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50 Years of Choices (1971-2021)

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50 Years of Choices (1971-2021)

It was 1971, 50 years ago, one half of a century, when I saw my first patient in a small medical center in Queens, NY. “Helen” was from New Jersey and had crossed state lines because abortion was still illegal in that state. In 1971, New York was among a handful of states that had legalized abortion. We were in the advance guard of a growing national movement that would bring about a Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, in 1973, establishing women’s right to abortion nationally.  

In this Oct. 2, 2021 photo people participate in the Houston Women’s March against Texas abortion ban. (Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle)[/caption]

I could not help thinking of Helen four months ago, when Choices had seen our first patient from Texas. She had traveled over 1,500 miles by plane to get an abortion with us because Texas had shut down her options. Texas law SB8 (Senate Bill 8) bans abortion after six weeks, before most women even suspect they are pregnant, and authorizes private citizens to file suit against anyone who assists a patient obtain an abortion – from the doctor who provides it to the Uber driver who takes her to it. The U.S. Supreme Court is very likely to give this law a thumbs up when it issues a ruling sometime this spring.

Diverse and intergenerational, Choices patients reflect our current world. The borough of Queens boasts 177 ethnic groups—more than any area in the country! 
Diverse and intergenerational, Choices patients reflect our current world. 

Before 1971, before Helen and the millions who came after her, there was no concept of Women’s Health—there were just doctors (almost always male) and patients (the majority of whom were women). Choices’ practices and philosophies acted as Midwife to the entire concept of “Women’s Health,” pioneering concrete healthcare procedures and becoming a pathbreaker for the future. Based on my philosophy of Patient Power (see discussion of Patient Power here), I worked with other committed medical professionals to build a full-service women’s medical center, including Prenatal Care and Mental Health – the only one of its kind in the country. Choices has served over two million women over the last half century. (Read more about our medical and activist history here and in my memoir, Intimate Warshere.)

Now we are on the edge of being plunged back to a time where unsafe, illegal abortions in many states will again fill hospitals with women who are forced to take desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies. (Click here for map where abortions could be banned.) Not to mention the women who will be forced to bear children against their wills. This is an ethical, moral, and constitutional outrage that needs to be resisted with the most powerful and courageous tactics possible.

Choices Staff

Through multiple challenges and attacks, including harassment from anti-choice protesters that continues to this day, evictions forcing us to move four different times over these 50 years, death threats and seeing other abortion providers and friends shot and killed by anti-abortion fanatics, and so much more, Choices’ mission, our commitment to serving women and girls, has not wavered.

50 years—one-half of a century. How to celebrate this? How to honor everything we have stood for, not only our continuation and survival, but significant growth during these difficult years.

How to celebrate the fact that Choices met every challenge that came at us!  A speak-out? A Grand Party with celebrities? A Press Conference? NO—that would not suit. I concluded that the best way to celebrate was to publicly acknowledge our recommitment to the struggle, the issues, and the mission.

Choices Staff and Volunteer Clinic Escorts (rainbow vests, lower right) during the first wave of the COVID pandemic. Wonder Woman mural in Choices waiting room by artist Linda Stein.
Choices Staff and Volunteer Clinic Escorts (rainbow vests, lower right) during the first wave of the COVID pandemic. Wonder Woman mural in Choices waiting room by artist Linda Stein.

Every day with every patient served, we recommit ourselves. Through all the challenges including the COVID pandemic, Choices continued to provide needed services to women and girls.  And now, as I write this with the new Omicron variant causing more pain and hardship, including among our courageous and dedicated staff, Choices continues to keep our doors open and see our patients. 

Choices lives its values of resilience, strength, courage, perseverance and truth telling, and our continued EXISTENCE and RESISTANCE to the expanding attacks on women’s reproductive justice says that with each patient we serve.

Yes—just surviving in this climate is a major accomplishment—but I am also very proud that through the years and continuing to today, with the still-difficult conditions of the COVID pandemic, we have been able not only to survive but to move forward in advancing reproductive freedom and justice.

Choices has always broken boundaries. We have always welcomed women and girls from other states and countries coming to Choices for abortion care, and we initiated a special Out-of-Town Program several years ago. Out of TownNew York is one of the few states that has no restrictive abortion laws such as waiting periods or requirements that a spouse or parent be notified. Because of that and the fact that NY was one of the first states to legalize abortion, NY has been a haven for women and girls who need services. Our Out-of-Town Program works closely with special organizations in NY and other states that raise funds for patients’ procedures as well as travel costs and overnight housing, if needed. (For more information click here.)Pregnant woman holding belly.

And because the Pandemic is creating tremendous difficulties for women who choose to have babies at this time, Choices is doing everything we can to ensure that pregnant women get the care they need. One of the reasons Choices moved here 10 years ago were reports that Jamaica ranked below average for NYC neighborhoods in “having a healthy baby.” The need for good pre-natal care that values and takes concrete steps to ensure the health of both mother-to-be and baby is especially important for Black women and all women of color who also have been especially hard hit through the pandemic. (For more information about our Prenatal Care Program, click here.)

Merle Hoffman holds hanger that was used in first pro-choice civil disobedience rally at St. Patricks cathedral in New York circa 1989. She is surrounded by students from the Moxie program of Duke University.
Merle Hoffman holds hanger that was used in first pro-choice civil disobedience rally at St. Patricks cathedral in New York circa 1989. She is surrounded by students from the Moxie program of Duke University.

Because without providers there is no choice, Choices has become a sought-after site and training ground for young Medical Residents and Interns.

Fides Elamparo, 2021 Clinical Intern, Medical Students for Choice
Fides Elamparo, 2021 Clinical Intern, Medical Students for Choice

We also host groups of young feminists from Universities who come to talk feminism and see it in action.

Last year alone we hosted six women from three different hospitals/schools for training with our staff. I would like to share with you what one of our recent Resident trainees, Fides Elamparo, said about her experience here: 

“The public’s view of abortion is so different from what it really is. Abortion should be considered a normal medical procedure. It can be a difficult decision, but it is a safe, simple procedure, and can have a positive effect for those who choose it. Most schools don’t give any formal education about abortion. This adds to its mystification. For the students reading this, you know abortion advocacy can be frustrating. But here at Choices you can and will find support. Students who come here will be with people who share your interests in women’s health.  And it is a phenomenal learning experience. I enjoyed coming into work here every day because I believe in the mission of Choices as well as appreciate the lively and supportive environment.”

In conclusion, I want to stress that times like these require resilience, patience, and empathy from all of us – particularly for the health care workers who are and have been on the front line of this pandemic for all this time. Choices has been an oasis for women and their families for over 50 years, and we will continue to be here for you during the present wave of the COVID pandemic that is affecting all of us.

Through all of this struggle and challenge, we must continue to keep our eyes and actions focused on bringing the future into being. A future where women are full moral agents and are free to make choices they and their families need without coercion or fear. We owe that to Helen and every other woman and girl in this country.

– Merle Hoffman, Founder/President/CEO
Choices Women’s Medical Center 

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