(WOMENSENEWS)–I remember the moment I became political. It was a rainy Sunday morning, 1976, and I’d allowed myself to stay in bed a little longer than usual.
Monotonic radio voices intruded on my sleep . . . something about Henry Hyde and abortion.
I sat up in bed, all ears. Republican Congressman Henry Hyde had succeeded in passing legislation that would effectively remove the right to abortion for women on Medicaid.
"If we can’t save them all, we can at least save some," Hyde declared, referring to the pregnancies of black, Hispanic and all politically and socially disenfranchised women who would now be unable to afford abortions. They were Hyde’s first strategic target, the opening salvo in his war against women. Because of their collective powerlessness and political vul¬nerability they made for an especially easy kill.
Hearing that news, my stomach clenched as I thought about the circumstances that brought many of my patients to the New York abortion clinic I founded in 1971, and the systemic inequalities that placed adequate health care out of reach for so many. Those women from whom Hyde would callously cut off abortion rights were people I worked with every day. Many were unemployed, many had several children, most were poor and had nowhere to turn for help.
My growing awareness that women’s reproductive freedom was precarious–that the passage of Roe v. Wade was also the beginning of a war designed to have it reversed–was transformed into a sense of urgency and purpose that morn¬ing. I instinctively knew that my life had changed, that the five years I’d spent providing abortion services had led me to this moment. I recognized that if I wanted to truly advo¬cate for women I’d have to reach out beyond the world of the clinic to the broader, more demanding and dangerous one of political activism.
My immediate impulse was to speak. If people would only see and understand the truth, they would do something to stop it! Ironically enough, my first action was to go through the halls of Queens College, knocking on classroom doors to ask whether I could address the class and hand out leaflets.
Surprised professors invited me in and allowed me to distribute my pamphlet on the effects of the Medicaid ruling: How discriminatory it was, how it singled out poor women, minorities and the young.
"My name is Merle Hoffman and I am here to talk to you about a crisis in reproductive care," I told the students once their professors stepped aside to let me speak. "We must do something at once–poor women are being discriminated against, poor women will die!"
Uncomfortable silence. The students listened attentively, but there was hardly a response, much less the passionate outcry I’d hoped my news would elicit. Finally, a woman spoke up. "But we will always be able to get abortions. We can fly to London or Puerto Rico," she said to nods all around.
Of course. I was speaking to white, middle-class college students. They had their ways of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy if it happened to them, and they didn’t care to worry about those with fewer resources.
I encountered a similar attitude when I spoke to the women’s group at a local Queens synagogue. They self-identified as women’s libbers who had made the choice of getting married, giving up their careers and staying home with their babies. They had the money to fly to those abortion havens if rights were cut off in the U.S. No coat hangers, bottles or back alleys for them.
I left, discouraged by their passivity and lack of empathy. In "The Feminine Mystique," the book that helped spark second-wave feminism, Betty Friedan outlined her view that the freedom to become a fully engaged person is personal and achieving a gender-neutral society with no barriers to women’s self-fulfillment is political. Her analysis did not go far enough to embrace issues of race and class.
This disconnect became increasingly evident as I witnessed the demographic of my patients change after the Hyde Amendment was passed in 1976. In the beginning there had been a great deal of racial and class diversity at Flushing Women’s and other abortion clinics; everyone went to them. Even the daughters and wives of public figures and politicians frequently came to clinics for abortions.
The Hyde Amendment changed all that. Because New York was one of only four states that continued to have Medicaid funding for abortion, licensed clinics in our state began to see a large portion of Medicaid patients, mostly lower-middle-class women of color. Middle-class white women didn’t want to share facilities with poor minority women, so they found other places to get abortions.
Clinics were increasingly thought to be dirty, unsafe facilities, fit only for those who could afford no other option. Gradually, the words "abortion clinic" in New York came to be synonymous with "Medicaid Mill"–a label with all the baggage of stigma, disgust and racism that continues to this day.
This baggage was compounded by sheer ignorance on the part of middle- and upper-class women who claimed that clinic doctors were not as talented or professional as private gynecologists. As more and more women began to have abortions, there were inevitably unpleasant stories about experiences people had in clinics–long waits, scheduling mix-ups, personality conflicts.
These complaints were endemic to any hospital or surgical procedure, but somehow with abortion they became writ large. The politics of abortion were beginning to poison the well of experience.
Intimate Wars will be available from Feminist Press (http://www.feministpress.org) in January 2012.
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Merle Hoffman is an award-winning journalist, activist and women’s health care pioneer. In 1971, she founded CHOICES, one of the first ambulatory abortion centers, which has become one of the nation’s largest and most comprehensive women’s medical facilities in the US. She is also the publisher of On the Issues, an online feminist magazine.
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