In the midst of a battle over a new abortion law in New York State, Cardinal Timothy Dolan suggested that a true progressive would be on his side of the debate. He cited Governor Al Smith’s aim to “always defend the ones ignored,” and asked, “Is it not the case that today the one most without a voice, the one hidden and ignored…is the baby in the womb? Is it not legitimate to ask why the protection of the civil rights of the preborn baby is not part of the dominant progressive agenda?”
He was reacting to New York’s Reproductive Health Act, which, as Time described it, “has catapulted late term abortion back into the political spotlight.” President Donald Trump assailed the law in his State of the Union address, saying it “would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” Governor Andrew Cuomo fought back in a New York Times op-ed, reminding readers that Trump once called himself “very pro-choice” and maintaining that the New York law “merely codifies existing federal law and firmly established practices.”
Like a lot of people, I didn’t know what to believe about this law. What I found is complicated—that the new law does codify the essentials of Roe v. Wade, but that there’s also much more to it. There is a reason that supporters of the bill are celebrating so loudly—Cuomo went so far as to have the World Trade Center lit up pink after the law was enacted on the forty-sixth anniversary of Roe—and that many others, and not just prolife activists, are saddened. As much as possible, the new statute disregards fetal life. In spirit, if not in the essential details, it goes well beyond Roe. For some, that’s cause for rejoicing; for others, not.
The New York law is already being touted as a template for progressive Democrats; Virginia is engulfed in controversy over a legislator’s attempt to ease restrictions on abortions late in pregnancy. Against that background, the notion of a progressive, civil-rights-based approach to limiting abortion may seem far-fetched. But there was a time when it would have seemed far-fetched to imagine that conservative Republicans could be a force against mass incarceration. The liberal case against abortion has been made by such figures as Father Daniel Berrigan and the writer and civil-liberties advocate Nat Hentoff, among others; it exists.