Kate Michelman, The Public Face Of a Woman's Right to Privacy

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

Kate Michelman is the face of reproductive rights. It's a thin face with high cheekbones, dark eyes that can light up and a mouth with a corner that upturns at comic moments.

For a generation, Michelman, 63, has been at the forefront of one of this country's thorniest debates. She was president of NARAL Pro-Choice America from 1985 to 2004. She is scheduled to testify this week in opposition to the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. And she has written a new book, "With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose."

Last night several hundred friends and well-wishers showed up at the Woman's National Democratic Club near Dupont Circle for cheese, wine and a celebration Michelman's book and her mission. Guests included former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.).

"One reason I wrote this book," Michelman told the crowd, "was to hopefully inspire young women and men."

Michelman's interest in abortion rights is personal. In the late 1960s she was a Pennsylvania homemaker, married to a college professor. She had put her career in early childhood development on hold to start a family.

"I had married my childhood sweetheart at age twenty," she writes. "I was a practicing Catholic who accepted the Church's teaching that birth control was a sin. Like many other Catholic wives, I practiced the 'natural' means of contraception -- the rhythm method -- and believed the claim that breast-feeding prevented pregnancy. I exploded every myth. We had three daughters in three years."

In 1969 her husband walked out on her. Several weeks later, she learned she was pregnant. She was desperate. She felt she could not have a fourth child while trying to raise the other three single-handedly. She attempted suicide. Then she decided to get an abortion. She needed her husband's permission and the approval of the hospital's all-male review board. She received both.

The abandonment and the circumstances surrounding her abortion were the low points of her life, she said. Eventually she went to work, remarried and became the political force that now wants to take her zealousness for privacy rights beyond the women's movement.

Before the soiree she drank a little celebratory champagne with her youngest daughter, Anya, and talked about the single issue that has driven her.

The Alito hearing, she said, triggers memories of the Robert Bork confirmation hearings in 1987. Michelman was scheduled to testify then, too. But she and leaders of other advocacy groups decided that Bork was going to cook his own goose, so she decided not to speak.

She is also reminded of the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991. She did testify then. Like Alito, Michelman said, "Thomas also said he was open-minded" on the landmark abortion-rights case, Roe v. Wade .

But he has tried at every opportunity to overturn that decision, she said.

When she talked of hard things, her soft voice hardened.

Now at a life juncture, Michelman is plotting her next steps. She wants to be a spokeswoman for personal rights who "is not constrained by organizational restraints or party politics."

She hopes to "expand people's understanding of what it means to be pro-choice. And it doesn't mean to be pro-abortion."

She said the right to privacy is a fundamental American value whether it involves a woman's body or governmental wiretapping.

She said she has always been a serious person. As a teenager in Ohio, she listened to news and Senate hearings on a shortwave radio. Her idea of fun, she said, was organizing a Christmas tree sale to benefit Mexican farmworkers in her community.

Asked how she relaxes, she sat forward on the edge of her seat. "I don't!"

But she likes to make food from scratch. "I love cooking, love doing things very authentically."

Ideally, she would like to live in medieval fashion, without many modern conveniences. "I love washing dishes."

And she:

Reads a lot. She has been enjoying a novel by Ian McEwan and a book about the Constitution. "I read every word in every paragraph," she said.

Sleeps little. "If I get two or three hours a night I am lucky," she said.

Exercises every day. "I am disciplined."

She is not that attuned to popular culture, daughter Anya says. But Michelman is hooked on "24," the warp-speed, torture-laden thriller Fox series. And she has seen "The Lord of the Rings" several times.

Personality tests, she said, always told her what she already knew. She is an introvert. Her personal story, she said, pushed her into prominence. Still, it was only after she had been president of NARAL for a few years that she went public with her own abortion story.

Introducing Michelman, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, encouraged everyone to buy lots of copies. "We want her book on the bestseller list."

She and others testified to Michelman's energy and focus.

Albright told everyone that Michelman had provided "a voice for those who didn't have a voice and a brain for those who didn't have a brain."

She said Michelman kept the women's movement motivated and that the timing of her book with the Alito hearings was fortunate.

Fred Michelman said living with Kate was "like riding a tiger."

As for the face of the abortion rights movement, her husband of almost 34 years smiled and said, "It's a face I know so well."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company