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the Body Politic
Vol. 01, No. 11 - Nov/Dec 1991, Page 1
Copyright © 1991, 1998 by the Body Politic Inc.

Connie Cook: Tiny Giant

Interview by Anne Bower

Last month, the Body Politic began an interview with Connie Cook, Assemblywoman from Ithaca, who was the driving legislative force behind the legalization of abortion in New York in 1970. Ms. Cook was explaining the legislative maneuvering surrounding the bill and was about to relate the events that culminated in legalization.

Q: Connie, you had done your counting and filled your little black book. What happened next?

A: The bill was introduced on April 1st. I had taken a count that morning and I had exactly enough votes for passage. Then one of the members had an accident and was in the hospital in Boston, I think. His wife called me and said he wanted an ambulance sent so he could be brought in on a stretcher and cast his vote.

I said, "No way." I had an experience in my youth that made me believe that when you're sick, you should just take care of yourself.

Q: What did you do?

A: I let the bill be brought up, but it went down by one vote. That time George Michaels of Auburn voted no. I had put George in the maybe column. He was a Democrat in a highly Republican district, but he was very popular. However, his district had a large Polish and Italian population and he knew that this would be difficult for him.

He had talked to me about his position several times. Towards the end, when we were only one or two votes away, he came in and said he had promised his family he wouldn't be the one to keep the bill from passage.

Q: Larry Lader's book says that someone overheard Mr. Michaels' wife talking to him in an elevator about the bill.

I don't know about that, but there is no question that they exerted pressure on him. He just couldn't face his family if he had defeated the bill.

Well, he had voted against it, but I tabled the bill so it could be brought up again.

Q: While you were trying to get this passed, were you or other legislators experiencing any pressure?

A: I was lucky, because this is a very moderate community. I did have a few calls from the priest, but now that I think of it, they were probably in reference to the Blaine amendment which would have helped fund Catholic schools.

Q: There was a theory that the Blaine amendment actually helped the abortion fight because the Catholic Church was so intent on getting school aid they didn't push as hard as they could on abortion.

A: I've often speculated on that. But there was a lot of pressure out there. For example, I got an anti-abortion petition signed by members of an alter guild from a district represented by a Jewish legislator. He and I looked over the names and he said, "I know some of these women and they are not all against your bill. Let me have the list."

He called back a few days later and said don't worry. The petition was at the church on Sunday and everyone was signing it, but he had called some of the women and they were actually supporting the bill.

Q: What was your side doing?

We were applying heavy grassroots pressure, which is the best. A lot of women who had never taken political action before were involved.

Planned Parenthood, also gave us some good people and assistance, but at that time, they were very reticent about political involvement. They never gave us their lists. Faye Wattleton wasn't President then.

Q: What kept you going?

A: It's very easy to drop legislation when you've got this kind of opposition, but people like Rev. Moody kept me going. I was called to a meeting by our local Baptist minister who said he wanted me to talk about the abortion bill with some of his friends.

It turns out that this was a group in upstate who were involved in the Clergy Consultation Service, started by Rev. Moody. I'd been using them, because as soon as women heard my name associated with the abortion bill, I would get calls saying, "I need an abortion. Where can I go?" I would only refer them to the Clergy Consultation Service.

The meeting was held here and two of my staff people attended. There were ministers, female deacons, and even a few priests. They had come to encourage me to push on and not give up.

Q: What about local religious support?

I'm Episcopal and my own bishop, while visiting here, pulled me aside and said, "I think you are absolutely on the right track. Keep with it."

Things like that were helpful because this was getting very hard on me and on my children. One woman actually asked my five year old son why his mother was in favor of killing little babies.

Q: You know, nothing's changed today.

A: I know, except maybe it's worse. Then, I was just shocked at things like that. People at that time behaved with some civility. The Knights of Columbus came and talked to me about abortion, but it was a simple exchange of ideas. Not like what happens today. I wouldn't even appear with the Operation Rescue types.

Q: Connie, the vote was taken and you lost, but the bill came up again April 9th. What happened?

A: I had a couple of legislators who said they would give me a yes if I really needed it. This time around everyone came through, including George.

When he cast the tie vote, he gave a very dramatic brief speech of his reasons for doing so, including his prediction that this would cost him the election -- which it did.

Q: How did you feel?

A: Knowing George as well as I did, I realized it wouldn't be a devastating blow because he was a very successful lawyer who had alternatives in life, plus a strong family. I knew he'd be all right.

But there was one thing that made me angry. About half way through the vote, the Speaker's public relations man who gives out press releases, handed out a release on the defeat of the bill. I knew that he was personally opposed.

While he was sending out this nonsense, Michaels changed his vote to yes which made it a tie. At that point, the Speaker, rather red-faced, also voted yes, banged his gavel and dismissed the Assembly immediately. All the while, the Republicans were getting these incorrect press releases. That infuriated me.

Q: Did this vote cause Speaker Duryea any problems?

A: Well, he would have preferred not to have cast the vote, but it was tied, and he had to break the tie. He never suffered any political repercussion because his constituents were basically pro-choice.

Q: What about you? Did you suffer any consequences?

A: Oh sure. It was so obvious in my Congressional race. I was pegged as someone who would get the job done and persevere -- something rather rare in politics. I was convinced about the effect of computer panels on women and the business community knew it, so I got no support from them. They knew I had the ability to drive something through.

I could still be in the Assembly today, if I wanted. I'm a good enough politician to establish a base and keep it.

Q: Connie, in 1972, the New York legislature repealed legal abortion.

A: Right. But that was nothing, because the Governor said he would veto the overturn. This was just political maneuvering, allowing legislators to vote on both sides of the issue so they could please both sides. I can't even remember being concerned about the vote.

Q: What was your reaction when Roe was decided in 1973?

A: I was very pleased because the Supreme Court followed our reasoning. We had gotten the New York State Health Commissioner to adopt appropriate regulations. He came to my office the next day after the vote and we worked out the details. I thought the Health Department worked very fast.

The Commissioner decided that the first three months there should be no interference, the second three there should be good medical justification. Roe followed our precepts and that really pleased me.

Politics is the art of the possible. You compromise to get what you want, while not giving up your principles. Otherwise, nothing gets done.

Q: What happened over the last 20 years?

A: There has just been too little emphasis on the position that abortion plays in the whole movement to elevate the status of women to that of almost equality. The recognition that abortion gives women a certain control over their own lives that they didn't have before, has created a reaction.

I try to put myself in the place of a man, and think, by George, if I had to wash my own sock, when I didn't before, and cook my own meals when I didn't before, and on top of that face competition from some smart woman, I might be reluctant to support this. Of course, the economic system is bad now, too. Many men can't get jobs. Basically, they want women to be kept down -- second class.

Q: Why did the Republican Party take this anti-abortion position?

A: Certainly all Republicans don't support this. Our own New York State Republican party changed their plank. Bush did a flip-flop for purely political reasons.

Q: How did this become part of the Conservative agenda?

A: Conservative, for one thing, usually means status quo. It's basically a change in the position of women that they're against. They want women to be kept down, just like some of the churches. The most pro-choice churches are the reformed ones.

I think that the churches will loose on this one. I see this especially among my Catholic friends. I honestly, hardly know a Catholic my age or younger, who is not pro-choice. I tell these women -- get involved! Women are so indoctrinated to not think of themself first.

Q: How do you get women to start thinking of themselves first.

A: Just education. If they don't want to work for less money, if they don't want to have two full-time jobs, if they want day care, they have to go for it. They can't sit and do nothing.

Q: What should we be doing to keep abortion legal?

A: Educate women. Persuade them that they have a stake in the political system. The reason they have poor jobs is because they are the peasants of this country.

Look at what the unions did. Maybe unionization is what women need.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: No way. Illegal abortion was an incredibly cruel and unjust law. Getting rid of it was the only way to go.

If Roe is vastly modified, maybe more women will get involved again. But it will take years.

Q: Why was abortion legalized in a relatively brief time?

A: I believe that the minute women saw there was some hope, they did get politically active. The women who helped me get the bill passed in 1970 worked very hard and even stayed around to work against the override in '72.

The day that Roe came down, I went to their office a few hours later to celebrate, and there was a sign on the door, CLOSED -- WE WON.

Women were working on other issues, such as the ERA. There were so many crazy laws out there designed to keep women out of responsible jobs. They thought abortion was safe.

Q: Would you like to run again?

A: No. It costs too much money and I think being in the state legislature today is about as futile an approach as you can take for social change.

We've lost party leadership, which used to stand for principle. I guess I'm a bit cynical about politics after all these years.

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