Leading from the Front: Kate Michelman Talks with Frances Kissling

Spring 2004

As Kate Michelman steps down from the leadership of NARAL Pro-Choice America, she spoke with Frances Kissling, executive editor of Conscience, about the March for Women’s Lives, leadership, the impact NARAL has had on reproductive rights and what’s next, both for her and the movement.

Frances Kissling: Let’s talk about the March for Women’s Lives. It was your brainchild.

Kate Michelman: I know I was not the only one who thought about it, but I felt strongly it was time for a very serious and public demonstration of support for the right to choose, as a fundamental American value and right. I first approached Ellie Smeal [president of the Feminist Majority Foundation] a year ago with the fact that it was time for a march. Marches have played a significant role in changing the course of history, for women, for African-Americans, for the cause of peace. I don’t think marches should be taken on lightly. But I believe that at certain periods of time they are absolutely the right vehicle to express our views and this is such a time.

FK: Why now?

KM: People don’t know the extent of the threat to reproductive rights. They don’t believe we’ll lose the right to choose. They don’t know how restricted freedom of choice is now. And we need a vehicle to educate and mobilize and organize. A march gives us that vehicle. While the march is not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end.

Secondly, the antichoice movement has all the megaphones. They control both Houses of Congress, the White House and many state legislatures. Given the extraordinary assault by the administration on women’s reproductive rights, both internationally and domestically, we need to do something very significant. So, the time and conditions were right and the threat grave enough. Also, it’s a way for us to mobilize at the grassroots, to be on campuses and to grab the attention of younger people. Coming to Washington, in historic numbers, will be a powerful, powerful, catalyst for prochoice activism.

FK: It’s very important as a way of drawing the community together.

KM: Absolutely. Organizing the march has encouraged a re-commitment to protect women’s reproductive freedoms. I travel a lot, and I’ve heard more and more over the past two years or so, women and men, but women in particular, asking, “What are we going to do? We need to do some thing.” People are frustrated and need a collective expression of their commitment to the right to choose. Now, they’re organizing their families, their friends, their communities and they feel like they are making a difference.

The march is giving expression to that concept of speaking truth to power.

Inside the President’s Office

What’s your least favorite word?

I don’t like hard words. But I don’t know what my least favorite word is to be honest.

What’s your favorite sound?

I really like choral music, music like the Miserere. It’s transcendent. I give it to expectant mothers as a gift and I suggest they play it before the baby is born, and the minute the baby is born, they sit with their infant and watch the baby respond to the music. It is extraordinary to watch the response.

What is your least favorite sound?

I don’t like to hear screaming.

What’s your favorite curse word? Do you ever curse?

Pissed off. Is that a curse word? That’s one I use.

What profession would you like to be if you weren’t doing what you do?

Archaeology. I love ancient cultures and I love the process of uncovering them.

What profession would you never want to be?

I would not want to be a doctor. Or a prison guard.

What’s your favorite movie?

Oh boy, I have lots of favorite movies. I love 84 Charing Cross Road. I used to work in a rare books room and I really do love old books. I love the smell of them. I love their history and to think about where they have been. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all time favorite movies. And I loved The Fellowship of the Ring, all of the Lord of the Ringsmovies.

Were you a fan of the books?

I loved the Tolkien books. I read them twice. And I love Gabriel García Marquez. My favorite book is One Hundred Years of Solitude.

What do you do for pure fun?

For pure fun I love to hike. I love to walk in the countryside, in beautiful countryside.

Do you feel that you have had an impact on the world in a positive way?

I have a desire and a drive to make change happen, to make things better. It sounds trite when I say that, but I have felt that way since I was a little child. I feel I have made a difference in the world. I do feel I have contributed positively to some degree.

When you die and arrive at the pearly gates, what would you like God to say to you?

That I was a good person.


FK: Progressive people have felt extremely disheartened, and not just on the abortion issue…but the climate seems to have changed.

KM: I agree! People seem to feel that change is possible, certainly as regards the presidency, and the march has become a focal point for many people who share a progressive ideology, those who believe that the country is going in the wrong direction on many issues, not just reproductive rights, but on civil liberties and the environment as well.

FK: It’s important also in the context of the recent debate over whether support for abortion is declining.

KM: On the surface, we have seen a change in public opinion, not on the basic question of who should decide—women or government—but in more support for restrictions on a woman’s right to choose abortion. There are many reasons why that’s happened. Ironically, the more secure people feel about the right to choose, the more open they become to tinkering at the edges of that right. This is especially the case because the antiabortion lobby has dominated the debate. But when you strip all the rhetoric away, and begin to delve deeper into the attitudes of the American public, there remains a strong view that Americans have a right to privacy and that women should and do have a right to make decisions about childbearing, pregnancy and abortion. There is a line Americans draw. They are adamant that the government’s role is not to second guess our personal decisions, not to be involved in our personal lives. It does upset many Americans that President Bush became the first president ever in our nation’s history to sign a federal ban on abortion. Our latest poll was astonishing. Eighty percent supported a right to personal privacy and a woman’s right to choose—and that included some who described themselves as “pro-life.”

FK: Over the years people have confused what it means to be prochoice and “pro-life.”

KM: I don’t think I’d go so far as to say it has been a failing of the movement, but it’s certainly a challenge for us. We must articulate clearly and effectively what it means to be prochoice and create a better public understanding of the value and personal relevancy of choice. And we must do so in a way that recognizes, allows for and respects personal religious, moral and ethical differences on the issues. The more you communicate the values and principles underlying the prochoice position, the more people identify as prochoice. The march will demonstrate, through the power of collective expression, that being prochoice is a mainstream American value. It will be a new beginning, I hope, and a starting point for the next generation of work.

FK: We do go through the same cycle over and over and over again. Different manifestations, different issues. Whether it’s a federal ban on abortion in 2004, Medicaid funding in 1976, parental involvement, stem cell research, we come up against the same issues. Can we define the consistent central dilemma? And can it be resolved?

KM: It seems to me the dilemma is the same: the balance between rights and responsibilities. And while new issues emerge, the rhetoric remains essentially the same. We often think we need new messages, but we know that the central question in the abortion debate is “who decides—government and politicians or women?”

I do believe questions concerning what is a human life have become more complex and tend to capture our attention whatever the specific issue may be.

FK: Isn’t part of our problem as a movement that people don’t know the complexity of decisions that a prochoice person goes through in relation to the question of life? Don’t you want sometimes to scream from the rooftops, “I am a pro-life person”?

KM: Absolutely. I believe we have allowed ourselves, perhaps, to be intimidated about talking about what is a human life. I do sometimes give voice to my own personal experience when I had to consider the value I placed on the developing life within me. That was when I was deciding —as a Catholic woman—about whether or not to have an abortion. I say Catholic deliberately because I was raised a strong Catholic. I believe in living the values of the Catholic church. And, in many ways, I still do. However, as a very young woman, confronting an unplanned pregnancy, I had to weigh the moral responsibilities I had to the developing life inside me with the moral responsibilities I had to my three little children, after I was abandoned by my husband. I struggled with my decision. Not all women do, nor should we insist that they do, but I did.

There is more to human life than the biological ability to reproduce. This is a fact that I came to grips with when I was deciding whether or not to have an abortion. The fact that I could physically reproduce didn’t mean there was an imperative for me to have a child. As humans we have the capacity for moral reasoning and possess free will. We can bring that reasoning and will to bear on bringing life into the world and accepting the moral responsibilities of ensuring the best for that life. The very fact that I can physically conceive and bear a child doesn’t mean that it’s right for me to do so in every circumstance. I am not rationalizing my decision to have an abortion after the fact. I went through a decision-making process that was in many ways informed by my upbringing as a Catholic. I know that terminating a pregnancy means terminating a potential life. There’s no question about that. As a young Catholic woman I believed strongly in the teachings of the church that to use birth control was a sin, let alone to have an abortion. But the realities of my life informed me differently.

FK: Naomi Wolf claimed that we don’t acknowledge that women go through great angst about the abortion decision, because we think that it would weaken our movement. But we don’t need to wear every moral dilemma on our sleeve or submit ourselves to public scrutiny. The reality is that you faced what most women face, which is an anti-life, antichoice world. All of the emphasis is on the woman and the woman’s moral responsibility to have children. There’s no emphasis on the social responsibility to look after those children.

KM: I am frustrated that our national discussion focuses solely on the morality of abortion and does not address the morality of childbearing, the morality of parenting or the moral responsibilities of society to ensure adequate conditions for life.

FK: Just as no woman should have an unwanted pregnancy, no woman should need to have an unwanted abortion.

KM: You’re right. Society should aim for wanted pregnancies. Pregnancy should be a deliberate decision—an informed and deliberate decision—which is supported by both the community and the state.

FK: You have developed into a major leader on the issue of reproductive rights and abortion, and a leader of women. Lots of things have happened in the 19 years you have led naral Pro-Choice America. You’ve changed enormously as a person, you had certain innate talents and wisdom, but you’ve become stronger, wiser, more skilled at being a leader. What does leadership mean to you now? What are the qualities of leadership? What would you say to a younger person who is moving up towards leadership?

KM: The other day a woman at a reception said, “I’m so honored to meet you. You have been such a role model for me since I was in law school 15 years ago.” I have to admit that I am always a little surprised when I hear that. I don’t view myself through that lens. It’s not that I don’t recognize I have a leadership role and that I’ve been in the public eye and that I’ve had some successes. I view myself the way I always viewed myself. I am just dedicated to change and a hard-working person. But I am grateful that I’ve been in a role where I have been able to influence and inspire people to action.

I’m very much at heart an organizer. I started young. I organized my kindergarten to stand against a rule of the nuns—I was suspended for three days!

In terms of leadership itself, it is very important—though I think the phrase is really overused—to have your own sense of direction. To have a vision, a strategic one, to be clear about what you value and what your motivations are. I’m an organization person. I fundamentally love putting together the ingredients to make something happen.

FK: And you’re a good cook too.

KM: I love to cook. I do. It’s a very interesting analogy. I do think there are certain qualities that are reflective of our abilities to take a set of ingredients, to have a vision of where we want to go, whether it’s preparing a meal or leading an organization to achieve a goal. You have to understand where you want to go, what you want to create, you have to understand the ingredients you need. You have to be able to inspire the people who are going to help you achieve that vision, because we can’t do this on our own. I do believe, however, that leaders are catalysts and our own ability to inspire others to achieve things they might have never even thought they could achieve, and create the conditions for people to be able to go beyond what they ever thought they could is vital.

FK: It’s a lot of hard work. What price did you pay?

KM: It is a lot of work. You have to inspire others to join you in your effort to raise money, build a board and a staff. It takes an extraordinary set of strengths. It’s hard work. It’s lonely, often very lonely. You have so many constituents. You have to be attentive to so many people, from our staff and our boards to the media and the grassroots and to political figures. But I do operate on a fundamental belief system that we live in a democracy that’s a bottom-up one, not top-down. And that it is only through an active, alert, vigilant citizenry that we protect the rights inherent in our democracy.

FK: Leadership is also about learning from mistakes, and making strategic changes. Were there moments when you said, “I know where I want to go but I’m not getting there,” and changed course?

KM: In the late 1980s after the Webster decision was handed down, allowing states to impose restrictions on abortion, I knew we had a unique challenge. We had to command a mobilization, the likes of which hadn’t happened before. But we didn’t have the ingredients to communicate effectively. We had great talent at NARAL, but I needed the best in the business to effectively communicate our values and organize the grassroots.

I brought in pollsters, media experts, political strategists—people I couldn’t afford to hire but could have as consultants. I said, “Here’s our challenge. I want you to bring all your experience in the political world to bear on NARAL’s mission to do this work.” I made the decision to bring these people aboard, and it was not universally accepted. But hiring these consultants was one of the best things I ever did.

FK: Do you feel comfortable about the fact that within the movement there are different opinions about messages and strategies?

KM: Not everyone agrees. I knew when I started at NARAL that our name was a problem. For one it was too long for anybody to get a handle on. It sounded like a policy statement rather than a clear expression of our values. I thought the central value underlying the prochoice position is the right of a woman to make a choice, to make a decision. It’s not which choice she makes, but that her right to make a choice is respected. So I was on a mission to get our name clearer and shorter, to reflect what we stood for. I believe choice is of enormous value and the name naral Pro-Choice America resonates with people. They know exactly what we stand for.

There is sometimes disagreement about the best way to approach our issue. I can only do what I believe is right to do, founded on good research and long years of experience. I brought a pollster aboard in 1987 when Robert Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court and the larger civil rights and progressive community was a little worried about the abortion issue becoming a divisive one in the campaign to defeat him. I had to effectively demonstrate that you can talk about the right to choose in a way that brings people together —you could demonstrate the threat that a Robert Bork poses to fundamental rights by mobilizing around the right to privacy and the right to choose as values. I had to prove that and I did.

Sometimes I am wrong. But on the larger question of choice as a value, I believe that more today than I did 25 years ago. But do I believe that we’ve got to do a better job in helping people to understand what we mean by prochoice, or freedom to choose, or the right to choose? You bet. I think we will fail in the long term if we do not attend to that mission —especially among young people. I know the civil rights movement is going through the same struggle, and civil rights leaders need to remind younger African Americans what it was like not to have rights. We women have to do the same. We have to remind people what it was like not to have the right to choose.

FK: You’ve done this with the “Who Decides?” campaign. The emphasis on who decides is important—it gives gravitas to the concept of choice.

KM: When I decided to have children and when I made the decision to terminate my pregnancy probably rank among the most extraordinary, weighty decisions I have ever made in my life—and there have been a lot of them. And bringing that team together to define “Who Decides?” as a question for our movement… I stand by that as my single most important contribution.

FK: What contributions has NARAL Pro-Choice America made to improve women’s lives?

KM: We have given voice to the values that underlie a prochoice position in such a way that now candidates can talk about the issue. Women’s lives have been improved because we have public officials who are more effective in their work.

Enabling women to make a moral choice is what we’re about. I think NARAL has been able to shape the public debate on the issue of a woman’s right to choose in a way that reaches more people, that gives more people the possibility of understanding what underlies a prochoice position. I think we’ve been able to create a better public understanding of what it means to be prochoice.

We helped elect the first fully prochoice president of the United States. And frankly had we not done that we would not have Roe v. Wade today. Our work, in defining choice as a central issue, identifying voters, communicating with them, educating them about how close we were to losing the right to choose and getting them out to vote in those key states in 1992 really did help.

For myself, I have been able to personalize the issue—especially through my own story. I think women’s stories are enormously helpful.

FK: The Clinton campaign defined NARAL as a powerhouse.

KM: President Clinton’s veto of the ban on abortion—twice, the five executive orders he signed his first day in office, among them lifting the Global Gag Rule, overturning the Mexico City policy, lifting the ban on RU-486, all of these were a product of the work we did. And those five executive orders were written by NARAL’s legal director, Dawn Johnsen. I do have a mission to define prochoice as being more inclusive and not limited to the choice of whether or not to have an abortion.

Our work through the NARAL Foundation, where we helped lead an effort at the state level to gain health insurance coverage for contraceptives; our efforts on emergency contraception—requiring states to mandate emergency rooms provide rape survivors with information; and making sure hospitals didn’t limit women’s stays after giving birth. We aren’t the only ones who have been doing this work, but we’ve been doing it in a very serious, concentrated way.

The other way I think we’ve contributed is through our “Choice for America” campaign. The combination of using paid advertising to have a conversation with the American public about what it means to be prochoice, allied with a grassroots organizing program where people can translate their prochoice values into action was very positive. Positive, not only for the prochoice movement, but also for women’s lives by helping the public better understand that when women are making reproductive choices, they are making responsible choices about their own lives and their families’ futures. Those are positive values that bring into sharper relief the idea that women are responsible, moral decision makers who take these issues very seriously.

FK: “Choice for America” was inspirational.

KM: It was inspirational. I’ve always worried about the prochoice movement not having the most effective means for communicating the values that underlie prochoice positions. Those opposed to legal abortion have a much more emotional, sensationalistic, inflammatory approach, and so we have to work hard to find means and methods to communicate with people effectively, to inspire people.

FK: I want you to talk a little bit about limits. I think the public, and even our own colleagues in social justice movements, are perhaps not aware of the enormous price that individual leaders pay when they take on this issue. When you deal with these issues in a hard political climate, where things are either legal or illegal, it does limit the ability to put forward a more visionary, value-oriented kind of message.

KM: That’s a very astute observation. It’s an internal conflict, because here I am trying to promote this vision about women and reproductive freedom and choice and its centrality to quality of life issues, its place among the pantheon of rights that our Constitution was founded to reflect and embody and protect and ensure. And I’ve chosen a political organization to try to accomplish that. It’s a very hard thing to do. Politics is slash and burn and I’m not that kind of a person, so it’s always been a struggle for me to do both well. I see politics as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. I’ve tried to ensure that the work we do politically does not drive who we are entirely. Not even an election is an end in itself. Politics is a means, it never substitutes for the principles and moral vision under-girding our work.

Take an example, prochoice Republicans or Democrats. People often charge us with being an arm of the Democratic Party. That’s been one of my greatest pet peeves, by the way. We did not take the Republican Party down the road to being a captive of the Religious Right and the far right whose central message is antifeminism, antichoice, anti-women’s rights. We did not do that.

At the same time I do believe that we have to do more at the grassroots to inspire prochoice Republicans to run for office.

FK: One of the questions that often comes up is one of purity. How do we want to position ourselves as a movement? How do you make the prochoice community as big as possible, without watering down the prochoice message?

KM: I do think we have to be open and honest about what we mean by being prochoice. We can’t allow politicians to define what it means to be prochoice. We have to define that. But when politicians do vote the wrong way, I don’t think we have to abandon them entirely. But I cannot accept those who oppose funding for abortions and contraception as prochoice. Opposing funding is discriminatory and offensive and wrong.

FK: I think it’s one of the worst positions politicians can take. It’s pure pandering to a hatred for the poor and an unwillingness to spend money on the people who need it.

KM: Absolutely. I agree. It’s one of the worst.

FK: I’m much more sympathetic to the moral and ethical conflicts: the conflicts over the role of parents or certain specific procedures or abortions late in pregnancy. These are very complicated moral dimensions.

KM: On the funding issue there is no moral conflict. It is pure discrimination.

FK: And this phony taxpayer sentiment, “taxpayers should not be forced to pay for something they don’t approve of.”

KM: If you asked me about disappointments —that would be one. Especially as it relates to women of color—the disproportionate impact of laws restricting reproductive rights and choice on women of color.

FK: How have you dealt with some of the aspects of personal and institutional rejection that come with the territory?

KM: This is not a job we have. It’s a passion and it’s our life. It’s hard, very difficult, very isolating. But I have found over the years that the rejection has lessened. NARAL and I have been included more often in the important moments of political life and social change. I was asked to speak publicly at the last two presidential conventions.

FK: What’s next for you?

KM: I haven’t defined that absolutely yet. But first I want to lend myself to electing a prochoice president. That’s very important to me. I will do that for the next seven months. Then I’d like to continue my work on a broader vision for reproductive rights and health; for women’s economic empowerment as an underpinning for our contribution to our democracy and worldwide. And work more on international issues.

I do think liberal philosophy or progressive ideology is in need of reshaping and regrouping. When I look back, I can remember how the right wing was floundering in the 1970s because it had no central philosophy. Well, they figured it out, and look where they are today. They command institutions that shape policy, they control political institutions, the president, the House, the Senate, many state legislatures, governorships, and they are changing the courts. The right wing has a coherent philosophy and is not afraid to say what it believes even if it is unpopular. We have lost that, and I would like to contribute to develop- ing a liberal philosophy and framework that helps to define politics and manifests itself in progressive policies for our nation and internationally.

On a personal level, I also want to indulge that “grandmother” part of me. I have a plan to spend time with my grandchildren and my daughters. My challenge will be not to fill up my days, so I can spend time with them.

FK: Where do you see the movement going?

KM: I think the movement itself is in an evolutionary stage. Its future will depend on who is elected president. And I don’t mean to suggest that the presidency is central to our movement, but clearly the outcome of this presidential election is going to shape the future course of women’s rights in America and internationally.

If we elect a prochoice president, the challenge will be to build a movement for the right to choose at the grassroots. We may have dodged a bullet, but we won’t have won the war. We still have the House and Senate to win. But if we lose and Bush is re-elected, I think it’s an all-out fight to protect the right to choose. But the movement always comes alive when people feel threatened. It’s a sorry way to run a movement but it happens to be the way it is. So the challenge will be to harness the threat into a powerful positive movement for change. We will need an alert citizenry. It is incumbent upon us to mobilize a citizen force.

FK: Where do you see vitality in the movement?

KM: That’s a tough one. I have been heartened by what I see as a growing vitality at the grassroots—growing slowly, however. I think there is a real disconnect between national and community leaders on what motivates people and what matters to them. We have to challenge and inspire the younger generation to understand the importance of this issue and get them involved politically. We have to be more diverse. To come full circle, I’m hoping the march will invigorate the grassroots, and be a catalyst for a much more visibly diverse movement.

Catholics for Choice