The Woman Behind New York State’s Abortion Law

The Times recently reported the death of Constance E. Cook, a former assemblywoman from upstate New York who co-wrote the measure that legalized abortion in that state in 1970, three years before the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade did so for most of the rest of the country.

While the history of Roe is widely known — and, indeed, widely revisited on a regular basis — it is often forgotten that New York and four other states (California, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii) had already made abortion legal within their borders. It was these early adopters, in fact, that provided one key piece of evidence in Steve Levitt and John Donohue‘s argument that legalized abortion ultimately led to a drop in crime (for a measure of an abortion-crime correlation in these states in conjunction with a similar relationship in the other, later states, helped establish a causal link between abortion and crime).

One thing to know about Constance Cook: she was a Republican. That meant something different in 1970 than it does today, especially in New York, but still it is an interesting historical note.

The Times obituary, written by Dennis Hevesi, also includes this fascinating section about the New York Assembly vote that led to the law’s passage:

Midway through the roll call, Assemblyman George M. Michaels, a Democrat from a heavily Roman Catholic district in central New York, quietly voted no. The count ended at 74 to 74, with one Assembly member absent. The speaker, Perry B. Duryea Jr., a Montauk Republican, had not voted, in keeping with the tradition that the speaker votes only if it affects the outcome. Before the clerk could bring the vote to a close, Assemblyman Michaels stood and asked to change his vote.

“I fully appreciate that this is the termination of my political career,” he said. He was right.

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  1. Val says:

    Margaret Sanger has been my hero for years.

    She is far too unsung, including by people who now benefit from her birth control but are ignoramuses.
    (“Just a minute honey, lemme take my pill. Margaret who?”)

    Thank you for giving me some new heroes in Constance E. Cook and George M. Michaels, and your own efforts and writing.

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  2. EP says:

    It was also the begininning of the termination of 50,000,000 lives.

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    Thanks Assemblywoman Cook and Assemblyman Michaels.

    Although I sympathize with the idea that “Momma brought you into this world and Momma can take you OUT!”-some still insist that human life begins at fertilization.

    Of course, the fertilized ovum may or may not successfully implant in the uterus. Among sexually-active females a reasonable percentage of fertilized ova merely pass right through the uterus and are expelled with menstrual flow.

    Fertilized ova are not human beings of course, else the
    coroner would be required to inspect the menses to examine whether or not women are disposing of “Human Beings”.

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  4. Kate T. says:


    That depends on your definition of lives, obviously. Since Dubner doesn’t seem to be advocating a particular policy (other than that the “early adopters” made possible Leavitt & Donohue’s study), I don’t see how you’re aiding discussion. Does your figure also take into account the number of women who died from botched illegal abortions? What about the number of people who weren’t killed as a result of the drop in crime that Levitt and Donohue observed? What about the number of “lives” that would have “ended” anyway due to miscarriage, mistreatment of an unwanted fetus, unfit parenting, etc.?

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  5. Steven Elrod says:

    I think the brilliance of the freakonomics bloggers lies in their ability to not make the Sangers or the Cooks of the world into heroes or villians.

    If only those in the “comments” section could do the same, we’d have a much more academic and honest discussion.

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  6. Eric says:

    “It was also the begininning of the termination of 50,000,000 lives”

    A fetus is not a life, it is what comes before one. The legalization of abortion may have allowed the termination of 50,000,000 unwated fetuses, but who are you to tell an idividual that they must bear an unwanted child?

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  7. Harrkar says:

    Thanks for enlightening. An salute for his guts(George M. Michaels)

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  8. EP says:

    The accpted scientific consensus is that a fertilized egg is a unique individual human being. I’m not telling them to carry an unwanted child, I’m telling them not to intentionally kill and innocent human being, i.e. murder. A fetus is a life. It does not have potential for life; it has potential to be an adult human being.

    Katie T.: I’m guessing you’re against capital punishment, yet thay would achieve the same thing your lauding in your post.

    Prior to Roe v. Wade every biology book in the country taught the scientific fact that life begins at conception. After it, none do.

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