Analysis Abortion

The “Intimate Wars” of the Indomitable Merle Hoffman

Marcy Bloom

There are many incredible stories about leaders in the women’s rights movement. This is one of them. Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom is a complex story that is moving, sobering, and should not be missed.

There are many incredible stories about leaders in the women’s rights movement. This is one of them.

Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom is a complex story that is moving, sobering, and should not be missed.

The eloquent and passionate Merle Hoffman has written an exciting, blunt, and raw feminist memoir about the amazing life she has led. I have known her for many years and this book does capture her essence and her being; Merle really comes alive on these pages as she speaks from her heart and from the frontlines. Her honest autobiography discusses her life and times as a recognized writer and journalist, a committed and generous activist, an ambitious entrepreneur, and a visionary women’s health and abortion rights pioneer.

In so many ways, Merle was ahead of her time.

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Her powerful story is full of her childhood and adult events and reflections:

  • growing up as an only child in 1950s middle-class Philadelphia and becoming painfully aware of the oppressive gender restrictions of that era;
  • her budding career as a talented classical pianist that she ultimately decided not to pursue;
  • her numerous relationships and encounters with some of the most influential political figures of our time, including her important relationship with her mentor who eventually became her husband;
  • her significant girl/woman warrior identity and fantasies that shaped and guided her life;
  • decades of the exhausting, devastating, and often deadly abortion wars, including the domestic terrorism against clinics and providers,  that both emboldened her and threatened to destroy her;
  • the exciting 1971 founding of Choices in Queens, NY, one of the first, most comprehensive, and ground-breaking women’s health clinics in the country that institutionalized quality abortion care and emphasized  Patient Power as its foundation for how women should be treated and empowered ,and also ultimately became a flashpoint of controversy;
  • her passionate leadership as a powerful women’s rights advocate and pro-choice spokesperson for women’ s human rights, dignity, justice,  strength, and access to safe and respectful abortion care;
  • the myriad of personal and professional struggles, attacks, and accusations that plagued her for years and could have ended her trail-blazing work if not for Merle’s total force, strength, and dedication;  and
  • the numerous controversies  and core philosophy surrounding her life and work, including issues of heartache, loss, love, truth, growth, finding oneself, self-reflection, feminism, the ongoing war against women, the scars of battle, finding peace, and, at the age of 58, motherhood.  

Merle speaks passionately and articulately of her life, a mixture of what Thomas Merton’s teachings describe as an active life and a contemplative one. Merle has demonstrated how to successfully live and participate in both as she has striven to speak to truth, transgressed multiple boundaries, and worked to change the world. She describes her complex journey and difficult path that ultimately led to her understanding, dedication, and passion to feminist principles, the value and worth of women’s lives, choices, and moral agency, and the fundamental position of reproductive rights and feminism in women’s equality and place in the world. These strong beliefs came to define her and years ago she took on issues with which our embattled pro-choice/women’s rights movement is still struggling and defining. 

Merle eloquently describes battles, confrontations, and debates with the anti-choice movement as power struggles of words and actions that continue to this day. She declares: 

“Two sides emerged, as if they were mutually exclusive. There was either the ‘right to life’ or the ‘right to choose.’   Women couldn’t help but internalize these narrow ways of seeing the issue and themselves accordingly. Abortion was a woman’s right, both legally, with the passage of Roe vs. Wade, and as a matter of biology, equality, and justice. But each woman’s acceptance of her natural right was challenged by a Greek chorus screaming ‘murderer’ at her for exercising that power…

“The growing political debate on abortion in the seventies took this reduction of women’s self-identity even further by positioning the woman and fetus as adversaries. There was no way that one could advocate for both: if you believed in the right to life of the fetus, then the woman, by definition had to come second. And if you believed in a woman’s right to choose, the fetus took second place.”

Merle further questions: “Who holds the power to decide whether a fetus comes to term? Who has the power to decide whether a woman should give birth, how many children she should have, what constitutes a ‘good’ mother? … Ironically the New Right and Moral Majority were as in touch with the fact that abortion empowers women as women’s rights activists. The antis clearly understood that to keep women in the traditional roles of wife and mother, and thus to prevent what they feared would be wholesale societal upheaval, they had to remove a woman’s power to choose.”  By so doing, they were removing her ability to choose the destiny of her pregnancy-and, ultimately, her life.

She posits: “Why a woman makes a decision to have an abortion is not the deciding issue. She is making the choice that is right for her, and that is what matters. At its core, the issue is about separating the chooser from the choice.”

Merle also asserts: “If the personal is indeed the political, as the feminist slogan goes, then abortion is the ultimate political act. It is not politics, but necessity that drives women’s choices, necessity that forms the political and theoretical foundation for the right to choose. To withhold that right for any reason is to deny women a piece of their humanity.

“In the late seventies, the pro-choice movement faced the same political question it faces today. How can we create a new narrative in which choice and reproductive freedom are the theory, and abortion is the practice? How can we transcend limiting narratives and start to identify with all women struggling to make choices, defending them rather than resisting that power through guilt and denial? How do we create a world where women can have abortions without apology?”

Merle is not afraid (as I indicated, I have known her for many years, and frankly, she rarely appears afraid of anything) to take on the hard and difficult questions about abortion rights, safe abortion care, the ongoing and increasing stigma and demonization surrounding abortion, the moral foundation of women, and the reality of abortion that are all still being asked, questioned, discussed, and debated.  

When she describes the pro-choice movement as marching “then, as it does now, under the banner of choice, of human and civil rights, that is always more nuanced than the pure white banner of ‘innocence’ and ‘life’ carried by our opponents. But attempting to simplify the issue, refusing to look at the consequences or true nature of abortion–the blood, the observable parts of the fetus, the irrevocable endings, the power of deciding whether or not to bring a new life into the world–reduces our capacity to register the depth of this issue and disrespects the profound political and social struggle women’s choices engender in our society.” This has perpetuated the deep-seated stigma that women often feel to this day about abortion and she posits that by “putting women in a defensive position,” by “denying the truth,” this “also perpetuates the shame, embarrassment, and ambivalence that the antis want women to feel.”

And they often continue to feel to this day. This simplification also seriously harms the world-wide movement for choice, equality, respect, dignity, and true reproductive justice for women and girls everywhere.

I asked Merle why she wrote her powerful book of personal revelations and social justice truths at this time in her life of dedication to passionate work and her response was also powerful.  This is what she told me.

“This book was written as gift of myself for my daughter-who will only know and share a part of my life…and by extension for all of our daughters who will inherit our struggle. It was written when I was in deep mourning and had lost so many people I loved…I needed to reflect on not only their loss but what they gave me. I wrote in the preface that I wanted to give birth to myself-and in so many ways I have done so-the book was a kind of reckoning for me-a deep self-analysis. And back to Socrates-that the unexamined life is not worth living. I knew that other people would be examining mine and I thought my own perspective would be important.

“And then there are the lessons for those of us who want to change the world from what it is to what it should be-the price that has to be paid-the fear of doing it and the courage it creates. I wanted to tell my truth before someone else would tell it for me-and say it was mine!”

Intimate Wars is indeed Merle’s voice as it captures her life of truth and power, of courage and loss, of love and ferocity, and of fighting for what one passionately and eloquently believes in. It is a beautiful gift for Sasha, Merle’s dynamic young daughter…and now it is a gift for the entire world.

Intimate Wars will take its much-deserved prominent place in my extensive library of feminist frontlines, analysis, history, politics, philosophy, and life. It will be published on January 12th, 2012, ten days before the Roe vs. Wade Day commemoration of 38 years of legal abortion on January 22nd and can be preordered at www.intimatewars.com.  

To arrange an interview, contact Elizabeth Koke, Feminist Press Publicity, @ ekoke@gc.cuny.edu or (212)817-7928. 

Merle Hoffman is available to discuss her exciting and sobering story. Her book is important to behold…as is she.  She is expected to be on tour in January and February of 2012. The following are the events lined up so far:

11/12/11 Atlanta~ National Women’s Studies Association Conference with Loretta Ross

1/12/12 NYC~ Barnes & Noble at 86th & Lexington with Jennifer Baumgardner

1/17/12 Washington, DC~ National Press Club

1/17/12 Washington, DC~ Politics & Prose

TBA Durham, North Carolina

News Politics

Debbie Wasserman Schultz Resigns as Chair of DNC, Will Not Gavel in Convention

Ally Boguhn

Donna Brazile, vice chair of the DNC, will step in as interim replacement for Wasserman Schultz as committee chair.

On the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) resigned her position as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), effective after the convention, amid controversy over leaked internal party emails and months of criticism over her handling of the Democratic primary races.

Wasserman Schultz told the Sun Sentinel on Monday that she would not gavel in this week’s convention, according to Politico.

“I know that electing Hillary Clinton as our next president is critical for America’s future,” Wasserman Schultz said in a Sunday statement announcing her decision. “Going forward, the best way for me to accomplish those goals is to step down as Party Chair at the end of this convention.”

“We have planned a great and unified Convention this week and I hope and expect that the DNC team that has worked so hard to get us to this point will have the strong support of all Democrats in making sure this is the best convention we have ever had,” Wasserman Schultz continued.

Just prior to news that Wasserman Schultz would step down, it was announced that Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) would chair the DNC convention.

Donna Brazile, vice chair of the DNC, will step in as interim replacement for Wasserman Schultz as committee chair.

Wasserman Schultz’s resignation comes after WikiLeaks released more than 19,000 internal emails from the DNC, breathing new life into arguments that the Democratic Party—and Wasserman Schultz in particular—had “rigged” the primary in favor of nominating Hillary Clinton. As Vox‘s Timothy B. Lee pointed out, there seems to be “no bombshells” in the released emails, though one email does show that Brad Marshall, chief financial officer of the DNC, emailed asking whether an unnamed person could be questioned about “his” religious beliefs. Many believe the email was referencing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT).

Another email from Wasserman Schultz revealed the DNC chair had referred to Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, as a “damn liar.”

As previously reported by Rewire before the emails’ release, “Wasserman Schultz has been at the center of a string of heated criticisms directed at her handling of the DNC as well as allegations that she initially limited the number of the party’s primary debates, steadfastly refusing to add more until she came under pressure.” She also sparked controversy in January after suggesting that young women aren’t supporting Clinton because there is “a complacency among the generation” who were born after Roe v. Wade was decided.

“Debbie Wasserman Schultz has made the right decision for the future of the Democratic Party,” said Sanders in a Sunday statement. “While she deserves thanks for her years of service, the party now needs new leadership that will open the doors of the party and welcome in working people and young people. The party leadership must also always remain impartial in the presidential nominating process, something which did not occur in the 2016 race.”

Sanders had previously demanded Wasserman Schultz’s resignation in light of the leaked emails during an appearance earlier that day on ABC’s This Week.

Clinton nevertheless stood by Wasserman Schultz in a Sunday statement responding to news of the resignation. “I am grateful to Debbie for getting the Democratic Party to this year’s historic convention in Philadelphia, and I know that this week’s events will be a success thanks to her hard work and leadership,” said Clinton. “There’s simply no one better at taking the fight to the Republicans than Debbie—which is why I am glad that she has agreed to serve as honorary chair of my campaign’s 50-state program to gain ground and elect Democrats in every part of the country, and will continue to serve as a surrogate for my campaign nationally, in Florida, and in other key states.”

Clinton added that she still looks “forward to campaigning with Debbie in Florida and helping her in her re-election bid.” Wasserman Schultz faces a primary challenger, Tim Canova, for her congressional seat in Florida’s 23rd district for the first time this year.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.