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Champion of Choice : Lawrence Lader's 1966 book launched a crusade for reproductive rights. Now 76, he's backing an abortion drug for the U.S. market.


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sometimes the compass shifts, and life takes a detour that lasts forever. More than 40 years ago, Lawrence Lader moved from hotshot magazine writer to reproductive rights activist. He became a quiet pillar of an often noisy movement, little known outside the pro-choice community and not always widely recognized within it.

Betty Friedan, self-described "mother of the women's movement," once labeled Lader "the father of abortion rights." But at the Washington headquarters of the National Abortion Rights Action League--founded in Lader's living room--a staff member recently confessed that while she had "heard his name," she wouldn't recognize Lader if she shared an elevator with him.

To Lader, this lapse of institutional and/or individual memory is utterly untroubling. He has just written a new book, wryly titled "A Private Matter" (Prometheus Books), about the quite public effort to make non-surgical abortion available to American women. He has spearheaded--and helped to fund from a comfortable but far from enormous family income--a drive to synthesize the French drug RU 486, which induces abortion in the first nine weeks of pregnancy.

Roussel, its European manufacturer, has balked at marketing RU 486 in a country where abortion is a strident, often violent subject. A growing conservative climate "spurs us to move at great speed," Lader said, explaining that the secretly manufactured U.S. duplicate of RU 486 is expected to become available early next year.

In the musty parlor of the Harvard Faculty Club, the 76-year-old Lader (class of '41) looked like so many of the crimson-blooded warhorses who gather here to contemplate matters of cosmic consequence. Active in the prestigious Century and Lotos clubs in New York, Lader is no less genteel than his cohorts. His wife, Joan Summers Lader, is a singer who specializes in the music of Scotland; their daughter, Wendy, is an attorney. Lader is gray-haired and wears the crumpled suits that brand him as a gentleman of an earlier era. But somehow he seems more impatient. Asked if he thought of himself as godfather to a movement, he fairly snapped--albeit politely--"I don't have time to romanticize."

That is only one of the incongruities that surround him.

"Here he is in his 70s, and he still loves to do radical actions and illegal things," said Barbara Seaman, a well-known writer in the field of women's health and a longtime Lader acquaintance.

And here he is, soldiering in an intensely public battlefield, yet zealously guarding his own private life.

"He and I--we've known each other since at least 1946," said Sey Chassler, a consulting editor at Parade magazine who is also vice president of the Child Care Action Campaign. "I'm certain we have always talked at least several times a year, and in recent years, even once a month. And I know very little about him. I know he plays tennis and he smokes too much. And I know I have great admiration for him, and I like him very much."

Lader was born in New York City and raised in the kind of intellectual and material environment that made a Harvard education an assumption. His World War II dispatches from the Pacific ran in the New Yorker, and he went on to become a contributing editor for Esquire. His articles appeared in Look, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, American Heritage and Reader's Digest, among other publications.

But like many writers facing middle age, Lader chafed at the journalistic smorgasbord. Longing for a meatier endeavor, he decided to write a book. He chose biography as the surest route to credibility. Haunting the library in search of a subject, he finally settled on the name of Margaret Sanger.

Lader spent the next three years "practically living with" the founder of this country's family planning movement. Sanger was so charismatic, so convincing that Lader dropped all pretenses of journalistic objectivity. "I considered myself her disciple," he said.

It was not a difficult conversion. Feminism was not yet a word. "But even in my brief first marriage, to a Vassar girl, my wife kept her own name at work, had her own bank account, had her name on our mailbox, all the things that women fought for later, and we thought nothing of them." They parted amicably and childless.

Under Sanger's influence, Lader came to champion the notion that "a woman had to be able to control her own fertility." He also observed Sanger's strong opposition to abortion, "seeing the horrors of the women on the Lower East Side, with $5 in their hands, submitting themselves to butchers." To Sanger, "Birth control was a solution to abortion," Lader realized.

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