Lawrence “Larry” Lader (1919-2006) was an evangelist and strategist, a lifelong atheist with the heart of a revolutionary. His talent and privilege allowed him to devote decades to his life’s passion, abortion on demand, and he lived to see it succeed beyond his expectations. A Harvard graduate and prolific author, his influence was evident in the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 1973, which cited his book Abortion more than seven times. He was co-founder of what is now NARAL Pro-Choice America.
The ‘Father’ of the Abortion Movement
There are many notable contributors to the success of the national abortion movement, but Larry Lader was unique. To calculating shrewdness and intellect he added tenacity and passion. Many of his colleagues may have been even smarter or more accomplished, but Lader, who would come to be called the “father of the abortion movement,” possessed a coherent vision and the ability to persuade others to join him. He campaigned for a bold approach, offense when others counseled defense, advocating for a shock platform of radical ideas that few would defend publicly to that point. Lader lived in Manhattan and traveled in top social and academic circles. He was Margaret Sanger’s biographer and friend, referring to her as “the greatest influence on his life.”
Unlike Sanger, however, Lader considered abortion the legitimate recourse for contraceptive failure and essential to the success of other intersecting social movements of the time—the sexual revolution and the campaign to limit human population, both of which abortion on demand would underwrite.
Lader determined at the outset the cause was too important to allow the interference of fact and law. Consequently, together with Dr. Bernard Nathanson, his associate of many years, he created a strategy to advance the abortion movement, which according to Dr.Nathanson, relied on neither.
One of Lader’s most consequential achievements, surpassed only by his influence on the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe five years later, was convincing Betty Friedan, the president and co-founder of the National Organization of Women (NOW), to make abortion a central feature of the emerging women’s movement. Friedan had risen to national fame as the author of the Feminine Mystique, published in early 1963, but the first edition did not include a reference to abortion. To the extent support for abortion on demand was publicized at that point, it was aligned with the new right of sexual expression, with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine initiating a mainstream campaign in support in the early 1960’s. It was Lader who came to the conclusion it was essential the women’s movement be the public face of the abortion movement if it was to succeed, and Friedan’s cooperation was key.
Keeping radical factions at bay
Lader had discovered Marxism during his time at Harvard, and as with Sanger, met Friedan through his association with progressive groups. He used their common political interests and Friedan’s concern for keeping radical factions at bay to lobby her to add abortion on demand to the platform of the National Organization of Women (NOW). Ironically, Lader overcame her resistance with the same persistence Dr. Nathanson later testified he had lobbied his pregnant girlfriend to make the choice for abortion decades before—persuading and promising—but instead of over a course of days, years—and instead of proposing one abortion, millions.
Friedan gives in
After those years of effort, Friedan acquiesced, over the objections of other prominent members and many in the rank and file of the movement who opposed it in principle and for its heavy-handed implementation. They rejected the messaging that would make abortion on demand a condition of their advancement or in any way responsible for their success. They recognized the position as a far outlier and opposed it not only on the grounds of its gruesome reality, but out of concern for the social chaos it could create. In many respects, Lader welcomed the chaos. He expressed the belief that legalizing abortion “struck at the whole system of sexual morality to which the middle class gave lip service.” “He maintained that ‘to tamper with [abortion] meant the whole system of [sexual morality] would come tumbling down.’”
A “New Order”
Ultimately, in spite of the opposition, Friedan’s organization and its message prevailed. Lader believed the message had power as he had aligned it with the spirit of the time and identified the proper vehicles to deliver it at both the top levels and on the ground. At the grassroots level he relied on a network of faith-affiliated ministers and rabbis, particularly the Reverend Howard Moody, pastor of Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan and the Clergy Consultation Referral, “ministers of a higher law,” to spread the message and direct women to local abortion centers.
Moody was an ideological ally and their message was unambiguous—they were proposing a “new order of things,” advocating for the unrestricted freedom of sexual expression enabled by a right to unrestricted access to abortion. It envisioned a new and radical autonomy for men, women and even children. At the end of her life, Betty Friedan expressed regret for some of the unforeseen consequences of their narrative and the path it had ultimately taken.
Moving Catholics to the sidelines
Although their paths diverged starkly in the late 1970’s, Dr. Nathanson acknowledged Lader as the creator of what he believed to be “one of the most brilliant strategies of all time”—the well-crafted messages and tag lines that would permit Catholics—considered their most formidable opponents at the time—to stay off the field of debate and on the sidelines. At its center, a phrase ultimately adopted throughout the entire culture –“Although I personally would not make that choice I will not judge another’s right to do so.” Nathanson testified they were aware at the time that with that phrase the battle was largely won.
Lader’s final years were dedicated to the effort to secure what he believed would be abortion’s future—access to RU-486, part of a drug regimen that causes an abortion. After he left NARAL he founded and served as president of the Abortion Rights Movement (ARM), which campaigned for its legalization.
As his legacy, Larry Lader believed he had succeeded in removing abortion’s social stigma. He had made the case for its public funding and made support for abortion on demand a condition of support for women’s advancement, which he believed would insure its protection. The procedure that most prominent feminists of the nineteenth century rejected had become the cornerstone in the twentieth, as Eleanor Smeal, president of NOW, called abortion on demand “the most fundamental right.” Lader had succeeded in dismissing the humanity of the second party to every abortion, vanishing burdensome lives by the millions, many conceived as a consequence of his campaign. And if he was correct, in the future the abortion decision would become an incidental and unremarkable option for birth control, simply one among many, as unrestricted access to chemical abortion made its human victims even more anonymous.
Robert P. George, “Bernard Nathanson: A Life Transformed by Truth,” Public Discourse, The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute, February 27, 2011.
Serrin Foster, “The Feminist Case Against Abortion,” Professor R. Ben Brown’s Law and History Site, University of California, Berkeley
Sue Ellen Browder, Subverted—How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015)
Bernard Nathanson, The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind, Regnery Publishing; Complete Numbers Starting with 1, 1st Ed Edition (April 1, 1996)
Elaine Woo, “Lawrence Lader, 86; Activist for Abortion Rights Whose Book Was Cited in Roe Case” Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2006. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2006-may-14-me-lader14-story.html
“Men Launched the Movement to Legalize Abortion,” Feminists of Life for America, https://www.feministsforlife.org/men-launched-the-movement-to-legalize-abortion/
Lawrence Lader, Breeding Ourselves to Death, foreword by Dr. Paul R. Erhlich (Seven Locks Press: 30th anniversary ed (2002))