Politics

Our Grandfather’s Change of Heart on Abortion

More than 50 years ago, our grandfather’s act of courage ended his political career. We’re still grateful.

George Michaels sits at his desk with his head on his hand.
New York State Assemblyman George Michaels (D-Auburn) holds his head after changing his vote to “yes” which, after expected passage by the Senate, will give New York the most liberal abortion law in the U.S. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

On April 9, 1970, our grandfather, George Michaels, was an assemblyman in the New York State Legislature. That day, the body was set to vote on legislation that would lift New York state’s abortion restrictions and legalize the procedure. If you listened to this week’s episode of Slow Burn, you know the drama that unfolded that day. At first, the vote was a tie. Our grandfather had voted against it. But then he made a surprising choice that changed history.

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A legislator representing a conservative Catholic district, our grandfather was not interested in risking his seat by voting for a new abortion rights bill. He knew his constituents weren’t in favor of the liberalization effort, and he had voted against two previous bills to expand access to abortion.

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But about a week before the bill was to be reconsidered, his daughter-in-law, Sarah, asked him how he planned to vote this time around. He believed the bill would pass regardless of his vote, so he told her that for political purposes, including his standing within his district, he planned to vote against it. And, if it didn’t end up passing, he assumed the bill would likely pass the following year. But Sarah was persistent.  She had seen firsthand the repercussions of self-administered abortions—not only did she work in the social services sector, but she also knew about a tough experience a close friend had with an illegal abortion. She told him that if he didn’t take a stand on this issue, real women would continue to be mutilated and harmed in the meantime. His son, Jim, while working as a rabbinic intern in a mainly Black neighborhood in the Midwest, had witnessed the negative impacts of unwanted pregnancies. He had previously told his father about the efforts of clergy and community leaders to find safe abortion services for low-income women and girls. He also asked his father not to let his vote be the one to defeat the bill.

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The debate on the floor was heated. There were passionate speeches both for and against the bill. The roll call vote began and, to our grandfather’s dismay, the bill was deadlocked in a 74-74 tie vote. Just as the Speaker was about to gavel the bill down to defeat, our grandfather rose to his feet trembling and, with tears in his eyes, asked to speak.

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“Mr. Speaker, I fully appreciate that this is the termination of my political career, but what’s the use of getting elected or re-elected if you don’t stand for something,” he said, looking tired and emotional. “I cannot in good conscience stand here and be the vote that defeats this bill. I, therefore, request, Mr. Speaker, to change my negative vote to an affirmative vote.”

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Then he slumped down in his chair with his head in his hands, an image that would be published in newspapers across the country. Assemblywoman Constance Cook, the Republican who had helped co-sponsor the bill, hugged him. The next day, Governor Rockefeller signed the bill into law. Because the bill did not contain a residency requirement, it meant that not only could women in New York get an abortion, but so could any woman who was able to travel to the state. Three years later, this New York law helped influence the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

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When he returned to his home in Auburn after the vote, he was not a welcome sight. He lost business and was shunned by friends of 40 years. His partners in the law firm he started decades prior informed him they wanted to split up the partnership. He debated whether he should run for his state assembly seat again, especially considering the impact his vote was already having on his wife and family. Hateful letters came in the mail and were published in the newspaper. The police had the Michaels family home on cruise alert. His own party was unsure if they wanted to nominate our grandfather for re-election. After hearing this, our grandmother, Helen, sobbed and said, “These people turned on you, on us!”

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He did end up running again. But as he predicted in his speech on the assembly floor, our grandfather lost his re-election. He never held elected office again.

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Crushed by the loss of the election and his law practice, our grandfather started a new law firm with his son and was pleasantly surprised that most of his old clients came back to him. It also did not take long for his friends to resurface; in fact, one former political foe came up to our grandfather on the street and said, “Let me shake the hand of a brave man.”

Eventually, our grandfather started receiving numerous accolades for his courageous act, including an award of merit from the Ethical Cultural Society. He relished that he was known as a man of high integrity and courage. Our grandmother, on the other hand, did not forgive or forget so easily. She had lost her social circle, and strongly felt the rejection of those who had turned on her husband. She stopped engaging in social activities and had no desire to entertain at the house.

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Abortion rights was never our grandfather’s cause, or what he wanted to be known for. Many years later, as he was recalling his vote to his twin granddaughters on a car ride, he said that the prior times he voted against abortion rights bills, he only had sons. The issue felt remote to him. But in 1970, he had his first grandchild—a granddaughter. He hoped that one day he might have more. The thought of one of them needing to get a “back-alley abortion” was enough to change his mind.

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None of us remembers the first time we heard about our grandfather’s decision; whenever “the vote” is mentioned in our family, we know what is being referenced. We were raised knowing this story of courage. It’s become part of our family’s legacy. For many of us, abortion rights has been one of the leading issues for which we advocate and vote, not only because it impacts us and all women, but also because our grandfather’s choice is a big part of our family’s identity. When we tell this story to our friends and communities, we often see tears in their eyes, in part because it feels so distant from the politics we’re all living through today.

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George Michaels, with his wife and one of his granddaughters, holding a photo of his first granddaughter.
George Michaels, with his wife and one of his granddaughters, holding a photo of his first granddaughter. Courtesy of George Michaels’ family

Throughout his life, our grandfather heard from women thanking him for what he had done. He continued to receive recognition after he died, including from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. One month after he died, his last granddaughter was born, and named in honor of him.

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It’s hard to believe one vote can make a difference, but as we see today in Congress, legislation is usually decided by a single or few votes. Which means that even though it often feels so fruitless, your vote matters too. State-level elections matter too—what happens locally often go on to influence what is happening at a national scale. In a matter of seconds, our grandfather helped pave the way for women’s bodily autonomy for decades to come. And now, politicians and voters will face this dilemma again: Vote to keep their own political power or ensure the rights of their daughters and granddaughters.

Our grandfather is our hero. He may have lost his political seat, but he gained so much more—the honor and respect not only of his family, but also of people around the nation. It’s a rare story of political courage, one that we don’t see enough. We hope his story—and our memory of him—might help convince you that sometimes the hard choices are the right ones. One day, your granddaughters will thank you.

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