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Andrew Cuomo’s late-term abortion push

Andrew Cuomo, who has been unafraid to make a splash during his time as governor of New York, is doing it again.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the Democrat is set to push for a bill that would reduce the state's restrictions on late-term abortions, allowing for the procedure when the woman's health is at stake rather than just, as current law states, when her life is in danger -- a significantly lower threshold.

As the Times notes, Cuomo's move is particularly interesting because generally all the state-level movement on abortion in recent years has been toward more rather than fewer restrictions.

For the potential 2016 presidential candidate, the move is likely to be both a boon to his standing among liberals as well as a potentially dicey proposition when it comes to the broader American electorate.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

The practical effect of the move is actually less than meets the eye, though. Cuomo is basically just trying to change state law to match the already legally superior federal law and ensure consistent access to such abortions in case Roe v. Wade is overturned. In other words, there would be basically no change in what kind of abortions are allowed in New York.

But that doesn't mean it's not a big deal politically.

The fact is that abortion is always a big deal. And while abortion rights very much remain a 50-50 issue in American society, late-term abortion is particularly charged.

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll showed that 80 percent of Americans oppose late-term abortion -- generally defined (and defined in the poll) as occurring in the final three months of a pregnancy. That compares to 64 percent who think it should be illegal in the second trimester and just 31 percent who say it should be illegal in the first three months.

So why would Cuomo do such an unpopular thing? Well, in actuality, he's not. When you add the health of the mother to the equation, opposition to late-term abortion drops dramatically.

A 2003 ABC News poll showed that while 62 percent thought late-term abortions should generally be illegal, 61 percent said they should be legal if there is a "serious threat to the woman's health."

(We should note that, while this poll is a decade old, opinions on abortion have been relatively static in recent years. It's logical to assume that the difference between opposition to late-term abortion and support for the health-of-the-mother exception remains in place.)

In addition, as we noted above, what Cuomo is doing wouldn't actually have a big practical effect -- at least not right now. It's not like he's re-writing the book on abortion rights.

So while Cuomo's push may seem fraught on the surface, there's actually plenty of support for the kind of change he wants to make. And indeed, it wouldn't actually change that much.

But that doesn't mean that Republicans and the Catholic Church are going to accept the change, and it doesn't mean that there aren't big implications for Cuomo's political future.

Given the novelty of Cuomo's move, it's hard not to put this in the context of his potential presidential ambitions. The fact that he's pushing for a late-term abortion change in a way other Democrats haven't could allow him to differentiate himself on women's rights in a Democratic primary.

That's particularly important for a governor who, while broadly popular, has rubbed some liberals the wrong way with some of his fiscal policies. Indeed, Cuomo's recent political moves appear to be trending toward a more left-leaning agenda -- including instituting new gun control restrictions -- and his late-term abortion push is perhaps the best example of that.

Those close to Cuomo suggest his agenda has trended increasingly to the left more because the issues have changed from the fiscal to the social.

“Cuomo has always advocated a very progressive agenda on social issues and a very moderate agenda on fiscal issues," said Phil Singer, a top aide to Cuomo's 2010 campaign.

The question for Cuomo is whether, if he wins the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, he can sell his late-term abortion change to the broader American public. Abortion opponents will paint -- and already have painted -- the proposal as a needless expansion of abortion rights. And if they can effectively peg Cuomo as "favoring late-term abortion" (full stop), that could negatively effect his 2016 political aspirations.

The fact is that the details often get lost in such discussions, and late-term abortion is so broadly unpopular that Cuomo's move carries some risk. There's a reason politicians on the left generally don't touch this issue.

But if Cuomo can sell it, what he's doing could actually win popular support and do plenty to help his prospects of becoming the 2016 Democratic nominee.

Scott Clement contributed to this post.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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