Assemblyman Fred Thiele at a 2018 press conference in Riverside. File photo: Denise Civiletti

On Jan. 22, the New York State Legislature approved Assembly Bill 21, the Reproductive Health Act. In the Assembly, the vote was 95-49. I voted in favor of this bill. The purpose of this legislation was to codify Roe v. Wade in New York State law and repeal provisions of state law inconsistent with the Roe decision. Throughout my career in government, I have consistently supported Roe v. Wade and a woman’s reproductive rights.

To understand the need for the legislation, we must first look at the history of a woman’s right to choose in New York State. In 1970, New York State was one of the first states in the nation to decriminalize abortion under the leadership of Republican Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea, who represented our district from 1960 to 1978. The 1970 law excluded abortion from the criminal law during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy or to save the life of the mother. That was three years before Roe v. Wade was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Speaker Duryea and the State Legislature recognized nearly 50 years ago that it was a woman and her doctor, not the state, who should make such a personal decision.

In 1973, Roe was decided and became the law of the land. It superseded the New York State law, rendering portions of the New York law unconstitutional. The flaw in the New York law was the failure to provide an exception for health of the mother from any proscription of abortion.

What did the Supreme Court say in Roe? First, the court said that a woman’s right to choose was not absolute. “Appellant…..argue(s) that a woman’s right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at any time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses. With this we do not agree…We, therefore conclude that the right of personal privacy is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.”

The court went on to say “If the state is interested in protecting fetal life, after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.” The court ruled that the life and health of the mother is always paramount when considering state regulation.

This has been the law of the land for more than 45 years. Abortions may be proscribed in the third trimester, but there must be an exception to protect the life or health of the mother. To do otherwise would be unconstitutional.

The Reproductive Health Act simply mirrors Roe by amending the State Public Health Law to state, “A health care practitioner licensed, certified or authorized under title eight of the education law, acting within his or her lawful scope of practice, may perform an abortion when, according to the practitioner’s reasonable and good faith professional judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case: the patient is within 24 weeks of the commencement of the pregnancy, or there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.” Abortions after 24 weeks are rare and constitute less than 1 percent of all abortions.

A.21 was adopted because since 1973, the New York State law was unconstitutional. It did not contain a provision protecting the health of the mother. The State Legislature did nothing more than reiterate the law of the land consistent with Roe.

It is also important to understand what the Reproductive Health Act does not do. The Reproductive Health Act does not provide for abortion on demand throughout the term of a pregnancy. It does not expand the existing scope of practice of health care professionals in New York State. It does not lessen the criminal penalties for crimes against pregnant women. It does not legalize infanticide.

I support Roe v. Wade. I support legislation that codifies Roe and updates New York State law to be consistent with that decision.

Why? There is no more personal decision in a woman’s life than a woman’s decision about a pregnancy. This is true anytime, but it is particularly true late in a pregnancy when a woman is confronted with life and death issues about the viability of the fetus or medical complications affecting her own life or health.

Who gets to make this heart-wrenching decision? Should it be the government in far off Washington or Albany, subject to the whims and vagaries of politics at any given moment, or should it be a woman in consultation with her trusted medical professional? Such health care decisions are best made by the individual and not the government.

Constitutional rights are not a matter of polls and popularity. However, the majority of New Yorkers support Roe v. Wade. A recent poll put the level of support for Roe in New York State at 73 percent. I respect the opinions of those who do not believe in abortion based on religious or personal beliefs. They have every right to make those choices. However, my duty as an elected official is to defend the right to privacy provided for in the state and federal constitutions. That is all the Reproductive Health Act does.

Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) represents New York’s First Assembly District, which includes Flanders, Riverside, Northampton and the South Fork. 

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Fred Thiele (I, D-Sag Harbor) represents the First Assembly District, a district that includes southeastern Brookhaven, Southampton and East Hampton towns. He was first elected to the Assembly in 1995, after serving as Southampton Town supervisor and Suffolk County legislator.