Merle Hoffman (born March 6, 1946) is an American journalist, activist, and healthcare pioneer. She has been described by The New York Times as being “at the forefront of the reproductive rights movement as an activist and founder and president of Choices Women’s Medical Center, one of the first abortion clinics in the country.”
Hoffman’s lifelong commitment to developing and defending abortion care was inspired in 1971 by her first experience with a woman who came to her clinic for services from New Jersey where abortion was still illegal. As Hoffman writes in her memoir, Intimate Wars, “My feminism didn’t come from books or theoretical discussions. It came in the shape of individual women presenting themselves each day. I began to understand the core principle of feminism as I held the hands of thousands of women during their most powerful and vulnerable moments: their abortions.” [Page 12, Intimate Wars] Now, over 50 years later, after hundreds of thousands of women and girls have come to Choices and after the fall of Roe v. Wade, Hoffman is again seeing women and girls from many parts of the country where abortion is either restricted or banned. Today, Choices Women’s Medical Center, is one of the nation’s largest and most comprehensive Women’s Medical Centers, including providing abortion to 24 weeks of pregnancy and serving women from many states. Hoffman continues to lead it as President/CEO.
In 1976, Hoffman co-founded NAF, the National Abortion Federation, the first professional organization of abortion providers in the U.S. and served as its first president.
Hoffman also worked to open the first Feminist Medical Center in Moscow in 1992 and worked with Polish feminists against draconian abortion restrictions in Poland in 2020.
Hoffman is known as a debater, speaker, publisher, writer and organizer, addressing challenging questions and upholding women’s rights. She organized the first Pro-Choice Civil Disobedience at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989 where 9 people were arrested. The New York Times quoted her as saying, “women’s rights are in a state of emergency.” She founded and served as Editor-in-Chief of On the Issues Magazine, which began as a print publication in 1983 and went online in 2008. In 2009, the Newswomen’s Club of New York awarded Hoffman its Front Page Award for her editorial, Selecting the Same Sex, which was praised for doing “a brilliant job with a controversial subject.” She has been interviewed extensively by international as well as national media concerning the situation today of reproductive rights in the U.S. and internationally.
In January 2022, she co-initiated RiseUp4AbortionRights to build mass non-violent protests to stop the U.S. Supreme Court from decimating abortion rights and to challenge complacency in the face of the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade. After the Supreme Court put an end to Roe on June 24, 2022, she has remained active in organizing and calling for the U.S. Government to legalize abortion nationwide.
Hoffman co-founded and helped run Flushing Women’s Medical Center (forerunner of Choices Women’s Medical Center) in the borough of Queens in NYC in the spring of 1971, two years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide.
Hoffman considered many standard medical practices of the day sexist, invasive, and paternalistic. In response, she developed many of the patient-centered tenets and practices that have since become standards of women’s healthcare and were the forerunner of the Federal Patient Bill of Rights and implemented them at Flushing Women’s. Hoffman’s theory of “Patient Power” whose tenets urged women to question their doctor about everything from their training and background to the reason for prescribing certain medications. Her work was noted by Francis X. Clines in The New York Times in 1978 as “making women feel powerful.”
In November 1974, Hoffman was the initiator and moderator for New York City’s first Women’s Health Forum, with speakers including Barbara Ehrenreich and Congresswoman Bella Abzug.
In 1975, Hoffman helped develop and introduce a program to diagnosis women with breast cancer in an outpatient center. The program, known as STOP (Second Treatment Option Program), was pathbreaking; prior to its inception women were not consulted as to their diagnosis or treatment options. Previously, doctors had simply removed the breast of any woman whose biopsy came back positive while she was still anesthetized and before she had the opportunity to learn about her options or make decisions. STOP gave the patient the power to think about her next step and discuss her options with a trained counselor.
In 1976, Hoffman co-founded the National Association of Abortion Facilities (NAAF), and founded the National Abortion Federation (NAF), and served as its first President.
In 1977, Hoffman was a vocal proponent for the accurate labeling of over-the-counter birth control drugs, resulting in congressional hearings and the eventual labeling requirements.
In 1985, Hoffman founded the New York Pro-Choice Coalition (NYPCC), the first umbrella organization of pro-choice individuals and organizations committed to ensuring safe, legal abortion in New York. The NYPCC was the first group to organize a national response to the efforts of Operation Rescue and other anti-choice groups to shut down clinics. The NYPCC set the standard for how to defend clinics and published a pamphlet, “The Battle to Defend Abortion Clinics: Organizing Against Operation Rescue,” that included detailed information on grassroots organizing.
In 1993, Hoffman broadened the services of the medical center by creating Choices Mental Health Center which addressed a full range of psychological issues including rape, incest, and domestic violence as well as general psychiatric and psychological services. In 1996, Hoffman developed a paradigm for prophylactic intervention in patients presenting with specific symptoms indicative of Domestic Violence. The analysis and tool was named “Disorders of Intimacy,” piloted at Choices and presented to psychological conferences.
In 1994 When Hoffman learned about the lack of birth control options available to women in Russia, and at the invitation of the Moscow Clinical Center Marine Hospital, she organized and led a trip of physicians and counselors from Choices to Moscow. On an internationally publicized educational exchange, she began working with Russian hospitals and doctors to develop CHOICES EAST the first feminist outpatient medical center in Russia,. Hoffman also organized a small group of Russian feminists to deliver an open letter to Boris Yeltsin on the state of women’s health care.
In the wake of the 9/11/2001 tragedy, Choices Mental Health Center became a Project Liberty Provider of mental health services to those traumatized or affected by the attacks, offering free counseling at satellite centers in neighborhoods throughout New York.
In 2015, Hoffman founded Choices Global Institute of Healing and Education, a non-profit foundation to support projects in the US and internationally that promote health services and education for underserved women.
Hoffman developed pathbreaking Out-of-Town services at Choices in 2015, reaching out to women and girls in states with abortion restrictions and helping with travel arrangements and raising funds for their procedures at Choices. She also developed one of the first Trans Care programs in the country in 2016.
Hoffman was one of the first activists to organize opposition to Operation Rescue, an organization dedicated to ending access to abortion by harassment, terrorism and blockading clinics. When Operation Rescue announced it would shut down abortion services in New York City for a week in the spring of 1988, the New York Pro-Choice Coalition, founded by Hoffman, responded by rebranding those days “Reproductive Freedom Week,” organizing a counter protest that drew 1,300 activists and supporters, and dispatching supporters to ensure that every clinic or doctor’s offices Operation Rescue targeted remained open.
In January 1989, Hoffman and other pro-choice leaders, including Bill Tatum, then- Chairman of the Amsterdam News, Maxine Gold of the New York City Commission on the Status of Women, Rabbi Balfour Brickner of the Stephen Weiss Free Synagogue, Kelly Conlin of NOW, Ellen Carton of NARAL, Dr. Vicki Alexander and City Councilwoman Carol Greitzer organized a “Back-alley Press Conference.” They announced plans for a counter-offensive against Operation Rescue and denounced the decision by the Supreme Court to review Webster V. Reproductive Health Services, a Missouri case that could “bring about the reversal of Roe V. Wade.” The “back-alley” symbolized that women had to resort to illegal means in the days before abortion was legal. “I know that I am possibly standing in and looking at my future- the future of millions of American women if the continued attacks against legalized abortion and the agenda of Operation Rescue succeed,” said Hoffman.
In 1989. Hoffman also publicly challenged New York City’s Cardinal John O’Connor‘s support of Operation Rescue, which she deemed “violent to women” by organizing the First Pro-Choice Civil Disobedience action outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Several hundred participated, and nine pro-choice protestors were arrested. Hoffman was quoted on the front page of NY Times Metro Section saying, “women’s rights are in a state of emergency.” Protestors held up a Proclamation in front of the massive bronze doors and sat down on the sidewalk in front of the cathedral.
In November 2020, Hoffman organized support for the massive protests in Poland against a draconian abortion ban. She authored a letter of support “To the Great Women of Poland” which was signed by prominent feminists in the U.S., including Phyllis Chesler, Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, and many others. It was published in Poland’s largest daily news outlet, Gazeta Wyborcza, on November 10, 2020, and spread widely on social media.
In January 2022, when the US Supreme Court indicated it was on track to overturn Roe v Wade, Hoffman co-initiated Rise Up For Abortion Rights (RU4AR) with Sunsara Taylor and Lori Sokol. RU4AR called for and organized massive nationwide protests in the streets to prevent abortion from being outlawed, under the slogan “Abortion on Demand and Without Apology.” After Roe was overturned in June 2022, she continued with RU4AR in condemning the Court’s decision as illegitimate and calling for the Federal Government to legalize abortion nationwide. Hoffman spoke in person at many rallies in NYC and D.C., on national online forums and in the media.
In 1982, Hoffman produced, directed, and wrote the documentary film Abortion: A Different Light, and in 1986 she produced and hosted the first feminist TV show, MH: On the Issues, a syndicated 30-minute cable TV show. Her first guest was then-Congresswoman Bella Abzug. Others included Betty Friedan and Phyllis Chesler. A documentary film, 25 Years of Choices: Feminism from the Ground Up (1986), was produced to honor her and her work.
Hoffman’s writing has appeared in numerous publications and journals including the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association. Hoffman also published two studies with Adelphi University in the 80s that documented how poverty leads many women to choose abortions and showed that nearly half the women seeking abortion at CHOICES would pursue one illegally if Roe v. Wade were repealed. The study, “Abortionomics: When Choice is a Necessity – The Impact of Recession on Abortion,” was updated in 2011, and the results were presented at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on January 19, 2012.
Hoffman began a newsletter for Choices in 1982 which developed into On the Issues: The Progressive Women’s Quarterly, an acclaimed national magazine with an international following. Hoffman served as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, conducting interviews with notable activists and thinkers, including Andrea Dworkin, Congressman John Lewis, Kate Millett, and Elie Wiesel.
In 2008, On the Issues became an online magazine, extending its reach even further. For both print and online editions, Hoffman wrote editorials on subjects ranging from her visit to San Francisco General Hospital’s AIDS Unit in 1985 to a visit to a Rape Crisis Center in South Africa, and what it feels like to be an abortion provider in a time of attacks on clinics and murders of doctors.
Hoffman was awarded the prestigious Front Page Award for Political Commentary in 2010 from the Newswoman’s Club of New York for her editorial, “Selecting the Same Sex.” The essay about the complex issues of sex selection and abortion appeared in the Summer 2009 edition. Hoffman’s essay did “a brilliant job with a controversial subject,” said syndicated columnist Lenore Skenazy, who presented the Opinion Writing Award to her at a dinner and ceremony in New York on Nov. 4, 2010.
Hoffman’s memoir, Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom, was published in 2012 by Feminist Press. Publishers Weekly opined that “she eloquently chronicles more than three decades of struggles to keep abortion legal. Readers will learn much about her drive to recast ‘reproductive freedom as a positive moral value.'” Kirkus Reviews called it “An inspiring story of a woman who participated in ‘one of the greatest revolutions in history’—and is still at the forefront of the struggle.”
In her new book, Choices: A Post-Roe Abortion Rights Manifesto, written after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, Hoffman sheds light on the catastrophic repercussions of overturning Roe and what we as a nation must do moving forward to ensure the safety and freedom of women and girls everywhere. Topics include: revamping the healthcare system to support women’s rights; combatting rising authoritarianism; the weaponization of religion; fighting the antis; practicing courage; sabotage from within the movement; and activating the next generation in the fight for reproductive justice. Publication is scheduled for November 2023 and can be preordered on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Hoffman has been honored for her work by many organizations and agencies.
Hoffman’s Archive Collection, which features the On the Issues back catalog, CHOICES documents, and thousands of pages on the Reproductive Rights movement is in the Merle Hoffman Papers Collection, 1994 to 2001, at Duke University.
In 2011, Hoffman endowed a director’s position for sustained leadership of the Duke University Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture.
Hoffman was born in Philadelphia and raised in New York City. Initially intent on becoming a concert pianist, she attended Chatham Square Music School studying with Stefan Wolpe and Jan Gorbaty and graduated from the High School of Music and Art.
After living and studying music in Paris, Hoffman returned to the United States and graduated from Queens College, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in 1972. She attended the Social Psychology Doctoral Program at the City University of New York Graduate Center from 1972 to 1975 studying with Dr. Stanley Milgram.
In her 2012 memoir, Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom, Hoffman recounts how she was exposed to feminist activism at Queens College in the late ’60s and early ’70s. She attended a reading by the writer Anaïs Nin and later a lecture by Florynce Kennedy, “who spoke about lesbianism and abortion, giving the class one of her famous lines: ‘If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.'” In her memoir, Hoffman recalls that her first exposure to abortion had been when she was about ten: “I overheard my parents’ discussion of a Philadelphia physician whose patient had died while he was performing an illegal procedure. To cover for himself, he cut her up in pieces and put her remains down the drain. Her Memoir also cites “Elizabeth Tudor (a.k.a. Queen Elizabeth 1st of England), for “serving as my imaginary companion and role model for as long as I can remember”.
Merle Hoffman was married to Dr. Martin Gold for almost 20 years until his death in 1999. [The New York Times, Jan. 11, 1999] In 2005, she adopted a three-year-old girl from Siberia whom she named Sasharina, a combination of Sasha – meaning defender of humanity –And Irina (her given Russian name) – meaning peace.