ALBANY — Feminist activist Gloria Steinem sided with New York's Roman Catholic bishops this past week in urging that lawmakers reject Gov. Andrew Cuomo's push to legalize commercial reproductive surrogacy arrangements sought by some gay and infertile couples seeking to have children.
Steinem released an open letter on the topic just as Cuomo and television personality Andy Cohen were holding a press conference to promote the legislation which has the backing of many Senate Democrats but has gotten a cooler reception in the state Assembly.
While Cuomo highlighted the fact that New York is one of only three states to ban such arrangements, Steinem pointed out that couples do have the right to line up uncompensated surrogate arrangements in order to have babies.
Under the Cuomo-backed proposal, Steinem said, "women in economic need become commercialized vessels for rent, and the fetuses they carry become the property of others."
She said payment for surrogacy "puts disenfranchised women at the financial and emotional mercy of wealthier and more privileged individuals."
But Cuomo said the New York legislation he endorses requires more counseling and protection for the would-be surrogates than other states that allow such deals.
"If you actually cared about women being exploited, you would support this bill and use it as an example to the other states," Cuomo, a Democrat, said.
Cuomo singled out three Democratic women who have voiced opposition to the bill -- Assemblywomen Debra Glick, D-Manhattan, Didi Barrett, D-Dutchess and Columbia counties, and Helene Weinstein, D-Brooklyn -- and said he disagrees with their position, but insisted he has respect for them.
The New York Catholic Conference, representing the bishops who oversee all dioceses in the state, said in a bill memo that the arrangement that the legislation would allow "reduces the birth mother to an incubator " and "treats children as commodities to be manufactured, bought and sold."
Cohen, the host of a late night Bravo show, said that in order to have a biological child he faced added cost and stress by going to California to have his infant son, Benjamin, through a surrogacy arrangement due to New York's ban.
Such pregnancies are initiated after a contract is signed by the "intended parents" and the "gestational carrier," with the carrier being impregnated with an embryo created in a laboratory through in vitro fertilization.
Cuomo's late father, three-term Gov. Mario Cuomo, approved New York's current ban, following the controversial "Baby M" case in New Jersey, which led to a protracted court case after a paid birth mother in New Jersey backed out of the deal and sought custody of the baby.
One of the bill's sponsors, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, said the legislation includes strong safeguards. They include requirements for coverage of healthcare costs for up to 26 weeks post-birth and providing an independent attorney to advise the surrogate through the process, she noted.
The bill's fate in the Assembly remains uncertain, though it passed the Senate Tuesday, 40-21.
Cuomo voiced frustration that some measures that he said are part of the "progressive" agenda in Albany -- such as allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses, legalize recreational marijuana for adults and expand civil rights protections --
remain bottled up at the statehouse. He said if they don't pass, Democratic lawmakers who ran last year as progressives should face primaries in their re-election efforts.
But shortly after he made that declaration, Cuomo predicted that the legislative session, slated to conclude June 19, will be viewed as a "very successful" one.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.