Abortion Foremother

The history of abortion is the history of power relations between states and their female populations. When Stalin made abortion illegal, the agenda was to populate Russia with soldiers to counteract Hitler’s rising militarism. Meanwhile, Aryan women in Nazi Germany who were thought to have aborted their fetuses could be punished with the death penalty while those deemed “hereditarily ill” were permitted to have abortions.

Romania offered abortion on request until the decline in fertility instigated a change in policy in 1966; abortion laws enforced by military dictatorships in Chile mandate that women can be jailed for up to five years if they are caught. In China, abortion is an important tool for limiting population growth. In the U.S., the legality of abortion is a wedge issue that flip-flops according to the party in power.

The battlefields are different, but the war is always the same. For women in sexist, authoritarian societies, however, there is often only the harsh reality that sex rarely comes without anxiety, and that the price one often pays for it is high and dangerous.


When Mother Teresa, speaking about abortion, said, “We have created a mentality of violence — massive, propagandized movements that have brought about more than a million and a half unborn deaths every year,” Elie Wiesel didn’t agree with her. He said that the violence he was concerned about was the violence of the abortion debate itself.

I interviewed Wiesel for my magazine On the Issues and said to him, “I personally have been compared to Hitler and been called a great murderer.”

He answered, “It is blasphemy to reduce the Holocaust, a tragedy of monumental proportions, to abortion, which is a human tragedy. We need to give the human proportion back to the abortion issue, and when we do, we may be able to have much more understanding for the woman who chooses it.”


Dr. David Gunn became the first abortion provider killed in the war against abortion, in 1993. After that, there was a sequence of murders, including that of my friend Dr. George Tiller; for many years I referred women to his clinic for therapeutic late-term abortions. Since 1977, almost 200 abortion clinics have been bombed.

Choices had been harassed with many bomb threats, and I received death threats on a regular basis. I hired guards and upgraded my alarm and security systems. We had regular clinic escorts who would courageously come out every Saturday wearing orange Choices vests, but nothing could change the fact that it would take only one act of violence to destroy our fragile sense of security.

Patients would come in crying after hearing the exhortations from anti-abortion “sidewalk counselors” in front of Choices, and, indeed, a great part of many patients’ counseling sessions was spent dealing with these psychological assaults.

At an abortion providers conference in Washington, D.C., I remember finally being handed a button that read, “I’m Pro-Choice and I shoot back.” Some years earlier, buttons read, “I’m Pro-Choice and I vote.”

When doctors first began to perform abortions they were viewed as progressives, or mavericks. Now they were living in a constant state of P.T.S.D. In order to minimize my vulnerability, I purchased a 20-gauge, pump-action Mossberg shotgun.

A journalist from the Daily News got wind of my purchase and wrote, under the headline Make Her Day, “If you’ve noticed the Right-to-Life crowds thinning in front of Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens, maybe it’s because the abortion clinic’s president, Merle Hoffman, just purchased a shotgun.”


There was also an avalanche of economic and political attacks. Choices’ new landlord made it clear that he had no intention of having an “abortion center” continue to be a tenant in his building. He threatened to “bulldoze” my space if I remained one extra day after the expiration of my lease.

With so little warning, I was forced to liquidate my entire savings to cover the costs of speeding up construction on our new site. We moved, but the building was sold to a new owner who was anti-abortion — and committed to making my life miserable. His harassment was so severe that I had to call Attorney General Janet Reno’s office, which provided armed federal marshals to guard my space during the last few months of construction.

Over the course of two years, the landlord left Choices without heat and air-conditioning, and unfinished roof work resulted in multiple floods. I had to delay paychecks, lay off staff and suspend all advertising, resulting in a drastic reduction in my patient population. In order to meet payroll and get supplies, I had to stop paying taxes.

I was going from one lawyer to another as I tried to stave off bankruptcy, keep the builders working, the clinic open, the patients safe, and my own sanity intact.


We spoke with every patient individually prior to her abortion, but it became increasingly clear that abortion could not be extricated from other issues women brought to the clinic — violence at home, abusive relationships, incest, danger on the streets, harassment in the workplace, and economic assaults.

In response to this, we added the Choices Mental Health Center to our clinic. I’d once helped teach women how to scream at the Brooklyn Martial Arts Center. But as Sally Kempton said, “It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.” Part of the work of our Mental Health Center was to help women feel their power and resist the enemy within as well as without.


“Welcome to my world.” My words were published in the New York Post on October 12, 2001, just a little over a month after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. It was a controversial statement, but it was the truth. I was used to checking my mail for white powder [anthrax] every day. I’d been looking under my car for signs of foul play, my heart beating quickly in anticipation of an explosion, for a decade by then.

I’d been avoiding windows for fear of bullets since Barnett Slepian was gunned down at his kitchen window in front of his wife and children in 1998. I tensed my body every time I walked from my car to Choices.

Saying, “I had an abortion” aloud hasn’t gotten any easier since I opened an abortion clinic in 1971— 42 years ago. It is ever a tragedy, a necessary evil, something to be kept private and about which to feel ashamed.

The future of abortion still comes down to that fundamental question: When will we have abortion without apology? 


Adapted by Susan Schnur from Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom (The Feminist Press, 2012) 

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