Claire Lipschultz's mother, pictured  around  the time that her own mother almost died from an illegal abortion.
Claire Lipschultz's mother, pictured around the time that her own mother almost died from an illegal abortion.

Q&A: How abortion laws shaped three generations of this family

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As an activist for abortion rights since the 1970s, an attorney and a member (now board vice president) of the National Council of Jewish Women, Claire Lipschultz has been open about her own abortion story. But the incident divided her family. Only as her mother was dying did Lipschultz learn a family secret that would make her activism all the more personal, bringing home the importance of safe access to abortion.

The year was 2009. Lipschultz’s mother was in hospice care, and the two of them were watching the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor when Lipschultz’s mother, 89, said something that shocked her.

A resident of Carmichael outside Sacramento, Lipschultz, 70, told this story to J. following the leak of a draft opinion from the Supreme Court that indicated the justices would overturn the seminal decision Roe v. Wade. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What did your mother say that startled you so much?

My mother commented that she was really glad a woman — hopefully — was going to be on the Supreme Court and that she was also pleased there would be protections for abortion. I was really surprised by that.

Why was that?

In 1975, I was going to law school in New York, and I came home on a semester break. Just prior to my coming home, I had an abortion. I was in no situation to have a child. I did not want a child. Because it was 1975 [after Roe v. Wade had passed in 1973], I was able to go to a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York City, where I was treated with grace and support. With no shaming, I was able to have the procedure — which went well and I was able to go on with my life.

Claire Lipschultz
Claire Lipschultz

I had the discharge papers in my suitcase when I went home for semester break. My mother found the papers, and she went nuts. I mean, she was utterly livid that I had brought this kind of shame upon the family. How could I? It was shame and disgust and horror. Her reaction was huge and it was terrible. But we went on and never discussed it, and never discussed abortion again until that day.

After she talked about supporting abortion rights, how did you react?

When I expressed my surprise at her supportive reaction, she told me a story that had lived with her for 80 years, one that she had never shared.

Her mother, Clara, my namesake, was an immigrant and a mother of five, and the family was impoverished. My grandmother’s mental and physical health was not good, and she found out she was pregnant. There were no options for her to get a safe abortion, and so she sought out anybody who would be able to perform the procedure.

When she came back to the little two-room apartment in Chicago where the seven of them lived, my grandmother was in extreme pain, which became worse and worse. In fact, she was hemorrhaging. My grandfather fled the apartment. He couldn’t stand to listen to the howls of pain, leaving my poor mother, who was 9 or 10 at the time, certain her mother was going to die on the bathroom floor. My grandmother did survive. But the trauma was very deep in my mother.

Claire Lipschultz's grandmother did survive her abortion.
Claire Lipschultz’s grandmother did survive her abortion.

Were you better able to understand her reaction to your abortion once she’d told you this story?

She explained that the notion of me having a procedure that had almost killed her mother so scared her that she was beside herself.

She was able to say, all those years later, that she understood how important it was for there to be safe abortions and that she hoped — because she knew I was an activist — I would continue to be at the forefront ensuring that all people are able to access abortions when they need one, for whatever reason. In a sense, that was her dying wish.

I was already on the path of being an abortion access activist and advocate, and hearing my grandmother’s story was another important element to my commitment that we never, never go back to those ways.

I’ll just say, as a postscript, that when I was ready, when I had the right partner, I became a mother, and I was able to pursue a life path as an attorney and an activist that I would not have been able to pursue if I had been unable to access an abortion.

How does Judaism inform your activism around abortion access?

Being part of the National Council of Jewish Women, I became aware of how Jewish law and text support a person’s right to bodily autonomy. I first understood abortion access as a constitutionally protected right. I also came to understand the issue as a religious freedom issue.

[Anti-abortion views] follow from a narrow Christian perspective of when life begins. It’s not the Jewish perspective. By imposing a Christian description of the conception of when life begins, other religions are not allowed to practice as they believe. So basically, restricting abortion rights is imposing their religious views on others, which is also unconstitutional under our protection of religious freedom.

As an activist, what are you concerned about right now, with Roe likely to be struck down?

Thirteen states have on the books [anti-abortion] trigger laws that will come into effect as soon as the final decision comes down, with another 13 or so poised to pass such laws. And some of those states are beginning to restrict medication abortions as well. They’re restricting telehealth, saying OK, we can’t restrict the medication, but we can say you have to go to your doctor’s office to get it. If there are no clinics in the state of Texas that provide abortion services, well, how are you going to be able to go to a doctor’s office to get the medication?

We must marshal our forces to get federal legislation passed that will codify the protections for abortions. We also have to act at the state level because at least for a while, that’s where the battles are going to be fought. We need to be strong advocates, at the state houses and within our communities, to reverse and stop further criminalization and civil liability for people who receive abortions and anybody who abets them.

I respect all the young people out there who currently are active on the issue. I do believe that because they have grown up in a post-Roe world, it’s hard for them to imagine a time when people didn’t have these choices.

It’s a big, long battle, and I think that from a Jewish perspective, we also need to have our Jewish community leaders speak out about how abortion access is a Jewish value and how not being able to exercise that value is an abrogation of our religious freedom.

Why have you made this story — your story, your mother’s story, your grandmother’s story — public?

I feel that it’s really important to tell my abortion story because it is important for us to say the word “abortion” and to let people know that people they know and love have abortions. One in four people of reproductive age in this country will have abortions.

If you’ve had an abortion, say so. Try to be comfortable with sharing your story so people understand that it is our friends, our sisters, our colleagues, our nieces who have abortions.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.