Standing for Something

Article excerpt

I have never believed that politics is a spectator sport. I always thought it was important to be involved in the issues that mattered to me. That's why, in the spring of 1970, long before I was a legislator on any level, I traveled by bus to Albany with a group from the League of Women Voters. We went to witness the New York State Legislature's vote on a bill that classified abortion as a decision to be made between a woman and her doctor through the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy.

The bill passed the New York State Senate, but had previously failed twice in the Assembly. On April 9, 1970, the third vote on the bill ended in a tie until a Democrat named George Michaels took action on his belief that the decision to have an abortion was an intensely personal one that did not require the help of elected officials. In a dramatic moment, Assemblyman Michaels stood up to say that he wanted his vote changed from negative to affirmative. He acknowledged that changing his vote would end his political career, which it did when the county leaders of his party refused to endorse him in the following election because of his affirmative vote. However, as Assemblyman Michaels stated that day on the floor of the New York State Assembly, reelection is useless if "you don't stand for something."

Assemblyman Michaels's courage, years of work on behalf of women's rights, and that landmark decision in the New York State Legislature paved the way for the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, (1) which ruled that the right to privacy extended to a woman's choice to bear children. As we celebrate Roe's fortieth anniversary this year, it is crucial that we acknowledge how Roe has protected women's health and moved women's rights forward. We also must resolve to continue the fight, particularly on the state level, to ensure that abortion remains a safe and legal procedure, and a constitutionally protected right.

Abortion had been legal in the United States until states began passing laws against it in the mid-to-late 1800s. (2) Some feared that the numbers of newly arriving immigrant women bearing children would soon surpass those of "native" Anglo-Saxon women, who had of course been immigrants themselves mere generations before. (3) Doctors who wanted the exclusive right to perform abortions--and the income they generated--advocated for criminalizing abortions if performed by midwives or homeopathic practitioners. (4) By 1910, abortion was a crime, except when necessary to save a woman's life, in all but one state. (5)

Making abortion illegal did not reduce the number of women who sought abortions--it simply made it more dangerous to their health. When trained medical professionals refused to perform abortions, or when women couldn't afford them, they either turned to untrained practitioners or took matters quite literally into their own hands. Although accurate record keeping was a challenge, thousands of women were treated in emergency rooms as a result of poorly performed illegal abortions, and many of those women died. (6)

After Roe v. Wade was decided, pregnancy-related injuries and death declined sharply as women accessed safe, legal abortions from properly trained practitioners. (7) Abortion rights foes then turned to darker tactics, like intimidating women who entered clinics and the doctors who worked there. In 1993 I was an original cosponsor of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act of 1993 because it was important to guarantee that a woman's right to a safe and legal medical procedure would not be rendered useless because she could not get through the door of a clinic. In May of 1994, FACE became law, making it a federal crime to obstruct access to a reproductive health clinic or to interfere with anyone seeking health services.

Throughout my career in the House of Representatives, I have worked with like-minded members from both sides of the aisle through the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, which I have co-chaired since 2001. …