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the Body Politic
Vol. 01, No. 09 -- September 1991, Page 15
Copyright © 1991, 1998 by the Body Politic Inc.

Larry Lader: Tireless Warrior

Interview by Anne Bower

This month's spotlight illuminates a person instead of an organization -- Lawrence Lader, author, activist, and one of the original founders of NARAL.

Larry Lader has worked for the cause of reproductive rights since the 1950's when he wrote Margaret Sanger's biography. For years he was active in Population work, but his association with Ms. Sanger changed his life. By 1965, he was convinced of the necessity for repeal of American abortion laws and to that end, he risked jail to refer women to the few reputable doctors around America who would perform safe abortions.

In 1966, while working in the underground abortion railroad, he wrote Abortion, the first carefully researched and documented book on the topic. At this time in American history, the country was forming the consensus that current abortion laws were damaging and destroying women. However, there was a debate over whether the laws should be reformed or repealed. Mr. Lader, taught by Margaret Sanger that women must have autonomy over their reproductive lives, came down firmly on the side of repeal and threw all his considerable energy into that project.

In 1969 he became one of the founding members of NARAL when NARAL meant the National Organization for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. His book Abortion II: Making the Revolution released in 1973, recounts the history of the political struggle across America that culminated in Roe v. Wade.

Mr. Lader still champions the pro-choice cause and has recently released RU 486: The Pill That Could End The Abortion Wars and Why American Women Don't Have It (reviewed in the July issue).

For over 30 years, Larry Lader has been a tireless warrior in the cause of reproductive freedom. As we stand on the edge of the pit of illegal abortion waiting for a push from the Supreme Court, Larry Lader is still fighting -- still strategizing. His understanding of this movement and its implications for the future deserve spotlighting. His interview begins this month and will finish in October.

Q: Larry, your 1966 book Abortion was cited nine times by the Supreme Court in the Roe decision. How did you become involved with this issue at a time when the word abortion wasn't said on radio, TV, or in polite conversation?

A: I think I have to attribute my involvement to Margaret Sanger, who undoubtedly was the greatest influence on my life.

Q: You wrote her biography, didn't you?

A: Yes. I started working with her in 1952 and the book was published in 1955. Margaret convinced me early on that women must have the right to control their procreation. That was the only way they could get the jobs and education they wanted, and have the kind of lives they wanted, which included total rapport with their husbands and family.

We all accept this today, but it was not that well accepted when I started working with Margaret. I had supported birth control for many years. I had a prior marriage during World War II and we used birth control, so I was totally dedicated to the concept. However, I hadn't really grasped its complete philosophical ramifications.

Q: I bet Margaret explained it to you.

A: Yes. We spent months practically living together working on the book. We often started talking by 9 AM and going on until 6 PM when we often went out to dinner. I don't think two people ever talked so much together in their lives.

Q: Margaret had worked for birth control for years, but what about her views of abortion?

A: I asked her about it and, interestingly enough, she didn't know much about it. She had started birth control because of the horror of abortion. She was a nurse on the lower East Side of New York in the 1910 period and saw the poor women standing in line on Saturday night with $5.00 clutched in their hand. They were waiting for the hack abortionist. Many were maimed -- some of them died. Birth control for her was a move against abortion.

Q: That was 1910. What about today?

A: Science has changed the abortion situation. In Margaret's day it was very dangerous, even in the hands of a top flight doctor. Around 1950, two things happened that changed the nature of abortion. First, antibiotics prevented infection, which was one of the great dangers of a hack abortion.

Second, the vacuum method came in from China which made it far easier than a D & C, which, took a great deal of training and skill the average doctor didn't have. The bottom line is, when Margaret began her fight for birth control, there weren't safe, simple, abortions.

Q: How did you become a supporter of legal abortion?

A: I mulled this over for years. It was a subject no one discussed. I was trying to make the jump from birth control to an abortion right that not only didn't exist but was an underground abhorrent topic.

We depend on our media for our attitudes. I made a very long and accurate search of material on abortion and there was literally no serious article or book on the topic. Oh, you might find something in Readers' Digest, such as Don't Let Your Daughter Go Get an Abortion but no research. I had to start from scratch. There was nothing.

Q: How did you finally come to a conclusion?

A: It wasn't easy! There were two problems -- research and my own mental attitude.

First, I had to be convinced that, legally, it was possible. I read over all the Court decisions and the key decision was the 1965 case, Griswold v. Connecticut which overthrew the state's right to outlaw birth control.

That decision was so broad it seemed to me it applied to abortion as well as birth control. I stated that in a few pages in the '66 book and I guess if I've made any contribution to the movement, it's that flash of insight which said that abortion should be covered by the Griswold ruling.

Since the Supreme Court cited my book nine times in Roe, they must have been using it to come to a decision. Abortion was an advocate's book, but it was accurate and the Justices used its thesis in their decision. All the Roe verbiage was very close to what was said in the book.

Q: You were able to convince yourself that abortion could be legal. How did you decide it should be legal?

A: That was so hard to work through. I was all alone. No one thought about this. No one discussed this.

Sometimes I wake up, even today, look at all the furor, such as at the Thomas hearings and say, "My God! What have I done." Of course, even if my book hadn't come out, if we hadn't started NARAL, it would have happened anyway. But even though it was bound to happen, we speeded it up.

But it sometimes strikes me as quite frightening that, out of one or two basic ideas, we have all this conflict in this country.

The point is, I had to work my way through this. I had to make up in my own mind, without any philosophical help, when does life begin? How does one support the right to abortion?

I had to think through the whole process -- does a woman have this right of choice and at what stage in the process can we even approach the concept of personhood? Obviously, I concluded, as did many of us, that there is no living person until the fetus becomes a child through birth.

It was a long and tortuous road, but my conclusion was, at six months it approaches a person, but in the end, the decision is solely the woman's.

Q: Did Margaret Sanger ever reach this conclusion?

A: No. Margaret was quite sick at the end of her life. She died September 21, 1966 and had been mentally diminished for a few years -- incoherent part of the time.

I went through a very difficult choice because I was out in Los Angeles -- she was in a nursing home back East. I debated about stopping to see her but I wanted to keep my memories of this strong, wonderful, overpowering woman and I just couldn't face seeing her crippled and sad.

Q: Did you love her?

A: Indeed I did. She was the greatest influence on my life and I was very devoted to her. So I couldn't face talking to her about anything and she was in no condition to discuss the issue. Later, I got very close to her son, Grant, and he said I'm sure that mother would have agreed with you.

She never had time to grasp the medical and scientific improvements concerning abortion. In her final totally healthy years, she was very involved in building International Planned Parenthood.

Q: Margaret was also very involved with developing the birth control pill.

A: Indeed. But most of her working life she was living out of a suitcase, traveling around the world building family planning clinics in India, Sweden, etc. I don't think she ever gave the question of abortion a thought.

Q: But we still grapple with this question today.

A: Yes. We are still debating the question of "when does life begin". It constantly assails us. This is the dividing line between the pro-choice and anti-abortion people because, almost all the anti-choice adherents believe there is full human life from the moment of conception.

If the anti-abortion people would work with us to improve contraceptive research, promote sex education, deliver birth control services, we could probably cut abortion by 50% in a year or so.

Q: But so many Right-to-Lifers are against birth control.

A: Their opposition to birth control is their greatest weakness and I keep hammering against it and I think we all should.

Here is the crux of the issue. What they are really saying is that women must be the slave of men and when a man wants to make love to them and produce a child, that's a man's right. Woman has no role in it.

Basically, the opposition really hates women, which I think comes out of a fear of women's sexuality. They fear women's independence -- women no longer chained to the home waiting for the man with a rose in their teeth.

Q: What can you expect if your religion teaches that all the evil in the world came from a woman taking an apple from a snake?

A: Guilt is guilt and Original Sin, is very much a part of this fear of sex and fear of women.

For years I've wondered why we're so violent, fanatical and conflicting in this country over abortion. Catholic countries aren't tearing themselves apart like we are. Look at Italy. Parliament voted to make abortion legal, it was approved by a two-thirds vote of the people and the battle is over. There has been no further debate. Now and then the Vatican makes a little flurry, but the subject is closed.

I don't know what there is in the American political system or the American personality that leads us to literally violence over this subject. Why doesn't Spain have any fanatics like Randy Terry?

Q: In Abortion II you predicted possible civil upheaval over this issue.

A: Yes. I'm not sure I believed it when I wrote it but I believe it now. Thank God we don't have a Civil War over this, but we certainly have a reasonably good approximation of it and I don't understand it.

Q: One of my observations in reading Abortion II was that many of the tactics you used to raise consciousness and to start mobilizing the country, are used by Operation Rescue today. I think that Randy read your book!

A: I hate to feel that he did. However, I did use the phrase "confrontation politics". But we never invaded any clinics or hospitals. We picketed them.

We did use mothers with baby carriages in parades and we did schedule events on Mother's Day.

But we didn't do violence. The Terry people are nothing but rioters. They keep referring to the slavery issue and the Holocaust, which I resent deeply. This is a terrible perversion of two critical problems in our history. In the holocaust and slavery you are dealing with human persons who are alive, not fetuses. To make that jump is philosophically absurd.

Q: Larry, you were willing to break the law.

A: Yes, in a sense, I could be accused of breaking the law. I may have been the first to refer women for abortion when it wasn't legal. There were others, such as those in the Clergy Counseling Service.

I felt justified in doing this because our interpretation of these laws was that they were unconstitutional. We were providing a test case. Our lawyers said these laws could be changed.

Q: Didn't the Vuitch case in Washington, DC help the cause?

A: One of the most important cases we ever had was the situation of Dr. Vuitch who performed abortions in DC. The law there stated that an abortion could be performed for "health reasons", something not found in most other state laws.

I said, let's really study how the health of women is involved. I referred many women to Dr. Vuitch and told him to keep thorough records of their physical, mental and emotional problems.

Then I went to the ACLU and said will you handle this? That was the nub of overthrowing the DC law. We got a very good decision from Judge Gesell which, I think, was critical to the Supreme Court decision.

These laws were unconstitutional, so there's big difference between what we were doing and what Operation Rescue does -- blocking and invading clinics, and preventing women from their right to medical care.

OR doesn't contribute to the health of women. Neither does the White House or the FDA. We're not practicing medicine today -- we're practicing politics. The blocking of RU 486 into this country is denying women help in difficult labor. More Caesareans are often the result of this.

Which brings me back to the previous topic. Why are we letting shouting fanatics successfully oppose drugs such as RU 486? I keep mulling over this and I can't decide what's in the American character that produces it.

(Continued in October)

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