Commentary Abortion

Rounding Up The Pro-Choice Troops: When We Started Fighting Back

Merle Hoffman

In 1989, the historic bifurcation between abortion providers and political activists had finally begun to dissolve, and a powerful new alliance was beginning to form. Providers were now at the forefront of the abortion rights struggle, and patients themselves, in the midst of the most personal and intimate of decisions and life events, were thrust into a vortex of politics and passion. This is one story from that time.

The following is an edited excerpt of the book, “Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion From the Back Alley to the Board Room,” to be released in January 2012.

“Where are your troops, Hoffman?” an Operation Rescue activist asked me on yet another rainy, cold morning of protesting on the streets of New York in 1989.

I turned to face my questioner. Middle-aged, white, male, polyester suit, fetal feet button—in all, a good soldier of the Lord.

“Where are your troops?”

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I looked past him to our small band of about fifty feminist activists, chanting and intense; beyond the five hundred or so kneeling, praying “rescuers”; past the police, the press, the passersby, and thought about his question. Where were my troops? We appeared sadly outnumbered. Compared to the antis, we always were.

My questioner had verbalized one of my private intellectual dialogues. But it was really not so private after all. The question of just where the feminist movement was now, where the feminist movement was going, whether the feminist movement was alive or dead, had become a popular issue around which media, politicians, and anyone who felt like it could instantly pontificate.

That anti-choice man’s question helped clarify what I already knew that day. Looking through his eyes, people might have agreed that the right wing was winning. It was an illusion. Yes, we were outnumbered on the streets, and that could be frustrating. But a mass mobilization of sorts was occurring. The historic bifurcation between abortion providers and political activists had finally begun to dissolve, and a powerful new alliance was beginning to form. Participation in direct action against Operation Rescue at clinic sites put ideological feminists face to face with the reality of abortion. Over one million women each year were having legal abortions at clinics across the country, and they each risked harassment, violence, and restrictive, even dangerous, regulations in upcoming Supreme Court cases. Providers were now at the forefront of the abortion rights struggle, and patients themselves, in the midst of the most personal and intimate of decisions and life events, were thrust into a vortex of politics and passion.

We had always had plenty of troops in this battle. They were everywhere, and they were far from outnumbered. They just had to be activated.

I decided it was time to make a statement that could not be ignored or manipulated by the media, Reagan, or Operation Rescue. We would deliver a message to the cardinal of New York, John J. O’Connor—a proclamation, a Bill of Rights on abortion.

The Pro-Choice Coalition quietly spread the word to gather across the street from the cathedral on the morning of Sunday, April 2. We gave no further instructions for fear that Operation Rescue would get wind of the plan and stage an opposing action.

I was very careful not to organize the protest at the time of Mass; we would begin just as the service ended.

When the day arrived, everything was in place. As people began pouring forth from the cathedral, pro-choice activists marched across the street to the concrete steps. Mary Lou Greenberg and Maria Lyons stood in front of the massive bronze doors and unfurled a proclamation:

On behalf of the women of New York City and their sisters throughout this country and out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light.

We stand here today to affirm the following to Cardinal John J. O’Connor who has blessed, praised, and hosted the anti-abortion fanatics of “Operation Rescue”:

That you have consistently turned a deaf ear and a cold heart to women by repeatedly ignoring urgent requests to meet with us about the terrorism and violence towards women that “Operation Rescue” represents.

That you have added to the atmosphere of fear, terror, and anxiety that women must face when attempting to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion.

That you have encouraged the fanaticism and women-hating that feeds the politics of “Operation Rescue.”

Now, therefore, we stand here not as beggars at your gate but as people of conscience to affirm that:

1. Women are full moral agents with the right and ability to choose when and whether or not they will be mothers.

2. Abortion is a choice made by each individual for profound personal reasons that no man nor state should judge.

3. The right to make reproductive choices is women’s legacy throughout history and belongs to every woman regardless of age, class, race, religion, or sexual preference.

4. Abortion is a life-affirming act chosen within the context of women’s realities, women’s lives, and women’s sexuality.

5. Abortion is often the most moral choice in a world that frequently denies health care, housing, education, and economic survival.

Cheering exuberantly and waving coat hangers, hundreds of pro-choice supporters who had been waiting across the street surged to the steps of the cathedral. They began chanting slogans in support of our proclamation.

I made my way up the church steps with the six-foot hanger I had commissioned for the occasion. It was a symbol of potential terror and aggression against all women, but it was also the symbol of our future. And taking my place in front of the doors to the cathedral, I knew that it was also the ultimate symbol of both defiance and gentle desecration.

As I lifted the hanger above my head, the crowed throbbed and screamed with new energy. Police officers showed up on the scene, pushed our people back across the street, and arrested nine activists for trespassing on church property, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. The first pro-choice disobedience action in history. We marched after them with Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union to the precinct to rescue our activists.

The media could not ignore this one.

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