On the Front Lines for Women

Former NARAL head Kate Michelman writes of seeking an abortion when it was illegal,
Former NARAL head Kate Michelman writes of seeking an abortion when it was illegal, "because it is so common." (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

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By Ceci Connolly
Monday, February 27, 2006

With Liberty and Justice for All:

A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose

Kate Miche lman

Hudson Street Press, 278 pages

Kate Michelman and her dust jacket writers promise a great deal in her autobiographical account, "With Liberty and Justice for All."

The book, we are told, "is a wake-up call to American women to defend their freedom" in what the former president of the National Abortion Rights Action League warns is our "hour of greatest danger." It is the tale of "one woman's choice" to seek an abortion when the medical procedure was still illegal. And it is a book about -- cue the patriotic music -- "liberty and justice for all."

That's a lot for a first-time author to bite off; maybe too much.

Michelman's life story from abandoned, pregnant housewife to feminist leader is inspiring. Her account of this nation's 30-year struggle with the gut-wrenching issue of abortion is thorough, providing a front-row view of the movement's successes and setbacks. Yet one of the most difficult choices for a writer is deciding what to leave out, and rather than choose, Michelman delivers a little bit of everything.

The opening pages are chilling. A twenty-something, unemployed mother of three is being interrogated by a panel of men in suits. She must convince the four strangers she is an unfit mother -- so unbalanced that they should grant her request to terminate her fourth pregnancy.

Even knowing the outcome of the meeting and much of what is to follow over the next 35 years, the scene shocks. It is almost unimaginable to envision this savvy Washington powerhouse as the desperate young woman who swallows a bottle of sleeping pills and begs the husband who has deserted her to sign a permission slip for an abortion.

Out of her own painful experience -- which briefly put Michelman and her three young girls on welfare -- she found her calling. In short order, Michelman moved from running a Pennsylvania day-care center to taking over what is now called NARAL: Pro-Choice America, which emerged under her leadership as a force in American politics.

Few people have lived as rich a life as Michelman. Now 63, she has marched for civil rights, addressed the Democratic National Convention and testified against the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas. In early 2000, she infuriated ally Bill Bradley and tossed tradition aside with the decision to bestow NARAL's endorsement on Al Gore before the New Hampshire Democratic primary. She counts among her friends former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright, several senators and former president Bill Clinton.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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