Abortion History 101
Thirty years ago in early April, three years before Roe v. Wade, male politicians--urged on by doctors, lawyers and lobbyists--struck down New York State's restrictive abortion law, under which nearly all abortions were illegal. The measure was supported by Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller, defended by a senator who had witnessed the death of a young girl from complications of an illegal abortion, and it passed because one assemblyman changed his vote--Democrat George Michaels, who trembled as he told his colleagues that he knew he was signing his political death warrant. Weren't those men brave and noble to take such risks for women?
Yes, they were--if only we had more like them today! But something is missing from what seems to be emerging as the official version of events. In a long front-page story ('70 Abortion Law: New York Said Yes, Stunning the Nation, April 9), the New York Times recalled New York State's historic moment through the voices of ten people: all but two men, all but two politicians. On National Public Radio and on the air in Albany, the focus was the same. You would never know that women played a role in their own liberation. Indeed, Barbara Shack, then an organizer with the New York Civil Liberties Union, now president of the board of NARAL, helpfully told the Times that "the campaign to change the law was largely run by men."
As a policy matter among politicians, lobbyists and doctors, that's true. But policy change doesn't happen in a vacuum--physicians, and politicians too, had watched women die from illegal abortions for decades without being willing to do anything about it. What's missing from these accounts of legalization is the feminist activism that made it happen. Beginning in l969, radical feminists held speakouts on abortion, at which hundreds of women went public with their own experiences: "I spoke first," recalls historian Rosalyn Baxandall of the initial speakout in New York, held at Washington Square Methodist Church, "and was totally scared--I could lose my job or go to jail. Who knew?" While the legislature was stymied--minor reform bills had been proposed in 1967, '68 and '69 but had been defeated in the Assembly--women lawyers mounted a federal court challenge to the New York State law that had the 1970 legislature terrified of being left with no abortion law at all, recalls Emily Jane Goodman, now a judge. There were demonstrations, a feminist speakers' bureau, lobbying efforts in Albany and brilliant and tireless organizing by Lucinda Cisler, co-founder of New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal. There was a flourishing abortion underground--from Jane in Chicago to the Clergy Consultation Service at New York City's Judson Memorial Church--and around the country, people knew about it. In l969, feminists invaded and disrupted the New York State legislature's "expert hearing" on abortion law reform (the experts being fourteen men and a nun) and insisted on a total repeal of the law, not the minor reforms then under consideration. This dramatic action was widely, if not always respectfully, reported--Gals Squeal for Repeal was one headline. "The very moderate reform law of 1969 failed to pass," notes Ellen Willis, who took part in that disruption, "yet just a year later the same legislature passed the most liberal law in the country. Guess all those guys just had a spontaneous change of heart."
Feminists have labored so hard to make women visible, it's galling to see them erased from the legalization narrative--while they are still alive, yet. These are the same women--New York Radical Women, Redstockings--who have gone down in history, inaccurately, as the notorious "bra burners" at the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, and whose slogan "the personal is political" is now so widely ridiculed. If the memory of activism and struggle fades so quickly, it's little wonder that legal abortion feels to so many women like a gift from on high, another in the long list of things over which they have little control and which they are constantly being told in one way or another isn't all that important anyway. After all, the reason the University of Arizona hospital doesn't perform or teach abortion today is that in 1974 the university agreed to ban abortion from its premises in return for $5.5 million from the state legislature to build a football stadium--so women's health matters less than college sports, just the way contraception matters less than Viagra when insurance companies decide what to cover. Similarly, Arianna Huffington (sorry, I can't help myself) quotes Marc Cooper's quip that the two parties are so alike, they should change their names to "the Pro-Life Corporate Party and the Pro-Choice Corporate Party"--imagine casting a vote along such trivial lines! Actually, more accurate names would be the Pro-Confederate Flag Party and the Anti-Confederate Flag Party--but racism, even symbolic racism, isn't a laugh line. Women's lives are.
Why does it matter if the role of activism is dropped from the historical record? History denied repeats itself. Today, abortion rights and abortion access are under threat on a hundred fronts--legislative bans on "partial birth" abortions, Catholic-secular hospital mergers, denial of insurance coverage, not to mention arson and violence and a constant barrage of anti-choice propaganda. Young women need to know that abortion rights and abortion access are not presents bestowed or retracted by powerful men (or women)--Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, legislators, lobbyists--but freedoms won, as freedom always is, by people struggling on their own behalf. "Don't tone it down, be moderate or ladylike, or accept the lesser evil," says Baxandall today. How will people get that message if the news media tell them that women's major contribution to legalizing abortion was to say thank you after it was over?
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Around the country, abortion funds help poor women pay for abortions. You can help these always-strapped grassroots efforts by sending a contribution to the National Network of Abortion Funds c/o CLPP, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA 01002.