Watch Deciding Vote: A Courageous Assemblyman’s Stand for Reproductive Rights | The New Yorker Documentary

[uplifting music]

[Reporter 1] Medical history

is being made this week in New York State.

[Reporter 2] Over the last two weeks,

the New York Assembly spent more than 13 hours debating

the bill, which would make abortion legal

for any woman for any reason

up to the 24th week of pregnancy.

[Reporter 3] Advocates and enemies

of the bill brought tremendous pressures to bear

on legislators on the emotional issue.

We’re not gonna sit quietly any longer.

You are murdering us.

[Reporter 4] The drama was summed up late yesterday

when one man’s vote made the difference.

Mr. Speaker, I had hoped

that this would never come to pass.

I fully appreciate that this is the termination

of my political career.

But what’s the use of getting elected

or reelected if you don’t stand for something?

Aye 73, O 73, vote passed.

[audience applauds]

[gavel bangs]

Blasting you with total abandon and profanity.

Very upset.

Your floor speech today was a traitorous one.

Does a person like you sleep at night?

If so, I don’t know how.

Many women say they should have recourse to abortions,

but this is often impossible

since most states won’t allow it,

and those that do have such stringent medical requirements,

few women qualify.

Most women who want abortions must go around the law

and a million do that in this country every year.

[Reporter 6] Have you gone through an abortion pregnancy?

Yes, I have.

[Reporter 5] Why?

I was pregnant and I could not have a child,

and I was not willing to go through a pregnancy

and then give the child up.

I don’t think anyone has a right

to bring an unwanted child into the world.

My father was always concerned about the underdog,

always concerned about people who had less than we did.

He was known as a country lawyer.

Every so often, people who came to him

for help had no money.

So they’d pay him in eggs or they’d bring him a chicken.

We always have a moral conscience and a social conscience.

And so when he was asked by the Democratic Party in Auburn

to run for assembly, this is 1960, he agreed to do it.

Auburn was a highly Republican,

highly Catholic small town.

A very slow, even-tempered place.

Really, it wasn’t very exciting.

When my father won,

he was the first Democratic assemblyman from this county

since the Civil War.

And you know what? He was the last.

He had strong beliefs that a person in his position

as an assemblyman owed a lot to his constituency.

He knew how to serve his constituents

so that they got what they needed, which is why he was able

to get reelected every couple of years

by increasingly larger margins.

He got reelected five times.

And you know, every day he was at two

or three events, especially when he was campaigning

clam bakes and banquets.

Yeah, there’s Michaels with Kennedy.

[Narrator] Sometime this week the assembly will take up

the abortion measure already passed by the Senate.

If the assembly approves the measure,

it’ll become the most liberal abortion law

in the country.

This was a big thing.

Keeping in mind that 1970

was before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.

At that point in time,

New York was the second most populous state

in the United States, second only to California.

It’s a large segment of the United States.

It was affected by that.

It was a big deal.

It was the first proposed law anywhere

to legalize abortion.

In other states,

do we eliminate the restriction for rape

and incest and things like that?

But never do we legalize abortion.

There are many who say

that this bill is abortion on demand.

I submit that we have abortion on demand in the state

of New York right now.

Any woman that wants an abortion can get one.

If she has $25,

she has it done here under

the most abominable circumstances.

And if she doesn’t have the $25, please don’t forget

that she can abort herself.

And regretfully, regretfully,

this is happening more often than you or I like to admit.

This was a bipartisan subject.

There was a lot of Democrats

and a lot of Republicans on one side,

and there was a lot of Democrats

and a lot of Republicans on the other side.

Catholics and Orthodox Jews have been warned

by their religious leaders to avoid any involvement

with abortion procedure.

The Vatican has published a letter from Pop Paul’s Secretary

of State making it plain

that the Roman Catholic Church still regards abortion

as nothing more than homicide,

even when the mother’s life is threatened.

I was 17 when this all came up,

so I wasn’t old enough to vote yet.

I don’t think I read the paper.

And I remember in religion class they passed

a petition around for us to sign opposing the law.

And I remember that only one other girl

and I didn’t sign it.

I was shocked.

I was really shocked

that all the boys signed it.

And I was taken aback and said,

what right do they have to say what women can or can’t do

with their lives?

People were talking about it.

It was big news, there’s no question.

But my dad was basically trying to stay out of it

’cause he didn’t wanna upset anybody.

His personal feeling about whether it should be legalized,

we never talked about it.

No girls in the family except for my sister-in-Law.

I didn’t talk to him that much about it.

I was his daughter-in-law.

However, he was well aware of the fact

that his home base was the city of Auburn,

which was dominated by a large block of population

that was opposed to it,

largely because of religious beliefs.

We had a thriving law practice here in Auburn, very busy.

And obviously one would have to consider

that would probably be a negative effect on the practice

because a certain number of people might,

might leave his clients.

So he made a promise to the county committee

that he would vote against it.

Has somebody thought to mention there are many,

many adopted children in this world

that created happiness not only

for themselves, but for their parents?

In the last 10 years,

367 young women in New York City were known

to have died as the result

of an abortion or an attempted one.

Either self-inflicted or performed by an unqualified person

and under unsafe circumstances.

All we’re asking for

is that these abortions be performed

by a doctor under proper medical circumstances.

The reason that the state of New York adopted

the strict prohibition on abortion was for medical reasons,

because of the danger in an abortion

in the early years of the 19th century.

Now, this fact is no longer true.

The medical reason for the law doesn’t exist anymore.

But when does life begin?

Can you answer that question?

Mr. Terry,

for me, life begins at the moment of conception,

but I am here as a legislator.

I have an obligation to give a hearing

and recognition to the fact

that that is not the same view of all people

under all circumstances.

I’ve tried to get across,

and obviously not succeeded completely,

women do not have abortions

unless they’re compelled to do it by a sort of compulsion

that no law you can draw would change.

Could we have saved 367 young women from dying?

That is the only question of conscience, in my opinion,

that anybody should be concerned with.

[group chanting]

I graduated college in ’68.

I was very involved in social action at the time, anti-war,

peace movement, civil rights.

I was doing everything.

My dad said, I can’t vote for the bill.

And I said, I understand just as long

as your vote isn’t the one to defeat it.

I never dreamed that it would come to the point

where that would mean where his vote would be

the one that was so critical.

This was typical of conversations

between young adults and their parents

in almost every house in the country.

Whether it was Vietnam, whether it was civil rights,

whether it was equal pay for equal work,

our parents couldn’t understand

why we weren’t happy with the way things were.

So what was in our house was emblematic

of what’s going on all over the country.

Except my dad was the state assemblyman.

And unlike 99.9% of the rest of the country,

he could actually do something about it.

When I was a senior in college,

I found out there had been several young women

in my graduating class who had had abortions.

This is back in the ’60s.

No one talked about it.

It was taboo.

I was lucky, I didn’t

have to face that problem.

But I could see the look of fear in girls’ eyes who did.

Finally became something where I had to express my beliefs.

I could see a change in him.

It kind of opened his eyes.

He had no idea it was as serious as it was.

And I probably said something like, well,

you’re probably still gonna vote the same way, aren’t you?

Michaels, Miller, Merdodt, Mitchell,

Speaker, I didn’t hear the vote.

[Narrator] The bill needed 76 votes to pass,

and it got 75.

He had voted opposed.

He had voted opposed to the bill.

Staffers and aides were in the chamber to see what happened.

And when they saw the number of votes switching against it,

they said it’ll never pass, and they started walking out.

Very often, the most organized groups

that do the most lobbying, that make the most noise,

are groups that actually don’t represent a majority.

So very often you have

to take quiet conversation with yourself.

I know where people stand,

but I have to do what I think is right.

You’re the only hope we have.

You’re the only vote we’ve got.

An assemblyman George Michaels, an upstate Democrat

who had voted against the bill, asked for the floor.

Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Michaels, I ask your indulgence.

I had hoped that this would never come to pass.

Just before I left for Albany this week,

my son Jim, who as you recall, Mr. Speaker,

gave the invocation to this assembly

on February 4th, and he said, Dad, for God’s sake,

don’t let your vote be the vote that defeats this bill.

Many people in my district

may not only condemn me for what I’m about to do,

but Mr. Speaker, I say to you in all candor,

I may say this very feelingly to all of you.

What’s the use of getting elected

or reelected if you don’t stand for something?

So, Mr. Speaker, I fully appreciate

that this is the termination of my political career.

But I cannot in good conscience stand here

and thwart the obvious majority

of this house, the members of whom I dearly love of,

and for whom I have a great deal of affection.

I probably never come back here again

to share these things with you.

I therefore request you, Mr. Speaker,

to change my negative vote to an affirmative vote.

[audience applauds]

Aye 76, O 73, bill passed.

[audience applauds]

[Narrator] Suddenly, all hell broke loose.

In New York State today,

the Senate passed the long-disputed abortion bill.

One of the nation’s most sweeping abortion control,

Making it entirely a decision

to be made by a woman and her doctor.

The bill now goes to Governor Nelson Rockefeller

who has said he will sign it.

I was living in Cincinnati at the time,

and I’m in the middle of a meeting that evening

and I’ve got this phone call

from a station in Long Island telling me what happened.

I said, what?

The kids were watching Sesame Street,

when I got a phone call saying, Switch stations,

grandpa’s on the on TV.

The fact that CBS

and NBC both had cameras in the legislative chambers

showed how groundbreaking it was.

I called my mother, she said, oh my God,

these so much is happening, we can’t talk.

‘Cause the phone was just continually ringing.

Your family was correct in their description of you.

However, they were too kind.

They left out the adjective dirty, shocked,

and confused by your recent vote.

What a disgusting display of emotion you put on

for the benefit of television cameras.

That was a slick trick you used, a man,

who lets his children make his decisions for him

cannot be much of a man.

All right, that was the case.

I hope you choke on your chicken soup and matza.

Oh yeah, there was real trouble.

A lot of people who were bent on not nominating him

for another term, and they succeeded.

The ramifications, he lost, he lost his election.

He lost the primary, he lost his election.

This one just says, man, I am glad to see

that you’ll be out of the assembly next year.

You never had any business being there.

You were voted in by the people of your county

and not just your family.

Oh, we talked about it a lot.

It had great ramifications on the family.

My mother, who had been born

and raised in Auburn,

felt that the community had turned on her.

Those are the letters we got two

or three weeks, then they stopped writing.

But the positive stuff, that never ended,

I remember being in this back bedroom at my grandparents’

house when these women of all ages came,

flew from all over the country

to this little town in upstate New York to come

to his bedside and thank him.

I mean, it was incredible.

The most liberal abortion law in the country

went into effect yesterday.

Information service, would you hold on, please?

How far has this pregnancy advanced?

I’ll call you right back and can you fly right in

if I get that kind referral for you.

Simply a matter of how well New York City,

principally the city, of course, to some extent, the rest

of the state handle this new law here.

If they handle it well,

I think we’ll have repeal throughout the country

within two years at the most.

I’m that optimistic.

That bill became modeled legislation for other states

and became picked up by the highest levels

of the court system in this country, in Roe v. Wade.

New York State, among others,

already have liberalized abortions.

Now the rest of the country must follow suit.

Definitely because of assemblyman Michaels.

‘Cause if the bill had just sort of roared to approval,

it might not have attracted so much attention.

The Supreme Court agreed today to hear arguments on one

of the most sensitive issues of the time:

the legality of abortions.

In a landmark ruling,

the Supreme Court today legalized abortions.

The majority in cases from Texas

and Georgia said that the decision to end the pregnancy

during the first three months belongs to the woman

and her doctor, not the government.

Thus, the anti-abortion laws

of 46 states were rendered unconstitutional.

This was probably the most important point in my life.

This was not his personal passion.

So the fact that he really listened to his middle son

and his daughter-in-Law, who I can only imagine

were talking to him in pretty desperate tones.

He took it in, he took it in and he

and he did something about it.

He knew what he was doing and he did it at risk

of the fact that he would lose

his political position with his vote.

Not many people do that anymore.

We’ve talked about some

of the perspectives on leadership.

We’ve started a really great piece of work about

feminist leadership.

But now I want to move us to start thinking about

what I think is most critical,

and that is the element of leadership

that requires real moral courage.

I want today to talk about George Michaels.

My concern is that too many of the people

who exercise moral courage don’t have

a legacy ’cause we don’t talk about them.

If you’re looking for a model for doing that,

for sticking your neck out, for taking a position

of moral courage, assemblyman George Michael’s

right at the top of my list.

It’s not on his tombstone,

but he always said the most important thing you can ever say

about anyone is he made a difference,

and my dad made a difference.

But what’s the use of getting elected

or reelected if you don’t stand for something?

[inspiring music]

[inspiring music continues]

[inspiring music continues]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *