Hochul sees NY as abortion 'safe harbor,' but that's no sure bet

Hochul sees NY as abortion ‘safe harbor,’ but that’s no sure bet

WASHINGTON – Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed that New York would remain “a safe harbor” for women from states where abortion will become illegal in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision Friday that overturned the court’s five-decade-old decision guaranteeing the right to terminate a pregnancy.

But it is unclear just how many women will take advantage of that safe harbor – and even how long it will remain safe.

“New York has always been a beacon for those yearning to be free,” said Gov. Kathy Hochul. “Our state will always be a safe harbor for those seeking access to abortion care.”

Legal experts on both sides of the abortion issue said Friday that by overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that found abortion to be a constitutional right, the justices opened the door to an unpredictable new era where states will go in radically different directions on the issue. That potentially could leave it up to courts to sort out if what the states end up doing is right.

Meanwhile, abortion opponents will press for Republicans to gain a majority in Congress and ban abortion outright – which would nullify not only any effort to make New York an abortion safe haven, but also make the procedure illegal in New York as well.

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In other words, the high court unsettled as much as it settled in Dobbs v. Jackson, the case out of Mississippi that served as the vehicle for overturning Roe v. Wade.

Read what state and national leaders are saying after the Supreme Court decision.

“If people think abortion has been a hot political issue up until now, just wait,” said Lucinda M. Finley, a professor of law at the University at Buffalo who represented the Pro-Choice Network of Western New York in a 1996 Supreme Court case.

“Anything can happen,” said Stasia Zoladz Vogel, who heads the Western New York Regional Right to Life Committee and who, as a lawyer, is also a member of the Supreme Court bar.

Among those possibilities is one that Vogel dreads.

“We could become the abortion capital of the country, which would be a disgrace,” she said.

Hochul and State Attorney General Leticia James take the opposite view: that legal abortion is a fundamental right that women must have to protect their health and freedom. And that’s why the governor and the attorney general, both Democrats, practically invited women from out of state to travel to New York if they need an abortion.

“Our state will always be a safe harbor for those seeking access to abortion care,” Hochul said on Friday. “To anyone who is working to deny abortion access, our message is clear: not here, not now, not ever.”

James agreed.

“I will work tirelessly to ensure that low-income New Yorkers and people from hostile states have access to the care they need and deserve,” she said. “I will always fight to protect our right to make decisions about our own bodies and expand access to this critical and lifesaving care.”

Yet, it is unknown how many women will travel to New York for abortions.

It could be plenty, simply because the state has among the most liberal abortion laws in the nation, because flights to New York City and Buffalo are readily available and because Hochul recently set aside $35 million to expand abortion access and clinic security in the state. What’s more, several huge corporations – including Amazon, Apple, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Disney – said Friday that they would pay for travel expenses for employees who need to travel out of state to get an abortion.

Then again, New York isn’t physically close to any of the nine states where abortion immediately became illegal with the Supreme Court’s decision Friday. And the nearest of those states is Wisconsin, which has a law on the books that predated Roe that makes abortion illegal – and the Democratic governor of that state has said he’s looking for ways to make sure that law won’t be enforced.

The number of abortions performed in New York could increase, though, if tough new abortion laws are enacted in nearby states, forcing women there to look elsewhere to terminate their pregnancies. Ohio, for example, has enacted a ban on abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy, and while that law has been tied up in the courts, the Supreme Court ruling is expected to mean that near-ban on abortion is likely to go forward. Pennsylvania could enact similar limits on abortion if Republican Doug Mastriano is elected governor, and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Friday proposed banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy

Abortion opponents are expected to look for ways to prevent women from traveling to another state to get an abortion, but Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh – who agreed to overturn Roe – said the Constitution will not allow that.

“May a state bar a resident of that state from traveling to another state to obtain an abortion?” Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion. “In my view, the answer is no based on the constitutional right to interstate travel.”

Even so, lawmakers in Republican-led states are already looking for ways to block such travel by other means. In Missouri, for example, Republicans are proposing a law that would allow private citizens to sue anyone who helps a Missouri resident to get an abortion from out of state.

Hoping to counter such laws even before they are enacted, the New York State Legislature recently approved several measures aimed at protecting health care workers from legal action if they perform abortions on women from out of state, while also allowing patients to enroll in a confidentiality program aimed at protecting them from threats.

And the legislature may not be done yet. Even though state lawmakers codified the right to abortion in New York in 2019, abortion rights supporters are pressing the legislature to pass an equal rights amendment that protects pregnant women and those who get abortions from discrimination.

“For New York to be a leader and an abortion access state, Albany leadership must convene a special session to pass constitutional protections through an Equality Amendment,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Meanwhile, abortion opponents in New York and nationwide will be pressing to end abortion in the Empire State.

“We must keep fighting until the lives of unborn babies are fully protected in law, and the notion of abortion becomes so abhorrent that no mother would willfully choose it for her child,” said Jason J. McGuire, executive director of an anti-abortion group called New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. “Here in New York, the struggle will be an uphill one, but we embrace the challenge.”

That challenge would be moot if Congress were to ban abortion nationwide, which former Vice President Mike Pence proposed on Friday.

A national ban would supersede New York’s liberal abortion laws. And both Finley and Vogel agreed that such a ban is within the realm of possibility if, in 2024, Americans elect a Republican president and a strongly Republican Congress.

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I have covered Washington for 30 years. Former National Press Club president, former Nieman fellow at Harvard and current adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. I love interacting with readers: email me at jzremski@buffnews.com.

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