As time passed, I could see that the movement for women’s rights had enjoyed a brief period of public popularity in the early seventies that led to the legalization of abortion, but before women really had the chance to move into their power, the public discussion began to move toward the construction of simplistic, judgmental narratives designed to put women back in their place.
Two sides emerged, as if they were mutually exclusive: the “right to life” or the “right to choose.” Each woman’s acceptance of her right was threatened by a Greek chorus screaming “murderer” at her for exercising her power. Most women couldn’t help but internalize these narrow ways of seeing the issue.
Ironically, the New Right and Moral Majority were also in touch with the fact that abortion empowers women. They understood that to keep women in the traditional roles of wife and mother — and thus prevent wholesale societal upheaval — they had to remove a woman’s power to choose.
A study was conducted that revealed a powerful contradiction: the majority of women who came to Choices for abortions did not consider themselves to be pro-choice. They had never imagined themselves in a position where they would decide to have an abortion, an act they considered morally reprehensible even as they waited their turns to be called into the operating rooms. I often asked women who had had abortions if they’d sign petitions, come to rallies, or participate in meetings. Most shook their heads. After their abortions, they just wanted to leave it all behind.
Yet, despite this, they referred their friends and family and came back to the clinic when they needed counseling or care. They demonstrated a quiet solidarity through the necessity of making reproductive decisions. Abortion created “reluctant epiphanies” — the realization that it was not politics but necessity that drives women’s choices.
When I found out that I was unintentionally pregnant myself, I wrote in my diary, “For one night I am a mother.” The next morning I dressed carefully in a red-and-white suit. What does one wear to an abortion? There are no traditional costumes like those for funerals or weddings. There is no ritual from one generation of women to another. There are only functional considerations; you wear something that comes on and off quickly and easily.
The steps of the familiar process played out in surreal reversal. Now I was joined to the common experience of my sex. But as I lay on the table I had stood beside to support so many others, I felt irrevocably alone. Strange how I thought of the fetus as female, as if that shared gender gave me a connection.
By the mid-eighties, abortion defenders found themselves firmly in the midst of a backlash. “Pro-choice” came to mean pro-murder. There was a growing tendency to liken abortion to the Holocaust, to compare the private moral decisions of individual women to the wholesale slaughter of Jews. An abortion clinic in Westchester was labeled “Auschwitz on the Hudson,” and anti-abortion protesters raised placards with Nazi insignias in front of clinics. This analogy between Jews and fetuses was an effective way to humanize fetuses, casting them as victims deserving of civil rights.
But for whom, exactly, were they fighting? Few but the most religiously fanatical would wage a hot war in the name of a group of cells. This war was being fought against women, not for fetuses.
In 1985 alone, there were approximately 150 attacks against abortion clinics. One of our clinic counselors returned home one evening to find her cat decapitated. Patients were called in the middle of the night with recordings of a childish voice crying, “Mommy, Mommy, why did you kill me?”
In June 1990, Brooklyn’s Bishop Thomas Daily recited the Hail Mary more than 150 times in front of Choices, with 1000 demonstrators. But on the day of their protest, none of our scheduled 100 abortions was canceled. In that era, while Daily was gathering his followers to pray the rosary outside my clinic, I was helping run a sort of underground railroad. Women from states with restrictive abortion laws were traveling to New York to have their procedures. I lowered the fees for out-of-state clients and welcomed them with care and compassion.
Choices grew to see over 500 patients for abortions per week. With my staff of 115, I was basically running a midsize hospital. At our height we performed almost 20,000 abortions per year, over 100 per day, making us one of the largest abortion facilities in the U.S. Nearly 97% of the abortions were done in the first trimester at a cost of $300.
I was generous with salaries, including my own. I was the only woman owner of a licensed abortion facility in New York, yet my feminist peers often made me feel as though I was doing something wrong. Many felt that a real activist should
be struggling financially, or at least working for a nonprofit. How, they wondered, could I be a radical feminist and a successful entrepreneur?
Male abortion doctors faced less opprobrium; the fact that they were making money off abortions did not tarnish them the way it tarnished me. I was a woman, a feminist, a writer, a publisher and an activist, and I was making a hell of a lot of money. Something wasn’t right.
An influx of Russian and other émigrés started coming to the clinic in the 1980s. Abortion was the major form of birth control in the Soviet Union, and many of the women had had 10 or 20 before coming to Choices. At one point, a 35-year-old Russian woman came to Choices for her 36th abortion. Most Russian gynecologists promoted the idea that the pill caused cancer and they preached the virtues of repeat abortions.
The lack of choice in Russia resulted in an alarming number of abortions performed both legally and illegally. It was impossible to get an accurate number, but it was estimated that between five and 18 million abortions were performed annually there as compared to 1.6 million in the U.S. Acting out my ultimate rescue fantasy, I travelled to Moscow to work on setting up the first feminist medical center — what I called Choices East.
A Hindu Indian woman, 18 weeks pregnant, came into Choices with her husband and two young sons, seeking an abortion. She’d had amniocentesis to insure that there were no fetal abnormalities, and found there was nothing wrong with her fetus. Why, then, was she here? “It’s a girl,” she told me. “I can’t have a girl. Girls are liabilities.”
I thought of the fetus within her and the primal birth defect it carried. I felt rage that it was my gender that was the least wanted, and despair over the reality that within this act was a denigration, denial, and devaluation of the female self.