The CLEVELAND PRO-CHOICE ACTION COMMITTEE (1978-1984) was grassroots activist organization that supported the larger agenda of reproductive rights, including support for safe, legal and funded abortion, opposition to coercive sterilization, opposition to the Hyde Amendment, and defense of health clinics from anti-abortion demonstrators. Its membership was female (although men were not formally excluded from joining), overwhelmingly white and politically left of center. Most were lawyers, doctors, social workers, nurses, college students, teachers and college professors. A number of school students were activists as well. PCAC worked with other reproductive rights and women’s organizations such as the Cleveland chapters of the NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN (NOW), the COALITION OF LABOR UNION WOMEN (CLUW), and the National Abortion Rights League (NARAL). Its focus was on raising public consciousness – demonstrations, picket lines, and clinic defense - in the struggle to support reproductive freedom for women and less on lobbying and campaigning for politicians.

The impetus for organizing PCAC came about in response to the emergence of a well-organized and funded attack on the 1973 Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision which constitutionally protected a woman’s right to abortion up to the sixth month. In February 1978, the Ohio chapter of the anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee (RTL), targeted Akron, Ohio, the distressed, deindustrialized former rubber producing capital of the US, to be a test case for anti-abortion city ordinances. The Akron Ordinance stated that “an unborn child is a human being and a person at the moment of conception.” If passed it would have prohibited all abortions, except to save the life of the mother. Women seeking to terminate a pregnancy had to prove notification of husbands (if married), and if under 18, parental permission. Finally, the ordinance included a “Freedom of Conscience” clause which allowed hospitals to refuse to permit abortions as well as allowing hospital staff to refuse treatment to women suffering any ill effects after an abortion. The Ohio RTL promised to introduce a similar ordinance in Cleveland.

That month, on February 17, a male, pretending to be delivering a package, entered the Cleveland Concerned Women’s Clinic and doused the women there with gasoline (one was on an operating table and three other women dressed in surgical gowns were in the waiting room) and then threw a firebomb into it. This was the fifth firebombing of a health clinic in Ohio. Prior to the bombing, the clinic was vandalized, staff workers and patients harassed, their lives threatened. They received no help from the fire department or police. When clinic staff called the fire department, they were put on hold twice. One police officer told an abortion counselor, “What can you expect? People don’t like people who kill babies.”

This outrage galvanized Cleveland women, many of whom were already feminist, anti-racist, gay liberation, labor activists, members of the National Lawyers Guild, progressive doctors, medics and nurses to organize the Cleveland Pro-Choice Action Committee. In October, PCAC members joined with eight hundred others demonstrating their opposition to the Akron Ordinance, and then the next month, picketed a Cleveland RTL meeting. 

PCAC organized its first major demonstration on January 22, 1979, supporting Roe v. Wade and then demonstrating against a RTL Cleveland conference that same year. From 1979 to 1984, Cleveland RTL was always met by noisy and determined demonstrations.

Also during 1978, in a response to the continuing nationwide attacks against women’s reproductive freedom by the RTL and their supporters, over 50 feminist organizations including PCAC met at Antioch College, Yellow Springs Ohio, to form the Reproductive Rights National Network R2N2.  R2N2 campaigned for safe, funded abortions; for the right of LGBTQ+ couples to adopt and raise children, against the sterilization of poor or racially marginalized women, for funded and accessible child care and for expansion of women-controlled health clinics. R2N2 called for a demonstration in Cincinnati against the 1979 National RTL convention that was scheduled there in June. Over 1500 participated.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, an outspoken opponent of women’s reproductive rights, brought more women, including high school students into PCAC’s membership. As PCAC grew, it took up a wide range of reproductive freedom issues. The Working Women’s Committee worked with CLUW to inform women about reproductive hazards at the work place, reproductive health, including maternity leave benefits and birth control in union contracts, as well as the right to federally funded child care.

In 1981, PCAC organized a campaign warning the public about the potential dangers of the drug Depo-Provera, an injected contraceptive method for women. At the time the drug was not recommended by the FDA as a contraceptive, but for other conditions. (Dep-Provera had been used on male sex-offenders as a method of chemical castration). PCAC met with a number of women who had been injected with Depo-Provera and joined with the National Women’s Health Network in opposing the use of such a drug.

PCAC continued its demonstrations against the RTL (one in January 1981 was led by high school students), as well as public defense of Cleveland’s abortion clinics. It worked with a wide range of organizations in the Cleveland area. For example, it joined with a coalition of women’s groups which brought Judy Chicago’s "The Dinner Party" to the Cleveland Heights Civic Center. They raised enough money for the project and were able to have their name on the Judy Chicago runner named for Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in the US.

In 1982, PCAC organized an Ohio-wide student conference on Reproductive Rights, bringing together high school and college students from Cleveland, Akron, Kent, Cincinnati, Oberlin and Columbus. PCAC took up the issue of racist sterilization abuse, held demonstrations opposing the class and racial dimensions of the Hyde decision, and held public meetings on “Lesbian Organizing for Reproductive Rights.” In addition, they held public meetings on “The Politics of Midwifery,” “Disability and Abortion Rights,” “Abortion Rights Abroad,” “Teenage Sexuality,” and “Infant Mortality.”

In addition, members of PCAC attended R2N2 conferences on a regular basis. Members served on R2N2’s steering committee, and on other reproductive justice and feminist boards of directors. PCAC worked in coalitions on a wide range of campaigns, forums, demonstrations with many Cleveland progressive organizations such as the CLEVELAND ABORTION RIGHTS LEAGUE, (CARAL), Cleveland NOW, CLUW, WOMENSPACE, Health Action Forum, Women Speak Out for Peace and Justice, and the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE (NAACP).

PCAC’s more famous (and fun) activity, one which put the organization on the front page of Cleveland’s PLAIN DEALER, as well as the lead story on all three local tv stations, was its guerilla theater against Phyllis Schlafly.

PCAC’s final events took place in 1984. It organized the January picket against the Cleveland RTL, and then on International Women’s Day, organized the production of the renown actress Vinie Burroughs in her one woman play, Sister Sister. Co-sponsored with the Center for Constitutional Rights, the production was held in Cleveland’s historic Karamu Theater (See: KARAMU HOUSE). PCAC disbanded because a majority of its most active members had moved to other cities.

Barbara Winslow


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