Why you should care
Because now, more than ever, is a good time to remember our reproductive past.
“How do you define reproductive freedom?” asks Cindy Cooper, an activist, journalist and tour guide. Our group of 16 shared answers with each other before shouting out replies. “Sex with fewer consequences,” said one. “Autonomy of body,” said another. “Having children when ready” and “Every person’s right” were two more answers.
This is how the Reproductive Freedom Tour of Lower Manhattan begins. The two-hour talk and walk takes participants to significant places in the history of reproductive health and justice: illegal abortion meeting sites, one-time hospitals, radical cafes, condom factories, churches and more.
It’s a joint effort between Social Justice Tours and Words of Choice (a pro-choice theater performance and company that Cooper produces). The former leads a variety of walks on topics like gentrification, environmental justice, queer history and women’s history, but Cooper’s tour is their first based on reproduction. It’s also currently the only one of its kind in the United States.
Cooper takes on that mantle seriously, and it’s clear that she’s done her homework. Participants are taken back to the 19th century: Early stops include a visit to the offices of Anthony Comstock — an anti-vice crusader who opposed explicit literature, art and anything that referred to sex publicly — and to the workroom of Ann Trow Lohman, a woman more commonly known as Madame Restell, who provided birth control, abortion and adoption services to women in the city. When abortion became illegal in New York in 1845, Restell was arrested and imprisoned in what is now Roosevelt Island. Comstock had Restell arrested again a few years later for distributing birth control pills. With a possible prison sentence looming, Restell committed suicide.
Heavy subjects indeed, which is why Cooper brings along Alinca Hamilton, a cast member with Words of Choice, to help make the details more accessible. Every few stops, Hamilton reads first-person accounts and slam poetry. These performances are a way to create “analogies and images that help people connect in a new way,” said Cooper. “And theater, in particular, can be transformational. It provides the opportunity to think about your own experiences, find out something new, or maybe even have an epiphany.”
Like with many of the tour stops, the locations are much less remarkable than the stories told next to them.
Artful additions aside, later stops are just as jarring. There’s a storefront on Thompson Street where young women would stand waiting (with a flower) to be picked up, blindfolded and driven to New Jersey or East New York for abortions. And there are old tenements on Sullivan Street, where Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood’s founder, fought for birth control (“She had her pluses and minuses,” said Cooper, noting Sanger’s involvement in the eugenics movement). Now, it’s another trendy coffee shop. This doesn’t change the gravitas of the place, however; like with many of the tour stops, the locations are much less remarkable than the stories told next to them.
One remarkable stop is Polly’s restaurant, a liberal hangout from the early 20th century where artists and political activists — like anarchist writer Emma Goldman — were regulars. It’s followed by visits to churches that helped refer people to clinics for safe abortions.
The two-mile-long tour is still in its early stages, but, according to Cooper, it couldn’t come at a more necessary moment. In light of the recent religious exemption “conscience rule” from the Department of Health and Human Services, and the restrictive abortion laws in Alabama, Missouri, Georgia, Ohio, Louisiana, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi and Indiana, this tour contextualizes the current struggle for reproductive rights in the U.S. over the last 150 years. The tour also explores the people and places deeply germane to the fight for reproductive freedom.
“This tour is always timely, but obviously we’re facing a new slope of challenges,” said Cooper. But what’s good, she added, is that “people are becoming more aware and more active to support abortion rights and intersectional feminism.” This iteration of the walk officially began on Mother’s Day in May 2019, but Cooper held a similar tour five years ago for one day only, on the 50th anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut, a Supreme Court decision that ruled in favor of access to contraceptives.
In spite of its timeliness, it’s not a tour for everyone. (For some, the reasons are obvious.) Cooper doesn’t shy away from sharing grisly details, and it could be too overwhelming for some people — but there hasn’t been any pushback so far, she said. Instead, Cooper hopes others start up their own reproductive justice walking tours in their own communities — she’s even published an online “Do One Anywhere” toolkit as a resource.
“Don’t agonize, organize,” Hamilton tells our group, quoting the renowned lawyer and feminist Florynce Kennedy, as the tour concludes amidst ice cream carts and ukulele-playing college students at Washington Square Park. Meanwhile, Cooper hands out pins and a list of nonprofits and activist groups to support.
“This is not going to go away,” she said. “Fighting for reproductive freedom is a lifelong endeavor.”
- How to book: The tours happen a few times a month, generally on Sundays (but some weekdays as well) and will continue for the foreseeable future. Check the website for dates and to book.
- Fee: $12 per person (10 percent is donated to the New York Abortion Access Fund).
- Length: Tours last approximately two to two and a half hours long, and involve about 2 miles of walking. Wear comfortable shoes, and bring water!