By Brendan Dyer
With tensions high and vocal advocates on both sides, Putnam County lawmakers pushed through a resolution calling on New York State to repeal the Reproductive Health Act last week.
A room full of residents met the 8-1 vote in favor with applause as dueling rallies gathered downstairs and outside of the historic courthouse on Gleneida Avenue at what Legislature Chairman Joe Castellano called “one of the largest legislative meetings yet.” Legislator Nancy Montgomery, the only Democrat on the board, was the sole lawmaker in opposition of the resolution.
The contentious and symbolic vote comes after debates following a health committee meeting on March 18 where county lawmakers put the resolution in motion. Lawmakers at that meeting expressed their strong disagreement with New York’s new abortion laws. Now their resolution goes to Albany, though it doesn’t expect to change anything at the state level.
The RHA codified Roe v. Wade, stating an abortion is legal within the first 24 weeks of a pregnancy, but also anytime after that if a woman’s life or health is at risk or the fetus is not viable. Abortions could also now be performed by healthcare professionals other than physicians.
The county’s resolution criticized the RHA for expanding abortion rights past 24 weeks, arguing is could lead to the “pain and suffering” of the baby in the womb. Additionally, the resolution stated while a late term abortion can now be conducted to protect the health of the mother, a woman’s “health” is vague in the law.
Legislator Toni Addonizio said she “urges the state legislature to introduce statewide legislation that supports the unborn.”
Legislator Ginny Nacerino, who introduced the resolution, said the RHA is “barbaric” and she has an “unwavering commitment to decency and humanity.” Nacerino also argued there are loopholes in the RHA that leaves the law open to interpretation. She questioned under what conditions the abortions will be performed.
According to Nacerino, “the law in its present form is broad based and vague.” She continued by saying that New York’s new abortion law is unclear about what the conditions of the pregnant woman’s health needs to be in order to justify an abortion.
Legislator Amy Sayegh expanded on Nacerino’s statement, drawing the question about how to interpret the RHA’s use of the term “health.” She said, “the term health is extremely vague to be used in determining the termination of a pregnancy.” Her concerns revolved around “real women in real situations that need our support.”
Castellano also spoke in support of the resolution. He agreed with Sayegh and Nacerino, adding that there are “too many loopholes in the RHA.”
After county lawmakers expressed their defense and strong support of the resolution, Legislator Paul Jonke commented on emails lawmakers received from residents in opposition of the resolution. Jonke and other lawmakers expressed their disappointment in some of the input received from the public, which according to them, included criticisms comparing them to Nazis.
In her closing remarks, which were cut short by a motion to end discussion on the resolution, Legislator Montgomery urged her colleagues supporting the resolution to “reconsider and revisit its inaccuracies.” She pointed out a lack of facts in the resolution and said it’d be wrong to send it up to Albany in its current draft.
“We do not have a killing bill before us,” said Montgomery, referring to public outcries that came in email calling the RHA infanticide. “I’m angry with my colleagues here disagreeing with my colleagues in New York State, calling them supporters of infanticide.”
County Executive MaryEllen Odell supports the resolution passed by her GOP colleagues on the legislature. In an interview, Odell said lawmakers passed this resolution to let Albany know how they felt about the RHA.
She scoffed at the notion from critics arguing the issue of abortion has no place at the county level.
“It was just a message and an opportunity for Putnam County to affirm how they feel about family and values that are important,” Odell said. “It was done in a respectful manner, everybody had the opportunity to share their views and opinions and their faiths and their values.”
The courthouse was filled to capacity throughout the night with many people waiting downstairs for their chance to enter the room. As people left the courtroom more entered. However, a large group of those in support of the resolution remained rallied outside singing Amazing Grace, an act that began in the meeting room minutes preceding the start of the meeting.
Despite the room being at capacity, passion and support were widely present on the steps of the historic courthouse. Around 5:45 p.m., almost an hour before the County Legislature meeting began, nearly 50 people were outside holding signs showing their support of, or opposition to, the resolution.
Patterson Councilman Peter Dandreano said it’s important for the county to speak up and let the state know how the majority feels. Dandreano, pointing out that neither the resolution nor the RHA are matters of religion, said, “The separation of church and state is to keep the government from forcing moral issues on us.”
Edmund Riely, speaking as a member of a group called the Lower Hudson Valley Right to Life Party, said, “It doesn’t matter how the resolution resonates on a state level, it matters that people speak up for children. It’s a moral imperative.”
In opposition to the larger group of resolution supporters standing nearby, a few residents stood to show support for the RHA. Some came as far as Ulster County.
“If it gets approved it’s just a shame and tarnishes the reputation of the county,” said Conner Brennan of Cold Spring. “This waste’s taxpayer money and we pay these people to do their jobs. They have no jurisdiction doing this.”
Norma Pereira of Carmel said, “We are spending and wasting our time but we have to show we are a part of the county, standing with what the state is doing, and making noise.”
According to Brewster resident Eileen McDermott, it doesn’t matter what is said in the county about the RHA. She said it matters in the state and “the RHA remains the law in the state, and it will remain the law here.”
David Propper contributed to this article.