An 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.
How and when did you develop your passion for fighting for reproductive rights and women’s health in general?
The process was very organic and came to me from the "ground up". There was no such thing as "women's health" when I started at 25 years old in 1971. New York had de-criminalized abortion three years before Roe. V. Wade-and the first patient that came to Choices was a married woman from New Jersey. She came to New York because abortion was still illegal in that state. I stayed with her --counseled her, held her hand throughout her abortion--and that profound intimate powerful connection was what catalyzed me thru these last 40 years.
My commitment, passion an radicalism was born of the deepest experience.
It seems that many young women today don't always have a lot of perspective about our reproductive rights. How do you think things have changed in terms of the reproductive rights battle since you started CHOICES Women’s Medical Center in 1971? Where have we advanced and where do we still lag behind?
We have advanced to the point where many young women view reproductive rights as an entitlement. There is an a-historical view that abortion rights are there-have always been as far as they can remember-and will remain so. Because of this it is necessary for the veterans of the struggles to educate, and insure that young women-all women understand that freedom is not free--that if we don't defend reproductive rights will lose them. We have to be aware awake and active in countering the relentless assaults from the right.
Considering the controversial nature of abortion and reproductive rights, how have you responded to critics of your work? What major challenges have you faced because of your work and how did you work through them?
There are so many critics. I usually tell them to "take a number--that the line forms to the left!" There have always been and will always be opposition to me my work-and the struggle for reproductive freedom and justice. This is a long term power struggle and one has to not take it all that personally. I understand that I am a lighting rod for much of the misogynistic hatred-but it comes with the territory. And ultimately it is my belief in the justice and rightness of reproductive freedom that keeps me going.
You were on the frontlines of the women’s health movement from its inception. Do you still believe there is still systemic sexism in health training / the health industry? What should teens and young women be aware of in terms of their health care? What do you think are the most important questions teens can ask when visiting their doctors or other healthcare professionals?
At this point in time there is very little if any training in both family planning and abortion care in most of the medical schools in this country. In fact the group Medical Students for Choice is involved in attempting to integrate this training in medical school curriculums. The right wing anti-choice-anti-birth control movement has been quite effective in insuring that if abortion is not illegal--they will make it impossible for a majority of American women.
Years ago I developed the concept of PATIENT POWER--when I realized that the power differential between patients(women and girls) and doctors (mainly men) resulted in many women experiencing unwanted pregnancies-because of doctors mis-information, or lack of it.
Patient power postulated things like the right to question your doctor, the right to be informed of alternative treatments, the right to second opinions, etc. It actually was the precursor of what is now known as the Patient's Bill of Rights.
Now we have resources which were not available 40 years ago--publications like Our Bodies Our Selves which we have to take advantage of- We are responsible for our own health and have to insure that we are educated and knowledgeable--we should work to become partners with our physicians not remain passive dependant children.
You recently wrote a memoir – Intimate Wars. Can you speak a little about what motivated you to write it and what you think young feminists specifically might take away from it?
I was coming up on the 40th anniversary of Choices-which was quite a milestone. I needed to look back on the whirlwind of my life, to reflect and create a narrative not only for myself but for my daughter. She had not shared the majority of it--I would not share a majority of hers so I wanted to leave that testament for her. The lessons to be learned are many--how to gain and practice courage, how to keep going when all the world tells you its impossible, how to deal with being alone and being a pariah, what the real cost of political struggle and being a radical is, how nothing and no one can protect you, that you have to become your own support system.
And finally, as I have been and am on the forefront this struggle, I hope this book is an inspiration to young women. I hope it encourages them to have the courage to follow their hearts because revolution at its core is driven by love.
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