an unconstitutional restraint on the free-speech rights of protesters.

Authorities have less intrusive ways to deal with potential confrontations or other problems that can arise outside clinics, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.

Roberts noted that most of the problems reported by police and the clinics in Massachusetts occurred outside a single Planned Parenthood facility in Boston, and only on Saturdays when the largest crowds typically gather.

"For a problem shown to arise only once a week in one city at one clinic, creating 35-foot buffer zones at every clinic across the Commonwealth is hardly a narrowly tailored solution," Roberts said.

Roberts wrote the majority opinion after asking no questions - exceedingly rare for him - at the argument in January.

 Roberts noted that no other state has a similar law and that he is aware of only five cities that have created fixed buffer zones around abortion clinics: Burlington, Vermont; Pittsburgh; Portland, Maine, and San Francisco and Santa Barbara in California.

The ruling also left intact a high court decision from 2000 that upheld a floating buffer zone in Colorado.

While the court was unanimous in the overall outcome, Roberts joined with the four liberal justices to strike down the buffer zone on narrower grounds than the other, more conservative justices wanted.

In a separate opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia criticized Roberts' opinion as carrying forward "this court's practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents."

Scalia said state and local governments around the country would continue to be able to "restrict antiabortion speech without fear of rigorous constitutional review." Joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, Scalia dissented from the Colorado decision and said Thursday he would have overturned it.

Still, abortion rights advocates lamented the new ruling and said it compromised the safety of women seeking abortions.

"This decision shows a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gantlet of harassing and threatening protesters," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Nearing the end of its 2013-14 term, the court decided another potentially significant case Thursday, ruling that temporary, recess appointments made by President Barack Obama to the National Labor Relations Board in 2012 were illegal because the Senate was not, in fact, in recess when Obama acted. In that case as well, the court was unanimous about the outcome but divided over the reasoning.

Reaction to the buffer-zone ruling was predictably mixed.

Mark Rienzi, who represented the protesters, said, "The government cannot reserve its public sidewalks for Planned Parenthood, as if their message is the only one women should be allowed to hear. Today's decision confirms that the First Amendment is for everyone, and that the government cannot silence peaceful speakers."

Massachusetts officials who backed the buffer zone said they would try to re-craft the law to address the high court's concerns.

"The fight is just beginning again," said state Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office had argued before the justices.

Roberts suggested that Massachusetts could enact a state version of the federal law that prohibits people from blocking abortion clinic entrances.

The buffer-zone case began when Boston-area grandmother Eleanor McCullen and other abortion opponents sued over the limits on their activities at Planned Parenthood health centers in Boston, Springfield and Worcester. At the latter two sites, the protesters say they have little chance of reaching patients arriving by car because they must stay 35 feet not from the clinic entrances but from the driveway to those buildings' parking lots. Patients enter the building through the parking lots, which are private property.

Planned Parenthood provides health exams for women, cancer screenings, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and abortions at its clinics.

The organization said that the buffer zone has significantly reduced the harassment of patients and clinic employees. Before the 35-foot zone went into effect in 2007, protesters had been able to stand next to the entrances and force patients to squeeze by, Planned Parenthood said.

Before 2007, a floating buffer zone kept protesters from approaching unwilling listeners any closer than 6 feet if they were within 18 feet of the clinic. The floating zone was modeled after a Colorado law that the Supreme Court has upheld. That decision was not called into question in Thursday's ruling.

Clinic officials said they are most concerned about safety because of past incidents of violence. In 1994, a gunman killed two receptionists and wounded five employees and volunteers at a Planned Parenthood facility and another abortion clinic in nearby Brookline. The most recent killing was in 2009, when Dr. George Tiller, who performed abortions, was shot in a church in Wichita, Kansas.

Abortion protesters said that other state and federal laws already protect health center workers and patients, as well as access to clinics.

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