AUBURN, N.Y. — Amid the raucous debate over the legalization of abortion two decades ago, George Michaels changed his mind and changed the lives of thousands of women.
It was 1970 and the New York Assembly was voting on a bill to repeal the state's 87-year-old law banning abortions. The bill had been defeated by three votes a month earlier. This time the tally was 74 to 74.
Michaels, a five-term Democratic assemblyman from Auburn, stood up and switched his vote from "no" to "yes."
"What's the use of getting elected or reelected if you don't stand for something?" a tearful Michaels told the Assembly. "I cannot go back to my family and say George Michaels killed this bill."
The vote ended Michaels' political career. After the repeal of the law, the Democratic Party refused to endorse him. He was defeated in an independent bid for the Assembly that fall.
Michaels returned to private law practice in Auburn and never sought office again.
Today, Michaels is 81. His hair is silver and he walks with the help of a cane. The cancer he has battled for a decade has claimed part of his lungs and he has trouble breathing.
He says he has never regretted the decision that ended his political ambitions, although he has lingering anger at the party leaders.
"It was not my constituency--they never had a chance," he said. "It was not the Democratic voters--it was the Democratic leadership."
Michaels says he had been told by local party leaders not to vote for the repeal of the abortion ban, and he pledged not to. For two years he had followed the party line, despite his own feelings that abortion should be allowed in some cases, he says.
"I would vote no, hoping the bill would pass," he said. "I was not doing the right thing."
In April, 1970, the night before he left for Albany, Michaels spent an evening with his daughter-in-law, Sarah.
Sarah asked him what would happen when the abortion bill came up for a vote again. There was a chance it would pass, he told her.
"What if it doesn't?" she asked.
"Maybe next year," he said.
Michaels says he has never been able to forget what his son's young wife told him next:
"In the meantime, thousands of women will be mutilated and die because of that stupid Legislature."
"Boy, that rocked me," Michaels says. "That rocked me."
Michaels returned to Albany still not knowing how he would vote, he says. "I was hoping somebody would switch; that it wouldn't be George Michaels."
The vote was taken. Michaels voted against the repeal. Then, just before the clerk announced the vote, he stood up and asked the Speaker to change his vote.
"When it came to a tie vote, I could not go through that charade any longer," he said. "I knew my career was finished."
Last year Michaels was recognized by the Kennedy Foundation's Profile in Courage award committee for taking a stand in 1970.
But Michaels says his decision didn't take courage.
"It wasn't courageous," he said, his voice choking with emotion. "There was no courage there at all. I had to win back the respect of my family. I had to win back their respect."
Sarah Michaels says she never expected to change her father-in-law's mind.
"That was one of the proudest days of my life," she said.
"I never thought that he had heard what I said."
After the repeal passed, Michaels was deluged with furious letters and telegrams. A local Catholic priest denounced him at weekly Masses. But he also got grateful calls and letters from women all over the country, he says.
Between the 1970 legalization of abortion in New York and the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision guaranteeing a woman's right to an abortion, 350,000 women came to New York for abortions, according to Karen Goldwater, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood in Albany.
Michaels says he is not completely comfortable with abortion on demand, but his voice rises in anger when he talks about people who would force a woman who is pregnant from rape or incest to have a child. And he is deeply concerned about the danger posed to women by illegal abortions.
Nationwide, about 200 women died of complications from illegal abortions each year before Roe vs. Wade, Goldwater says.
If Roe vs. Wade is overturned, abortions will go on anyway, Michaels says. Those women who can afford to will travel to other countries for abortions.
"But the poor, people who can't afford it, they'll be sent back to the back-alley butchers," he said.
When the Supreme Court legalized abortion, Michaels felt vindicated. He is deeply moved by people who tell him that the drop in deaths from illegal abortions following the New York vote affected the national debate on abortion. And he is amazed to see the battle over legal abortions heating up once again.
After Roe vs. Wade, "I thought that was the end of it," he said.