Lawrence Lader, 86; Activist for Abortion Rights Whose Book Was Cited in Roe Case

Times Staff Writer

In the abortion rights movement, Lawrence Lader was a standout -- and not just because he was a man in a feminist’s world.

He wrote a groundbreaking 1966 book, “Abortion,” that the U.S. Supreme Court cited eight times in Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that gave women the right to end a pregnancy.

He helped found the leading abortion rights organization -- now called NARAL Pro-Choice America -- and became the movement’s first male spokesperson.


He devised attention-getting tactics, including risking arrest to bring RU-486, the controversial abortion pill manufactured in Europe, into this country.

He also sued the Catholic Church, alleging that it had violated tax-exemption laws by supporting political candidates with antiabortion stands. He lost that fight, but not without earning headlines that helped focus public attention on the cause that consumed his life.

“Larry was an innovator ... and he didn’t take no for an answer. He kept thinking and would go to the next step. That was very, very important,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Called the father of the abortion rights movement by Betty Friedan -- and less flattering names, such as “abortion’s chief propagandist,” by antiabortion groups -- Lader died May 7 of colon cancer in New York City. He was 86.

He came from an old New York family that he said would have been mortified by his radical path.

Born in New York City in 1919, he was the son of a businessman whose family owned a company that made food additives. He went to Harvard University, where he discovered Karl Marx and dated a woman with ideas considered extreme for the times.


After they were married in 1942, Jean MacInnis kept her maiden name and a separate bank account. “It was established between us that her personhood was independent, and she was guaranteed all social and legal rights,” Lader wrote in “Ideas Triumphant, Strategies for Social Change and Progress,” published in 2003. They divorced in 1946.

Lader met Friedan, a Smith College student, through MacInnis’ circle of progressive friends. Friedan would change the world with her 1963 bestseller “The Feminine Mystique.” Soon after that, she would join Lader in founding the National Assn. for the Repeal of Abortion Laws; the group eventually adopted the name NARAL Pro-Choice America.

After graduating from Harvard in 1941, Lader served in World War II, working for Armed Forces Radio. His war dispatches from the Pacific theater were published in the New Yorker, which launched a successful career for a writer whose work appeared in Esquire, Look, Life, the Saturday Evening Post and other leading publications.

As he approached middle age, Lader sought a new challenge and decided to write a book. He spent hours in a library rummaging for a subject until he finally settled on Margaret Sanger, the pioneering advocate of birth control who founded Planned Parenthood.

His biography of the feminist icon was published in 1955 after three years of research that included extensive interviews with Sanger, then in her 70s. He admired her fiery commitment and said she “undoubtedly was the greatest influence on my life.”

Sanger knew little about abortion except for the horrible consequences often suffered by women who visited back-alley practitioners. Lader wanted to know more, but when he surveyed the scientific literature on abortion he was stunned at how little had been published.

“It was an issue no one discussed,” he told Body Politic magazine in 1991. “I was trying to make the jump from birth control to an abortion right that not only didn’t exist but was an underground, abhorrent topic.”

He grappled with the issue privately for years. Largely because of Sanger’s belief in “inviolable personhood,” he ultimately concluded that a woman’s body belonged to her alone and that she “controlled the fetus she was nurturing.”

That belief led him to write “Abortion,” which Friedan called “an authoritative study of the hypocrisy and absurdity of abortion practices.” Beginning with the sentence “Abortion is the dread secret of our society,” the book offered a thorough, carefully documented examination of the topic, from the underground system for obtaining the procedure to the philosophical and religious views of abortion going back to Plato’s time.

He devoted a few pages to the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold vs. Connecticut, which overturned the state’s right to outlaw birth control. Lader argued that the decision was broad enough to apply to abortion.

His discussion of the legal history of abortion was repeatedly cited in the majority opinion for Roe vs. Wade. Being footnoted in that landmark decision was, Lader later said, “one of the things I’m proudest of.”

At a news conference announcing the book’s publication, he told reporters that he had already received hundreds of queries from women who wanted to find an abortion doctor. At that moment, he decided that he could no longer only write about the matter; in the future, if women asked him for help, he would guide them to a doctor.

“I decided, in a flash of a second, ‘All right, I’ve shot my mouth off; I will become an activist,’ ” he recalled in Cynthia Gorney’s 1998 book, “Articles of Faith, a Frontline History of the Abortion Wars.”

Over several years after the book was published, Lader risked arrest by referring 2,000 women to illegal abortions. Although frequently questioned by authorities, he was never prosecuted for his actions.

In 1969, his Manhattan living room became the incubator for the group now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Lader’s insistence on repealing -- not just reforming -- abortion laws was the “seminally important thing Larry did,” said Kelli Conlin, president of the New York state chapter of NARAL Pro-Choice. “Many people in the reproductive rights movement before abortion was legalized wanted to take baby steps. They were worried about backlash.

“Larry was part of a visionary caucus that said no, we have to work for absolute repeal of the nation’s abortion laws. He proved that bold actions were the only way to get things done.”

In 1975, when his term on NARAL’s board expired, he founded Abortion Rights Mobilization. Its main mission became lifting the U.S. ban on RU-486.

His most dramatic act came in 1992, when he flew to London with a pregnant Berkeley social worker named Leona Benten to get a dozen RU-486 pills. Then he faxed letters to U.S. customs officials to alert them to his and Benten’s arrival at New York’s Kennedy International Airport.

Customs officers met their plane and confiscated the pills, igniting a blaze of publicity for the drug that Lader believed had the potential to end the abortion wars. He wrote two books on the subject: “RU-486, the Pill That Could End the Abortion Wars and Why American Women Don’t Have It” (1991) and “A Private Matter, RU-486 and the Abortion Crisis” (1995).

The Supreme Court heard Benten’s appeal but upheld the confiscation. The next year Lader decided that he and his organization would make the drug themselves. He obtained a Chinese copy of the pill and synthesized it in an American laboratory. Abortion Rights Mobilization sponsored clinical trials and gave the pill free to hundreds of women.

Lader’s efforts finally paid off in 2000, when the Food and Drug Administration approved RU-486 for sale in the U.S. Marketed under the name Mifeprex, it is prescribed for use in ending a pregnancy up to 49 days after the beginning of the most recent menstrual cycle.

He kept pressing the cause of abortion rights until his death, said his wife of 45 years, Joan Summers. He also is survived by his daughter, Wendy, of New York City.

One of Lader’s last acts was to pay for an ad in a Sioux Falls newspaper protesting South Dakota’s new law banning abortions.