The Diagnosis Is In

by Kathryn Jean Lopez
A New York doctor says Cuomo’s abortion push is harmful to women.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recently released Women’s Equality Act is a “radical deregulation of abortion in New York,” says Dr. Elissa Sanchez-Speach. A family physician in Rochester, N.Y., she opposes the governor’s push, calling the abortion component to his legislation both “unnecessary for and harmful to women’s health.” Dr. Sanchez-Speach talks about her opposition to the legislation with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How could you oppose a “Women’s Equality Act”? Aren’t you in favor of equality for women?

DR. ELISSA SANCHEZ-SPEACH: The Women’s Equality Act seems to be an effort to slip a radical abortion-expansion proposal through New York’s state legislature by folding it in with several other proposals genuinely designed to benefit women. It’s a shame that the governor will ruin an otherwise largely commendable piece of legislation by the inclusion of an abortion plan that will harm, not help, women.


LOPEZ: What’s your objection to making sure a woman has access to late-term abortion in a case where her health is in danger?

SANCHEZ-SPEACH: First of all, we have to keep in mind that in New York it is already legal to perform a late-term abortion if the mother’s life is in danger. Governor Cuomo would like to expand this situation to legalize late-term abortions for preservation of the mother’s “health” — a term that is not clearly defined by the bill. It is possible that in addition to physical-health reasons, abortions will also be permitted for mental, emotional, or social reasons. In other words, abortions could be permitted in any distressing situation whatsoever.

That said, many obstetricians believe that at a later stage of pregnancy when the baby can live outside the uterus, it is safer for the mother’s health to deliver the baby expeditiously by C-section in a controlled environment than to perform a late-term abortion, which is more time-consuming and has markedly increased risks of medical complications than early abortion. By providing late-term abortions for such broad reasons, we would seem to be violating a basic tenet of medicine: “Primum non nocere,” or “First, do no harm.”


LOPEZ: Did you follow the story of the woman in El Salvador who couldn’t procure an abortion and had to give birth to a baby without a brain? Following the coverage, you can see why people can’t bring themselves to be against abortion in all instances, can’t you? 

SANCHEZ-SPEACH: Sadly, people find it easier to dispose of tragic situations like these by automatically recommending abortion, instead of providing the collective support that the woman needs to bear a difficult pregnancy, to raise a handicapped child, and even to deal with the subsequent loss of a child. Governor Cuomo could help women more by taking steps to ensure that this kind of support — not just the lonely act of abortion — is available to women.


LOPEZ: In a piece on Public Discourse, you ask: “Why . . . do we need a law to remove any obstacles to a procedure that would end a child’s life needlessly and risk the mother’s? Especially when it’s possible to save the lives of both mother and baby while presenting fewer risks to the mother’s long-term and physical health?” To which Governor Cuomo might respond: because “it’s her body, it’s her choice,” as he has said in the past. And hasn’t that been the law of the land for the past 40 years? The governor says he is just getting the state with the times.

SANCHEZ-SPEACH: “My body, my choice” rhetoric is not rooted in reality. Although we all have a certain amount of autonomy granted us, our choices are surely limited when it comes to harming another life. I could not kill my two-year-old, for example, if I felt that her presence was impeding my career or physical fitness. And what about the body of the late-term infant — fully formed and ready to live in the outside world — what about her choice? To embrace the “my body, my choice” mentality is to embrace the tyranny of the powerful over the weak and vulnerable.

The governor is misleading us when he claims that the Women’s Equality Act just updates state law to reflect the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade; even post-Roe, states have the right to provide commonsense restrictions on abortion that voters desire and that this law would not allow. The abortion-expansion plan in the Women’s Equality Act is nothing more than a radical deregulation of abortion in New York.


LOPEZ: Why would New York need waiting periods and parental involvement when it comes to abortion? Haven’t you heard that girls can get Plan B at any age? Who needs parents? The “women” under 18 belong to the village, don’t they? The parents may not know what is best for them.

SANCHEZ-SPEACH: By prohibiting requirements for parental involvement in the abortion decision of a minor, we are contributing to a vicious cycle that is propagated and perpetuated by a breakdown of the family unit. The sharp rise in divorce rates since the early 1960s has been followed by increased numbers of teens living in single-parent households, and by increased teen-pregnancy rates, sexually transmitted diseases, teen suicides, and abortion rates. To exclude parents from their daughter’s abortion decision — when young women cannot even get a Tylenol from the school nurse without a note from home — is just adding fuel to the fire. I cannot imagine my two teenage daughters being able make a fully informed choice on this matter, and we are deluding ourselves if we attribute this ability to teens in general. We are harming, not helping them, by taking family out of the picture.

A strong majority of New York voters, ostensibly “the village,” approve of commonsense regulations such as a waiting period and parental notification. Now more than ever, “the village” would like to see the passage of responsible legislation that will not further endanger our children.


LOPEZ: You write that “it seems doubtful that after forty-three years of legalized, frequent abortion, Cuomo’s law making abortion permissible up to the day of birth will result in fewer abortions overall.” But why should we be counting? It’s a choice. It’s about women’s freedom, we are told. 

SANCHEZ-SPEACH: Today we have a distorted perception of the meaning of freedom. We equate freedom with license — the ability to do whatever we wish at any cost. Yet the meaning of freedom, as articulated by thinkers ranging from Plato and Aristotle to our Founding Fathers, is to pursue truth and goodness, so as to know the good of the individual and of the community. Since abortion, particularly late-term abortion, is often harmful to women, we need to ask ourselves if establishing a “fundamental right” to abortion at any stage of pregnancy truly advances freedom.


LOPEZ: “By moving abortion from criminal law to public health law, the [Women’s Equality Act] would change the very nature of abortion law.” Why is this important? 

SANCHEZ-SPEACH: Although I am by no means an expert in the law, it seems to me that the decriminalization of abortion-related crimes would not benefit women at all. If anything, it leaves them with minimal recourse to justice should things not work out as planned.


LOPEZ: Is Governor Cuomo’s legislation particularly perplexing after the Kermit Gosnell trial in Philadelphia? What kinds of questions should that have raised?

SANCHEZ-SPEACH: In many places, the deregulation of abortion has increased the incidence of illegal abortion. In the Gosnell case, we saw a licensed and supposedly regulated physician performing horrendous crimes with impunity. How can we possibly think that radically deregulating abortion, including by using vague criteria for determining who can perform the procedure, will lead to safer and rarer abortions? By removing abortion-related crimes from the penal code, won’t we be vastly increasing opportunities for these monsters to capitalize on the fears and vulnerability of pregnant women? Wouldn’t it make more sense to propose stricter regulations on the practice of abortion in order to prevent exactly this type of scenario? We are naïve to trust the “good faith” intentions of abortion providers in such a lucrative field.


LOPEZ: You’re a pro-life doctor in New York. Why not give up on the state? If the governor’s agenda is any indication, you’re not the average Empire State woman. 

SANCHEZ-SPEACH: Polls show that the strong majority of New York voters, including those who label themselves “pro-choice,” believe there is already sufficient access to abortion in their state, oppose non-physicians performing abortions, and approve of commonsense regulations such as a waiting period and parental notification for minors. By pandering to the agenda of radical pro-abortion groups, such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL, Governor Cuomo is the one who is out of step with mainstream New Yorkers, not I.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.