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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes the compass shifts, and life takes a detour that lasts forever. More than 40 years ago, Lawrence Lader moved from hotshot magazine writer to reproductive rights activist. He became a quiet pillar of an often noisy movement, little known outside the pro-choice community and not always widely recognized within it.

Betty Friedan, self-described "mother of the women's movement," once labeled Lader "the father of abortion rights." But at the Washington headquarters of the National Abortion Rights Action League--founded in Lader's living room--a staff member recently confessed that while she had "heard his name," she wouldn't recognize Lader if she shared an elevator with him.

To Lader, this lapse of institutional and/or individual memory is utterly untroubling. He has just written a new book, wryly titled "A Private Matter" (Prometheus Books), about the quite public effort to make non-surgical abortion available to American women. He has spearheaded--and helped to fund from a comfortable but far from enormous family income--a drive to synthesize the French drug RU 486, which induces abortion in the first nine weeks of pregnancy.

Roussel, its European manufacturer, has balked at marketing RU 486 in a country where abortion is a strident, often violent subject. A growing conservative climate "spurs us to move at great speed," Lader said, explaining that the secretly manufactured U.S. duplicate of RU 486 is expected to become available early next year.

In the musty parlor of the Harvard Faculty Club, the 76-year-old Lader (class of '41) looked like so many of the crimson-blooded warhorses who gather here to contemplate matters of cosmic consequence. Active in the prestigious Century and Lotos clubs in New York, Lader is no less genteel than his cohorts. His wife, Joan Summers Lader, is a singer who specializes in the music of Scotland; their daughter, Wendy, is an attorney. Lader is gray-haired and wears the crumpled suits that brand him as a gentleman of an earlier era. But somehow he seems more impatient. Asked if he thought of himself as godfather to a movement, he fairly snapped--albeit politely--"I don't have time to romanticize."

That is only one of the incongruities that surround him.

"Here he is in his 70s, and he still loves to do radical actions and illegal things," said Barbara Seaman, a well-known writer in the field of women's health and a longtime Lader acquaintance.

And here he is, soldiering in an intensely public battlefield, yet zealously guarding his own private life.

"He and I--we've known each other since at least 1946," said Sey Chassler, a consulting editor at Parade magazine who is also vice president of the Child Care Action Campaign. "I'm certain we have always talked at least several times a year, and in recent years, even once a month. And I know very little about him. I know he plays tennis and he smokes too much. And I know I have great admiration for him, and I like him very much."

Lader was born in New York City and raised in the kind of intellectual and material environment that made a Harvard education an assumption. His World War II dispatches from the Pacific ran in the New Yorker, and he went on to become a contributing editor for Esquire. His articles appeared in Look, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, American Heritage and Reader's Digest, among other publications.

But like many writers facing middle age, Lader chafed at the journalistic smorgasbord. Longing for a meatier endeavor, he decided to write a book. He chose biography as the surest route to credibility. Haunting the library in search of a subject, he finally settled on the name of Margaret Sanger.

Lader spent the next three years "practically living with" the founder of this country's family planning movement. Sanger was so charismatic, so convincing that Lader dropped all pretenses of journalistic objectivity. "I considered myself her disciple," he said.

It was not a difficult conversion. Feminism was not yet a word. "But even in my brief first marriage, to a Vassar girl, my wife kept her own name at work, had her own bank account, had her name on our mailbox, all the things that women fought for later, and we thought nothing of them." They parted amicably and childless.

Under Sanger's influence, Lader came to champion the notion that "a woman had to be able to control her own fertility." He also observed Sanger's strong opposition to abortion, "seeing the horrors of the women on the Lower East Side, with $5 in their hands, submitting themselves to butchers." To Sanger, "Birth control was a solution to abortion," Lader realized.

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.

Describing this effort, Lader's voice takes on an imperative tone. Roussel, the French company that introduced RU 486 in 1980, "wanted no part of the U.S. market," Lader explained. "They don't want bombs, or violence or U.S. politics." Roussel gave the U.S. patent for its drug to the nonprofit Population Council, which is currently analyzing data from its own clinical trials. Spokeswoman Kim Schillace said that while details remain unclear on how an RU 486-like drug might be marketed and manufactured here, the Population Council hopes to obtain FDA approval by late 1996.

Meanwhile, Lader said, "We're trying to get things moving." His scientists have found a "top manufacturer" willing to produce the cloned RU 486 drug at a still-secret location. "We can't give a hint who the manufacturer is, or whether it's in the United States or elsewhere because we're worried about bombs [from groups opposed to abortion]," Lader said. He added that his scientists have met with FDA officials and expect few obstacles to approval.

But even if his plan does succeed, some challenges still baffle Lawrence Lader.

"I'm 76, isn't that ridiculous?" he asked with a smile that easily erased a decade or so. "I think I can lick the abortion thing. But how to age gracefully, that's another problem."

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