I remember it distinctly the point in time when I became political: it was summer, 1976, and the smells and sounds of a country morning kept me in bed a little longer than usual... monotonic radio voices intruded. Something about Henry Hyde and abortion. Now I was all ears. Republican Congressman Henry Hyde had succeeded in passing legislation that would effectively remove the right of abortion for Medicaid women.
Hearing that news, I was filled with an intense self awareness, coupled with a strong feeling of fate. I instinctively knew that my life was irrevocably changed. It was as if some imaginary line had been drawn separating my beginnings from what ultimately would become the "real stuff"... my true life's work.
I had in that moment made the transition from the personal to the political, from the world of singular experience to the broader, more demanding and dangerous one of social and political activism.
By 1976, I had been involved with abortion for 5 years, involved with the bottom line of abortion...women! But now it was time to talk about it. In fact, it was time to fight for it. Those women from whom Henry Hyde would callously cut off abortion rights were my women, my patients... people I lived with every day. These women were what CHOICES was all about!
Initially conceived as an outpatient ambulatory abortion facility for Health Insurance Plan (HIP) patients, founded with the guidance of Alan Guttmacher (father of Planned Parenthood), CHOICES, even in its infancy, had the seeds of its future special-ness and progressive leadership.
One of the first seeds I remember was our first patient. She was from New Jersey: young in her early twenties and nervous. Very, very nervous. There was a friend with her; her man was not there. They had come from New Jersey because, in 1971, abortion had not been legalized nationally, but New York was among the five states where it had been.
I remember myself. I was in graduate school for psychology: young, intense, involved with founding CHOICES because it seemed romantic. And I was nervous. Very, very nervous. No one had trained me; legal abortion was an uncharted course full of morality, theology, philosophy and politics, but no experience in dealing directly with the abortion patient herself. "What do I say to her?" "What will she say to me?" And all the psych courses flooded in... theories, theories and more theories.
This woman was terrified. She was pregnant and she didn't want to be! In that, she was not alone. But here she was a pioneer. And I was to guide her way. I, who had nothing but a small candle - the light of my own femaleness and sensitivity.
In the end, I do not remember a word of what passed between us. It was strangely irrelevant. I do remember her face. And I remember her hand; it was in mine for the entire time she was with me at CHOICES: talking, being examined, having her abortion, and later in recovery. Her hand became for that moment in time, without my knowing, the guiding force of my life... her hand, and the intimate, personal connection of one woman helping another.
That same shared knowledge and wisdom is what I get every time I see a patient today, every time I walk into CHOICES, every time I'm called upon to speak or fight for women's reproductive freedom. Her hand was, and is, mine and all women's.
As with most events of consequence and importance in life, my beginnings with those of CHOICES in no way predicted the current scope, activity, or importance of our life today. We grew slowly over a period of 13 years, and we are still growing.
The battle over abortion ebbs and flows. The fanatics still rage, the moralists preach, the media screams and the women still need CHOICES. We have seen 200,000 patients since the woman from New Jersey. Now, our services include all areas of concern to women's health. We deal with having babies or not having them, breast disease, gynecology... CHOICES deals with issues.
ON THE ISSUES is more than a newsletter. It is a living monument, a continually growing and involved entity, a reflection of myself, my staff, and my patients. Someone once said, in speaking of their accomplishments, "I can see so far because I stand on the shoulders of giants. "My giants are my staff". the women and men who work with me in a constant state of struggle; our patients... the women and men who come to us and receive the fruits of our collective efforts. and the hands of millions of women who I cannot touch personally but who may, someday, be moved by my vision.
Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women's Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.