Polly Rothstein was abortion, health-care rights activist

Life Member Polly Rothstein, an abortion rights activist, died in her home Nov. 13 at age 80.

Rothstein, who co-founded the White Plains-based Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion in 1972 — shortly after the state Legislature voted to overturn a law that made abortion legal in 1970, and a year before the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion legal nationwide — was known for her persistence, passion and pursuit of women’s health care rights.

Rothstein was born to Sylvia and Harold Wittenberg on Oct. 13, 1936, in Bridgeport, Conn., and grew up in Fairfield. She earned an undergraduate degree at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs and a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York City.

Before helping to form the coalition, Rothstein volunteered for Planned Parenthood and became a lobbyist in the early 1970s. In Albany, she realized it was difficult to change people’s minds on a religious topic, like abortion, and instead decided to focus her efforts on getting pro-abortion rights lawmakers elected, including U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, former Westchester County Executive Andy Spano, and recent presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who became a U.S. senator in 2000.

The WCLA has for more than 40 years developed an extensive database of New York registered voters who are regularly called and surveyed about their opinions on abortion.

“What Polly saw, and the women with whom she founded this organization saw, is that Westchester is the bellwether for this state,” said Catherine Lederer-Plaskett, president and chairwoman of WCLA-Choice Matters. “Her unbelievable legacy is that she recognized the power of the vote in this issue and she created a fundamental grassroots strategy.”

Around 2000, Rothstein suffered a spinal cord injury that left her without feeling from her sternum down. She often used a self-designed walker to get around.

“She went through this with such aplomb,” her son, Chester Rothstein, recalled. “She kept a good frame of mind, she’s happy, she gets very frustrated and unhappy with her situation, but she was never mean, never upset with other people, and there’s no way the rest of us would have handled her adversities.”

In 2001, Rothstein stepped down from her position leading the coalition she helped build because of health issues, but continued to beat the drum for abortion rights — an issue she maintained would never go away — and devoted time to her two grandchildren and hobbies.

In addition to her son, she is survived by two sisters, Martha Baldwin and Judy Bravard; a daughter, Amy Rothstein; and two grandchildren, Juliana and Owen Jesse Rothstein.

Freedom From Religion Foundation