Last week, the 2020 legislative session kicked off in Albany. After an active session last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo addressed tackling multiple ambitious proposals in his “State of the State” address on Jan. 8, from the Hate-Crime Anti-Terrorism Act to the “Restore Mother Nature” Bond Act to expanding the electric vehicle industry. Like any year, how everything will play out remains to be seen. 

“What’s typical in Albany is that nothing’s typical,” said Dennis Poust, communications director for the New York State Catholic Conference, the working arm for the state’s bishops on public policy issues.

Even with certain predictions on what the major issues will be for the year, given the length of the state’s session, which runs until June 2, “inevitably something will come up that we didn’t foresee,” Poust said.

Still, the Catholic Conference has noted a handful of issues expected to be addressed in the coming months. While some align with the Church’s beliefs, others are expected to generate quite a fight before the session ends.

Commercial surrogacy

The recent push for legalizing surrogate motherhood for profit is an issue strongly opposed by the Catholic Conference.

“There’s going to be a new push for commercial surrogacy,” Poust said. “The Governor mentioned it in the State of the State, and this is something we’re very concerned about.”

The bill would legalize commercial gestational surrogacy and enable the buying and selling of women’s eggs and the commercialization of a woman’s womb. While close to passing last year, the bill was shot down by female legislators concerned with the bill exploiting women. 

“It may sound good on paper, but it’s a commercial industry and when there’s money involved, exploitation is to follow,” Poust added.

The bill has a chance of passing this session, and while Poust predicts “it’s very possible they could reach some sort of agreement,” nothing is set in stone. 

Sex work

Introduced late in the game last session, the bill, called the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, would legalize sex work in the state in most cases. Along with many feminist groups in the state, the Conference strongly opposes the bill.

“We should never be in a situation in society where a woman or a man feels that they can’t survive without selling their body. And if they are in that position then we’ve failed,” Poust said. 

Much like commercial surrogacy, both the Conference and women’s rights organizations expressed serious concerns over how the bill would dehumanize and exploit women, as well as legitimize the work of pimps and human traffickers. 

“When you tie the hands of the courts and law enforcement, then there’s little they can do to stop what could be a situation of trafficking and exploitation,” Poust said.

As for what will come of the bill, Poust predicts nothing is expected anytime soon: “I think there’s a bit of a split, but I don’t believe there would be widespread support in the legislature now.”

Physician-assisted suicide

After failing to get a vote on the bill in any committee in either house last session, Poust says that the fight against stopping physician-assisted suicide isn’t over. Last year, Gov. Cuomo said he would sign the bill (The Medical Aid in Dying Act) into law if it reaches his desk. Physician-assisted suicide is now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. New Jersey was the most recent state to legalize the practice with the law going into effect on Aug. 1, 2019.

“We don’t see this as a religious issue primarily; again it’s the exploitation of vulnerable people,” he said. A key component in the Church’s fight against the bill has been from disability support groups, many of whom are concerned the bill would be used in determining if a life is worth living. 

The issue is also not as polarizing as other pro-life issues the Conference has seen: “You have Republicans who support it; you have Democrats who oppose it. It’s not so much a political issue, it’s really an issue of people’s conscience,” Poust said.

“We spend a lot of money in the state rightly on anti-suicide messaging, commercials and signs, and we’ve seen a huge spike in suicides among young people,” Poust added. “We’ve seen this discouragement of suicide, except this. This is where we’re saying suicide is okay, and that’s a really terrible message for a young person to hear.”

Recreational marijuana 

After opposing its passage last year, Poust said that “it seems to me that recreational marijuana is likely to pass at some point, maybe this session.”
While there is a chance the bill (Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act) will be held off, the growing support for its passage “is getting harder and harder to avoid,” Poust said. “There are probably hundreds of millions of dollars to be made by the state from legalization, and that kind of money is not usually left on the table.”

Even still, the Conference will continue to argue against recreational marijuana, noting that its passage could lead to increased teenage and childhood usage, natural progression to harder drugs and increased impairment-related transportation accidents and deaths.

“We have the Governor on one hand calling for the crack down on vaping and flavored vaping, and we’ve seen the dangers of that,” Poust said. “Now we want to legalize marijuana, and we don’t know enough (about it).” 

Solitary confinement

“We’re hoping to be more involved in the solitary confinement bill,” Poust said. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act would “create humane alternatives to solitary confinement” and more restrictive criteria for being placed in confinement. 

The Church has long been against confinement. In 2014, Pope Francis spoke against solitary confinement of humans, and in 2016, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger wrote an op-ed in the Albany Times Union saying “solitary confinement works against the purpose of rehabilitation.”

“Solitary confinement can be a form of torture, and we as a society have made that determination that torture is something to be outlawed. So we’re hopeful it might gain some support this year,” Poust said.