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Fran Avallone, 66; Abortion Rights Activist Founded, Directed N.J. Advocacy Group

December 20, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Fran Avallone, the founder and longtime director of New Jersey Right to Choose who became a nationally recognized spokeswoman for abortion rights, has died. She was 66.

Avallone died Dec. 10 in her Los Angeles home of lung cancer, her family said.

The widow of the late novelist Michael Avallone, the former Frances Janet Weinstein established herself as a civic and political worker in Old Bridge, N.J., where the couple made their home from 1963 to 1995. Her husband died in 1999.

The Brooklyn-born Avallone helped establish a local Old Bridge library and served as its treasurer in the late 1960s.

But she became far better known for New Jersey Right to Choose, a group supporting legal abortion that she started in 1975 with $200 and an outdated mailing list. As director of the group for almost 20 years, she built it into a 7,000-member organization. She also headed Choice New Jersey, an alliance of 30 groups that advocate abortion rights.

She spearheaded the establishment of an annual full-page advertisement in the New York Times marking the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

In 1987, the nationwide Giraffe Project honored her as a person who stuck her neck out to benefit the common good.

Avallone led litigation that resulted in a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in 1982 allowing state Medicaid money to be used to pay for abortions for poor women. The decision overturned a state law passed in 1975 barring Medicaid funding for all abortions, except when a woman's life was in danger. Abortion has remained a major issue in New Jersey state politics for decades.

"Aren't poor people entitled to the same medical care?" she asked during the litigation. "If Medicaid pays for childbirth, then why not abortion?"

After moving to Los Angeles to be near her children, Avallone continued to speak out for sex education for youths and better understanding from parents. She also worked against legislation requiring parental consent for abortions given to teenagers.

"I spent the last 20 years speaking about sexuality and abortion in New Jersey high school health classes, and I very rarely met a teenager, male or female, who could comfortably talk to a parent about sex," she said in a letter to the editor of The Times published in 1996.

Her activism was fueled by personal experience. She suffered a miscarriage at age 26, delivering the fetus stillborn at a Brooklyn hospital. Restrictive abortion laws made the experience worse.

"I had to lay there with a fetus on the bed under me for an hour while the Board of Health came to certify I did not abort it," she told the Bergen (N.J.) Record in 1989. "Things like that stay with me."

Another incident that motivated her, she said, occurred when an epileptic and retarded cousin was denied legal clearance for an abortion and was forced to deliver a severely retarded child.

Avallone contributed an article on parental consent and notification laws to the 1992 college text "Taking Sides," and edited the 1978 book "On Tap Dancing" by dancer Paul Draper.

She is survived by her daughter, Susan; son, David, and stepson, Stephen, of Los Angeles; and her father, Pincus Weinstein, and a sister, Arlene Gerber, both of Florida.

The family has asked that memorial contributions be sent to Right to Choose, P.O. Box 65, Lincroft, N.J. 07738.

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