07/09/2010 10:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What New Yorkers Should Be Proud Of

New York Post columnist John Wilson recently marked the 40th anniversary of safe, legal abortion in New York State with a bit of a rant.

As you would expect from the New York Post, Mr. Wilson launched into the tired rhetoric of high rates of abortion, the detrimental effects this has on our society, and how it's a mark of declining family values.

Mr. Wilson also specifically admonished black women for having too many abortions, went off on a tangent criticizing young men for not taking responsibility for their offspring, and took liberties with the interpretation of disparate polling data.

Mr. Wilson concluded his column by saying "New York needs a frank discussion about the consequences of 40 years of legal abortion."

Well, Mr. Wilson, I would like to take you up on that.

In the years immediately before New York State legalized safe abortion in 1970, hospitals had separate septic abortion wards for women who were bleeding, injured and infected due to illegal abortions. Thousands of women were on gurneys awaiting life-saving medical attention in New York. Some women had gone to illegal practitioners. Others attempted the procedure themselves using rubber tubes, knitting needles, or potassium permanganate--a corrosive substance that could end a pregnancy but all too often only caused bleeding, ulcers and burns. And of course there were the wire hangers.

After legalization, there was a dramatic decrease in the number of women dying due to complications of illegal abortions. Maternal mortality fell, because women had more options when facing a potentially life-threatening pregnancy complication.

So, Mr. Wilson, consequence No.1 of access to safe, legal abortion? We're saving women's health and lives.

Today New York is surrounded by states that have passed punitive laws designed to restrict access to abortion. Nationwide, more than 400 laws have been introduced. Yet as it was 40 years ago when we first legalized the procedure, New York State stands as a beacon of hope. Women have had a place where they can turn, where they can decide whether and when they are ready to become a parent.

So, Mr. Wilson, consequence No.2 of safe, legal abortion in New York? Women from states that have implemented ultra-conservative, anti-woman laws have a safe harbor in which to exercise their decisions.

And let's not forget - in 1969 women had very little control over whether and when to become parents. An unintended pregnancy could mean shame, loss of income or even death. Women were put in perilous positions and forced to make impossible decisions between a deadly illegal abortion or worse. Forty years ago New York State declared that it trusted women to make the decisions that were best for themselves, their families and their communities. And since that time, women have had one of the most valuable and essential of rights - agency over their own bodies. With this right, women can set the direction of their lives.

So, Mr. Wilson, consequence No. 3 of safe, legal abortion? Women have agency over their bodies and their lives.

But in New York State challenges still remain. Just because abortion is legal does not mean it's accessible. Lack of funds, language barriers and stigma all keep women from getting the health care they need. Additionally, the racial and economic disparities when it comes to access to health care services in New York are shocking. And it's not just abortion - we're talking about access to birth control and basic reproductive health care.

Additionally, New York does not require that sex education be taught in our public schools, denying our young people the tools they need to prevent transmission of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and yes, unintended pregnancies.

And, New York State has not updated its laws pertaining to safe, legal abortion since they first legalized abortion in 1970.

While it would take another op-ed to refute all the false claims John Wilson made, I will emphasize this: every poll and piece of data that has been produced in New York shows that New Yorkers are overwhelmingly pro-choice. They want laws that protect reproductive rights. The fact that our laws have not been updated in 40 years shows that it is not just Mr. Wilson but also our legislators who are out of touch with New Yorkers' realities.

New York State does not have a health exception for abortion written into law. If Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that ensures abortion is legal, were to be reversed, women in New York State would not legally be able to get an abortion later in their pregnancy if their health were at risk.

The Reproductive Health Act, a recent piece of legislation introduced in both our State Senate and Assembly, would have changed all this. Unfortunately, for the second straight year the State legislative session has ended without a vote on it. As the bill languishes, women may suffer the consequences.

All of us in New York need to work together to ensure that women have unfettered access to essential reproductive health care services and to birth control, and that our youth receive comprehensive sex education in public schools so they can make safe and healthy decisions.

If John Wilson and the New York Post really want to reduce the number of abortions, they can join us in fighting to make sure that all New Yorkers - rich and poor, black, brown, yellow and white - have access to comprehensive sex education and high-quality, affordable health care, including reproductive and sexual health care and cost-free birth control methods.

Otherwise, I'm afraid the consequences may be tragic.