In the spring of 1970, while still in my 20s, I was the only woman on the executive staff of New York City’s Health Services Administration (HSA), which included the departments of Health, Hospitals, Mental Health, and Prisons. Just at this time, through the determined efforts of Assemblywoman Constance Cook, the New York State Legislature was considering a bill to repeal its century-old law criminalizing abortion. I lobbied passionately to convince HSA, and New York City’s Mayor, John Lindsay, to take a strong position in favor of repeal. But whenever I raised the subject, HSA chief Gordon Chase and his top deputy, Jim Haughton, were dismissive, telling me that the agency was busy with important matters like drug treatment and lead poisoning. Besides they told me, “only bad girls get abortions.”
After persistent, emotional arguments, I managed to convince them to give me carte blanche in drafting our statements. From Jean Pakter, the long-time head of the Health Department’s division of maternal services, I gathered statistics showing tremendous abortion-related mortality throughout the city; I included these in the statement I wrote for the Mayor, sending it through the Mayor’s assistant, Ronnie Eldridge. Thus a women’s network helped to disseminate this vital information. I drafted another “Memorandum in Support” of the repeal bill on behalf of HSA that went to all state legislators.
After a bitter debate, on April 9, 1970, the bill passed by a single vote, and with it New York changed history. It became the first state to provide abortions-on-demand to pregnant women with few restrictions: there was no residency requirement and women could receive abortions through their second trimester. The law went into effect on July 1, 1970. That day, I visited municipal hospitals to test their responses. My July 1 memo to Gordon Chase, et. al. (as Joyce de Terra) reports the difficulty I experienced as a supposedly pregnant “uppity” woman in getting a referral at Fordham Hospital. Most of the system’s kinks were eventually ironed out.
New York became a virtual abortion mecca, providing abortions for hundreds of thousands of women every year, many from out of state. When the Supreme Court was considering whether to hear the case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, New York’s experience in providing safe and legal abortions served as an important precedent. By that time, I had left government to begin graduate studies in history; my first published article was on the “campaign for a safe maternity.”
Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University, where she teaches in the American Studies Department. She is the author of The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America and the editor of America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers and Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture. Professor Antler is a founding member of the board of the Jewish Women’s Archive and chairs its Academic Advisory Council.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Joyce Antler." (Viewed on August 1, 2014) <http://jwa.org/feminism/antler-joyce>.