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Activist Gloria Steinem reflects on abortion rights as they hang in the balance

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It was this past September that three members of Congress shared their personal stories of abortion.

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PRAMILA JAYAPAL: I speak to you as one of the 1 in 4 women in America who have had an abortion.

BARBARA LEE: ...To the days when I was a teenager and had a back-alley abortion in Mexico.

CORI BUSH: I was raped. I became pregnant. And I chose to have an abortion.

KELLY: That is Democratic Congresswomen Cori Bush, Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal discussing their abortions before a House committee. They were joined by another woman who shared the story of her illegal abortion in 1957.

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GLORIA STEINEM: After what seemed to be an eternity of confusion and fear, I found a very kind and brave English doctor who was willing to help me.

KELLY: Gloria Steinem - Steinem has been an activist for abortion rights and feminism for decades. But before she became a feminist icon, she was a 22-year-old living in England, pregnant when she didn't want to be. We wanted to know how she was thinking about last week's Supreme Court arguments about a restrictive Mississippi abortion law - arguments that left many believing the court could overturn Roe v. Wade. Gloria Steinem, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

STEINEM: Thank you for this great program. Thank you.

KELLY: Thank you. We're glad to have you with us. May I ask what was going through your head as you watched what many, including justices on the Supreme Court, have said is settled law suddenly look not very settled at all last week?

STEINEM: Well, many things - I mean, I guess I was not surprised by this present dilemma because controlling reproduction has always been the first step in any hierarchical or authoritarian government. Those who are authoritarian or hierarchical in their outlook in this, you know, still patriarchal time look to control the one thing they don't have as the first effort in creating a hierarchy.

KELLY: You just called this a still patriarchal time, 2021. You think that's true?

STEINEM: Yes, I think it is. I mean, if you look at the distribution of wealth and salaries, if you look at decision making in the household, which is more democratic than it used to be but not still completely democratic, if you look at naming, though many women keep their own names, some women keep two names. Men don't. You know, I mean, it may seem minor, but it's pervasive.

KELLY: Would you paint us a picture of what it was like to try to get an abortion in 1957?

STEINEM: I was in London because I had a fellowship in India. I was awaiting my visa. So I was living in London, working as a waitress in order to support myself. And, you know, I had all the usual fantasies - maybe if I go horseback riding, maybe if I throw myself down the stairs. You know, our minds race through all possible alternatives. And it was sheer luck of going to a doctor whose name I found in the telephone book. Due to his kindness, due to his looking at me and saying, if you promise never to tell anyone my name, that I will help you. And so he sent me to a woman doctor who actually did the procedure.

KELLY: Wow. If you promise to never tell anyone my name...

STEINEM: Yes.

KELLY: That's how deep the fear ran.

STEINEM: Yes. Yes.

KELLY: You - I mean, you've covered all this as a journalist. What were the attitudes towards women like you who had abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade was decided?

STEINEM: Of course, it still was something like 1 in 3 women, but it was way, way more secret. I mean, women whose mothers had had an abortion didn't tell their daughters, for instance. You know, it was present always as a subculture. But it was a subject of secrecy, illegality and sometimes shame.

KELLY: So I guess I'm curious, for someone like you who's been around long before this became a right in the United States and who are now watching and seeing the right to an abortion in jeopardy, do you think people who support abortion rights have worked hard enough to keep them? Or has that right come to be taken for granted?

STEINEM: It should be taken for granted because if we don't have control of our own physical selves, we don't have a democracy. The problem is not the people who support abortion or who have had abortions. It's the people who oppose it and, therefore, are trying to take the first step in an authoritarian system.

KELLY: I guess the challenge is that many people see it differently, including, potentially, it looks like a majority of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. So I guess I'll ask again, does more need to be done for those who believe in the right to abortion?

STEINEM: Yes. We need to change who's on the Supreme Court so it represents the country. I mean, you know, they're - the mainly men on that court are never going to have to make this decision. It's not their decision. It's not their bodies.

KELLY: Just to come back at you one more time, I'm hearing the voices of people who argue against abortion rights who would be shouting at their radios right now, abortion is controlling reproduction, that...

STEINEM: Well, then they don't have to have an abortion. They just can't tell somebody else what to do.

KELLY: You are - you're 87 years old, Gloria Steinem. Am I right?

STEINEM: Yes. Shocking, isn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

STEINEM: I don't know how it happened.

KELLY: Yeah. Did you think you'd still be fighting this fight in 2021?

STEINEM: You know, I'm not sure that I thought that far forward, but I always knew, because it's so obvious, that this is the first step in every authoritarian system. I mean, you can't look at Hitler or Mussolini or any authoritarian system and not see that controlling reproduction is the first step.

KELLY: Just explain that to me a little bit more 'cause you've said it a couple of times. Why would overturning the right to abortion be a step towards an authoritarian country?

STEINEM: Well, what democracy means is the right to make decisions for ourselves and, in the majority, to make decisions for the country - but first, to make it for ourselves. Freedom of speech is not different from freedom of reproduction.

KELLY: What would you say to the next generation of activists in this country, the ones who will be wrestling with this and other issues of feminism in the years and decades to come?

STEINEM: Well, you know, I'm not sure I would say anything. I would listen to them - you know? - listen and see what they're experiencing and say, OK, I'm here to help. How can I help?

KELLY: That's activist and journalist Gloria Steinem. Thank you.

STEINEM: No, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.