In the last year, the debate surrounding abortion has become increasingly relevant. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the United States’ landmark abortion case, has fundamentally altered the rights of women nationwide. On Friday, May 5, Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), delivered a poignant address to the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale regarding the state of our democracy, particularly discussing reproductive rights.
Lieberman has been executive director of NYCLU since December 2001. Under her leadership, the NYCLU has expanded the scope and depth of its work through litigation and advocacy to promote civil rights and civil liberties. Lieberman began her public interest legal career as a criminal defense lawyer in the South Bronx office of the Legal Aid Society, and she later served as executive director of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys. For a decade, she served on the faculty of Urban Legal Studies Program at City College. She joined the NYCLU in 1989 and was the founding director of its Reproductive Rights project.
At the start of her lecture, Lieberman described what she considers an “existential threat to our democracy.” She delved into “the gerrymandering that has catapulted the Republican Party into controlling the House of Representatives.” Lieberman explained that states such as Wisconsin possess an electorate that, despite being “overwhelmingly” pro-choice, have a largely Republican state legislature. Further, Lieberman mentioned that “in the state of Mississippi, the state legislature passed a law putting state-appointed judges in charge of the criminal court in Jacksonville, Mississippi.” The belief that the Second Amendment grants all citizens the ability to “bear weapons of mass destruction” was also called into question by Lieberman.
Lieberman also spoke about abortion access. She focused on the role that the ACLU has played in fighting for these crucial rights, saying, “The ACLU alone has gone to court to challenge some of the abortion bans … we’ve succeeded in blocking them in six states,” she explained. In fact, the ACLU has been actively involved, revealing its new Abortion Criminal Defense Initiative (ACDI) in March. The new program will provide aid to individuals who are at risk of prosecution due to offering, assisting, or receiving abortion care.
Among the American public, a 61% majority of adults believe in one’s right to an abortion in most cases. Speaking to the popularity of abortion rights, Lieberman claimed that “whenever abortion has been on the ballot, it wins because America is pro choice … people have become accustomed to the fact that we can control our own bodies.” In 2022, abortion became a determining issue in battleground states, preventing the “red wave” that was initially predicted. Lieberman claimed that “abortion is not just subliminally on the ballot in terms of who we elect but it is expressly on the ballot.”
In response to the new regulations, New York has adjusted its current abortion laws. It became the first state to take action following Roe’s reversal, with the state assembly passing an equal rights amendment 98 to 43 in July 2022. This new constitutional amendment will protect abortion, and will likely be presented to New York voters in 2024. Lieberman detailed that “[this new amendment] will drive voters to the polls.”
New York state legislators have taken initiative in other ways, such as allowing physician assistants and nurse practitioners to perform early-term abortion and prescribe abortion-inducing medication. In addition, homeless and runaway youth are now permitted to consent to an abortion and Medicaid covers the procedure.
Looking to the future, Lieberman mentioned that although New York Gov. Kathy Hochul enhanced Medicaid rates for surgical abortions, these rates must be altered for medical abortions as well. Urging voters to turn out in 2024, Lieberman described her desire to transform New York into a “beacon … [for] people … to come here … [from] out of state.”
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