A Passion For The Possible by Susan Hill, Executive Director National Women’s Health Organization (April 1996)

 This is excerpted from an address delivered to the New York Planned Parenthood on October 2, 1995 by Susan Hill, executive director of the National Women’s Health Organization.

In the course of 23 years, our organization has been a plaintiff in 28 federal or state lawsuits. We have been the targets of arson or firebombs 14 times. We have been vandalized hundreds of times. We have been the targets of thousands of “rescuers.” We have had more than 1,000 arrests in front of our clinics. We have had our homes picketed. Our doctors and staff members have been stalked. One of our doctors, David Gunn, was murdered.We, like you, have endured more opposition and harassment than most Americans can imagine or believe.

And yet, we have come back to work every day. Sometimes with a heavy heart. Sometimes with fear. But always with a determination to see through what we began, to accomplish our goals. Because we must.

We in reproductive health care are at a crossroads. We have been on a journey that has been far too long, and far too dangerous, a journey that has been necessary. Because we were given the task of unshackling the most basic of all chains that had imprisoned women for centuries: the right to control our own lives and our bodies.

The women we celebrate this year on the 75th anniversary of the right to vote left us a legacy that we were destined to fulfill. For without the ability to control our own reproductive lives, we could never reach true equality. Who could have imagined the twists and turns of this journey? Could the women who marched for our rights early in this century have foreseen the struggle that would occur at the end of this century?

I believe we can only know where we are going by first looking back at where we have been. People who travel a curving road often soon learn its twists and turns. They respect the road and they learn from it. People who do not travel a road frequently are in constant danger because they react. They do not see ahead–they may not stay on the road–or they may run off.

All roads in the women’s movement lead to the same point–equality and respect.

I started out in North Carolina as the daughter of a Hall of Fame football player. I went to a Southern Baptist Women’s College. I was subjected to daily TV commentaries by Jesse Helms, as he spewed hate throughout our state. I married, at 21, a professional baseball player. I wonder how a feminist heart and soul survived those tests? But I did. Something burned inside me, as a small child. And it burns even today.

There was always, for me, the question why? I wondered aloud why African Americans were forced to sit at the rear of the bus, or drink from a different water fountain? In the south, in the fifties, we were not supposed to ask why?

As I matured, I understood better the true strength and power of the question why? You can strip a person to their essence by that simple question. You can make people tthink and you can learn.

On a sunny day in Florida in December 1972, I received a telephone call from a friend and fellow social worker. She told me excitedly that she had just met an Ob-Gyn who told her he believed that the Supreme Court was going to legalize abortion soon, and that when they did, he was planning to open a clinic. I was amazed and startled. I had never even considered the possibility!

I had watched in my teen years as Sherri Finkbine, an Arizona housewife who had taken Thalidomide, was refused an abortion in this country. She had flown to Sweden to obtain the abortion. I had wondered, why?

I had heard my family whispering about my 16-year-old cousin, who was flown to London in 1964 to obtain an abortion she could not get in this country, and I had wondered why? I had watched a Florida woman in 1970 be sentenced to prison for obtaining an illegal abortion. She was charged when she would not divulge the name of the person who performed the abortion. And I had wondered, why?

The world changed for me four weeks after that phone call when I heard a radio broadcast announcing the Roe v. Wade decision. I knew it would never be the same again. I knew that women in this country had just begun a new journey. I knew it was going to be exciting, challenging, controversial, and turbulent. I wanted to be part of it. I was 23, and I wanted to go on this trip. I called the doctor.

The next week, we began the clinic that was the first between Washington and Miami to provide abortions. To describe the next 23 years as a roller-coaster ride is an understatement. The highs have been incredible and the lows have been painful but instructive.

It has been a revolution, a civil war, a mission, a pilgrimage, and a street fight, all rolled into one. I believe that those of us who have fought this battle have saved thousands of women’s lives, both literally and figuratively. We have unchained the shackles of control, and shown women that they have the strength and intelligence to make their own decisions, and control their own lives. They have made those decisions seriously, lovingly, and against all odds.

They have a million faces: white, African-American, Asian, Hispanic; rich, poor, urban, rural, educated, illiterate. And yet each of them, given the right to make their own choices, has done so with courage and dignity.

My journey through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s has been breathtaking. I chose to provide abortion services where others would not. I believed that women needed health services in their hometown, their neighborhoods, not three states away with total strangers. We opened a clinic in Columbus, Georgia, the first clinic outside Atlanta, in 1974. We opened a clinic in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1977, the first clinic outside Indianapolis. We opened the first clinic to provide abortion services in the state of Delaware, and the only clinic for ten years. In 1980, we opened the first clinic in North Dakota. It is still the only clinic. And this year, one week after the Salvi shootings, we opened a new clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, where the number of providers had dwindled to one, and was precariously close to none, due to threats, violence and harassment.

What were the turns we took on that journey in the past 25 years and how do we learn from them?

The first road we took in 1973 was the road of vision. We had just come off the roads of the civil rights movement, and the antiwar movement. We truly believed that we could accomplish anything. The Sangers, the Friedans, the Steinems, the Smeals . . . they all shared and traveled the road of vision. They and we believed that we would open great doors to health care for all women, with education and communication.

We knew where we wanted to go. We believed that by 1995, women would have better contraceptives and that they would have abortions in their physicians’ private offices, in the truly private relationship Roe v. Wade spoke of–between a woman and her doctor. We were wrong.

I dream of affordable health care for rich and poor, better treatments for all cancers, especially breast cancer. I lost my twin sister four years ago to breast cancer. I promised her that I would fight for the same compassion and care in treatment of that disease that we had fought for in abortion rights. Many times I have wondered what we in reproductive health care could have accomplished in the past 25 years if we had not been diverted by the right wing of this country.

Can you imagine what we could have accomplished if we had been able to go forward instead of fighting to hold onto what we had?

We are on a mission to provide to women in our country health care that treats them with respect, educates them, and makes their lives and their families’ lives better. Women need and deserve access to health care that is attuned to their needs, their wants, and their dreams. They have a right to the best choices in health care, and to a system that not only provides them the services, but makes them a participant, not just a recipient.

This mission has taken us to RU-486, methotrexate, Depo-Provera, low-dose OCs, better research–but the road is very, very long and we have only just begun.

We have attained more power, economic and political, than we have ever had. It is not enough, but we must learn to use it. We have more women lawyers, doctors, bankers and professionals. They must speak up now for the women left behind. We must remind young women of their duty to the women that follow them.

They must understand that the benefits they enjoy were not easily won; they cannot become complacent. They must learn to exert their power. Power is never given up easily by the ones who have it. It takes strength, perseverance, sheer will to use it wisely.

I have learned courage from the people I worked with every day. As the pressure from the Right increased, I looked at the faces of colleagues and I saw courage. I saw doctors who worked with us in North Dakota, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, and I saw their strength, their willingness to go through hell to do something they believed in.

I have slept in houses with sheriffs outside them and shotguns propped against the door so that we inside could get rest between workdays. I have watched our administrator in Fargo, Jane Bovard, endure picketing of her home and family for five years on a weekly basis, and she has never wavered. I have seen her clinic burned twice, vandalized, attacked, and become the home of the Lambs of Christ, and still she has walked into her clinic proudly each day.

I have seen Fargo doctors, George Miks and Sue Wicklund, terrorized more than most Americans would believe is legally allowable, and yet they have approached each patient with a smile and a genuine concern, as if there was not a Civil War being fought on their doorstep.

I have watched our doctors put on bulletproof vests without a word and walk through a vicious and threatening group of protesters, with their heads held high, and their courage apparent to everyone but them.

I have watched staff members in Indiana work for days in gloves and winter parkas in February after the back walls of the clinic had been burned way–because their patients needed them.

I have seen and talked to David Gunn in our clinic two weeks before his murder, and listened to him tell me how much he wanted to tell his story, how much he yearned for America to understand the terrorism we were all enduring.

And most recently, I have watched women and men in Mississippi who would never think of themselves as feminists, but are as much as anyone in the Movement. On the morning of the Salvi shootings, we were interviewing for staff in Jackson, Mississippi. To say that these interviews were the hardest we’ve ever conducted is not to describe it well enough. My heart sank as I was forced to explain to young women the senselessness of this act.

One week later, I wondered aloud if any of our newly hired staff members would appear for training and orientation in Mississippi. A Nightline crew had wondered enough to come to Jackson to tape what would happen.

And then, slowly, miraculously, one by one, while federal marshals sat in vans at every corner, and police sat in front of our clinic, each and every new staff member appeared, with a smile and questions deep in their eyes.

One young African-American nurse, 23, and totally apolitical, spoke first. She told us that she was scared the night of the shootings, and that she was still scared. She told us that she and her husband, a truck driver, had talked for hours that night about her safety, about their baby daughter. She said that early in the morning hours she had realized what she had to do. She decided that people had to take a stand. She said she could not give a speech or write a letter, but she could make her stand against violence and hatred by walking into the clinic and working as a nurse.

On the morning of the Gunn shootings, my friend Ellie Smeal was in a feminist coalition meeting in Washington, DC. Word came to the coalition that Dr. Gunn had been shot. Ellie was emotional, outraged, and forceful in her statements. Others were quiet. Finally, one leader said to Ellie: “How can you be so passionate after all these years?” And Ellie said simply: “How can you not?” That is passion and we must constantly find the fire that drives us to do better things.

I believe that we in reproductive health services provide the most dignified of all health services, because we give control of a person’s life back to them. We give them the choices to make their lives better. They are not sick patients. They are well women. We have the power to affect a well person’s life–to make a well person’s life a meaningful one, one that can thrive.

We must understand that every day we make a difference in someone’s life. When I search, on bad days, for why I continue to do this work, I reach back to a letter from a patient in North Dakota. She wrote on a post-op letter twelve simple words–“I left with dignity I didn’t have when I came in.” And that is why I do this.

Thanks to Charles French for suggesting this speech be reprinted in Freethought Today. Charles is a longtime Foundation member from Minnesota whose daughter, Jane Bovard, is the brave administrator of a Fargo clinic mentioned in Susan Hill’s speech.

Freedom From Religion Foundation