Merle Hoffman

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Merle Hoffman
Merle Hoffman, photo by Vanessa Valenti
Born (1946-03-06) March 6, 1946 (age 70)
Known for Publishing On the Issues magazine

Merle Hoffman (born March 6, 1946) is an American journalist, activist, and healthcare pioneer.

Described by Blanche Wiesen Cook as someone who "never turned away from the harshest battles or denied the most painful truths," Hoffman has played a key role in defining and defending women’s human and reproductive rights for over four decades. In 1971, two years prior to the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationally (Roe v. Wade), Hoffman helped to found[1] one of America's first ambulatory abortion centers — the Flushing Women's Medical Center (since renamed "Choices").[2] She is also the co-founder of the National Abortion Federation (1976)[3] and founder of the New York Pro-Choice Coalition (1985). In addition to continuing to serve as the CEO of Choices, now one of the nation's largest women’s medical facilities, Hoffman is the publisher of On the Issues magazine,[4] an online feminist magazine.

Early influences[edit]

Merle Hoffman was born in Philadelphia and raised in New York City. Initially intent on becoming a concert pianist, she attended the High School of Music and Art (grad. 1964) and graduated from Chatham Square Music School. After living and studying music in Paris, Hoffman returned to the states and graduated from Queens College, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude (1972). She attended the Social Psychology Doctoral Program at the City University of New York Graduate Center from 1972-1975.

Hoffman was first exposed to "real activism"[5] at Queens College in the late 60s and early 70s. There she attended a reading by the writer Anaïs Nin and later a lecture by Florynce Kennedy, who spoke about lesbianism and abortion, and delivered the now- famous slogan "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." Hoffman's first exposure to abortion was at the age of ten, when she overheard her parents discussing a Philadelphia physician whose patient had died during an illegal procedure. To cover for himself, he cut her up in pieces and put her remains down the drain.[6]


Healthcare "firsts" and innovations[edit]

Hoffman began helping to run Flushing Women’s Medical Center (now Choices) in the borough of Queens in NYC in the spring of 1971, two years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide. Hoffman considered many standard medical practices of the day sexist, invasive, and paternalistic. In response, she developed many of the patient-centered tenets and practices that have since become standards of female and feminist healthcare, and implemented them at Flushing Women’s.[7] Hoffman’s theory of "Patient Power"[8] led to such now-standard practices as having another staff member in the room with the doctor and patient at all times,[9] having other women counselors rather than doctors provide emotional support and answer patients’ questions during abortions,[10] and using patients’ abortion-based clinic visits as an opportunity to provide sexual health education as well as counseling on birth control options.[11] Hoffman was also among the first to urge women to question their doctor about everything from their training and background to the reason for prescribing certain medications.

In late 1974, Hoffman was the initiator and moderator for New York City’s first Women's Health Forum,[12] with speakers including Barbara Ehrenreich and Congresswoman Bella Abzug.

In 1975, Hoffman helped to introduce the first outpatient facility that allowed women with breast cancer to determine their treatment options with a trained counselor. Previously, doctors have simply removed the breast of any woman whose biopsy came back positive, while she was still anesthetized and before she had the opportunity to learn about her options or make decisions.[13]

In 1977, Hoffman helped to convince congress to pass legislation requiring the accurate labeling of over-the-counter birth control.[14] In 1994, Hoffman worked with Russian hospitals and doctors to develop CHOICES East, the first feminist outpatient medical center in Russia,[15] and organized Russian feminists to deliver an open letter to Boris Yeltsin on the state of women's health care.[16]

Clinic defense and counter protests against Operation Rescue and other pro-life groups[edit]

Hoffman was an early, outspoken critic of Operation Rescue, the pro-life organization dedicated to ending legal access to abortion by blockading clinics. When, in spring of 1988, Operation Rescue announced it would shut down abortion services in New York City for a week, the New York Pro-Choice Coalition that Hoffman had founded three years earlier responded by rebranding those days as "Reproductive Freedom Week," organizing a counter protest that drew 1,300 activists and supporters,[17] and dispatching supporters to ensure that every clinic or doctor's offices Operation Rescue targeted remained open.[18][19][20]

In 1989 Hoffman protested Cardinal John O'Connor's support of Operation Rescue, which she deemed "Violent to women," by organizing the first pro-choice civil disobedience action at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Nine pro-choice protestors were arrested, among 200.[21]

Honors & Awards[edit]

Hoffman was honored for her work by former NYC Mayor Ed Koch and the Department of Corrections of New York City (July 10, 1984); the NYC Chapter of National Organization for Women (NOW), Women of Vision Award, May 16, 1988; Friends of Animals/Eco-Visions Conference Award (May 16, 1988); National Victim's Center and National Crime Victims’ Rights Week Coalition, April 23, 1995; the Congress of Racial Equality (March 29, 1977), the Veteran Feminists of America, and others.

Hoffman's writing has appeared in numerous publications and journals including the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology[22] and the Journal of the American Medical Women's Association.[23] Hoffman also published two studies in the 80s that documented how poverty leads many women to choose abortions and another that showed nearly half the women seeking abortion at CHOICES would pursue one illegally if Roe v. Wade were repealed.[24] In 1990, she published an editorial in the Amsterdam News in response to the Central Park jogger rape case.[25] She was awarded the Front Page Award in 2010 from the Newswomen's Club of New York for her article "Selecting the Same Sex" published in On The Issues.[26]

When Operation Rescue announced it would shut down abortion services in New York City from April 30 to May 7, 1988, the NYPCC announced that week would be Reproductive Freedom Week. To kick things off, on April 29, 1988, the NYPCC organized a march for women's rights and reproductive freedom. About 1,300 activists and supporters marched from St. Patrick's Cathedral at Madison Avenue and 50th Street to the New York Right to Life Headquarters at 34th Street and 6th Avenue[27] For the duration of Reproductive Freedom Week, the NYPCC organized clinic watches and phone trees, dispatching people to the clinics and doctor's offices Operation Rescue targeted, in an effort to keep them open.


Merle Hoffman's Archive Collection, which features the On the Issues back catalog, CHOICES documents, and thousands of pages on the Reproductive Rights movement is in the Merle Hoffman Papers Collection, 1994 to 2001, at Duke University.[28]


  1. ^ Hoffman, Merle (2012). Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom. New York: Feminist Press. pp. 53–55. ISBN 978-1-55861-751-3. 
  2. ^ "Choices Women's Medical Center History". 
  3. ^ "National Abortion Group Organized". Chicago Sun Times. Nov 13, 1976. 
  4. ^ "On The Issues Magazine". 
  5. ^ Intimate Wars. p. 51. 
  6. ^ Intimate Wars. p. 44. 
  7. ^ "Saving women's lives: a conversation with abortion rights activist Merle Hoffman.". Women's Review of Books. 21 (6). March 20, 2004. 
  8. ^ Intimate Wars. pp. 80–82. 
  9. ^ Intimate Wars. p. 76. 
  10. ^ Intimate Wars. p. 77. 
  11. ^ Intimate Wars. p. 78. 
  12. ^ "First Women's Health Forum". International Journal of Health Services. 5 (2): 217–223. 1975. doi:10.2190/5xun-vx3h-kmwm-f17m. 
  13. ^ Intimate Wars. pp. 101–102. 
  14. ^ Hoffman, Merle (August 29, 1982). "Birth Control - The Last Market that Needs Misleading Ads". Los Angeles Times. 
  15. ^ Mintzer, Laurie Sue (October 31, 1992). "Plans for Western Abortion Clinic Raises New Questions". Moscow Guardian. 
  16. ^ Moscow Times. October 13, 1992.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  17. ^ "Refuse and Resist". 
  18. ^ Solomon, Alisa (May 3, 1988). "Dubious Rescue, Anti Choice Militants Strike NY". Village Voice, NYC. 
  19. ^ "Taking A Stand on Abortion". NY Daily News. April 30, 1988. 
  20. ^ "Observations in the Wake of "Operation Rescue," The Stakes at the Clinic Door". Revolutionary Worker. May 23, 1988. 
  21. ^ Krulwich, Sara (April 3, 1989). "400 Protest an Anti-Abortion Group". The New York Times. 
  22. ^ Hoffman, Merle (October 15, 1982). "Russian Roulette, The Woman's Version". American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 144 (4): 486. 
  23. ^ Hoffman, Merle (November–December 1985). "Feminism, power, politics, abortion". Journal of the American Medical Women's Association. 40 (6): 186–187. 
  24. ^ Schaer, Sidney C. (November 16, 1982). "Life Watch Column". Long Island Newsday. 
  25. ^ Hoffman, Merle (August 25, 1990). "A Question of Honor?". Amsterdam News. 
  26. ^ "Newswomen's Club of New York". 
  27. ^ "The Battle to Defend Abortion Clinics: Organizing Against Operation Rescue". New York Pro Choice Coalition. May 1988. 
  28. ^ "Merle Hoffman Papers". Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.