Abortion’s street fighter
How Lawrence Lader led the abortion legalization drive— and later promoted the “abortion pill”
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In 2002 the Harvard Club on 44th Street in Manhattan planned to erect a glass-walled addition to the classic building. Many alums were angry. At one meeting, Lawrence Lader, 82, got so worked up the governing board shut off his mic. He was still a frenzied orator, just as he’d been as a student in the 1930s and a self-described “street fighter” who led the movement to abolish America’s abortion laws in the 1960s.
Lader’s name isn’t much remembered today, but in the 1960s he was the historian, strategist, and publicist of abortion on demand. National Organization for Women (NOW) founder Betty Friedan dubbed him the “father of abortion rights,” and Justice Harry Blackmun cited Lader’s seminal book, Abortion, eight times in the Roe v. Wade decision. Lader co-founded NARAL, inspired the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, and fought to make abortion drug RU-486 legal in the United States.
Lader fought for abortion until his death. One of his last acts, according to his wife, was to pay for an ad in a Sioux Falls, S.D., newspaper to protest a pro-life law. But why was abortion such a big deal to him? And how did a well-to-do writer launch a movement that within seven years overturned the country’s abortion laws? Here’s his story.
Born in 1919, Lawrence Lader grew up in an affluent, nonreligious family in New York City. His grandfather was a prominent tax attorney who once served as the assistant corporation counsel for the city. Lader attended the progressive Horace Mann prep school and enrolled at Harvard in 1937. That same year his father died of cancer.
Lader inherited from his father the clothes—“white tie and tails, a black derby, and a black Chesterfield with velvet collar”—that opened doors at Harvard. He made lifelong friends and developed a network of crucial allies in his later abortion crusade. Lader wrote for The Crimson (Harvard’s newspaper) and served as program director for an independent campus radio station.
After graduation Lader married a Vassar College graduate, Jean MacInnis, who “inducted me into the radicalism of her college circle.” He moved further left: “With all Stalin’s sins, the revolution stood as an island of socialist hope in a disintegrating world.” The marriage lasted only four years, but MacInnis also introduced him to Friedan, who became a lifelong friend and abortion-movement collaborator.
After Harvard, Lader worked in radio and then joined the Army. He snagged a position with Armed Forces Radio and wrote scripts for the Voice of the Army program that aired on NBC radio. While stationed in the South Pacific, he wrote and published his first piece in The New Yorker. When the war ended, Lader returned to New York and worked for radical U.S. Congressman Vito Marcantonio. He took a job at Esquire and Coronet magazines, whose offices “overflowed with seduction. … I moved from affair to affair.” Despite his promiscuity, Lader denied that any of his girlfriends or wives ever had an unwanted pregnancy.
Lader had bylines in Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Look, and Parade. He became president of the Society of Magazine Writers. But he wanted more: to write a book about “a new type of woman, one who would break out of all the prejudices and molds of the past.” He settled on Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger: “an extraordinary example of the ‘New Woman.’ Her vision was earthshaking. Her ability to turn an idea into a social movement was unique. … Best of all she was alive and still organizing.”
Lader spent three years on his Sanger biography. He overcame her hesitancy by promising she’d have final say over the finished book. Correspondence between Lader and Sanger shows the extent of his intellectual infatuation with her “radiance” and “inexhaustible flame.” Sanger may have been less enamored of him: “Lader was like a dog with a bone, digging and digging into the past.”
Sanger wasn’t happy with the manuscript and used her “final say” to demand changes before the book’s 1955 publication. Despite being a Book of the Month club selection, it wasn’t a bestseller, partially because Sanger withdrew her support. But she influenced him greatly. The relationship was nonsexual (Sanger was 40 years older than Lader), but he claimed their friendship bore “a vague resemblance to courtships. … I was obviously flattered by an intimate link to this heroic figure.”
MORE IMPORTANT THAN the personal connection were the lessons Lader drew from Sanger’s contraception crusade: He became convinced that “contraception alone could never handle the problem of unwanted pregnancies.” He wanted to write about abortion, but publishers discouraged it as “too thorny.” So he wrote about the abolition of slavery, then returned to abortion, but magazine editors still hesitated—until two things happened.
The first was Sherri Finkbine. She was a Romper Room television teacher in Phoenix who discovered she’d taken thalidomide while pregnant with her fifth child. Finkbine sought an abortion. Heavy publicity made U.S. hospitals leery, so she traveled to Sweden to have the abortion. Journalists sympathized with Finkbine and covered every twist and turn in her case. They wanted a new word to describe her abortion sympathetically, so they began routinely using “fetus” rather than “unborn baby.”
The second was German measles. An epidemic swept the United States in 1964, sickening 2 million women of childbearing age, including thousands in the first trimester when German measles is most damaging to babies in the womb. Lader claimed 15,000 to 20,000 babies were born with birth defects, and legal abortion could have prevented those births.
Suddenly, publishers were willing to consider a book on abortion, even one that challenged “all laws that restricted a woman’s right to abortion.” Lader got a contract from Bobbs-Merrill, publisher of Joy of Cooking and the Childhood of Famous Americans biography series for children.
Before the book came out, Lader landed an article in The New York Times Magazine. “The Scandal of Abortion Laws” laid out the arguments he made in his book, Abortion, which came out in 1966. Lader argued that legislators enacted existing pro-life laws to protect maternal health (not the baby), that abortion was safer than childbirth, and that current laws were vague: They supposedly kept good doctors from performing abortions and forced women into the hands of untrained and unfit abortionists.
The book received positive reviews. An excerpt appeared in Reader’s Digest and reached millions of ordinary Americans with Lader’s pro-abortion interpretation of history. Reader’s Digest promoted Lader because publisher DeWitt Wallace was a longtime advocate of Margaret Sanger and population control. He paid for Lader’s book tour, which pushed abortion law repeal along with books. On the tour Lader followed Sanger’s blueprint: “generate a new kind of excitement.”
Sanger had generated excitement with arrests and publicity stunts. Lader did the same. At every stop, desperate women showed up wanting a referral to an abortionist. Lader was happy to help. He made referrals publicly, dared prosecutors to arrest him (good publicity), and drew more women into his movement. One journalist called him “a brazen conductor on the underground railroad of abortion.”
Lader understood the importance of flipping abortion from crime story to civil rights story. He understood also that making referrals was a powerful symbol of resistance. But he thought the symbol would have more moral weight if ministers got involved, so Lader approached fellow progressive Howard Moody, pastor of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village.
Moody recruited others. For six months the clergy met and hashed out plans for a referral service. But Lader grew impatient, so he leaked news of the referral service to The New York Times, which ran an article about it and forced the ministers’ hands.
“Her vision was earthshaking. Her ability to turn an idea into a social movement was unique.”
Lader also wanted bodies marching in the street, so he turned to his old friend Betty Friedan, a relative latecomer to abortion. Lader convinced her that no woman could be free unless she had absolute control over her fertility. That meant making abortion the centerpiece of feminism.
Once convinced, Friedan sold NOW on abortion advocacy, and then joined with Lader and others to form the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). With $3,500 scraped together from wealthy abortion supporters like Hugh Moore, former president of the Dixie Cup Co., Lader organized a national conference.
The conference—on Valentine’s Day, 1969—drew 360 delegates from 50 organizations. Debate broke out between reformers and repealers, with the reformers arguing the country was not ready for repeal. Lader and his allies thought anything less than total repeal of all abortion laws was worthless. Since they’d stacked the conference with like-minded people, the repealers carried the day and made Lader chairman of the new organization.
NARAL spent time and money mobilizing politically, but Lader doubted that radical change would come through state legislatures. So Lader turned his attention to the courts, advancing a legal strategy built upon the Supreme Court’s 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision.
In his book, Lader speculated that Justice William O. Douglas’ newly established “right to privacy” could extend to abortion. He and lawyer allies—Cyril Means and Harriet Pilpel—began looking for the right test case. They found it in Milan Vuitch, a Washington, D.C., OB-GYN who had performed abortions since the 1950s. Lader had referred many women to him and urged him to document the reasons for every abortion he performed. When authorities arrested Vuitch for breaking the law, his lawyers were ready. They claimed the D.C. abortion statute was too vague. What exactly did the word “health” mean?
In November 1969, U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell agreed, declaring the D.C. law unconstitutional and extending the right of privacy to “family, marriage, and sex matters.” Lader exulted: “Any licensed physician could now perform abortion legally in a Washington hospital or clinic.” A path to abortion on demand had opened, and lawyers across the country took it.
In Texas, lawyers representing Jane Roe used the same arguments to challenge state law. Within three years that case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Suddenly abortion was mainstream. NARAL became flush with money—but street fighter Lader found himself out of step with the movement’s new respectability.
TO SOME FORMER ALLIES, Lader became “an embarrassment … because he’s so uncompromising. Where other groups have compromised politically, he’s too pure.” He split with NARAL and started “a small, hard-hitting militant group to do things others were scared to do or didn’t have time to do.” The new group, Abortion Rights Mobilization (ARM), carried on a bruising nine-year fight against the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for allegedly violating its tax-exempt status.
Even though ARM eventually lost at the Supreme Court, Lader considered it a victory because it put the Catholic Church on the defensive and scared pastors from speaking out on abortion. Next, he took up the cause of RU-486—the abortion pill—borrowing again from the Margaret Sanger playbook. In 1936 she had arranged for a Japanese doctor to mail contraceptives to her medical director in New York City, telling U.S. customs officials so they would seize the package and provoke a court case.
Lader revised the plan to fit new circumstances: “Why not have a pregnant American woman go to France or Britain and secure one dose of RU 486, which she would carry to New York to be administered by ARM’s doctor? … The authorities would be notified when the woman took the pills, setting up a test case.”
The plan worked. “A mob of television cameras and reporters” met Lader and the woman, Leona Benten, at the airport, where customs agents confiscated both the RU-486 and a single dose of prostaglandin, the necessary companion drug. The story made national television news programs and major newspapers. At trial, the judge ruled in Benten’s favor and ordered the RU-486 returned to her, but the government appealed that order and the circuit court reversed the trial court. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which decided against Benten.
She ended up having a surgical abortion, but Lader considered the episode a victory because RU-486 was now part of the public debate: “The press was entranced by the spectacle of one frail woman in a battle with the government.” He and ARM continued fighting for RU-486 until the federal government reversed its ban on the drug.
Lader, the street fighter, wasn’t happy when journalists sometimes described him as avuncular. His final book came out in 2003, three years before his death. By then he was largely forgotten by the new generation of telegenic abortion activists. In one of his last interviews Lader said, “I think I can lick the abortion thing. But how to age gracefully, that’s another problem.”
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