CHOICES February 2019 Newsletter

CHOICES February 2019 Newsletter

Message From Merle

When I pause to reflect on the highs and lows of running Choices for the past 48 years, the thread running through it all that keeps me going is love. Love of my work, love for my patients and the mission, and the profound love and gratitude they give back to me.

There are certain moments that I’ll always remember and often think of when I need a reminder of why I do what I do. This is one of them: I call it, “The Love of Strangers.”

“Patient #4 in recovery was moved by your work and wants to see you.” When my assistant’s email came through, I was in the middle of a meeting in my office. Excusing myself, I put on the white coat I always keep hanging on the back of my chair and went up to the recovery room.

©Norma Bessouet in On The Issues Online in Fall 2012 issue
©Norma Bessouet in On The Issues Online in Fall 2012 issue

In the fourth bed, I met the wide dark eyes of the woman who wanted to see me and introduced myself. She reached out her arms, and as I drew her close to me her words spilled out: “You saved my life. I was 18 weeks–the baby was dead–they should have told me weeks ago. The doc–she didn’t want to help. I found you on the Internet–read all about you. Why didn’t they tell me earlier? You saved me–thank you, thank you.”

As we embraced, I thanked her for reminding me why I have spent the last four decades of my life doing this work. When I left her bedside, I grabbed her chart to get the whole story from the counselor’s notes.

(Caucasian patient was 19 weeks pregnant with a planned pregnancy. While receiving pre-natal care she was informed, two weeks ago, about fetal abnormalities indicating severe developmental issues. Patient told to return in two weeks and seek an abortion independently. No assistance was offered. Patient was severely upset because the same abnormality had been confirmed with a prior pregnancy of 9 weeks gestation leading to a much easier termination process. Patient became familiar with Merle Hoffman and her activism on the Internet and became teary-eyed during session when describing what Ms. Hoffman’s work meant to her, and later inquired about the possibility of meeting Ms. Hoffman personally.)

The Power of the Act Itself

Reading this, my mind flew back to the first patient I had counseled in 1971. She had come to us from New Jersey because abortion was still illegal in that state.

I was nervous. In this, as in all of my other tasks at the clinic, no one had trained me. What could I say to her? What would she say to me? All my psychology courses flooded into my brain . . . theories, theories and more theories.

This woman was terrified. She was pregnant and did not want to be. Coming to the clinic had required an enormous amount of courage, and now she was in my hands. I was to guide her way. I was to be her bridge, her midwife into the realms of power and responsibility that are so much a part of the abortion decision.

I held her hand tightly in mine as I listened to her nervous staccato breath. I kept her talking to help ease the discomfort of the dilators. I locked her eyes in mine, breathed in rhythm with her, joined with her to the point of personal discomfort.

In the end, I do not remember a word of what passed between us. It was strangely irrelevant. But I do remember her face. And I remember her hand, the hand that came to symbolize the intimate, personal connection of one woman helping another, the gravity of forging a natural alliance with that woman and the thousands who followed her.

To read the full story, click here.

Recent Events

Jessica O’hara Baker in the lead role of Ann Trow Lohman, alias Madame Restell. Photo by Braddon Lee Murphy of

On January 31st, Merle Hoffman and Choices Women’s Medical Center attended Wickedest Woman, an original play by Jessica Bashline. Wickedest Woman tells the story of Ann Trow Lohman, an entrepreneur, midwife, abortionist–and eventually, a millionaire–who lived in New York City in the 1800s. Using the alias “Madame Restell,” Ann began performing abortions legally in 1838. After a 40-year career, abortion had become illegal making her life’s work criminal. To avoid prison, she killed herself by slitting her throat at age 68.

Choices CEO and founder Merle Hoffman and Executive Vice President of Spence-Chapin Antoinette Cockerham led a post-show discussion on the 31st. They discussed what it’s like to be modern crusaders for controversial topics like abortion and adoption and the parallels between Ann’s life and Merle’s.

Reviewer Leah Richards wrote, “Wickedest Woman deftly strikes these sorts of balances, whether it be in depicting Ann’s personal and professional triumphs and struggles or demonstrating the relationship of her individual story to larger social currents.”

Merle Hoffman (center) shares her thoughts on the story during the post-show discussion at Wickedest Woman.
Merle Hoffman (center) shares her thoughts on the story during the post-show discussion.

Reproductive Health News

New York abortion law: Why are so many people talking about it?

By George Pierpoint
BBC News, Washington
Jan. 28th, 2019

Livia Abreu, Erika Christensen, Merle Hoffman. Photo by BBC.
Livia Abreu, Erika Christensen, Merle Hoffman. Photo by BBC.

On the 46th anniversary of the landmark US ruling that made abortion legal, New York state signed into law a new abortion rights bill. Why is it so controversial?

The Reproductive Health Act (RHA) has been seen by some as a necessary move to safeguard abortion rights should the Supreme Court overturn the ruling, known as Roe v Wade.

Merle Hoffman, who founded the Choices Women’s Medical Center in New York in 1970, welcomes the change in the law, but feels it is “overdue”.

“I have been working in this field for 48 years. It feels like I’ve been living in Groundhog day.”

She told the BBC that her clinic has been unable to help women in “sad and difficult situations” because they were more than 24 weeks pregnant.

Ms. Hoffman notes that many of the women who seek late-term abortions either didn’t know they were pregnant for a long time, or experience complications in an originally wanted pregnancy.

“We have to get funding from various sources – often personally contributing money – to help these women access abortions services out of state.”

Ms. Hoffman describes New York in the early 1970s as an “oasis” for women seeking abortions before Roe v Wade, and sees a parallel with the state’s decision to implement the RHA.

“I can see there being a sort of ‘underground railroad’ of women who will come to New York now. It is another access point on the east coast.”

Ms. Hoffman is also keen to point out that only around 1% abortions in the US happen after 21 weeks.

Read the full story here

Also, check out Choices’ most recent blog post “The New Reproductive Health Act (RHA) in New York State – What Does it Mean for You?” for more information.

What We Are Listening To

New York Times “The Abortion Argument.”

Three New York Times columnists debate abortion.Three New York Times columnists debate abortion. Michelle Goldberg picks apart conservatives’ response to efforts in New York and Virginia to expand access and argues that even ostensibly limited restrictions are part of a broader quest to criminalize the practice, “there’s a reason why people end up waiting too long and there’s a reason why people end up with money troubles, and it’s because a restrictive series of abortion laws ends up pushing women into the second trimester,” Goldberg said. Ross Douthat thinks that in most cases abortion is too abhorrent to remain legal and teases out the various arguments within the wider anti-abortion movement. “There’s just a larger argument here, right, where what is at stake is the question of whether a fetus is human and what kind of rights it has…Abortion is too abhorrent to be, in most cases, legally permitted” Douthat said. And David Leonhardt notes that abortion ranks among the political issues on which Americans appear to be genuinely split. “For me the most agonizing part of this, it’s around technology and it’s around something that starts to get close to eugenics,” Leonhardt said.

Click here to listen to the full episode.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

“The entire issue of surrogacy is another arena for the commercialization of humanity.”
Merle Hoffman, On The Issues Magazine, 1987

Mary Beth Whitehead joins a group of women demonstrating on her behalf on March 12, 1987, after the lawyers in the "Baby M" custody case delivered their summations. Photo from: Bettmann—Getty Images
Mary Beth Whitehead joins a group of women demonstrating on her behalf on March 12, 1987, after the lawyers in the “Baby M” custody case delivered their summations.
Photo from: Bettmann—Getty Images

Commercial surrogacy may soon be legal in New York State. New York Governor Cuomo is supporting a bill that would legalize the practice of paying a woman to carry a pregnancy and give birth to a child unrelated to her biologically. Called “The Child-Parent Security Act,” it is included in a Budget Bill soon to be voted on by the NYS Assembly.

New York has banned commercial surrogacy for decades, ever since a controversial and heart-wrenching battle in 1985 when a New Jersey woman, Mary Beth Whitehead, who had agreed to be a surrogate, changed her mind after giving birth. Whitehead, financially strapped, had been paid $10,000 to be inseminated with sperm from William Stern, whose wife, Elizabeth, might endanger her life if she became pregnant. Whitehead wanted to give back the money and raise “Baby M” (as the child was called in the media) herself. The Sterns refused. The story was widely reported, and Whitehead was brutally treated in the press for breaking her contract and scrutinized mercilessly as to whether she would/could be a good mother.

“Children have now become the ultimate product in the marketplace.”
Merle Hoffman, On The Issues Magazine, 1987

As reported by, after a long legal battle, Baby M was eventually given to the Sterns, with the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in 1988 that paying women to bear children was illegal and ‘potentially degrading.’ Since then, nearly all surrogacies in America have been gestational, meaning they use a donor egg — either from the woman who will raise the child or from an outside donor — rather than the carrier’s egg, to avoid a “similar legal quagmire.”:

But where the egg comes from – who it’s “owned” by – isn’t the main problem here. Long-time feminist activist Phillis Chesler, author of the book Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M, got to the heart of it when she told that commercial surrogacy is “baby-selling, baby-buying and slavery.” Read complete article here.

“This surrogacy case brought into the harsh daylight intense discussion and debate on the multiple theories of mothers and mothering.”
Merle Hoffman, On The Issues Magazine, 1987

Choices Founder/President Merle Hoffman saw deeper issues concentrated in the case and wrote an editorial for On the Issues Magazine, “Two Faces of Motherhood,” . Published in 1987 it rings with the realities of 2019.

“It was the pots and pans that finally activated me. I had followed the case for days in the media with a somewhat distant intellectual curiosity, but then I read that a psychiatrist had testified that Mary Beth Whitehead was an unfit mother because she gave her child stuffed pandas to play with instead of pots and pans. Stuffed pandas? How extraordinary that our psychiatric system regarded the image of an animal so loved and rare as a panda as subverting the normal growth and development of a 20th century female child. The implied sexism of giving a little one year old the tools of the kitchen was certainly not lost on me either…”

For complete article click here.

Coco Conners, a character on Netflix's 'Dear White People' with an abortion storyline. Photo by Women's Media Center
Coco Conners, a character on Netflix’s ‘Dear White People’ with an abortion storyline. Photo by Women’s Media Center

Abortion stories depicted on TV are becoming increasingly diverse

by Aviva Stahl

“Between the confirmation of anti-choice Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the victories of anti-choice legislation in the midterms, 2018 was not a great year for abortion rights in the United States. Media representation of abortion this past year, however, was a different story. According to a new study, there was an encouraging increase in diverse fictional depictions of abortion last year.

The study, conducted by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), found that 18 television show plotlines featured a character who has an abortion, discloses a past abortion, or considers getting an abortion.

Read the full story here.

Dysturb partners with the United Nations Population Fund on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation

At least 200 million woman and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation.“Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons, and it is internationally recognized as a human rights violation.

More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut around the world and around 68 million girls may be cut if efforts are not accelerated to end this harmful practice. UNFPA, New York, 2018.

On February 6, 2019, the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, the alternative media movement Dysturb partners with UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, to present “Female Genital Mutilation: 68 Million Girls at Risk”, an exhibition of photographs at the United Nations headquarters in New York and of mural-sized paste-ups in the streets of the city.

This exhibition covers the geographical scope of the practice, too often thought to be limited to some regions of the world, whilst simultaneously giving space to those who speak out – girls, survivors, activists, educators.”

Read the full story here.

Black History Month

This Month, February 2019, is Black History MonthIn the democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union address, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams highlighted a key issue facing the Black community in America. “Maternal mortality rates show that mothers, especially Black mothers, risk death to give birth,” Abrams said.

As The Root recently reported, “both maternal and infant mortality rates are disturbingly high in the black community—particularly in America, which currently has the highest rate of deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth in the developed world among mothers of all races. For black mothers, this danger can be exacerbated by lack of access to resources, as well as the frequent dismissal and diminishment of black women’s health concerns.”

Read the full story here.

When Merle Hoffman was choosing the new location for Choices Women’s Medical Center in 2012, she chose Jamaica, Queens in large part because the infant mortality was (and is) the highest in the city–nine times higher than the Upper East Side, in fact. At Choices, decreasing the egregious infant and maternal mortality rates in Jamaica is a central goal of our prenatal program–not just in February, but every month.

Suggested reading for this month:

From the New York Times, “Black New Yorkers, Overlooked, Until Now

“There are countless individuals whose earlier contributions went underappreciated. The Times has been telling their stories in its Overlooked Project, obituaries of influential figures who should have been more fully recognized.”

Continue reading.

From ThoughtCo., “How Women Abolitionists Fought Slavery

“‘Abolitionist’ was the word used in the 19th century for those who worked to abolish the institution of slavery. Women were quite active in the abolitionist movement, at a time when women were, in general, not active in the public sphere. The presence of women in the abolitionist movement was considered by many to be scandalous—not just because of the issue itself, which was not universally supported even in states that had abolished slavery within their borders, but because these activists were women, and the dominant expectation of the “proper” place for women was in the domestic, not the public, sphere.”

Continue reading.

From the History of American Women Blog, a History of American Women Abolitionists

“The increase in religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 1830s led abolitionists to see slavery as a sin against humanity. By the 1830s, thousands of American women were involved in the movement to abolish slavery, and some became prominent leaders in the abolition movement. They wrote articles for abolitionist papers, circulated pamphlets and delivered petitions to Congress calling for abolition.”

Continue reading.

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