Before Roe v. Wade: Fighting Over Abortion in Albany


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
March 25, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 12

A holy war in Albany for the ‘Right to Life’
By Robin Reisig

The New York State legislature is probably going to practice medicine again this spring. Abortion medicine.

Catholics opposed to killing “the baby cradled in his mother’s womb,” some establishment doctors complaining of “hazardous” operations, and feminists complaining that the law is too restrictive are all putting pressure on lawmakers to change the abortion law. The approximately 30 proposed abortion laws brewed up by the medicine men in Albany range from bills that would allow no abortions except to save the mother’s life to crackpot bills that would add weird restrictions to the law to bills that would remove all restrictions on abortions.

A bill which would restrict abortions to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, instead of 24 weeks as the present law allows, is given a good chance of passing by most observers. So is a “conscience clause” which would state that no hospital or medical person could be forced to perform an abortion. (This unnecessary clause could lead to legal sanction of the policies of hospitals like St. Vincent’s which, despite their government funding as community hospitals, refuse to give aid on birth control.)

Several residency requirement bills, bills that would restrict abortions to hospitals, and a 12-week limitation on abortions have also been introduced. So have bills removing all restrictions on when, where, and by whom abortions may be performed.

Zany, restrictive amendments that stand little or no chance of passing have also been introduced. These include a bill that would prohibit a woman from receiving Medicaid for an abortion; a bill that would prohibit a mother from receiving an extra personal income tax exemption if an aborted fetus lived; and a bill forbidding an abortion on a woman whose husband ha told the doctor that he didn’t want the abortion.

Medical reasons are advanced for most of these restrictive bills, but opponents feel the real impetus moving most of the legislators involved is not doctors but the Catholic church. Only one assemblyman was knocked off by Catholic groups in the November election because of his vote on abortion. (“Abort Balletta,” bumper stickers said. The voters did.) Assemblywoman Constance Cook has shown that others apparently lost votes because they voted against abortion reforms. Yet a few legislators who were hounded because of their votes for abortion reform and received smaller margins than usual in November rushed to get back into the good graces of the church by supporting restrictions to the law. They have at least the tacit blessing of the church, which admits it hopes to restrict the number of abortions by adding restrictions to the law. Or, as Monsignor Thomas McGovern, spokesman for the archdiocese of New York, put it, “Anything less than abortion on demand is better than nothing.”

…Elsewhere around the nation, abortion laws are tumbling, but those who know that God is on their side — the Right to Life Committees an Friends of the Fetus, the Voices of the Unborn and the wooden-cross-wielding Sons of Thunder — have not given up their holy war and have even won some victories.

In Orange County, California, compliant voter registrars showed up at 14 Catholic churches one Sunday last fall to give voters a chance to switch their registrations. During mass, priests exhorted voters to turn Republican in order to protest the adoption of an “abortion on demand” plank at the state Democratic convention.

“Kill referendum 20, not me,” blared billboards in the state of Washington last fall. The billboards showed a fetus cradled in a bloody hand. Voters, revolted, voted in a reform law.

In Iowa last month, the hard-sell tactics of the church were more effective. A reform bill, endorsed by both political parties and the governor, was killed in the house after Right to Life groups sent busloads of blind and crippled children up to the legislature and (according to a letter the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws received from a prominent clergyman) priests passed out anti-abortion petitions during mass and said parishioners couldn’t leave the sanctuary until they signed.

Defiance of the law is growing. One year ago the New York Telephone Company practiced law by refusing to list the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion in the telephone book. Now clergy consultation services are listed in 24 states. Only two clergymen have been arrested for counseling abortions: the last arrest was one and a half years ago. Neither clergyman was prosecuted.

What will become of all the turmoil in Albany on the abortion issue? Senate Majority Leader Earl Brydges has said he wants the law made more restrictive, and Brydges usually gets what he wants. On the other hand, Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea has indicated that he doesn’t want to be wrung through the abortion debate again. “The goddamned debate,” “the most traumatic experience I’ve ever had in Albany,” other legislators called it. “With people talking of little babies in trash cans, it’s got to reach you, no matter how intellectual and sophisticated you think you are,” said one senator. “No one wants to go through that again, with Republicans cursing Republicans…”

Many observers feel it will take a Supreme Court decision to resolve the abortion issue entirely, and to enforce the oft-repeated words of Florynce Kennedy: “The legislature should get its hairy fist out of women’s private matters.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]