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How America Became Pro-choice America

Political pressure works, but family pressure works best. How else to explain why New York State’s Legislature, both houses with Republican majorities at the time, voted in 1970 to allow a woman’s right to choose abortion with no state interference until 24 weeks into her pregnancy?

At the time, the 207-member state legislature had exactly four women members. It’s true that way back then, there were pro-choice Republicans and anti-choice Democrats – the parties were not as uniform as they have become. But still, it was a near miracle and a harbinger for our pro-choice future (a temporary one, sadly).

When Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the bill into law on April 11, 1970, he said, “The wives of the Senate and the Assembly put this bill through.” No doubt, pressure from women family members was crucial, but in New York’s case, the adult sons of one Assemblymember provided the crucial and almost-after-the-last-minute pressure that enabled legislation stipulating women’s bodily autonomy. Here’s what happened.

Supporters of abortion rights had brought bills before the New York Assembly in 1967, 1968 and 1969 and each year, they were defeated. Moreover, the staunchly anti-abortion Senate Majority Leader Earl Brydges, never even let those bills come up for a vote in his Senate. During the 1970 legislative season, abortion rights supporters took a different tack – they aimed to find a Republican state senator to sponsor a bill and bring it up in the more conservative senate first. They did find two Republican sponsors and the Majority Leader let the bill come to a vote in order to dispense with the issue. No way would the Senate pass a bill that was written to give women a total right to abortion with no restrictions whatsoever. The debate, before a packed Senate, took more than five hours. Several Senators kept their intentions hidden – possibly because they themselves didn’t know which way they would vote. When it finally occurred, the Senate voted 31 for and 26 against. Eighteen Democrats and thirteen Republicans voted for a bill that completely legalized abortion with no restrictions. Majority Leader Brydges, a Catholic, was brought to tears by the vote – and his miscalculated decision to allow it. But he also stated he would not stand in the way of the majority.

The bill then went to the Assembly, where a viability restriction was added: women could freely choose abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, after which it would be legal only to save the life of the mother. Like in the Senate, it was unclear what would happen. In the middle of the alphabetical roll call, Assemblymember George M. Michaels, a Catholic from a majority Catholic district, quietly voted against the bill. In the end, the vote was 74-74, insuring defeat for the bill. But before the clerk could bring the vote to a close, Mr. Michaels asked to be recognized. At first, his voice thick with emotion, he rambled and said something about his constituents condemning him for what he was about to do. But then he said, ''One of my sons just called me a whore for the vote I cast against this,'' Mr. Michaels said. Another son had told him, ''Dad, for God's sake, don't let your vote be the vote that defeats this bill.'' For family peace, he said, he changed his vote to yes. His prediction proved true: voters cast him out in favor of an anti-abortion candidate the very next year. But the bill passed.

The more restrictive Assembly bill was returned to the Senate for a vote, it passed again, and the Governor signed it into law on April 11, 1970, almost three years before Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. New York wasn’t the first state to make abortion legal – that distinction belongs to Hawaii, which passed legislation a few weeks before New York. Hawaii’s bill, however, applied only to in-state residents. The law, plus Hawaii’s distance from the rest of the United States, prevented the Aloha state from becoming a haven for women seeking abortion.

New York had no such residency requirement. Fully 60% of women receiving abortions in New York in 1971 were from other states. Indeed, entire Friday morning flights from some quarters of the country were filled with middle-class white college students and young workers, bound for a weekend abortion in New York City.

The bill legalizing abortion in New York may have passed by a hair (and a few cudgels from family members), but the women’s movement ensured that the pressure was on for an enshrinement of a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. Less than three years later, legalized abortion was the law of the land.

The right to an abortion is not merely the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. During the past 50 years, abortion rights have signified women’s civil rights as free and equal beings, who are able to fully control the course of their lives. Making abortion illegal again, as seems likely in as many as 26 states, strips women of equality of bodily integrity. It makes us second-class citizens again – our bodies under control of a paternalistic state.

When we lose the right to make decisions about our bodies, we have lost the basis upon which our equality under the law was founded. Voting at the state and national level for pro-choice candidates is one method by which to ensure our rights. Solid Democratic majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives along with a Democratic president would enable the passage of national pro-choice legislation Changing the nature of the disgraced Supreme Court by expanding the number of justices and/or limiting their terms on the Court, is another. Until we find a way to institutionalize abortion rights, only women living in pro-choice states will truly enjoy full civil rights.

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