An Unorthodox ‘Everywoman’ : Leona Benten was supposed to engender sympathy in her role as banner-carrier for RU486. But she proved to have a mind, and an agenda, of her own.
If anyone had earned a perfect figurehead, it was Lawrence Lader, Steve Heilig and the Center for Reproductive Law & Policy.
One has worked for abortion rights for 30 years. One helped get organized medicine behind RU486, the “French abortion pill.” And the third, although a relatively new organization, is composed of what used to be the legal staff of the ACLU’s reproductive freedom project.
All spent years urging that RU486 be released in this country, finally deciding that a class-action lawsuit was the only way. All they needed was a woman to carry the banner, someone who would speak, persuasively, for herself “and all other similarly situated women.”
They got Leona Benten.
The 29-year-old Berkeley activist wasn’t everyone’s distressed damsel. She preferred pills because she wanted to “be fully aware and participating” in the termination of her pregnancy. She had a spider tattoo on her shoulder. She seized the chance to speak out as well against police harassment and welfare cuts, and for lesbians’ rights to raise children.
Then, to the horror of her sponsors, she refused invitations from both Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw to air the issue.
“She’s a very independent woman,” sighs Lader, founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League and author of a book on RU486. “She’s exhausted, furious, and she’s acting on whim. She’s now being a little difficult.”
The circus that has swirled around this case provides a signal lesson in the dangers of getting personal. The sponsors wanted an illuminating confrontation: They got what one paper called a “spectacle.” They wanted a little human interest: They got a real person with her own personal style.
Likable and straightforward, Benten herself is showing some confusion about her position. Having offered up the most intimate details of her private life for public use, she won’t divulge the merely personal--relationships, educational and family background, and so forth. What’s more, she’s feeling “cranky” now, telling The Times that people “don’t need to know anything about me. I do think it helps the case: They can identify with me. But I don’t think anyone has a right to know.”
Last week’s events were staged but were hardly meant to be a circus, although RU486 presents an instantly divisive issue. In essence, it induces miscarriage in women less than 8 weeks pregnant, making abortion truly a private event--the best possible arrangement to those who support abortion rights, and to anti-abortion activists, the worst.
RU486 is available in both France and Britain, where 110,000 women have successfully used it, and it has been tested in 20 countries--including the United States, where it has the backing of such Establishment groups as the American Medical Assn. But the Food and Drug Administration won’t permit the release of RU486 here because no company has filed for new drug approval , and no one has filed because they fear their other products or services will be boycotted by abortion foes.
Agitation and appeals were ineffective. A more dramatic challenge was needed. It was decided, says Lader, to act on the FDA’s rule “allowing people to bring in a small amount of an unproven drug with a doctor’s prescription.”
But this rule covers only “compassionate exemptions” for people with diseases “where there’s no known cure or effective treatment,” says FDA spokesman Gary Fendler. Abortion supporters believe that unwanted pregnancy deserves compassion. Both sides say the other is politicizing a purely scientific question.
The RU486 supporters needed to “test the ban,” as they say, but in a way that made the issue more understandable and more compelling. They needed a Jane Roe to focus the issue.
But they wanted, says Lader, to be “much more careful” than the people behind Roe vs. Wade. The real Jane Roe, Norma McCorvey, was anonymous for years and then somewhat of an embarrassment when she did surface--partly because of a rather spotty past, partly because of an unattractive desire to profit from her celebrity.
“It would have been better,” says Roe attorney Sarah Weddington now, “had we picked a more sympathetic character.”
The new Jane Roe, moreover, would be exposed from the outset. She was going abroad for the pills, equipped with passport and customs declaration. And although Benten now says she wishes she’d used a different name, she went under her own.
The nationwide search had some specific criteria: The new Jane Roe had to be under 35, a nonsmoker and less than six weeks pregnant. And she had to be “willing to put herself on the line and interested in pushing the FDA’s back against the wall,” says Linci Comy, executive director of the Women’s Choice Clinic in Oakland, where Benten originally went for an abortion.
Benten even had on-the-line experience. Although she doesn’t have a social work degree, she had a job working with the homeless at a Richmond shelter, has worked with prostitutes in an educational outreach program and has helped defend clinics from anti-abortion protests.
She was referred to Heilig, director of public health and education at the San Francisco Medical Society, who was fielding calls. “We had a number (of volunteers) on both coasts, but they dropped out,” he says. “Their families or jobs or husbands didn’t want it.”
Benten isn’t exactly Everywoman, although that’s the plaintiff’s role in a class-action suit. In her legal declaration, she says she wanted to take RU486 because an earlier abortion at a Kaiser hospital seemed “impersonal” and “alienating”: “I felt like it was being done to me, rather than by me.” Quintessentially Californian, she wanted to be in “physical and spiritual control.”
Lader was nevertheless sanguine about keeping the whole business “on a strict medical plane,” starting with the trip abroad. “We were being really, really naive,” Benten says. “(Lader) said there was a possibility the FDA would do nothing, and I’m always in denial.”
When he and Benten returned from London with the pills, U.S. Customs and the press were alerted by Lader’s group. There was a public tussle on the Tarmac at JFK. The pills were confiscated. Benten wept. And a week later, the Center for Reproductive Law & Policy filed the class-action suit, the first of its cases as an independent organization.
Thereafter, the personal angle took on a life of its own. Benten returned to Berkeley. Heilig was besieged by requests for access to her, then berated when he couldn’t deliver.
Reporters and TV people hit the Oakland women’s clinic, the homeless shelter where Benten had worked, her neighbors, even her mailman. (Everyone, including the mailman, who Benten says she hardly knows, had only praise for her.) They climbed into her yard, banged on the door, wanted a quote, a sound bite, a look to see if she had the same books on her shelf as Patricia Bowman, the accuser of William Kennedy Smith.
“I didn’t believe this story would get so big,” says Lader.
But Roe attorney Weddington is not surprised: “Part of the problem is that in this whole issue of abortion, there are only so many minutes available on national TV. . . . I wish the issue could be an issue .”
Since the airport confrontation, Benten has given few interviews. To one she wore a hat, high-tops and a dress that revealed her tattoo. She has reiterated her earlier explanation that she and the father couldn’t raise the child together because they’re “of different cultures.” She has voiced her belief in self-determination and her determination not to “nuclearize.”
And now, eight weeks pregnant, she says she is definitely planning to get a surgical abortion. At the same time, Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) has introduced a bill in Congress to get Benten the pills by the end of the week, while Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is backing it up with a bill requiring the FDA to review its stand on RU486.
No one can say what part Benten will take as the suit continues, and whether it will still draw crowds. But she says she’s “willing to push the case as far as I can,” and with all that’s happened, she “would definitely do it again.”