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.


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.


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

Eric M. Jones

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".

Kate T.


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.?

Steven Elrod

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.


"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?


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


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.


I'm extremely honest, and maybe too academic, and Margaret Sanger is still honestly my hero. Ha.

The pretense at being concerned with "unborn babies'" lives, and not with women's lives, is a front for keeping women chained to pregnancy, to keep them in their place, because they are too threatening if they can heave sex without fear of pregnancy (like men!).

Life - especially a female life - is apparently supposed to begin at conception and end at birth, or at least by adulthood.

It's never really about lives. It's never really about babies.


I would like to have more information on Assemblyman Michaels. What prompted him to change his vote? My assumption, based on the tone of the article, was that he felt the bill should pass, but voted to represent the opinion in his district. He was probably confident and/or hopeful that the bill would pass even if he voted no, insuring that he could have his cake and eat it to (the measure passes but he is not perceived by his constituents to have supported it). It is also possible that he changed his vote to appease his fellow Democrats, realizing that if the count stood as it did the Republican Speaker would have broken the tie and probably in a way that was not agreeable to Michaels' fellow Democrats. It'd be interesting to hear more about Michaels' rationale for changing and to discuss whether that is part of the political process or a perversion of it.


"but who are you to tell an idividual that they must bear an unwanted child?"

Eric, you said Child. Was that supposed to be Fetus?


In perspective, one day before the baby is born it is abortion; one bay later it is murder. Nothing much fro NY, CA etc. to be proud of.


a small correction - not ''50,000,000 lives'', but ''50,000,000 children in foster care''.


Fifty million abortions? I don't trust statistics thrown around by pro-lifers.

Whatever the figure, if that means there's less people on the planet, it's a good thing.

Interestingly enough, the Bush administration didn't want information about contraception given out, and it didn't want abortions either.

Over $1 billion has been wasted on the promotion of abstinence programs, and it hasn't worked...

Another example of Bush wasting taxpayer dollars.


The accpted scientific consensus is that a fertilized egg is a unique individual human being.

That's incorrect. The scientific consensus is that a fertilized egg has about a 35% chance of becoming a unique individual human being, if nothing interferes. It is unique, but it is not a human being, no more than a set of cancer cells which are also DNA-unique from the host, or for that matter an unfertilized egg or sperm.

Historically, quickening (when motion was felt) was thought to be the time when the "spirit" entered the fetus. Since conception was not possible to detect until quite recently, quickening is when one was certain that a live fetus was being carried.



That is flat-out false. Having an abortion that late in the process is illegal and impossible. Twisting the facts in such absurd ways make it impossible to have intelligent debate around these topics.


Copied from a blog article ( ) :
So, anti-legal-abortion folks, what's to be done with the women who undergo abortions, if abortion really is murder?


Ah, yes, Margaret Sanger -- the proto-Nazi eugenics enthusiast who wanted to sterilise the poor and "inferior":

Our failure to segregate morons who are increasing and multiplying ... demonstrates our foolhardy and extravagant sentimentalism ... [Philanthropists] encourage the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others; which brings with it, as I think the reader must agree, a dead weight of human waste. Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant ... We are paying for, and even submitting to, the dictates of an ever-increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all."

--The Cruelty of Charity

Speaker Pelosi apparently agrees with Sanger, she wants to push birth control as a means of "economic stimulus" forsooth!


Scott Supak

What a shock that EP didn't answer Katie T's questions.

How many botched abortions were there before RvW? You want to outlaw abortions, what are you going to do to stop the wire clothes hangar brigade from opening their back alley shops again? You for handing out free condoms in high schools and colleges?

Furthermore, your bunk about scientific consensus on when life begins is the worst kind of BS. Even the Bible suggests that life is in the blood, and blood doesn't start flowing in a fetus until weeks after conception.

And what are you doing to stop all those fertilized eggs from being thrown out at the fertility shops?

You people are so wrapped up in your religious crap that you just can't see the world for what it is...

Oh, for some more liberal Republicans like New York used to have...

Kate M.

Whatever your views, you've got to admit that the above-mentioned Mr. Michaels is one inspirational dude.

@ Elrod: agreed.