Interview with Merle Hoffman2019-06-12T15:05:24+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Merle Hoffman

“Bringing Courage, Vision and Mission-Driven Services to the Battle for Women’s Rights.”

March 2019

I think that people know me from my work. I’ve been extremely active and engaged in the world through my political actions and my political activity. We’ve seen since 1971 at Choices, I think over a million women. Not only for abortions, but for gynecology, for prenatal care and for behavioral health. All my staff have touched those lives.

Actually, this is a very propitious time to do this interview because today is my birthday. I was born 73 years ago in 1946 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My life was very disciplined and serious and solitary. I wanted to be a concert pianist. I practiced about three or four hours a day. So, that started early at ages 9 and 10. I would go to school, come home and practice and then read. I was reading Nietzsche when I was eleven or twelve. I would say it was a very serious, solitary childhood. I am an only child. I had one or two close friends, but I was never terribly social in that sense.  

Family

I had a very interesting family background. I like to describe it in a sense as two rivers that flow through me. One is the entrepreneurial adventuring side of my father, who was English, and my grandparents were and actually were in Kansas in the Civil War. One of them was a prospector who had hit gold and I’m told owns a quarter or a third of Oregon. I never got to meet him, but I will eventually. That’s sort of the entrepreneurial adventuresome side of me. Of course, we have people on that side of the family that are Shakespeare actors and teach Shakespeare and that’s very much a part of me, one of my passions.

On my mother’s side is Russian and musicians and rabbis and radicals. Actually, my great grandparents tried to bomb the Czar and were sent to Siberia and escaped – somehow made their way out. I met them once in Staten Island. I opened my memoirs with that memory.

School

I went to the High School of Music. I think it was on 135th Street in Harlem at the time. I was living in Queens with my parents. I had to travel about an hour and a half each way to go to high school and my mother was very upset about this. She just didn’t understand why I wouldn’t go to Forest Hills High. There was no question in my mind that I had to go to music and art. And it was great. It was a very special place. It still is.

College

I decided I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t need to go to college. I was going to be a great concert pianist. What do concert pianist’s do in my teenage, romantic, literary mind? They went to Paris, they studied, and they starved. That’s what I did. I went to Paris and I studied and it’s where I really learned to love bread and cheese because that was all I could afford to eat. I lived in Cornwall for a while and I learned how to go fox hunting with a friend of mine, just traveled all over. My father got ill, so I had to come back to the states and my early adventuresome days ended.

Psychologist

When I’m about 22 I think to myself,  I’m interested in how I work. I’m interested in how people work – how the world works – I’ll be a psychologist. I couldn’t get into college. I didn’t take any of those exams. Fortunately, a therapist friend of the family was teaching at NYU and he managed to get me into some classes, non-matric. I went in and I did very well. And then they allowed me to matriculate. The first year I was at NYU and my father died and I didn’t have any money. I couldn’t afford it, so I had to work two or three jobs and I graduated from Queens College in Psych and then went to the graduate school for my PhD in Social Psychology. I did not get my doctorate, I got everything else, but I didn’t finish it.

The Roads Taken

I wouldn’t say that I really got involved in the moment because as I said I was going to college. I had to work three different jobs and study and become a psychologist. But I do remember two things that were very impressive to me. One was Anais Nin, who came to speak to the literature students, and I remember a very small person like figure – very moving and romantic.

And then there was Florynce “Flo” Kennedy who is this great black radical lawyer and she was an enormous personality and she stood up there and she said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” The words “fuck” were coming out all over. This is something else. I was very impressed by this woman. I was impressed by her power, by her intensity. So, there were those two events. And many years later she became an extremely good friend. And that’s sort of the circle curved in.

I Meet My Destiny

One of the positions that I was working with was with a physician and when abortion became legal in New York he was very progressive and wanted to get involved in providing services for the health insurance plan and asked me if I was interested. I thought this is a very interesting concept. It was pioneering. Nobody had done it before. All of a sudden abortion was legal. I never thought about abortion, but I remembered a conversation when I was very young in Philadelphia that my parents had had about a doctor who cut up a woman into a lot of little pieces and put her down the drain of a kitchen sink. I remember my child’s mind thinking how could that be and why did that happen? And hearing the word illegal abortion, that just came in.

I started to work and develop the first services for abortion patients. You have to really realize that at that time it was totally radical, revolutionary and pioneering and new.  Monday, abortion is illegal. It’s a crime, It’s a sin. It’s a terrible thing. Tuesday, it’s legal and women are lining up in different areas, particularly in New York and four other states to get them.

Now, there’s no counseling, there’s no education, there is nothing. So how do these services become delivered? Now some of the doctors knew this was happening and set up bigger clinics in New York City. But I with Dr. Gold, who is the physician that I got involved with, this was a small service. I had to think about how do I answer the phones, what do I say, how are appointments made and who do I get to deal with the patients after the procedure?

First Patient

And then came the first patient. This patient’s name was Helen and she came from New Jersey because abortion was still illegal in that state. I want the people, young people particularly listening to me to understand. Think of a free speech or the right to assemble or the right to vote being legal in New York but not being legal in New Jersey or in Rhode Island or Dakota and Utah. And this is what women’s reproductive freedom means. It can’t be done in a state by state basis. But at that time, it was and we’re going back to it.  

Let me come back to my point. The woman comes in, she’s white, she has her husband with her, she has two children and she’s terrified. She is very economically pressed and actually that’s one of the main reasons that women continue to have abortions. They just can’t afford to have children. And she was terrified. Somebody said to me you go in and just talk to her and what am I going to say?

I’m twenty-four, twenty-five years old. I know what the procedure is. I’ve read about it. I think of all the psychology courses that I took, and I think well it really is not all young to this situation. I just sat there, and I started to talk to her. After we spoke, I went in with her to the procedure room and held her hand while he dilated and did the abortion. At that time and even in some clinics now there was no general anesthesia so everyone was getting abortions under local and they can be extremely uncomfortable.

I held her hand and I remember I had to take my rings off because she was squeezing so hard. I went through that part of the procedure with her. I went in with her as she was in the recovery room bed and that was the event that led me to almost 50 years now of this work and this struggle. It was that one individual woman making that powerful profound decision at that one point in time.

Is that a movement? At that time, it was not. Did it become one? In a way yes it did. I call my plan the politicalized – from the ground up. It wasn’t as if I was doing theoretical work reading or writing books. I was dealing with the women on a day to day basis and that’s what politicized me so very profoundly. It was never theoretical to me. I could write theoretically about, think theoretically but I knew it was about these women’s lives that I saw every day.

Women’s Health Forum – Going Public

It was 1974. You have to remember there was nothing that was women’s health. There was no discipline. There was no concept. There was no organized thinking about the reality of women’s health. There were a lot of women and girls going to doctors because their mothers would take them when they had to have their periods or to talk to them maybe about birth control when they had to have their babies, maybe during menopause. Women were the majority of the consumers of medical services and were the deciders of when the other people in their families would go – but basically there was no discipline or concept.

I consider myself one of the midwives of the whole concept of women’s health at this point. HIP decided to have a Women’s Health Forum. This is the first time that we were going to come together. Bella Abzug spoke, Barbara and I spoke, and we were talking about women’s health and how it had to be basically thought of [as] what do women need that is different from men. Women’s bodies are different from them. You know maybe at this point I may be attacked for nonsocial gender constructionism but there definitely is a biological difference and there is no difference in the way they were treated.

And then what I found called each “angelic pregnancy,” which is I would see all these women come into the doctor’s office or sort of coming out of current choices. And I said, “Well how did you get pregnant? Were you using birth control?” “Oh my doctor told me I didn’t have to use birth control. My doctor said don’t go off the pill and use it,” or, “You don’t have to refit your diaphragm.”

So now remember there’s no Internet, there’s no Our Bodies Ourselves, there’s nobody to call. The only arbiters, the only area of knowledge are the physicians themselves. Most of these physicians are men and most of them have their own prejudices and this is what they’re teaching. So, what was happening was like eugenics because that sort of system caused problems for diagnosis. I said physicians, by their miscommunication are actually causing pregnancies. I developed the Philosophy of Patient Power which was the concept that women had to be informed consumers.

Stop Breast Cancer

What was happening in 1975 was I read an article that the highest rate of breast cancer was in Long Island. There were some theories that it was because of the industrialization – there’s something about it being near water, they weren’t very sure, but women in Long Island had [more] breast cancers statistically. I was near Long Island; I was living in Queens. I also understood that at that point in time when women had a lump or found a lump, they would be taken in there and would be put under anesthesia. The lump would be removed, it would be sent to the lab and if there were metastases or if there was cancer within that lump, the breast would be removed right there while the woman was on the table under anesthesia. She didn’t know; she wasn’t asked. She just had either a single or double mastectomy. That was what was happening.

I thought this is abusive and invasive and thought, how can you just take off the breast without even talking to me about what’s happening with me? I developed a program called STOP – second treatment option program. In this concept women would come in; they would have their biopsy and I worked with a breast surgeon so the biopsy was done at Choices. Then we would send it out to the lab. We would have a counseling session to discuss what we found. We would discuss the possibilities and discuss the treatment concept. We also worked with SHARE, which is a group of women who had breast cancer in the past and it is a peer group counseling session. That was quite an extraordinary breakthrough.

I actually went to see at the time, I remember people telling me about the President of Blue Cross who was there, she’s a woman – she’ll listen to you. I went to see the female president of Blue Cross and she thought it was a great idea too and that maybe we could get it reimbursed. Somehow at that point in time it just didn’t happen. I don’t know what the forces were, probably financial. Whatever they were it wasn’t the right time.

I really learned that very deeply, that you can have a great idea, you can take a risk and if it doesn’t succeed at that point or if it fails or if it’s not right – walk away. Like I did the first time I went to Russia for Choices East. You can plant a seed and then it develops later. Maybe not with you but it can develop later.

Political Epiphany

I remember it very distinctly. It was a Sunday morning and I hear, “Republican Congressman Henry Hyde has now passed the Hyde Amendment.” He also had a rescue fantasy. His rescue fantasy was a problem for women. He wanted to stop all abortions. And because he couldn’t save all the babies, he could just save the babies of the poor, his amendment was going to cut off all Medicaid funding for poor women. It is still in existence as I speak here today – the Year of Our Lord 2019. We still have the Hyde Amendment.

So, I’m listening to this and thinking my God this is going to affect my patients. These are the women I see every day. These are the women that are struggling. The poor women, minority women. Again, it was egregious. It couldn’t stand. I found myself a PR agent. There was no internet then. I found one and I said, “I have to debate these people”. They were all over TV.  A lot of them were pastors and they were on the Sunday morning shows and I would watch them all the time. I think it’s really important to know your enemies deeply. So, I would listen and watch. I’ve got to debate this. I was booked all over the country. I would just go in there by myself. I debated every single leader of the anti-abortion, right to life”, as they called the movement.

The best one was Jerry Falwell. Jerry Falwell was the one who led the Moral Majority. He never really debated, but he debated me on television in Detroit, Michigan. I’m sitting there and he looks at me and he said, “Miss Hoffman, how many abortions did your facility do last year?” I said, “Reverend, I think we’ve done about nine thousand.” He said, nine thousand abortions. How will you meet your maker with the blood of nine thousand babies on your hands?” I said, “When I meet her, I’ll be very proud that I fought for women’s rights.” He said, “Her? Did you say God was a woman?” I said, “No Reverend. God is beyond gender.”

So, when I want to get a little comic relief, I watch that. But that was really something else. I stopped debating after a while, because when they wanted me to sit on a stage and actually debate the brother of one of the killers of a doctor, I refused. It was in my mind like going into the concentration camps and saying now we’re going to have 15 minutes from the Jews and then we’ll have 15 minutes from the guards. 

On the Issues

In 1986, I decided to direct, write and produce a half an hour cable television show. Again, I  had never done it before. It was the first time that there was a feminist cable show. I worked with producers and directors. I had leading feminists on. I would do an editorial or an essay. One interesting story was when Betty Friedan was scheduled to come on and do a Q and A with me. Betty was notorious for being extremely difficult and I don’t have that much of a problem with difficult people being one myself and growing up in a family of musicians. I mean we were all very impossible. So, I understood that kind of behavior in a sense.

She came in very angry because the taxi that I sent for her was late. There were a couple of interns sitting in that room. And they were sitting there with her book, The Feminist Mystique like little acolytes waiting for her to come in so they could hand her the book so she would give her autograph. And she comes in swearing and yelling, “You made me wait!”  And I said, “Betty, I don’t have control over these drivers.”  She said, “I only have 20 minutes and that’s all I’m going to give you. I’m going to sit on the stage, and I want a timer.”

I think that is fine. So, we go up, we sit there, I had the Q and A with her and we’re into it, we’re engaging and we’re speaking. And after 20 minutes, she just got up and she has a microphone on her, and part of it is hanging off of her. She’s going and I say, “Oh excuse me, excuse me, but it’s fine if you leave, but please leave the microphone here.”  I just turned to the camera and I said something like, “As we see our guest had to leave us, but we can continue to discuss that issue.” That was very interesting. I suppose she thought she was being powerful, but it was a little bit ridiculous. That was Betty.

Go East, Russia

Why did I go to Russia? I would say that Russia came to me. At the time I was on Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills and there was a large expat Russian community. We would see patients who would come in having five, six, seven previous abortions, ten, eleven. I understood that there was no birth control and it was very difficult to get. There was a patient, I remember the counselor came up to me and she said Ms. Hoffman, this patient has had 35 abortions. I said, “What are you talking about?” She says she’s had 35 abortions.

I went down and I spoke to her and she had had 35 abortions. I think she was about thirty-six years old. That was so outrageous and I understood the reasons. In Russia abortion was just part of life. You either had these procedures and many times they were not legal, and you risked your fertility or your health or you just had a child that you didn’t want, and the orphanages just bulged out even more. I said to myself this is really egregious, this can’t stand.

I go upstairs, and I laugh when I think about this because it’s my rescue fantasy. Everybody that’s in health care has a little bit of it – I’m going to save this person. When I did my internship in psych at a hospital, and I went into one of the wards and there were young adolescents, one was banging her head against the wall and others were unfortunately very sick. I just thought I would love to go in there and heal them. That kind of feeling that you just want to make it all better for this one person, to make their world a little better.

I wanted to make the world better for Russian women. I said I have to go to Russia. I managed with the help of a couple on my staff to get an invitation from a couple of government officials. I and eleven of my staff went over there for about two weeks. We operated in hospital number 53. We showed them our abortion procedure. We brought over the anesthesiologists.

I gave a talk in the literary society and we had somebody that brought over a lot of condoms because they had condoms in Russia, but they called them galoshes because they were so thick. As you can imagine the men were not very keen on putting them on and the women were not insisting that they do so they weren’t used very much. We had the support of a couple of drug companies who made them. So, we took them over there. We were mobbed on that stage. And I’m talking about professors and doctors and they couldn’t get enough.

So that was my first foray. I and about 12 other feminists at the time, I’m talking twenty-five years ago, wrote an open letter to Boris Yeltsin about the state of women’s health, women’s reproductive health and the dangers that they faced. I have that letter and am proud of it. We sent it. I can’t tell you he opened it or if he read it, but nothing was done. But we formed it and we wrote it, which is the point. So that’s when I went to Russia.

Abortionomics

I did a study with Adelphi University really looking at why women have abortions. What is the main reason that women are having abortions? This was during Reagan’s tenure. I think we had about five hundred women. It was a very large study. One of the main reasons that kept coming up and kept coming up was economics. Most women were having abortions because they couldn’t give their child what they felt was the kind of life that they wanted to educationally, or they were alone, or whatever it was. Educational pressures were enormous, and this was during the time that Reagan was saying, if anybody remembers, “ketchup was a vegetable”.

I know we’re living in a very alternative reality now, but that certainly was something. Ketchup is not a vegetable. It’s not something I would want to feed my daughter as a vegetable. And he’s saying, put ketchup on their hamburgers, that’s a vegetable. I called the study “Abortionomics” and basically I accused Ronald Reagan of creating these abortion statistics. Of driving up the abortion rate because of his economic policies. It remains true to this day that a great number and most of the women who are having abortions are having them for economic reasons. Although sometimes in counseling you may ask them, “What if you had the money? If you had all the money you needed?” They would say, “I think I’d still have it.” That may be due to the fact that they’re not comfortable enough with saying I just don’t want to have this child which is a whole other issue of stigma and shame and not owning the fact that you’re making this moral choice. And that this choice is ultimately yours to make.

The Movement

For me the movement was always individual and very personal. I came from that individual connection that I had with the patients and it expressed itself through my own imagination and my own history. And I say, my imagination. I said that I was and am an only child. When I was growing up in the 50s there were really no role models. I actually wore skirts with poodles on them and cinch belts and crinoline so that when you’d sit down you’d have to put your hands down like this. Of course, my cousin was a prodigy and we had famous musicians in the family, and I was going to be a concert pianist. But aside from that the other things that women did were nurses and teachers and they got married.

When I was 12 years old I went to the library in Jamaica, NY. I was always reading, and I started a book about Elizabeth the first. It started a, one could call it a compulsion, an obsession, a love affair, an interest whatever from that point on. All of a sudden I’m this little girl in Queens and the only thing I know is either you’re on stage at Carnegie Hall or you’re going to school in Philadelphia thinking about being a nurse or I’ll marry a doctor.

And then this woman who ruled the world, extraordinarily powerful, survived being beheaded, her mother was beheaded, brilliant stateswoman who spoke six languages and I thought my God, I knew about Alexander the Great, about Napoleon but this was something else. This started me down the road of reading about these great personalities particularly Elizabeth and of course Mary Queen of Scots and the two sides of female nature power nurture. Elizabeth was in a sense my role model.

That’s very strange, really strange because I wasn’t born in line to any throne, but the intensity of her survival strategies her ability to be critical and all of the things that she had accomplished in a tremendously difficult environment even though she had all of this power. It was a totally male world. She was constantly fighting to survive for her throne. The people closest to her were always trying to betray her. She had about 50 assassination attempts. There were so many things in a strange way that I could identify with.

So, there was Elizabeth, then there was Merle Hoffman, who left the world of music and performance and Chopin and Bach. And she is now holding women’s hands as they’re having their abortions. And in a very strange way the war against legal abortion became my ability or became the stage for me to ride my white horse and to be that great Amazon warrior defender where I can protect and rescue and defend and conquer.

So, the movement was out there, and the movement came into me. But I had a whole paradigm of my own imagination and romantic notions that it fit into. I remember I gave a speech in Bryant Park on January 22nd and I would prepare very deeply for these speeches and I felt that I was giving a speech that Elizabeth gave the Tilbury to her troops. “I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too”… extraordinary speeches.

Shakespeare, all of it. All that came into that. The women, the people I’m fighting for, the principles that I fight for, the ethics that I try to live up to. So, feminism as a movement is important to me but it’s another level of growth and it’s not the end. It’s a way of seeing but it’s not the final way of seeing the world.

Involvement

How has my involvement in the movement affected me? How does it not? How does the movement not, I mean there is no separation. I live the work. I see the world through my work in a sense. I feel that the mission is even stronger now. I’ve gone through so much, so many decades. And in two years it will be half a century since I founded Choices. Many things have remained the same. The women, the reasons, the protesters outside that were screaming at them that they’re killing their babies, and other things have changed. I guess I would say I don’t really have a personal – I just don’t make that differentiation. My intimates, my friends, they’re my friends, I love them. We share politics, we share literature. I can have fun but I’m not somebody who needs a lot of things.

Thoughts into Actions

I started them. I was never a joiner. I never joined clubs. I never joined groups. I co-founded and was the first president of the National Abortion Federation. I founded and was the leader of the New York Pro-Choice Coalition. I was the leader and I wanted to put my thoughts into action, and I had the confidence and the vision and the mission and the determination that I was destined to do this. I never really joined many organizations. I got people to join me and help. I worked in coalitions all the time, but I was never a member of any organizations in that sense.

Intimations of Mortality 

I got so many comments about that tagline, The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom. I named the book Intimate Wars. Feminist Press picked the tagline. Any of the women who write know how that happens. At that time, I wanted to stop and think about where I was and how I got there. I knew that I would be written about that I am written about and I just wanted to write about myself in as objective and mindful way is possible. I think I’m pretty hard on myself in more than a couple of places in this book and put it on paper.

It was a deep experience. I had lost my mother and I lost a very close person to me. There was death around me. I was feeling my mortality – not theoretically, but organically. I wanted to write it to my daughter. My daughter Sasha Rena who I had adopted from an orphanage in Siberia when she was three years and two months and I was 58. I adopted her because I never wanted to have a child until then. I had an abortion when I was 32 years old. I was married, I had everything I needed to bring that child into the world if I wanted to at that point, but I knew I didn’t want to. I knew I didn’t want to be detoured. I didn’t want to be diverted. I didn’t want to have to stop.

I always think of that line from Emily Dickinson – Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. I didn’t want to stop. So, I had the abortion. I always thought to myself I could always adopt. I would adopt a little girl and she’d be of course be just like me and bright and curious and I would mentor her and educate her like a Renaissance princess. Then I said to myself if I have this fantasy for more than twenty-four hours I may act on it.

And then it came to me – it came when I was 58 and it came so strongly that it was like a tsunami. There was just no question that I had to do this. I went to Russia because that’s where my heart and soul is. I went to Omsk in Siberia. That’s where she was. I took that leap of faith and that’s what it is, I think, for anyone who not only adopts but brings a child to this world. It is a major leap of faith and I’m a mother now. Yes, I’m a mother now.

Sometimes I would watch some of these TV shows where they would have women on who accomplished a great deal. A lot of times some actresses and the questioner would say well what’s your greatest accomplishment. And a lot of the accomplishments they would always say, oh it’s my daughter or it’s my son. And I’d say that is such bullshit. You created this, you wrote that, you built this, you did that. You brought up a kid, so what.

And  they’re absolutely right. Because it’s the hardest job in the world. And it changed me radically. It made me far more. Well it filled me with a lot more humility. It filled me with a lot more empathy for the otherness of someone. The fact that this was a life, a creature, a little girl that had nothing to do with me. And what is love? What is a mother? She didn’t even know what a mother was.

One day she asked me, “Did I come from your stomach?” And I said, “No you came from my heart.” It remains very deep, very profound, very challenging and it’s a gift. It’s a gift. Sasharina. Sasha is a name that I’ve always loved and her name that was given to her in the orphanage was Irina which means peace. I didn’t want to take that away from her. I didn’t want to take her name away, she had nothing. She had no clothes, she had nothing that was her own. But her name was her own. I loved the name Sasha. I looked it up and I saw that it meant defender of humanity. So, I put it together, defender of humanity and peace. It became Sasharina and I thought that’s so beautiful. I named her Sasharina and she has her own name to live up to now.

Moment in Time

You look at the television, do you remember when the Yazidi women were fleeing? They were trying to helicopter them out of their situation. It was horrible and I worked with my friend, Phyliss Chesler. We do a lot of political things, and we got involved in sending over some supplies and helping to deal with that. I did some work in a rape crisis center in South Africa. I got involved with honor killings. So, all over the world. It’s in a sense [that] people can get so powerless, so despairing, because you feel there’s so much struggle, there’s so much horror, there’s so much despair in the world, what can I do?

I always knew and I always believed it’s the Talmud or the Torah, that it’s not up to me to finish the journey but it’s my responsibility to start it or to take the first step. I have learned that limitation, and the humility of understanding that I will do the most I can. If there’s something that I can do, I’ll do it. I really don’t expect to change the world. I did. But I don’t any more. I can change minds and I can change the relationships that I have and make a difference in individuals and I can do the most I can. And I am very comfortable with that.

I’m asked very often well don’t you get very depressed or frustrated because you see now after all this time and we’re in a situation where it’s the same thing. You have people attacking you and don’t you feel it should be over? Then I tell them, and I truly believe it’s a generational struggle. Freedom is not free. You don’t win it and take it and put it on a table and say – here freedom – not just sit, stay. It’s something again it’s so dynamic.

You have to be constantly vigilant. Constantly aware. So being in that struggle itself and here is Flo Kennedy again – she used to say to me – “Girl you gotta love the struggle.” And that’s so important, because the process is where my feelings of accomplishment come from. Just that I’m doing this. That I’m placed in this point in time. I’m thrown into history at this point in time and I can have the ability to do this, is enough.