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Review: Intimate Wars by Merle Hoffman

May 25, 2012

Intimate Wars coverTitle: Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom
Author: Hoffman, Merle
Length: 269 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Publisher / Year: Feminist Press / 2012
Source: Feminist Press subscription
Rating: 4/5
Why I Read It: It seemed to fit my recent theme of women’s health.
Date Read: 15/04/12

Hoffman is a true example of a woman who has lived many lives. In her early life she was a classic pianist, and she went on to found Choices, an abortion clinic in New York. In this book she takes us through her life and the various careers or almost careers she’s had, giving us a glimpse of how she came to do the various things for which she became known.

The clinic that Hoffman first ran was started mainly as a way to provide service to patients rather than refer them out, it wasn’t started based on feminist ideals. Through her experience in this clinic Hoffman learned more about the issues women faced in having any kind of autonomy over their bodies or their options, and the ways in which they were mistreated by physicians. All of this worked together to make Hoffman the women’s rights pioneer that she became.

The concept of women as consumers of medical care rather than passive recipients of treatment – the awareness that women’s holding to traditional relationships with physicians was ultimately destructive to them individually and as a class – led to my formulating and expanding on a philosophy that would soon become a movement. I called it Patient Power. (page 82)

This focus on women’s needs and the requirements for doctors to take them seriously was new and not easy for doctors to adopt. While Hoffman describes the early days of her clinic and the struggles she faced day by day with it, she also talks a lot about why abortions have always been around and their importance in women’s lives. Through this she talks as well about the opponents of abortion and the ways in which things like fetal rights campaigns are used as a way to “reinforce the status quo” (page 145) and to prioritize cells over the life of a woman.

“Choice” is sometimes not a choice at all. It is an outcome determined by the economic, physical, sociological, and political factors that surround women and move them toward the only action that allows them to survive at that point in their lives. Survival can sometimes be a woman’s act of staying alive, but it can also be her act of refusing to put what will become an impossible burden on her shoulders. (page 108)

While I don’t agree with everything Hoffman did (for example, eventually she decided she wanted a child and so she adopted a baby from Russia… and renamed her), she certainly did a lot to put women’s rights in the health care system as a priority. She also didn’t shy away from the issues of class and race and the ways in which women of means always had more access, as many did. I think her memoir shows how much can be done by anyone with a drive to do what is right and to do it well. It also shows how we all travel our own path and that how we get to where we are going isn’t always as important as what we do when we get there.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in women’s rights, women’s health, or the feminist movement in the United States. If you enjoy well-written memoirs about individuals who have helped to change and shape the world, you won’t be disappointed.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. zibilee permalink
    May 25, 2012 10:28 am

    I totally agree with that excerpt that states that abortion is not always a choice. Plenty of people like to get on their soapboxes about what is basically one individual’s right to control their own body, and it gets out of hand and really ugly sometimes. I have to wonder, if abortion was an issue that men had to deal with, would the ire and antagonistic behavior be the same as it is for women? Very powerful and intelligent review today, Amy. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    • May 26, 2012 11:43 am

      Heh, I think along those lines often as well zibilee. If it were men’s health, we’d not be having any of these debates, it would just be allowed!

  2. aartichapati permalink
    May 25, 2012 12:22 pm

    I completely agree with Heather above. I feel like if it were men that had to make these decisions, there would be a much more nuanced view of abortion than there is now. And then MAYBE it would make sense that no women were involved in the Congressional discussions about birth control rights. I think that’s what bothers me the MOST about this whole situation in the US now – that they want to make abortion illegal but also want to severely restrict women’s access to birth control. Ahhh!!

    • May 26, 2012 11:44 am

      Yep Aarti, I think so as well. I really can’t wrap my head around the amount of control a group of mainly men are trying to exert over women’s bodies… again. Scary.

  3. Brian Joseph permalink
    May 25, 2012 6:18 pm

    Amy – You continue to post commentary on one interesting book after another!

    This one seems very important at the moment. If anyone follows the political situation in the United States, I am not exaggerating in saying we are one Supreme Court appointment away from the abortion being illegal in well over a dozen states. There is a real possibility that we may see women and doctors going to jail very soon for making this choice.

    • May 26, 2012 11:45 am

      Thank you very much Brian. I’ve been on a random but interesting train of books lately :) It’s scary in the US right now, I am so happy to be Canadian… not that it is perfect here either.

  4. May 26, 2012 5:36 pm

    I am in complete agreement that many women have no autonomy over their bodies and that they end up having to make ‘choices’ based on the economic, physical, sociological, and political factors that surround them. This seems to me like a compromise.

    Recent news on the sterilization of women in Uzbekistan without their consent is a classic example.

    The problem is that many women are either ignorant of their civil rights or are denied them. Some cultures force women to succumb to male dominance where, unfortunately, most men are not well informed on the physiological, psychological and various other needs of women.

    Hoffman is right when she says:

    “Survival can sometimes be a woman’s act of staying alive, but it can also be her act of refusing to put what will become an impossible burden on her shoulders.”

  5. May 30, 2012 1:54 pm

    This is such an important book. Hoffman does so well in her exposing all these issue women go true. I could not agree more with Zibilee.

  6. June 7, 2012 8:44 am

    Interesting review!

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