© Times Newspapers Ltd 1992
An American is hoping to take contraceptive choice to Russia
Merle Hoffman came back from a recent trip to Russia triumphantly clutching an open letter to Boris Yeltsin that she had persuaded Russian feminists to write (“there are a handful of them”). The letter demands immediate allocations of hard currency for buying modern contraceptives, and funds for up-to-date equipment and medicine to make abortion as safe as possible.
In New York, Ms Hoffman runs the Choices medical centre – “the largest state-of-the-art, women’s medical centre in the United States” – which offers Well Women examinations, gynecological services, a complete screening service for women and a rape counseling unit. After her trip to Russia, Ms Hoffman hopes soon to be able to offer the same services there, at reasonable prices, at a centre called Choices East.
Ms Hoffman’s credo, which she chants like a litany, is that “abortion is the bottom line and the front line and the fundamental issue for women’s autonomy in the Western world.” But in Russia, where abortion remains the form of birth control most easily available, she discovered that it is and oppression. She was inspired to visit the country after treating a Russian woman who had had 35 abortions by the age of 35.
The Moscow centre, to be set up within two years, according to Ms Hoffman, in equal partnership with the Russians, will introduce Russian women to other types of contraception. In the Forest Hills centre in New York, 20,000 abortions are performed each year. The operations cost $300-$1,000, depending on length of gestation. (The fees of poorer women are met by Medicaid insurance provided by New York, one of only six states to offer it since cuts in 1977.)
The cost is a far cry from the $3 charged in Moscow, concedes Ms Hoffman, “hardly more than the cost of a McDonald’s hamburger there. If I wanted to make money i’d open up in Manhattan, not Moscow. One Russian suggested I might like to open a clinic for the elite, but I said I wouldn’t do that. I said those who could afford to pay might pay a higher fee to subsidize those who couldn’t.”
Ms Hoffman, who founded he New York Pro-Choice Coalition and organized a “pro-choice” civil disobedience action on the steps of St Patric’s Cathedral which resulted in the arrests of nine women, is scathing about the “right-to-lifers” for using similarly aggressive tactics. Choices is regularly patrolled by Roman Catholic clergy, who bring their flock to pray for her soul.
Recently in Britain an organization called the Post Abortion Counseling Service (PACS) did a survey of 300 women it had counseled after abortions, plus more than a thousand who had contacted it, and suggested that, as PACS organizer Ruth Caleb puts it, “abortion continues to cause psychological problems for some women up to ten ten, and in some cases, 20 years later.”
Such arguments anger Ms Hoffman. “To make that meaningful you’d have to compare it with all the studies of depression after childbirth, and the emotional problems mothers experience,” she says. “Why isn’t counseling considered necessary to prepare women for the trauma of childbirth, which is nine times more dangerous than an abortion carried out during the first trimester?”
Her view is supported in Britain by the Family Planning Association, which believes, according to its spokeswoman Ruth Grigg, that “those who feel a sense of relief after an abortion are far more numerous than those who need counseling.”
There is “only one choice” in tomorrow’s American election, as far as Ms Hoffman is concerned, and that is to vote for “pro-choice” Bill Clinton. “I see our right to abortion – declared the constitutional right of every American woman 20 years ago in the Roe v Wade decision – gradually being eroded so that now it hangs by a thread.”
If Russia and America spent a fraction of what they spend on the space race on trying to control the procreation of the human race, Ms Hoffman feels, women would be much better off. In the meantime, she will continue to fight “for women’s right to make even the wrong choices.”