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New York AG Calls For Nationwide Abortion Access During The Coronavirus

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to a subject that has perplexed many people as the country deals with a coronavirus pandemic by closing down most activities. What is an essential business or service and what is not? The answer can vary from place to place. In a handful of states, officials have banned access to abortion clinics during the pandemic in an effort, they say, to preserve needed medical supplies, such as gowns and masks. Texas issued one such ban, triggering a legal challenge that has drawn in officials from other states. New York's attorney general, Letitia James, is organizing other like-minded attorneys general to support the challenge against the Texas measure.

LETITIA JAMES: I, along with 18 other states, oppose this ban on abortion, oppose this ban on reproductive freedom because this ban does nothing, nothing to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus. The reality is that there are other measures which should've been utilized by some of these states to protect the spread of the coronavirus. Texas is doing nothing more than using this pandemic as an excuse to trespass on the rights of women and to treat them like second-class citizens.

MARTIN: I understand your point. But I'm asking you - what is the legal basis that you have to intervene in a decision by another state?

JAMES: Right now, what we have done is we have filed amicus brief. This case was defended by Planned Parenthood, the Lawyering Project and another entity in the state of Texas. They brought the case. I, along with 18 other states, have filed an amicus brief in support of their position.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, there are a number of people who wonder whether, in part, the purpose of these bans is to trigger a case that would go to the Supreme Court, which is believed to be much more amenable to overturning Roe than previous courts have been. Do you think that that might be true?

JAMES: Well, there's no question about it. These states, again, because of the current federal government, are chipping away at Roe v. Wade.

MARTIN: A couple more issues before we let you go, and thank you for talking to us today. We're actually going to talk about rent and mortgage payments more, in more depth later this hour. But New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a 90-day freeze on mortgage payments in your state. But the first of the month came and went last week, and to our understanding, there was no rent freeze. Why suspend one kind of housing payment but not the other?

JAMES: So let me just go back. He did not issue a ban on mortgages. That's not true. He urged banks, particularly commercial banks to work with their customers to issue moratoriums, to postpone mortgage payments for 90 days for homeowners in financial distress due to coronavirus. With respect to rent, he did issue a 90-day stay on evictions and not the payment of rents.

There have been a number of proposals that have been put forth. There's been a number of discussions with community-based organizations about coming up with some sort of initiative so that once this executive order is - expires on April 16, individuals during this period of time - those rent payments will be forgiven. But I think it's important that your listeners understand that individuals need to reach out to their banks to get their mortgage payments postponed for 90 days as a result of this coronavirus.

MARTIN: Well, I understand that your office has taken a number of steps to alleviate distress. I understand a number of steps have been taken. But I can't let you go without asking, you know. How are you doing? I mean, the fact is that New York has been the epicenter to this point of this crisis. I mean, how are you doing? How are you weathering all this?

JAMES: How am I doing?

MARTIN: Yeah.

JAMES: I'm holding up. I'm holding up. But the bottom line is this - I think the message should be clear all throughout the state of New York. Everyone needs to remain calm. There's a lot of heightened anxiety, a lot of fears. There's a lot of bottom feeders who are taking advantage of this heightened fear and anxiety. There's a lot of scams that are going on.

We have received thousands of complaints with regard to price gouging, medical scams, individuals who are claiming that they've got the treatment and the cure for COVID-19. There are now individuals who are scamming people, claiming that they've got their stimulus check. We've been reaching out to a number of online platforms to remove posts. We've been issuing a significant number of cease-and-desist orders to individuals. As we know, individuals unfortunately are engaging in hate, in particular against the Asian community.

So I don't really have time to focus on me. It's really focusing on others. And it's really critically important that individuals understand that this is the time to look out for others, particularly vulnerable individuals, marginalized people, individuals who are isolating at home, senior citizens who may need you to go to the grocery store for them. That is what's keeping me going each and every day.

MARTIN: That's the attorney general of New York, Letitia James. Attorney General James, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll talk again.

JAMES: Thank you, Michel, and thank you to your audience. And remember too everyone - this, too, shall pass. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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