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Reproductive Rights Pioneer

June 26, 2006

At a memorial service in New York City, Gloria Feldt paid tribute to Lawrence Lader, who died May 7 at the age of 86. An author and activist, Lader founded an organization called Abortion Rights Mobilization (ARM). He also set up a lab to manufacture RU-486 and provide it to researchers when the drug was unavailable in the U.S. I am certain that George Bernard Shaw had Larry Lader in mind when he said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Isn’t it intriguing that Larry Lader, this quintessentially unreasonable man, focused his work on making progress for women? Because the threads of Margaret Sanger’s mantle touched both of us profoundly, I feel a special kinship with Larry. He wrote a biography of Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, when he was in his 30s and she in her 70s, and he said that experience was the greatest influence on his life: “Margaret convinced me early on that women must have the right to control their procreation. That was the only way they could get the jobs and education they wanted, and have the kind of lives they wanted, which included total rapport with their husbands and family,” Larry told reporter Anne Bower. He pegged those who oppose reproductive freedom as people who fear women’s sexuality and independence and want them “chained to the home waiting for the man with a rose in their teeth.”   This unreasonable man minced no words. When everybody else said it was hopeless to bring RU-486 to American women, because the president had banned it, so clinical trials couldn’t take place and the FDA wouldn’t approve it anyway, he found a way to do it. He said he got his inspiration once again from Margaret Sanger, who had smuggled diaphragms from Europe into the U.S. in brandy bottles when birth control was illegal. Things never just happen. Larry Lader made things happen by force of his vision and persistence, whether it was being one of the driving forces behind the formation of what is now NARAL Pro-Choice America, writing an influential book about abortion that was cited nine times in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision, or concocting a lawsuit to elevate public awareness about RU-486. Now, Larry was not humble. My friend Barbara Seaman, who served as vice president of ARM, told me that being Larry’s vice president was like being the concertmaster of a one-man band. From time to time Larry would call my office, and in his gravelly voice, berate any young receptionist who didn’t know who he was and demand that he must speak with me immediately. And of course, he always did speak to me immediately about whatever new bee was in his bonnet that day. As a woman who feels that the birth control pill saved my life, and as one who has worked on the frontlines to give other women access to birth control and safe, legal abortion, I thank Larry for being persistently unreasonable on behalf of progress for women's lives, health, and freedoms. For as Margaret Sanger often said, “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free unless she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”