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UPHILL BATTLE: Gallagher at the New York State Capitol in Albany.
Bob Falcetti/Genesis
UPHILL BATTLE: Gallagher at the New York State Capitol in Albany.

Playing defense

Politics | Behind the scenes in a blue state legislature, pro-life lobbyists go door to door for votes

Issue: "Day of reckoning," June 14, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y.— Kathleen Gallagher had gotten up at 6:45 a.m. to drive from her home in Schenectady, N.Y., to the state legislature in Albany where she is a lobbyist for the New York Catholic Conference. In a blue state that can be an unrewarding job. Gallagher does not fit the stereotype of a Catholic pro-life lobbyist. On this Tuesday in early May she’s wearing a skirt and jacket, and just above her ankle is a recent (small) tattoo with the first initials of her husband and children. One of her colleagues suggested a visible tattoo might not be “work appropriate,” but she thought a tattoo of her family’s names couldn’t be more appropriate to her work.

Jason McGuire, an evangelical pastor who heads up New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms and its affiliate New Yorker’s Family Research Foundation, had gotten up at 3:30 a.m. along with his teenage son who has been working with him to drive from his home near Rochester to Albany. McGuire and Gallagher aren’t on the same side on every issue, like gun control, but they are allies on abortion. On this Tuesday, the duo is tracking a bill scheduled to be voted on in committee to remove many abortion restrictions in New York. They will work most days in Albany until the legislature wraps up its session, likely in June.

While red state legislatures are busy passing restrictions on abortion, some blue state legislatures are trying to loosen them. Pro-life lobbyists in blue states, instead of seeking restrictions, typically have to work on blocking laws. Last year, California’s legislature passed a law allowing nonphysicians—physician’s assistants or nurse practitioners—to perform first trimester abortions. The outcome on a similar bill, the Women’s Equality Act (WEA), was different in New York last year, thanks to a closely divided Senate and the lobbying effort from the state’s pro-life groups.

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The New York Senate—by one vote—blocked the bill, which had an abortion provision as one point in its 10-point agenda. The abortion provision would have expanded the legality of late-term abortions; allowed nonphysicians to perform abortions; and removed criminal penalties associated with botched abortions and second-degree abortions, where someone would commit an abortion without the mother’s consent. New York currently offers legal protections to babies in the womb who are older than 24 weeks. The bill would have allowed an abortion at any point in the pregnancy for the sake of the mother’s life or health, including emotional health.

In the split Senate, the lobbyists needed the votes of two Democrats to block the bill. One Democratic vote was a former pastor from the Bronx, Rubén Diaz Sr., who is unabashedly pro-life. The other Democratic vote was a Jewish senator from Brooklyn, Simcha Felder, who votes conservatively on a number of issues but not necessarily on abortion. Felder declined an interview on the subject. McGuire said Felder had been nervous about how his vote would play with the rabbis in his community.

This session, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to pass the WEA again, but he has not pushed it as hard as he did last session. Despite continuing pressure from NARAL Pro-Choice New York, Cuomo faces reelection this year, so he is unlikely to push a controversial abortion bill. Democrats last year insisted on keeping the abortion provision tied to the other uncontroversial items, like an anti-trafficking measure, but they have recently shown willingness to pass portions of the WEA separately.

ON THIS TUESDAY IN MAY, McGuire and Gallagher have another abortion bill to worry about. They need nine votes to defeat the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) in the Senate Health Committee. The RHA is essentially a stand-alone version of the abortion provision in the WEA, but strikes more regulations on abortion than the WEA. It also calls abortion a “right,” a concern to the pro-life lobbyists because that terminology could threaten conscience protections for healthcare professionals. The bill has trodden water in the health committee for seven years.

Over coffee and pastries, Gallagher and McGuire meet in a conference room with their staff and volunteers to map out the day. They focus on the Senate Health Committee hearing at noon, but parse other committee schedules to see if anything has snuck past their attention. Stephen Hayford, on staff with New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, mentions a bill increasing the number of physician’s assistants a physician could supervise.

“I did look at it and I was OK with it,” said Gallagher. “It’s about supervision. It doesn’t allow them to do things on their own.” McGuire jumps in to ask whether loosening such regulations might “open the door” for abortion providers.

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