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.