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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.

November 30, 1995|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In those antediluvian 1950s, "the abortion issue was not an issue," Lader recalled. Wealthy women knew how to find a doctor who would end a pregnancy, for a price. Wily women had their own methods. Abortion was illegal, but it was also available. Publicly, no one talked about it. And no one wrote about it, either. "Nothing," Lader said. "Not one serious book or article on the subject."

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To no controversy at all, Lader's biography of Sanger came out in 1955. His 1961 treatise on the antislavery movement in 19th-Century New England caused equally little stir. Then in 1966, Bobbs-Merrill published the book that changed Lader's life: "Abortion." Its first words were, "Abortion is the dread secret of our society."

As Lader noted in a rare moment of introspection, "Here is the surprising thing of where one goes in life." Lader thought he was writing a book: "I had no idea of getting involved in a campaign."

With the Supreme Court's 1965 decision in Griswold vs. Connecticut, enlarging individual rights to privacy in matters of sexuality and family planning, Lader's topic took on new urgency. It was strange, because as Lader conceded, "If I had written it five years earlier, it would have sunk like a stone." But a 1966 news conference announcing Lader's book was jammed. Reporters began using rhetoric like "a civil rights movement for women." When someone asked if Lader intended to help women in this effort, he heard himself reply, "Yes, I will."

From that time on, Seaman said, Lader used "all his money and all his brains on this cause."

"Larry never seemed to be interested in the rest of the women's movement, the equal rights amendment, child care and so forth," Chassler recalled. But about abortion rights, "he is absolutely single-minded. He just keeps going forward on it."

Still, conceded Seaman, whose many books include the landmark "Doctors' Case Against the Pill" (Peter Wydon, 1969), even within the pro-abortion community Lader is not universally adored.

"Larry is not PC," she said. "He doesn't follow whatever the Establishment line of the pro-choice movement is at the moment. And I think he's an embarrassment to some people in the movement because he's so uncompromising. Where other groups have compromised politically, he's too pure."

Lader's Manhattan office became a central depot on the underground railroad of abortion. Women found Lader by word-of-mouth, and he in turn referred them to physicians, such as "the amazing doctor who was quite well-known in a small Southern town. He said he would do what he could, but said if too many women started flying into the little airfield near him, people would get suspicious. So he said he could do probably 10 abortions a week."

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Eventually, until Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal in 1973, Lader made more than 2,000 referrals for women seeking to end pregnancies. "Sure it was illegal," he said, and shrugged.

It was also lonely. Radical feminism and abortion were not the preferred topics of discussion for all the fellows at the Century Club. But as Susan Reverby, director of women's studies at Wellesley College, pointed out, "There have always been a couple of guys, like Larry Lader, who have basically put their lives in this. They are men who are always controversial, often difficult and occasionally isolated from their own professional communities."

True enough, said Lader: Beyond a handful of doctors, academics and theologians who studied abortion--but who neither took nor advocated political action, "I was alone." Another shrug. "I guess I didn't think about it very much."

NARAL, then known as the National Assn. for Repeal of Abortion Laws, was launched in 1969 on a budget of $3,500. Its political influence soared with the years, as state affiliates opened around the country and NARAL grew into an important Washington lobbying presence. The organization's current president, Kate Michelman, is a widely recognized national voice for abortion rights.

In 1976, for reasons no one chooses to discuss, Lader and NARAL parted company. The group Lader formed on his own, ARM (Abortion Rights Mobilization), lacks NARAL's membership clout. But as evidence of its sincerity, ARM recently brought a $700-million class-action anti-terrorism lawsuit against a collection of groups and individuals who have targeted clinics and abortion providers with harassment.

As president of ARM, Lader has lately concentrated on his crusade to produce an American-made duplicate of RU 486, which prevents implantation of an embryo by blocking progesterone production. "A Private Matter" documents how Lader worked with chemists in New York to synthesize the drug and recounts how controlled tests were conducted in three locations.

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