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Lawrence Lader, leading abortion rights activist

LOS ANGELES -- In the abortion rights movement, Lawrence Lader was a standout -- and not just because he was a man in a feminist's world.

Mr. Lader, called the father of the abortion rights movement by Betty Friedan -- and less flattering names, such as ''abortion's chief propagandist," by antiabortion groups -- died May 7 of colon cancer in New York City. He was 86.

He wrote a groundbreaking 1966 book, ''Abortion," that the US Supreme Court cited eight times in Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that gave women the right to end a pregnancy.

He helped found the leading abortion rights organization -- now called NARAL Pro-Choice America -- and became the movement's first male spokesperson.

He devised attention-getting tactics, including risking arrest to import RU-486, the controversial abortion pill made in Europe.

He also sued the Catholic Church, alleging that it had violated tax exemption laws by supporting political candidates with antiabortion stands. He lost that fight, but not without earning headlines that helped focus attention on the cause that consumed his life.

''Larry was an innovator . . . and he didn't take 'no' for an answer. He kept thinking and would go to the next step. That was very, very important," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Born in New York City, Mr. Lader was the son of a businessman whose family owned a company that made food additives. He went to Harvard University, where he discovered Karl Marx and dated a woman with ideas considered extreme for the times.

After they were married in 1942, Jean MacInnis kept her maiden name and a separate bank account. ''It was established between us that her personhood was independent, and she was guaranteed all social and legal rights," Mr. Lader wrote in ''Ideas Triumphant, Strategies for Social Change and Progress," published in 2003. They divorced in 1946.

Mr. Lader met Friedan, a Smith College student, through MacInnis's circle of friends. Friedan would change the world with her 1963 bestseller ''The Feminine Mystique." Soon after that, she would join Mr. Lader in founding the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws; the group eventually adopted the name NARAL Pro-Choice.

Mr. Lader served in World War II, working for Armed Forces Radio. His war dispatches from the Pacific theater were published in the New Yorker, which launched his career as a writer whose work appeared in Esquire, Look, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, and other leading publications.

As he approached middle age, Mr. Lader decided to write a book. He settled on Margaret Sanger, the pioneering advocate of birth control who founded Planned Parenthood.

His biography of the feminist icon was published in 1955, after three years of research that included extensive interviews with Sanger, then in her 70s. He admired her fiery commitment and said she ''undoubtedly was the greatest influence on my life."

Sanger knew little about abortion except for the horrible consequences often suffered by women who visited back-alley practitioners. Mr. Lader wanted to know more, but when he surveyed scientific literature, he was stunned at how little had been published.

Due largely to Sanger's belief in ''inviolable personhood," he ultimately concluded that a woman's body belonged to herself alone and that a woman ''controlled the fetus she was nurturing."

That belief led him to write ''Abortion," which Friedan called ''an authoritative study of the hypocrisy and absurdity of abortion practices." Beginning with the sentence ''Abortion is the dread secret of our society," it offered a thorough, carefully documented examination of the topic, from the underground system for obtaining the procedure to the philosophical and religious views of abortion going back to Plato's time.

His discussion of the legal history of abortion was cited in the majority opinion for Roe vs. Wade.

In 1969, his Manhattan living room became the incubator for the group now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America. Mr. Lader's insistence on repealing, not just reforming, abortion laws was the ''seminally important thing Larry did," said Kelli Conlin, president of the New York chapter of NARAL Pro-Choice. ''Many people in the reproductive rights movement before abortion was legalized . . . were worried about backlash. Larry was part of a visionary caucus that said no, we have to work for absolute repeal of the nation's abortion laws. He proved that bold actions were the only way to get things done."

In 1975, when his term on NARAL's board expired, he founded Abortion Rights Mobilization. Its main mission became lifting the US ban on RU-486.

His most dramatic act came in 1992 when he flew to London with a pregnant Berkeley social worker named Leona Benten to obtain a dozen RU-486 pills. Then he faxed letters to US customs officials to alert them to his and Benten's arrival at New York's Kennedy International Airport. Customs officers confiscated the pills, igniting a blaze of publicity for the drug that Mr. Lader believed had the potential to end the abortion wars.

Mr. Lader kept pressing the cause of abortion rights until his death, said his wife of 45 years, Joan Summers. One of his last acts was to pay for an ad in a Sioux Falls paper protesting South Dakota's new law banning abortions.

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