The Reproductive Health Act

January 31st, 2019

January 22, 2019 marked the 46th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade, and on the same day, New York State passed their own historic legislation, the Reproductive Health Act (RHA). The RHA had been around in the state legislature for a while, but when Democrats gained a majority in the state senate in the 2018 elections, they were able to pass the law. The law itself and the misinformation surrounding it has led to yet another resurgence in discussion about abortion and reproductive health in the public sphere.

For those who are against broadening abortion rights, the passage of the RHA seems like a significant setback. Conversations on social media revolved around the issue of late-term abortion. Prior to the passage of the RHA, New York banned abortion after twenty-four weeks. Even though only 1.3% of abortions occur at or after twenty-one weeks, these cases elicit the strongest emotional responses as people imagine killing a baby that is only days from being born.

Overwhelmingly, late-term abortions are the result of fatal fetal anomalies or the danger to the mother’s life or health. They are traumatic, horrific situations involving desired pregnancies. The idea that a pregnant person would wake up at 28-weeks and suddenly realize that she wants an abortion has no basis in reality, nor would any doctor perform an abortion in that scenario. In previous cases, women in these situations would have to travel to another state. Now, under the RHA, they can remain at home.

Additionally, the RHA removes abortion from the criminal code and removes the need for a doctor to perform some abortions. In part due to the uncertain future of Roe v Wade given a conservative Supreme Court, the RHA enshrines abortion protections in state law. Even if Roe v Wade were overturned, women in New York would still be able to access abortion. As other state legislatures seek to place restrictions on abortion through bills that forbid abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected in hopes of overturning or limiting Roe v Wade, the discrepancy in reproductive health access between states is set to increase.

The reaction to the RHA in traditionally pro-life spaces was immediate and forceful. Cardinal Timothy Dolan called the law “ghoulish, grisly, and gruesome,” and even more moderate voices like Father James Martin bemoaned that the legislature seemed to be “celebrating more abortions” as opposed to celebrating a women’s ability to make important health decisions without the law getting involved.

The passage of the RHA does raise concerns about the protection of unborn children when miscarriages are caused by an outside force. Likewise, there is an extremely slim but still possible incidence of a rogue doctor abusing the elimination of the 24-week ban. But these more subtle apprehensions don’t generate the same kind of rage as a picture of a baby at 39 weeks gestation with the caption, “In New York, I could be killed.”

Perhaps even more than an issue about abortion, the passage of the RHA has demonstrated how much our dialogue around reproductive rights lacks nuance. There were even people who identify as pro-life who expressed disgust by the misinformation spread about the RHA by people on their “side.” Until I read the bill myself, I was confused about what it actually contained and by the extremely strong reaction from those opposed to it.

Whether we bemoan abortion or celebrate access to reproductive healthcare, there is no conversation without first getting the facts straight. Inflammatory memes and launching verbal grenades at each other across the divide only seek to further entrench us in our positions and separate us. I wish we had more faith that we could approach each other with generosity — that supporters of the RHA would hear the concern for the possibility of the unintentional effects and that those who oppose it would consider the outcome on a woman’s having options under difficult circumstances. Maybe then we could begin to have productive conversations rather than designated winners and losers.

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