In 1971, Merle Hoffman founded Choices Medical Center, one of the country’s first abortion clinics. An activist, journalist, and women’s health care pioneer, Merle is also the publisher On The Issues magazine. Her new book, Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom, will be published in January.
When did you first call yourself a feminist? What inspired that decision?
My feminism came from the “ground up,” from practice to theory. It was catalyzed by the first patient who came to Choices and whose hand I held during her abortion. My political activism was inspired by the Hyde Amendment in 1976, which I viewed as an egregious attack on poor and minority women.
I did not call myself a feminist until the mid-80s. Prior to that I was merely responding to a great need in front of me in the form of thousands of women presenting themselves for abortion services.
You founded Choices Women’s Medical Center in 1971, and a lot of Intimate Wars is dedicated to the various challenges and triumphs of running one of the first abortion clinics in the country. Are you still dealing with the kind of protests and public opposition that the clinic encountered in the 1980s and 1990s?
The face of the battles have changed but the war is still the same. This year alone has seen more attempts at legislative restrictions to abortion and birth control than in previous years. We still have our daily protestors outside of Choices, [and] I was recently evicted from a space I had been in for 15 years (my second eviction!). It has been no easier to have abortion without apology in 2011 then it was in 1980.
In 1976, you co-founded the National Association of Abortion Facilities, which later combined with the National Abortion Council became the National Abortion Federation. What led you to decide that this kind of organization was needed?
I was one of many abortion providers that came together to join forces in those early days. We all felt that there had to be a coordinated centralized organization that could support providers. My desire to be in the leadership of the organization was driven by my vision for it to become a professional organization with the highest standards, and one that could help educate women about abortion services.
You write with great passion about trying to open a “feminist medical center” in Moscow in the 1990s. Although Choices East was not able to open at the time, is this a project that you have thought about revisiting?
Absolutely, especially recently when there has been a coordinated political attack on abortion rights; restrictions have just passed limiting abortion only up to 12 weeks. If I could I would be over there in a heartbeat – but the battles at home keep me here.
In writing about Roe v. Wade, you say, “… implementing Roe v. Wade did not prevent abortion from being seen as a second-class medical service, or clinics and the doctors who worked in them from becoming pariahs in American society.” This seems to be a common sentiment among both providers and clinic directors, and I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on why this is.
You have to appreciate the profound change that legal abortion brought to society. Prior to Roe v. Wade, abortion was something that was just discussed in theology, philosophy, criminal justice – or illegal abortion was a place where women were butchered and died.
All of a sudden, abortion was legal in New York and women came from all over the country to access services – they were lining up in the streets. It was not possible to integrate abortion into hospitals or established institutional settings because of the political problems, so freestanding clinics began to develop throughout the country.
Now, the legalization of abortion did not change hearts and minds – there were and still are those who are adamantly opposed to the procedure, and as a result, those who could set up separate clinics to provide abortions. It was a very simple medical procedure and could be done in volume to meet the demand of up to 300 patients per day! And with their own spaces, providers did not have to deal with all the negative and political attacks.
This separation did enable me to have a hand in defining how abortion services would be provided for years to come: counseling protocols, informed consent, Patient Power, etc. – all things that would never have developed if women (and feminists) were not part of this entire history. But being freestanding and alone began to place the clinics in an extremely vulnerable position, and of course the physicians were always considered pariahs – they got their hands “dirty.”
And then there was the harassment, the murders, the bombings, the refusal to teach abortion in medical schools – the feelings of shame that women have about it – all contributing to abortion clinics being “outside the pale.”
You also discuss, with admirable candor, your frustrations with the “passivity” of the pro-choice movement. Is this something that still concerns you?
Definitely. We have to OCCUPY the ABORTION DEBATE AND DIALOGUE. We have ceded far too much of the initiative, been too apologetic about the morality of abortion, and not been pro-active enough in legislation.
Along the same lines, what are your thoughts on the recent defeat of Initiative 26, the so-called “personhood” amendment, in Mississippi?
Good thinking on the part of the electorate. After all, if this passed it would have morphed into all sorts of unwanted places like RESTRICTING IN VITRO FERTILIZATION, denying potentially life-saving cancer treatments, and restricting birth control.
What led you to start On The Issues, a feminist and progressive magazine (which, full disclosure, has published my work)?
Feeling isolated intellectually and politically. I had the desire to connect with others who shared my philosophy and work. It was a way for me to engage in constant stimulating conversation.
I loved that Intimate Wars incudes a conversation between you and Elie Wiesel, where he discusses the oft-invoked anti-choice comparison of the abortion to the Holocaust. I may have to borrow his statement that those who relate abortion to the Holocaust “prove that they do not know what the Holocaust was.” You’ve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of other influential people about abortion – are there any who have had a particular impact on you?
Petra Kelly, Flo Kennedy, Andrea Dworkin, Bella Abzug.
Finally, the pictures in Intimate Wars of you holding a giant coat hanger are great. Do you still have that coat hanger?
Absolutely – it remains in my office and will do so as long as I am at Choices. Then I will give it to Duke where my archives are kept – unless there are some activists out there who would want to borrow it for some action or another!!
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.