Readers Write: Profiles in Courage

Readers Write: Profiles in Courage

You don’t hate history. You hate the way it was taught to you.

Stephen Ambrose, American historian.

When students are asked what is your worst subject, they frequently reply “history.” I suspect that, like Arnold Toynbee, who defined history as “one damned thing after another,” students remember how boring the subject was.

They point to the memorization of dates, battles and kings which have almost no relevance to the lives of these long-suffering students. But it needn’t be this way.

History encompasses fascinating vignettes, stories of cowardice and heroism, in short, the drama of life. If your social studies teachers failed to impart this sense of excitement, you should demand a refund.

This essay will cite two examples of unsung heroes, one demonstrating great courage in the face of death and the other who, prematurely, ended a successful political career.

Our first hero is George Michaels, not exactly a household name. He served in the state Assembly in Albany representing a district which was conservative, largely rural and predominately Catholic.

It is anomalous that  Michaels was Jewish and in favor of a woman’s right to choose.

Twice he voted against an abortion bill, but in line with the wishes of his conservative constituents. The bill would have been the most liberal law on abortion in the U.S. Michaels knew that his vote would affect the abortion debate for years to come.

He heard from two of his sons on this issue.

One said he would be a “whore” if he didn’t vote his conscience. Another begged him to do the right thing which meant changing his vote from “nay” to “aye.”

For Michaels this was the most important vote he would ever cast. He rose and addressed the chamber. “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.”

His vote recorded, bedlam broke out in the Assembly.

Epithets were shouted at Michaels who buried his face in his hands. His prediction that his career was over was prescient. Opposed by Democratic county leaders he had three adversaries in a primary which he lost.

The state Senate approved the same bill as the Assembly and on April 11, 1970 Gov. Nelson Rockefeller signed it into law.

This piece of legislation became the model for the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Since there was no residency requirement in New York State, it became the only state in the country offering abortion on demand.

Michaels died at his home in Auburn, N.Y. He was 80 years old. Survived by his wife of 59 years, he had three sons and eight grandchildren. He wrote his own epitaph: “I found myself caught up in something bigger than I am. I’m just a small country lawyer.” I submit that he was wrong. He was a man who sacrificed a career in order to do the right thing.

The name of Dr. George Tiller may “ring a bell.” He was the physician shot to death in the foyer of his church by a right to life fanatic.

The name Julie Burkhart is not as well known yet she is the second person whose story deserves telling. Four years after Tiller’s murder in Wichita, Kan., the residents of that city once again had an abortion clinic.

Called the South Wind Women’s Center, there were continuing threats and efforts at intimidation to those on staff.

Here are some of the problems and threats Ms. Burkhart faced: Bogus complaints were filed with building inspectors and fire marshals to prevent the clinic’s opening.

Ms. Burkhart’s home was picketed. One frightening sign asked carried by a picketer read “Where’s your church?” referencing Tiller’s assassination in his church. She had to get an order of protection against the leader of the picketing group.

Security at Burkhart’s home and the clinic was dialed up and was quite costly. T

here are three doctors on staff at the new clinic, two of whom fly in from out of state. This practice is not unique to Kansas.  Mississippi, and the Dakotas also fly in physicians. Transportation to and from the airport is an additional burden. Abortion providers also receive threatening phone calls at home.

All of this madness in a country where the Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade (1973) that abortion is a Constitutionally protected right.

David Leach is a member of the anti-abortion group known, ironically, as the Army of God. Scott Roeder is the convicted killer of Dr. Tiller. In a recorded jailhouse conversation between these two,  it was suggested that someone might kill “Julie Darkheart” which was the unflattering name given to Julie Burkhart.

The two agreed that Burkhart made herself “a target.”

They further stated  “I don’t know if anyone will pick up the gauntlet”  suggesting that they hoped someone would.

So what makes Julie Burkhart a heroine? Every day that she goes to work her life is in jeopardy. The “crazies” in the right to life movement justify murder on the grounds that physicians who do abortions kill “babies”

The actual number of abortions performed in the U.S. since 1973 is over 60,000,000.

The source of these numbers is the Guttmacher Institute which champions  freedom of choice for women, and therefore can be trusted.

Both George Michaels and Julie Burkhart faced a crossroads.

Both knew what they had to do in order to be faithful to their beliefs. In my opinion, each made the right choice and their stories should be told.

Anytime one can personalize history it springs to life.

Dr. Hal Sobel

Great Neck

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