WASHINGTON, Sept. 21 Kate Michelman said today that she would step down as president of Naral Pro-Choice America, ending 18 years at the helm of the country's most vocal group advocating abortion as a legal right for women.
Ms. Michelman, 61, became one of the grandes dames of the reproductive rights debate by interpreting her mandate broadly. She campaigned for state and national politicians who supported abortion rights, testified at Congressional hearings, started national advertising campaigns, worked to expand access to clinics providing abortions, and protested and marched in the streets.
She said she would leave her post on April 30, 2004, to care for her ailing husband and their daughter. Ms. Michelman said she gave the group's board at least six months' notice, allowing her to lead a march in Washington on April 25 in favor of abortion rights.
For all of her efforts, Ms. Michelman said today in an interview that her opponents had been gaining ground and might win the debate.
"Women face today as grave a threat as ever to their Constitutional right to personal privacy and to a choice," she said.
Since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade granting the right to abortion, states have enacted more than 350 laws restricting it. As a result of these restrictions and growing fears of violent retaliation against doctors who perform abortions, Ms. Michelman said, as many as 90 percent of American counties do not have abortion facilities.
"Americans have become complacent in the belief that this right will never be taken away, and they are wrong," she said.
Ms. Michelman was a frequent target of opponents of abortion. They argued that her compassion for the woman with an unwanted pregnancy did not extend to any moral concern about the terminated pregnancy.
Ms. Michelman regularly countered that accusation with the story of her own abortion in 1970. She was a recently abandoned mother of three young daughters on welfare when she found out she was pregnant.
"It was a very, very difficult decision to make to have an abortion," she said.
Then she discovered it would be even more difficult to have the abortion. Her only recourse outside of an illegal abortion was to win permission from her estranged husband and from an all-male hospital board, she said.
"It was a humiliating process that changed my life," she said. "From then on I was personally and professionally dedicated to advancing the right of women to choose."
Her activism also has roots in her teenage years in Defiance, Ohio, where she became involved in civil rights protests to help immigrants.
She earned her university degree in developmental psychology and did clinical work in early childhood development.
"My lifelong work on behalf of women's rights derives from my work with these disadvantaged mothers, many of whom had no choice over whether to have children and very little means for raising them," she said.
Later she became executive director of Planned Parenthood in Harrisburg, Pa., concentrating on expanding reproductive health services.
But it was as the leader of what was then known as the National Abortion Rights Action League that Ms. Michelman became a familiar name and then a familiar face on television in the increasingly polarized and violent debate over abortion and women's reproductive rights.
She used that spotlight to promote national candidates, including Bill Clinton, whom she praised as the "first fully pro-choice president."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company