Feel a little burnt out by politics right now? Watch this video.
“I realize, Mr. Speaker, that I am terminating my political career, but I cannot in good conscience sit here and allow my vote to be the one that defeats this bill-I ask that my vote be changed from ‘no’ to ‘yes.’” Isn’t that amazing? Every time I watch that video I get chills. The video takes place in New York on April 9th, 1970–when abortion is not legal. Women are forced to find illicit ways to end their pregnancies. If they had money they could leave the country or find a doctor who would illegally perform it, but for low-income women, they could only turn to themselves. Most of them would try to self-induce an abortion.
Currently Republicans are waging a full on attack on reproductive health services. Looking at the New York legislature in 1970, the idea of legalizing abortion would seem impossible. Not only were there only four women in the legislature, but the Republicans controlled the House and Senate. One of those Republicans was Constance Cook who co-authored a bill to make abortion a private decision between a woman and her doctor (until the 24th week of pregnancy).
Even though Assemblyman George Michaels was personally pro-choice and a Democrat, he had previously voted against changing the legal status of abortion. The was because his constituency was predominantly Republican and Catholic and he was urged by his party not to vote on such a controversial issue. When the issue of abortion would come up he would vote no, despite wishing that the law would be repealed.
What was so different about this time that controversial vote came up? I want to know. I want to know so hopefully I can find a way to help people–especially people in power–understand that abortion restrictions hurt people. While browsing the interwebs, I found that the Assemblyman’s son was a rabbinical intern who told his father about the results of women unable to access abortion as it should be performed in a safe and clean medical environment. His daughter-in-law asked what would happen if the bill did not pass this year. George Michaels responded with, “Maybe next year.”
“Maybe next year” is never an adequate response to justice. When it comes down to our human rights, we need them now. His daughter-in-law understood that and responded with, “In the meantime, thousands of women will be mutilated and die because of that stupid legislature.”
Every year NARAL hosts a Reproductive Rights Lobby Day in Olympia. I am reminded of how we are trained to specifically ask legislators if they will vote on a bill we are trying to pass or vote against cutting the family planning budget. The person we are lobbying may say they support us. And maybe they do, on a personal level. But frankly, support is pretty worthless without some kind of action! The two times Assemblyman Michaels voted against repealing the abortion ban in New York, the bill did not pass.
Tearful and clearly torn, George Michaels turned his support into action by voting to repeal the abortion ban. It was a major political risk since his conservative constituents and his party wanted him to continue to vote against the repeal. If he had not voted to repeal the abortion ban, it would not have been repealed that year. His vote was the deciding vote to legalize abortion in New York.
Did the risk pay off? Well . . . he received hate mail. When he tried again his party refused to endorse him, effectively ending his political career. In that respect he is not someone that most politicians would aspire to be like. After all, maybe next year the ban would be repealed and his political career would have remained intact.
His family members state that Michaels never regretted his decision. We hear him say, “what’s the use of getting elected, or re-elected if you don’t stand for something.” That attitude, of standing up for what is right, for really seeing your position as a politician as a servant to the people not as a career, is an attitude that other politicians should be inspired by. His courage to go against his party, to do something to save lives, to fight for human rights, is something that all of us can be inspired by.