Campaigner for Reproductive Choices : Profile: Susan Estrich headed the Dukakis presidential campaign. Now the USC professor's interest in reproductive health issues has evolved into pro-choice activism.


Susan Estrich never considered abortion to be her issue. Yes, she was pro-choice. And yes, she has worked on abortion cases ever since she was a law clerk. But she was so much more, well, mainstream in her interests, which usually involved national politics.

All that has changed. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Webster case last July opened the door to what Estrich, 37, believes is potential disaster. And now the woman who made news nationwide as the head of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign, says she puts major emphasis on winning the pro-choice battle.

With a resume like hers, the opposition is bound to feel heat: tenured law professor at USC, a former tenured professor of law at Harvard, first woman to head a national presidential campaign, former senior policy adviser for the Mondale-Ferraro presidential campaign, former special assistant to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), summa cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School and first woman president of the Harvard Law Review.

Her work for the pro-choice forces is "ironic," she says, because in the past year she spent a lot of time "trying to get pregnant" while also working vigorously for abortion rights. Her baby is due in three months.

In the daytime, she'd "work on briefs and legal cases whose purpose was to . . . ensure women the right to have an abortion."

Then she'd go home to her husband, Walt Disney Studios writer/producer Marty Kaplan, and use her "temperature charts and whatever else" the doctor prescribed so they could conceive a child.

The point, Estrich says, is that pregnancy is a private choice.

The decision to have a baby--or an abortion--ought to be between a woman and her husband and her doctor-- and perhaps her clergyman--but it is definitely not something in which the government ought to interfere.

The entire abortion rights issue, she says, is one of government interference in private lives. And when it is framed that way, she believes, the pro-choice position is supported by "as many as 80% of the American public." (In a Los Angeles Times poll taken in March 1989, 74% of those questioned agreed that abortion "is a decision that has to be made by every woman for herself."

But if the issue is presented as "abortion on demand," she says, the pro-choice side will lose every time. (Indeed, 57% said they oppose abortion on demand in the same Times poll.)

Estrich moved to Los Angeles last year after four years of commuting from the East Coast. "I just couldn't keep commuting," she says. "I'm having a baby. We're not in a position to move back to Cambridge right now. . . . Besides, I really like L.A."

Her interest in reproductive health issues started when she was an undergraduate at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, a state where abortions were then illegal. A number of classmates needed abortions, she recalls, so friends would collect money to help send them out of state. "Sometimes something would go wrong and somebody would hemorrhage on the bus coming back," she says.

In 1974, on her way home from graduation rehearsal, Estrich was raped by a man armed with an ice pick. She subsequently wrote a book titled "Real Rape," an attack on "the notion long held by society, that only some rapes are real."

These college experiences "made clear to me how important it is for women to have control over their bodies and to have reproductive freedom."

Estrich says she began actively working for the pro-choice forces when she realized that choice could be lost quietly, almost by default, if more people didn't participate.

"I think what happened is that pro-choice people were very apathetic. The other side was much more organized politically. They voted their positions and were very vocal and active."

Pro-choice advocates took their rights for granted, Estrich says. "We didn't like to see ourselves as single-issue people. That's sort of a dirty word. We did not vote the issue."

In fact, for a long while, the pro-choice movement was "made up very heavily of women who worked almost exclusively in feminist politics," she recalls. "There was almost a divide," she adds, between the feminist contingent and women like herself, who worked largely in elective politics, "in campaigns run . . . with men and for men. We were mainstream political women," whom the feminist politicians considered to be playing "boys' games."

Estrich continues, "All of a sudden last summer, with the Webster decision (which opened the door to individual states setting limits on abortion) large segments of the country woke up to the fact that we haven't lost our rights completely yet, but we could."

Apathy, she says, "is a luxury for people who have five votes on the Supreme Court."

Estrich, along with a colleague from Harvard and former Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan, wrote legal briefs for three abortion rights cases, two of which are now before the U.S. Supreme Court. The lawyers represented "some 300 organizations" in cases that have to do with parental consent statutes from Minnesota and Ohio, and a case on abortion clinic regulations in Illinois, which was settled by negotiation.

Estrich believes an important strategy in the pro-choice battle is "targeting," a process in which key political races are singled out and the voting public is made aware that these are crucial races where pro-life and pro-choice candidates oppose each other.

During an interview at her sunny USC office, where a coffeepot perks all day and an empty desk belies the heavy workload she juggles, the 37-year-old attorney refuses to say whether or not she's ever had an abortion.

"I consider that private," she says.

She also considers abortion to be such a profound, painful and life-altering decision that she thinks most men cannot fully comprehend it.

And this goes to the heart of another important Estrich belief: that because women have never been part of the power system, have never helped make the laws they live by, it is not surprising that they are often the victims of such a system, either by design or by accident:

"We shouldn't be surprised that the rules don't work for us, reflect our lives or encompass our needs."

To change that, more qualified people, women especially, need to run for office. But some "troubling" obstacles are in the way.

"There's a total loss of privacy in politics today, a disappearance of any line between public and private life. I agree with the effort to define public ethics more stringently. But we've gone beyond that, into personal and sexual life. And frankly, I think that's going to discourage women from going into politics."

"Pro-choice candidates all know what they'll say when asked their stand on abortion. But what is the answer when reporters ask whether the (female) candidate has ever had an abortion herself? You know that some reporter is going to ask that question. . . . If the candidate says yes, she's had an abortion, then all of a sudden she's got to explain the most intimate details of her private life."

"I mean I hope the question won't get asked, but . . . I think it will get asked of women politicians. In the same way as (Massachusetts Democratic Rep.) Barney Frank's sexual life is now an open book for anybody who cares to read or explore it. I think the disappearance of lines between public and private life will discourage good candidates of both sexes."

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