Chapter 1: Introduction to Activism

A quarter of a century ago, in the late 1960s, I became an abortion rights advocate.

As editor of a small, struggling suburban weekly, which I co-owned with my husband Paul, I wrote the first editorial ever written in Wisconsin in support of abortion law reform. It was somewhat tentative, urging that abortion be recognized as a legal and humane alternative in the exceptional cases of pregnancy from rape and incest or of the extreme youth of the pregnant girl. The editorial concluded: “Surely kindness and reason will one day be the yardstick in deciding the legality of abortion, and personal tragedies will not be compounded because of laws made long ago by ignorant men.”

There were a couple of newspaper cancellations as a result of the editorial (presumably by “ignorant men”), but because the idea of legal abortion, or even a public discussion of abortion itself, was so new to most people in the community, the editorial was not taken very seriously In fact, to my surprise, most of the modest amount of feedback was positive, even admiring. I remember with pleasure one letter writer who sent a new subscription with the note that any business willing to go out on such a limb deserved his congratulations and support.

There was no organized opposition to legalizing abortion in Wisconsin at that time. The state legislature, dominated by Catholics, was still fighting over liberalizing the country’s most archaic contraception law. So for the most part my editorial and subsequent writings on the subject of abortion simply were shrugged off by potential adversaries as bizarre ideas not worthy of response.

To keep the issue before our small public, I interviewed and featured in our paper a Unitarian clergyperson from out-of-state, “on loan” to a Madison congregation, who was an early activist in the Clergy Consultation Service for Problem Pregnancies, which at the time was active in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and his home city, Cleveland. What surprised me most about his story was the sheer numbers of women seeking abortions. In the first two weeks after the Cleveland counseling service was announced, three hundred women asked for help. The average weekly number after that was 100. This was my first real awareness of the scope of the problem—all those unplanned, unwanted pregnancies.

I decided in 1969 to test the professional waters and sent a survey form into adjacent Madison, Wisconsin to medical doctors, asking their opinions on legalizing abortion, and printing the results in the paper. Here again, the outcome was surprising. Of the 281 physicians responding, 243 wanted abortion law reform. Forty-one per cent favored complete legalization with the decision left to the woman and her doctor. Forty-five per cent wanted liberalization of the law, 12.6 per cent thought there should be no change, and three of the physicians favored a more restrictive law. Since Wisconsin law in 1969 allowed abortions only to save a woman’s life, I could not help but wonder about that trio of misogynists.

At that time three or four states had liberalized their abortion laws with the focus on therapeutic abortions. Abortion law reform had been introduced in a dozen others. A Wisconsin bill, authored by Representative Lloyd Barbee, a black Milwaukee legislator, was in committee where it was destined to stay. We did a feature and photo of Rep. Barbee and his bill for the paper. Barbee recalled that when he first tried to introduce his bill in 1965 he had trouble even getting the Speaker of the Assembly to announce and read it, a requirement. Then, Barbee wryly noted, there was “a lot of snickering and tittering on the floor” in that conservative male milieu.

Late in 1969 I asked some professional people from Madison to be on the board of a Madison chapter of the Wisconsin Committee to Legalize Abortion. Several kind men and women agreed to lend their names. We were both an educational and a lobbying group, working for hearings on the abortion issue. I took a clipping service for Wisconsin papers, and every time abortion was mentioned I used the opportunity to get an educational letter off to the daily or weekly, finding new contacts. Speaking invitations came in and I was the first guest on many radio and television shows devoted to the abortion issue. Calls would flood in on this “new,” controversial issue. I remember one small town where the hostess and I ended up just chatting with each other. Not a single call came through. I had this impression of listeners out there sitting in stunned paralysis at the very word abortion.

In 1970 we sold our weekly, and for the next decade I turned my attention to volunteer work, while my husband provided for us all.

A critical court decision was handed down in Milwaukee in 1970 where a physician had been arrested for doing an office abortion. The federal panel of three judges ruled that Wisconsin could not prosecute a physician for performing an early abortion, knocking out most of Wisconsin’s old law. It was a propitious time for advocates to become visible with some eighty other challenges in state and federal courts across the country.

My most practical involvement as an activist came about through my membership in Zero Population Growth. California scientist Paul Ehrlich’s message was sweeping the country I joined ZPG because of its position on women’s issues, as well as my own conviction that the planet would be breeding itself into oblivion if pro-natalist policies continued.

Under the auspices of ZPG and with the help of a couple of friends, I started the ZPG Referral Service, placing an advertisement in the Madison dailies. The ZPG ad read: “Abortion is legal and available in Wisconsin. If your doctor won’t help, contact the Zero Population Growth Referral Service.” ZPG’s post office box and my home phone number were included. The ad ran on August 12, 1970, and by the end of the month, I had taken 93 requests for help.

I referred women to Mexico, to some U.S. hospitals for therapeutic abortions and to New York City when those clinics became available. I had information for Japan and England as well as the Chicago underground, but unlike those who preceded me, in other referral services, I did not have to use it. Then in 1971 Dr. Alfred Kerman, a gynecologist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, left his teaching post to open Madison’s first clinic.

Our referral service had been picked up for listing in the new book Our Bodies, Our Selves as well as other publications, and my phone rang day and night. It was literally difficult to get out of the house on an errand—frequently I started for the door two or three times before making it. Only plutocrats had answering equipment in those days. Little did I suspect in fielding these early requests that I would speak with more than 40,000 women who needed help in the years ahead.

I kept notebooks with brief information about each caller and the disposition of the call. There were as many as three dozen requests in a 24-hour period. This kept up until well after Roe v Wade—until abortion became generally available in most states.

The flood of sad stories from women as old as 52 and as young as 11 has left me forever non-judgmental toward those faced with unwanted pregnancies. I continue to be impressed anew with women’s patience and fortitude in overcoming odds and barriers that in their private worlds must loom up like the Rock of Gibraltar. My tolerance for antiabortionists—especially those thoughtless magpies led by male bullies and terrorists—has become zilch. Without the choice of abortion, women can not be free.

It is my fervent belief that if the American people knew of the tragedies that are occurring because of the cutoff of public funding for abortions, there would be public support to help them—indeed, there would be a public outcry insisting that they be helped.

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