What John Boehner Can Learn From Abortion History About Ending the Shutdown

Use quotes to search for exact phrases. Use AND/OR/NOT between keywords or phrases for more precise search results.

Commentary Politics

What John Boehner Can Learn From Abortion History About Ending the Shutdown

Carole Joffe

House Speaker John Boehner, like New York's George Michaels during the state's 1970 abortion vote, has the opportunity to do the right thing, even if it costs him his speakership. But will he do it?

Click here for all our coverage of the government shutdown.

As our country enters the second week of a government shutdown, with no resolution in sight and increasing bitterness between not only Democrats and Republicans, but within the Republican Party itself, the pressures are intensifying on John Boehner, the speaker of the House—the person who does have the power to end the shutdown by bringing a no-strings-attached budget bill (a “clean continuing resolution”) to a vote. As conventional wisdom goes, Boehner himself neither wants the shutdown to continue nor does he approve of the next great disaster looming—the issue of raising the debt ceiling—but he is paralyzed because of the power of 80 or so Tea Partiers in his party, who refuse such a “surrender.” In bluntest terms, if he allows such a vote to occur, and to pass with a majority of Democratic members’ votes, John Boehner’s reign as speaker would likely be over.

Observing John Boehner’s predicament, I am reminded of an early episode in U.S. abortion history, when a politician was similarly under intense pressure. As is commonly known, New York state legalized abortion in 1970, and in the several years before Roe v. Wade, thousands of women came from all over the country to receive abortions in the first generation of free-standing clinics that were established at that time to meet this huge demand. What is less remembered today, some 43 years later, is how close the vote in the New York state legislature was.

As a sign of how much abortion politics have changed since that time, the politicians leading the push for legalization was a Republican, former state Assemblywoman Constance Cook, and many of those supporting the bill were also from that party. To be sure, as a sign of how abortion politics have not entirely changed, the New York Times then reported about the abortion debate: “No issue in recent years has resulted in the degree of bitterness and emotion” in the state legislature.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

The latest news, delivered straight to your inbox.


Cook knew that she had sufficient votes in the state senate. The votes in the assembly, however, were seen as a toss-up. When the final vote was taken in that body on April 9, the tally stood at 74 to 74—the bill had failed. As the vote was announced, however, George Michaels, a little known Democrat from a heavily Catholic district in upstate New York, rose and with his voice shaking said, “I realize, Mr. Speaker, that I am terminating my political career. But I cannot in good conscience sit here and allow my vote to be the one that defeats this bill. I ask that my vote be changed from ‘no’ to ‘yes.’” Michaels was correct—he was defeated in his next election. But he voted as his conscience, and apparently his family, led him to do.

Were John Boehner to allow a “clean” vote on ending the government shutdown, he very likely would lose his speakership (though probably not his House seat). And I have no idea whether his family members, like Michaels’, are urging a particular course of action. But I do know that as the shutdown drags on, more and more Americans are suffering: from the loss of income in the case of laid-off government workers, and from the loss of government-provided services for millions of others. John Boehner, like George Michaels before him, has the opportunity to do the right thing, even if it is costly.