Elle: “New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Has Been Fighting for Abortion Rights Since High School”
March 5, 2018
As published by Elle on July 21, 2017
By Mattie Kahn
Last month, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced his office would file a lawsuit against anti-choice protestors who’ve harassed patients and staffers at the Choices Women’s Medical Center in Jamaica, Queens, since at least 2012. According to Schneiderman’s formal complaint, over a dozen anti-choice activists initiated “a barrage of unwanted physical contact, as well as verbal abuse, threats of harm, and lies about the clinic’s hours and its services,” directed at the clinic’s patients. The behavior wasn’t just offensive, Schneiderman insisted, but against the law. He would sue.
It isn’t the first time. Schneiderman, who was elected attorney general in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, has been devoted to women’s healthcare access for decades, representing abortion clinics pro-bono as a young lawyer and standing up for pro-choice legislation in the New York State Senate. In 2012, he sued to secure an expanded buffer zone around Planned Parenthood in Utica, New York. After Donald Trump’s election—but before he could be inaugurated—Schneiderman introduced the “Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act of 2017,” legislation that would ensure access to free contraception for New Yorkers, even if Trump repealed the Affordable Care Act. And in May, when lawmakers unveiled the American Health Care Act, Schneiderman didn’t waste any time; he made it clear he would sue if it became law; the AHCA, he maintained, was “unconstitutional,” placing an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose.
If all this is for a good soundbite or good press or in pursuit of some eventual bid for even higher office after he seeks re-election in 2018, then Schneiderman deserves some credit for his forethought; without fanfare, he’s been working to get women access to abortion services since 1972. Then fresh out of high school and not sure what he wanted to do next, Schneiderman moved to Washington, D.C. He found an office job, a gig so unremarkable he can hardly recall the details. It didn’t last; soon, he’d met a group of people who were in the process of setting up an abortion clinic. And he wanted to be involved.
It was the year before the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. And in 1972, that meant abortion was legal in New York and D.C. and illegal everywhere else in the southeastern United States. “No one had any idea the Supreme Court was going to rule in Roe next year and change that,” Schneiderman remembers. At the time, activists and medical professionals assumed that D.C. would be “the southernmost outpost” for women nationwide—a destination for reproductive health care services for decades to come. “And so there were people setting up clinics—doctors, activists, and businesspeople who thought this was an investment,” Schneiderman says. It seemed like an opportunity. He applied for a job.
Schneiderman landed “at the bottom of the food chain,” an attendant whose job it was to stock supplies and to get women in an out of the clinic with as little drama as possible. At one point, he was dispatched to the national airport and instructed to pick up women “who were coming in from Atlanta or Chattanooga or wherever and bring them back and forth.”
“I didn’t really pry a lot,” Schneiderman says. “I was there trying to be professional and reassuring and sometimes people would share, but it’s not like people felt like they had to get into the car and spill their guts to me.” And yet the experience turned out to be “much richer and more emotional” than Schneiderman had anticipated, and the women made an impression on him, traveling to D.C. from all over the South to secure no less than their freedom. At the clinic, Schneiderman came to feel that the issue of choice was “not a controversial issue” at all. He’d borne witness; “if a woman can’t control her own body, she isn’t really free.”
By the following year, Schneiderman was enrolled at Amherst College and the Roe decision had legalized abortion nationwide. Well, that’s settled, he thought. He dropped in and out of school, was admitted to Harvard Law, and moved back to New York, where it became clear that the issue of access hadn’t really been decided at all. It turned out, Schneiderman realized, that while the pro-choice movement celebrated, its opponents had been building a much stronger infrastructure “from the grassroots up.” The battle was just getting started. Protests outside of clinics had turned violent. During Schneiderman’s first term in the New York State Senate, Dr. Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider, was murdered at his home just outside of Buffalo, New York. Schneiderman raced to introduce legislation to protect clinics, but he watched as states nationwide began to pass restrictions to limit women’s access. The pro-choice movement, he believed, had ceded essential ground; it couldn’t compete with the kind of discipline and organization that those on the opposite side of the issue had developed.
That is until the Supreme Court intervened once more. Over the past year or two, Schneiderman has become if not quite optimistic then at least heartened to see the pro-choice movement engage and organize. He points to the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case, which ruled in the clinic’s favor in 2016; how “our side” coordinated amici briefs to support a woman’s right to choose, how lawyers reached out to the public, how advocates learned to speak to people in words that resonated and galvanized. It had begun to feel to Schneiderman like a revival.
And then came the 2016 election, and after it, the kind of full-blown resistance that gives even the hyper-grounded Schneiderman real, wide-eyed hope. “I think people are now much more focused on the fact that women’s rights are under assault, in general, and reproductive health services are under assault, in particular,” Schneiderman insists, leaning forward at his desk, an expanse of the Manhattan skyline behind him. “And if we don’t fight back and fight back effectively, these rights are going to get eroded.” The good news—he has a game plan. Here, he outlines how progressives can run and win.
How do you think the pro-choice community’s advocacy work around last year’s Supreme Court case changed the way we talk about abortion in the United States?
I’m a student of American political movements, and sometimes I’ve looked at the difference between the abortion rights movement and the LGBT rights movement over the same 30-year span. Instead of asking for tolerance, [the LGBT movement] began asking for equality. The abortion rights movement took sort of the opposite [approach], saying, “We can agree to disagree; people have conscience and different views on this.”
I think that the women who came forward to tell their stories [last year] personalized it and shifted public conscious and awareness. And to me, changing the language of the debate is as important as a legal victory, because if you want to build a movement that changes how people treat each other and how people think, you have to change the law, but you have to do more than change the law; you have to have people believe the law is just. The fact is it used to be that people were sort of shy when it came to talking about abortions and abortion rights, and that is less true and that’s going to make ours a more effective movement and that’s going to make us stronger.
Obviously, we rely on federal law, but change happens at the state level, and it’s states nationwide that are undermining access. How can progressives take that on and win back these state legislatures? What’s the recourse?
There’s no substitute for the hard work of organizing in politics. I’m a lawyer and I’m proud of the work we do, going to court to try to stop bad things from happening and promoting good causes. But ultimately, it comes down to organizing and electing good people from the ground up, and there’s no substitute for that. And I think there’s an increased awareness of that since November.
The notion that you vote once every four years for president, and that means you’ve done your civic duty is ridiculous, but we take it as a law of nature that there’ll be a big fall-off in turnout for liberals, except for presidential years. Well, that’s disgraceful and it’s not a law of nature; that’s just laziness on our side or failure to understand the consequences.
In the meantime, you recently brought a lawsuit against protestors at the Choices Clinic in Queens, New York, following a very extensive investigation by your office. Tell me what exactly the case is against them.
This is a situation where we were receiving complaints that a very aggressive campaign of harassment had started up outside the Choices Clinic. We had surveillance video from the clinic; we sent our investigators and looked into documents of what happened, and it was just very aggressive, appalling efforts to intimidate; screaming at patients that [they] could die at any moment, making references to shootings at Planned Parenthood clinics, physically blocking women and hustling people, pushing them. Some women have to bring their children to the clinic, [and protestors have been] harassing the children going in. It was really nasty stuff.
We documented it and went into court. We’re seeking a buffer zone to cover the sidewalk and to ensure there are protections for these women. Before I was AG, this office was involved in litigation over buffer zones, and there’s a case law in New York, and we have a federal [Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances] Act, and we have a clinic access bill that I was the sponsor of when I was in the New York State Senate, so we are quite optimistic that we’re going to get an injunction to protect this clinic and end this harassment and let these women proceed with dignity to make these important decisions about their own bodies.
It seems to me like over past six months, we’ve seen intimidation at all levels of government, and we’ve seen it used as a tool of harassment nationwide. Those who want to do it will tell you it’s free speech. Why are they wrong?
The cases are very clear on this. You can stand anywhere where you’re not impeding someone’s access to a constitutionally protected right to reproductive health services and you can state your point of view. You can give a speech. You can publish whatever you want. But you’re not allowed to blockade an entranceway and scream insults at women and say they’re going to die and go to hell in an effort to intimidate them and stop from accessing a constitutional right. There are pretty clear laws about what is acceptable free speech. For example, blackmail is speech, if you think about it that way, and the law is clear that you can’t use a free speech defense to claim you’re allowed to blackmail this person.
There are lots of case where there are limits of speech based on other rights, and this is one that courts have been balancing for some time, so I feel that we have developed a good record on this particular case, but your point is right. It does feel like these instances are part of a much larger effort to more aggressively than ever deny women these basic rights—whether it’s Trump trying to change the rule so that employers can opt out of providing coverage under moral exceptions or it’s the provisions in these healthcare bills that passed the House and [were] considered in the Senate that would have a devastating effect on reproductive health services.
You’ve spoken out about these issues, in particular. What would your office do to prevent these kinds of measures from taking effect?
We have said that we would challenge the House bill on a constitutional basis, if it became law, and we’ll see what comes out of the Senate. Whether people like it or not, women have a constitutional right to an abortion, and you can’t impose a burden on a constitutional right. The Supreme Court has said that; it’s not just good wishes. And we are prepared to stand up in court and defend women’s rights and defend human rights, but at the end of the day, as much as we can win there, it comes back to doing the hard work of politics. We have to elect new people and better people, and we have to shift public awareness so people do understand that this is a matter of freedom. This is not something that should be up for debate, and in much of the world, it’s not. It’s scary because we’re talking about real people’s lives and real people can really be hurt.
We’ve tried to be focused on the substance and not be distracted by the personal quirks or conduct of people in the administration or in Congress, as fascinating as those are. We’re focused on whether people will lose their healthcare coverage, will people be wrongfully deported, is the air going to get dirtier?
Why do you think that some people still see fit to debate whether or not Democratic Party candidates need to be pro-choice?
There are very few issues on which donors and activists are more guilty of cutting people too much slack than on abortion rights. That needs to change. A candidate comes in and says, “I’m pro-choice,” and that’s the last time they’ll say the word “choice” until they come back in four years to run for reelection. This was 10 or 12 years ago, but I’ve been saying for over a decade that we really need to push for more than “checklist liberals,” people who say they support access, but don’t introduce legislation to protect it, for example. We need to demand more; evidence of what they’ve done. And I think the movement is shifting people into that place. People want results. They want action. They need to harass elected officials, including me, but that’s good; harassing elected officials is part of your duty as a citizen.
Like you said, there are many reasons why reproductive rights are still up for debate in the United States, but sexism or at least some men’s unwillingness to stand up for a woman’s right to choose in public is a factor. Clearly, that has never been a problem for you. Please advise men: How should they be advocating for the women in their lives?
The fact is I have real clarity on my position on these issues. I just have a clarity about it, and I’m not insecure and I’m not threatened by people. And I think that’s the first step—to be clear and grounded and be steady so that when you speak up, speak from a place of calm, but firm understanding of where you are on an issue. I think it makes it easier. I think there are too many folks—men and women—who are still kind of uncomfortable talking about [abortion], and that makes it harder to be honest. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know someone or has had her own experience with an abortion. It just doesn’t happen.
The truth of the matter is for most Americans who say they are against abortions, if something happened to a family member or friend in their personal life, they would be overwhelmingly likely to look the other way and not cut the other person off and sever the relationship. Really, the struggle of abortion rights is about equality, yes. But it’s also about justice because rich people will always have access to abortions. Let’s be really honest: What we’re really talking about is poor and working-class women who would struggle and be hurt by these restrictions, who would have trouble getting on an airplane to fly to somewhere. This is an issue of justice and an issue of equality, and when you talk about it, you need to have that clarity.
Where did you find that clarity?
In my case, it was listening to people and watching what was going on. I listened to women talking to the doctors and the people who worked in the clinic. I listened to social workers who were understanding these stories. It was obvious to me that these were very decent human beings who were trying to manage their lives as best as they could and had to flee from their homes in order to get basic health services. And I heard the doctors, too, who talked a lot about the fact that they viewed their role as saving women’s lives because when you don’t have legal abortion, women’s health suffers and people die.
In a way, it was all much starker then. It was clear what happened in a state where abortion was illegal and what happened in a jurisdiction where it was legal, and there was a much starker choice to be made. But it suits the other side to make it all hazier. Back then, we were in this time of tremendous activism—the anti-war movement, challenging authority. But I think we’re now seeing even better organizing than what was done then. People are running for office, training others to run for office, keeping themselves educated. After the election, I was afraid people would go to one or two demonstrations and then go home. That hasn’t happened. People are staying involved and staying active, and that’s historically how the United States has gotten better. We are a more just and more equal country than we were 100 years ago, and 100 years ago, we were more equal than 100 years before that. That’s our national trajectory. That’s our mission.