The year was 1971 and I was 25 years old. Abortion had been legal in New York for just a few months and I was about to counsel the first patient that came to Choices for an abortion.
Just a few months earlier, abortion was criminalized and considered a sin or a desperate pathological act. But that day at Choices, abortion was real. This woman came from New Jersey because abortion was still illegal in that state.
Women would have to wait until 1973 when the Supreme Court passed Roe v. Wade to be able to access abortion services in states where they lived.
This woman was terrified. She was pregnant and did not want to be. Coming to New York required an enormous amount of courage. Being with her, holding her hand during the procedure required my courage. We were both pioneers in this brave new world of legal abortion.
There was no history, no feminist writing, no Internet to read stories of other women who had gone before.
I remember I held her hand tightly in mine as I listened to her nervous staccato breathing. I kept talking to ease the discomfort of the dilators.
I don’t remember her name but I remember her face and her hand which came to symbolize the connection of one woman helping another, the gravity of forging a natural alliance with that woman and the thousands who followed her.
It is now 2018. I have spent the last 46 years of my life in service to the vision and practice of women’s reproductive freedom. In those years over one million women have come to Choice for abortions as well as prenatal, gynecological and mental health care.
Over the years, as the opposition to legal abortion has grown, I have received multiple death threats. My friend Dr. George Tiller was shot dead in a Kansas church and Choices patients and staff have endured continual harassment and bullying from protestors.
This “opposition” is comprised of many threads. Religious fundamentalists, politicians who use abortion as a rallying cry for the right wing and those who are simply misogynist and don’t believe women have the moral agency to make such important decisions.
Since 2011, states have enacted 401 abortion restrictions resulting in 58 percent of American women of reproductive age living in a state considered hostile to abortion rights. Only 30 percent of women live in a state supportive of abortion rights.
Is New York supportive of abortion rights? As one of the first states to legalize it and as a state considered the “Abortion Capital of America,” one might think so. But if you looked at what happens at Choices every Saturday morning you could have another view.
Even before I moved to our current location on Jamaica Avenue in 2012, the large organized anti-abortion protests began.
These protests were emotionally and physically violative. Large posters of dismembered fetuses, Nazi Crematoriums and the lynching of blacks were held up in front of our doors to make the comparison that abortion was the same as the Holocaust and slavery. People who called themselves “sidewalk counselors” were thrusting literature into patients’ faces while telling them that they were murdering their babies and would burn in hell. Many of these actions were videotaped.
After 6 years of this continuing harassment, former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman brought an anti-harassment Federal law suit against the Protestors. The suit asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction against the protests and create a 16 foot buffer Zone in front of Choices.
Last week, in a stunning and shocking decision, Judge Amon denied this injunction saying these demonstrators did not “harass, annoy, or alarm” people for the last six years.
The chilling message from the Judge says that it is free speech to call a woman a baby killer, to tell someone they are desecrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, to shame, to stigmatize to bully and harass.
The Judge totally denied the patients, the staff and the escorts’ lived experiences giving absolutely no credibility to any testimony except that of the protestors.
This is all happening within a country where 67 percent of Americans do not want Roe to be overturned and where one in four women will have an abortion by age 45 — many of whom are already mothers.
How is a judgement like this possible when there have been millions and millions of women who have had legal abortions, who have husbands, parents, friends and support systems who were involved in the decision?
How is it possible that, in a time when the “Me Too” Movement has gained such power and momentum and gay marriage is accepted, that abortion is still in the closet?
It is possible because women and girls are still conditioned to accept the narratives of the opposition.
They still have the strong need to be “good girls.” Good girls do not have abortions—they don’t “kill their babies,” they never have unprotected sex, they never want something for themselves and they are supposed to sacrifice themselves for an unwanted pregnancy.
Shame, disgrace and guilt are what they deserve and what they should feel.
Thus, we must take the power of narrative and naming into our own hands.
There is no shame in moral agency and making hard decisions that affect your own body and life.
We must look in the mirror and come out of our own closets. Every woman who has had an abortion should be able to say—yes I made that decision within my mind my heart and my family.
This is not a rehearsal—women’s rights are under more direct threat than ever before.
Attending large marches is fine, but marches do not perform the hard daily work of radical change. That has to happen from within—and then move outward. This is how the personal becomes political.
I am facing a future where I once again will have to see frightened women coming from nearby states to access their abortion services.
Changing that is up to each and every one of us — one by one.
Merle Hoffman is the founder, president and CEO of Choices Women’s Medical Center in Jamaica.