Interview with Merle Hoffman

Merle Hoffman is the publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues Magazine and one of the most outspoken advocates for progressive and feminist issues.
Merle established Choices Women's Medical Center to provide abortion services shortly after New York State legalized abortion in 1971. Today, Choices has grown to become one of the most comprehensive and nationally well respected providers of a full range of gynecological services for women, including abortion to 24 weeks of pregnancy, birth control and pre-natal care.
In 1983 Merle began On the Issues Magazine as a newsletter of Choices Women's Medical Center to communicate with other health care providers, pro-choice activists and the reproductive health care community generally. Within a few years it had developed into On the Issues, the Progressive Woman's Quarterly, gaining accolades as a motivating, challenging and controversial magazine of ideas and action. After ceasing publication in 1999, On the Issues Magazine was reborn as an online publication in Spring 2008 and publishes all-new, themed editions quarterly with new articles added weekly.
~ Biography from

Loretta Ross (l) and Merle Hoffman (r)
I was privileged to grab 10 minutes of Merle's time at the 2011 National Women's Studies Association Conference. Her memoir, Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Board Room, is out now. You can get a copy directly from Feminist Press, Powells or IndieBound.

VLF: Why now? What made you write this book now? 

MH: well it's the 40th anniversary of Choices. I thought it was time for me to look back and reflect on the whirlwind that was my life. I wanted to create a narrative for myself. I have also lost an lot of people recently and that put me in a place that was very self-reflective. It was very therapeutic. The other part is that I have a 10-year-old daughter and I wanted to leave her this testimony. I'm sure she'll read things about me when I am gone, so i want her to have my side. After all these years, this issue is front and center with more virulent attacks against abortion rights than ever before. Sometimes I feel like I'm that movie "Groundhog Day." I just woke up and it's 40 years later and it's still the 1970s. It is still just as difficult to have abortion without apology as it was all those years ago.

VLF: What has been your most memorable moment? 

MH: You mean from my life on the front lines? Going to Russia. That was amazing. I was going to save Russian women and being rushed by thousands of people because I had some condoms.The whole opening up of the consciousnesses. My civil disobedience action in front of St. Patrick's cathedral which was the first time pro-choice forces were ever arrested. It was a very powerful action. The first patent whose hand  I held [as she underwent an abortion]. That really was the most memorable because that's what catalyzed my involvement into the movement. I don't her name or her face, but basically it was her hand and that intimate personal connection. You know Euripides wrote that woman is woman's natural ally. And it was that connection at what I would say was her most powerful and vulnerable point of her life that actually was the catalyst to get so deeply, deeply involved.

VLF: Let's talk about the growing movement of abortion doulas, or rather the growing awareness of abortion doulas. 

MH: Choices has abortion doulas, we always have. Our doulas work with both our pre-natal and our abortion patients. And the patients love them, of course they would because they focus on the reactive part of the procedure, the emotional and psychological issues. We also have counselors, but the doulas are more specialized because they with the women in the recovery room, as they are waiting to be called in, they are there to ease the anxiety that comes up.

VLF: It's hard to reconcile that abortion is one of the most common outpatient procedures for women to go through, but it also the most isolating procedures for women to go through. They go through it alone.

MH. Absolutely. And they go through it alone, but once they lay themselves down on that table, they become by that act, an integral part of the sisterhood of what that reproductive choice connects them to. It is the challenge of the movement, the leadership, the activists, the scholars to help politicize the understanding that just by having an abortion women have done a political act. And to help them not distance themselves immediately afterwards. They want to deny, put it behind them. It's a very common reaction.

VLF: Do you have any personal regrets? 

MH: None. Every choice in my life has led me to point I am at now. Whether at that point of time they were difficult, the challenges I welcomed because they strengthen you, they give you courage and I made some very difficult ones. It was been a very singular life. But I see it as a privilege that I use my energy, my talents in this cause, in this movement.

VLF: Any critiques about the movement? What you wish it had done? 

MH: I wish they had come out thousands and thousands strong when Henry Hyde cut off Medicaid funding.  There is this bifurcation between providers and academics/activists. Abortion can be a dirty business, you get your hands dirty in the trenches with the women. One of the things that I've always wanted is for the activists to come to the clinics and see the women. Then the racial and class bifurcations that have gone on. That was very clear when Hyde cut off funding. Nobody marched because it was just the poor and the minorities and the young.

VLF: What does your daughter know of what you do? 

MH: She's ten. She knows the word abortion. She knows "My mommy fights for women's rights." She works at Choices and does some filing. She's learning about it. So yes, she knows.

VLF: Do you think she'll be proud of you?

MH: Oh, she's proud of me now.

VLF: When I read Dr. Wicklund's memoir she said a lot about her daughter. There are sacrifices we make to do the work we do. Sometimes our daughters pay a price. 

MH: Of course. It is very difficult. She was in my bed the night before I left and I explained to her that I have this work. I call and text the woman who is staying with her. I just got a photo from the soccer game. Being a mom is struggle. Every day, every day. Bring them into the movement, like my friend Jen Baumgardner. She's got her little ones running around her. Let them see. It's better than bringing them shopping.

* This is a summary of our conversation, not a complete transcript.

* *Powells and IndieBound book links are affiliate links. If you buy your book from them I could make a very small amount of money that goes towards this blog by helping me purchase books for school. Thanks!