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the Body Politic
Vol. 01, No. 10 -- October 1991, Page 12
Copyright © 1991, 1998 by the Body Politic Inc.

Larry Lader: Tireless Warrior -- Part II

Interview by Anne Bower

In September we began an interview with Larry Lader, one of the original founders of NARAL and biographer of Margaret Sanger. Mr. Lader related how he became a supporter of reproductive rights in the '60's, and one of the principle strategists of the national campaign to repeal abortion laws.

In the second part of his interview, Mr. Lader talks about others who aided the repeal movement, culminating in the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, and gives us some hope for the future in the form of the drug, RU 486.

Q: Larry, the Clergy Counseling Service was very instrumental in helping the repeal movement. How did they get started?

A: It began with a phone call from Rev. Kinsolving, an Episcopal priest, asking what he could do to help. He came to lunch with a few friends, and I asked if they were aware of what I was doing -- referring women for abortions.

I told them that each time I'm on radio or television I get letters from hundreds of women asking me for help and I can't handle all of them. Besides, I'm just a writer -- not a counselor or minister. They said "great idea" and called in Rev. Howard Moody of Judson Memorial Church -- just up the street from here.

They met for months and wound up with 30-40 clergy throughout the state who became the Clergy Consultation Service. This spread all over the country with chapters in 20 or 30 cities.

Q: How did the service spread?

A: It was a combination of factors. When you're building a movement things happen in various ways. Howard might have a friend in Cleveland or Los Angeles who he could ask to help. Or a minister somewhere might be reading about this and say "I could do that."

It caught on very quickly.

Howard did a hell of a job setting this up. He was very careful -- very efficient. He's quite a dynamic guy.

My lawyer represented them too. Thank goodness, because we were finally called before the Grand Jury. That was a frightening time. My book, Abortion II tells how we survived the law in 1969, but it was a serious assault on the referral system.

Q: In your book, you make reference to the fact that feminists didn't join the movement in droves during the first months.

A: There was no criticism of feminism intended. Betty Freidan and I worked together in the New York Public Library while she was writing The Feminine Mystique. Not long after the book came out, she grasped the philosophical necessity of abortion repeal. Very soon, N.O.W. was quite committed to this movement.

Q: N.O.W. wasn't the only organization working on repeal. In 1969, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) was founded. Tell us how that got started.

A: It really started in Chicago with Episcopal Ministers, Don Shore and Dr. Lonnie Myers. They wanted to set up a national meeting, and gave me a call. I'd set up conferences before and was willing to help, but it's a tremendous amount of work and I said if we're going to do this much work we should end up with something permanent. I wanted them to spend time the last day organizing a national group.

The conference was held February 14-16, 1969 at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. There were 400-500 delegates in attendance, which was wonderful. But I came back very depressed because of the difficult time we had setting up a new organization.

It was a very difficult 3 or 4 hour session at the end, but we came up with a 12 person steering committee that finally set up the apparatus for NARAL. It originally was a coalition of groups and had its first office in a tiny room on West 57th. As the years went by we changed to a membership organization to involve more people at the grass roots level.

Q: Larry, NARAL started in 1969 and in 1970 abortion laws in New York State were repealed. Tell us a little about how that victory was achieved.

A: A great deal of the credit goes to Connie Cook. She's a love. She should have done a book on this.

Connie was critical because she was a Republican woman. She was the key.

Connie was in the Assembly. The Senate had already voted for repeal. We knew the votes were right on the edge and a lot of pressure had been put on the members.

The count looked as if it would go against us, then George Michaels of Auburn rose to his feet to change his vote. It was incredible. He ruined his political career and lost his seat, but he deserves tremendous credit for what he did.

Q: Two years after abortion was legalized in New York, it was repealed. How did you feel then?

A: We were desperate. This simply illustrates the fragility of the situation. There was a basic problem. After the 1970 vote, all the groups supporting legal abortion were dissolving. They thought they were finished -- their job was done.

NARAL's Executive Director, a few other, and I agreed to hold together -- thank God. But for 4 or 5 years after 1973 we were not in good shape. I urged people to stay the course because I knew there would be opposition.

Governor Rockefeller saved us in 1972 when he vetoed the repeal law, but this illustrates that no one can give up this battle. We have to keep bringing in and training younger people, because this struggle will go on indefinitely.

Q: Where do you think we should be fighting our battles today?

A: Wichita is one place. I'm a little disappointed in our clergy. I think they should have gone out to Wichita, and we should have put more of our people there.

But I think that the immediate battle is Rust v. Sullivan. This vote is tremendously important because the President will veto this override and it must be overturned.

Of course, there's the Supreme Court. If Clarence Thomas is turned down, the President will just nominate another like him. Our lawyers better know their Constitutional history and the precedents set in Griswold and Eisenstadt.

Apparently, what we are going to get is a chipping away of Roe, so that we go back to the pre-1973 situation. Some states will have legal abortion -- others won't. Women in Louisiana may have to go to Texas for services. Of course, this will principally affect poor women who can't travel.

Q: What would be your strategy if abortion becomes illegal?

A: I don't think it will become illegal. I think the Supreme Court will just allow more power to states so that the Louisiana law would stand. You will have a number of states where women just can't get abortions.

That's why I'm so committed to bringing RU 486 into this country. RU 486 can be administered in any doctor's office anywhere in the country. The opposition can't picket every doctor in America.

Q: Did you hear that a group called FINRRAGE, Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering has issued a report critical of RU 486?

Yes. This is all rubbish. We have such sound scientific evidence supporting RU 486. There was one death in France. Any drug has a danger. This gives RU 486 a 1.1 death rate per 100,000.

Q: Larry, one final question. You've been active in the struggle for reproductive rights for 30 years. What keeps you going?

A: Oh dear. That's a hard question. I guess part of it is that Challenge is so important to life. I love to play tennis and sometimes my friends say, Larry why don't you retire and spend your days playing. Well, I love to play, but I also love to write. I couldn't exist without writing. Challenge is definitely part of it.

But the other part is, I am so committed to the rights of women -- especially their right to control their bodies. I'm a great admirer of women. I love women and I want every possibly good thing for them.

If abortion were really made illegal, it would be a very traumatic situation for me. I don't think I'd have a nervous breakdown, but the depth of my commitment is such that I might have to go back to where I was in the 60's.

Q: Do you think all this is a result of your association with Margaret Sanger?

Yes. Of course. But that still doesn't explain how the ideas and emotional qualities are transferred to your being. No other subject has taken over my life like this one.

I could never have predicted this -- before the Sanger book -- even after.

I don't know why the issue of abortion has taken up so much of my life. This is a question that goes down to the roots.

Whatever the reason, we hope that Mr. Lader doesn't give up the fight. We will need his energy and commitment in the future.

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