Robin Chandler Duke

A Woman For All Seasons

VTR Date: February 13, 1996

Guest: Duke, Robin Chandler


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robin Chandler Duke
Title: A Woman for All Seasons
VTR: 2/13/96

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and the gentlewoman who is my guest today is so wonderfully adept at moving mountains that the editor-in-chief of Avenue magazine wrote that “One imagines that if she were locked in a room with the Pope himself, he’d emerge a pro-choice, condom-dispensing woman’s libber. For Robin Chandler Duke is Chair of the Population Action International, a private, non-profit public interest organization committed to early world population stabilization and public education; empowerment of women, and the expansion of voluntary family planning programs. Now, does that translate into being pro-abortion, probably the most (???) social issue before the American public today? Well, let me ask Robin Chandler Duke. Does it translate that way, Mrs. Duke?

DUKE: No, because I don’t think anybody’s pro-abortion. I think we feel it’s a medical necessity, and it’s a decision to be made between a woman and her doctor. Nobody likes it. It’s not a pleasant or happy decision to make. So none of us who support legal, safe, clinical abortion are pro-abortion.

HEFFNER: But there is such a force, such an organized force, or perhaps not so many, but there is such a powerful group of people in this country who are anti-abortion. What do you do about that force?

DUKE: Well, in the first place, I don’t think that they’re the majority, that group. But I think that they’re brilliantly organized, because they’re organized around religious affiliations. And so the force…they meet every Sunday, they can get busloads of children and send them to Washington…things we cannot do. But what we can do in a rational way, is what one ought to be able to do in a democratic process is discuss, negotiate, and say if you don’t like this issue, which we understand, don’t say that it can’t be a legal, safe procedure for others who might choose to have an abortion. And since abortion has been with us since recorded history, there isn’t any doubt in my mind that if you make it illegal it will then become a lethal killer, because women will go and resort to back-alley abortions and to means that will damage their health. And you need a mother in the family and you don’t want to put her in the position of having an abortion that’s unsafe and unclean. So our position is: keep it legal and safe. If your church or your culture is against abortion, by all means, don’t have an abortion. But we’re now facing a new problem. The same contingency that are against legal, safe, clinical abortion are against contraception. And that, for us, has been a revelation in the last few years, that we have begun to uncover. And I think we speak for the majority. And you know, it’s a funny thing. If people agree with you, they’re very apt to write you letters, or ring up. If they disagree with you, you get hate mail and you hear from them.

HEFFNER: The population, the population explosion…you say that, and your organization sees that as the primary problem we face as we go into the 21st century. Yes, very definitely, because we’ve seen the growth rate, the population double since 1850 – 1950 on our planet. And had we run a beautiful, well-ordered planet, if we’d been environmentally safe, had we done all the right things we might have less of a serious impact of this great explosion in population. But we have not. We have beaten up on our planet. We have chopped trees down, and set up erosion. We have done all sorts of things to the air, to the water; just the fish catches alone, we recognize, are being depleted, because they’ve been over-fished and the water has been abused. So frankly, there isn’t any doubt among most thoughtful, serious people that population is something to be dealt with, as we deal with environmental problems, as we deal with political unrest, as immigration. It all boils down to human beings who…just take immigration, for example. Poor people don’t leave their country because they don’t love their country. They leave because they can’t support their family, because they have no resource base, because there isn’t enough land for them to farm to take care of their own. So they go off into developed nations, which is what we’re seeing right now. In Europe and America, the population rates are increased by immigration of poor people who are seeking some kind of solace and some kind of maintenance of life to take care of their families.

HEFFNER: Now, what is the connection that you draw between population control and abortion?

DUKE: Well, we don’t use the terminology “population control”. We just don’t because I think it’s a tough word, (laughter), but anyway, “control”…but what we say is…

HEFFNER: Why do you find that a difficult combination of words?

DUKE: Because “control” always seems to send out the message that you’re trying to “control” the population; in that, in the sense that, you know, coercing people. We believe in voluntary use of contraception and educating people regarding the use of contraception. If we had the perfect world, it would be that people knew about all these resources and could, in effect, utilize those resources. And actually, you would have far less abortion if we were able to reach those people with contraception. Abortion wouldn’t be the abrasive issue it is if we could get out the contraception and the education regarding the use of it and have every kind of contraception. Instead, the people who fight and are against us, legal, safe abortion, as I just said, are also against contraception. And they boycott pharmaceutical companies that have been doing research and are in the forefront of better contraception for both men and women. And as you probably know, it’s been primarily a woman’s responsibility to bear the contraception, whatever it was. Very few men were willing to assume any responsibility in the third world to utilize any kind of contraception. But if you had more contraception, you would have less abortion. And we have proven in the last thirty years that we have gotten out, I would say, contraception to 50% of the world’s fertile couples. If we could reach up to 75%, we would begin to see the turnaround in the world’s population growth rates.

HEFFNER: Now, do you expect to achieve that?

DUKE: Well, we did until the recent decisions in Congress, which have been doing everything to us, particularly on the House side; everything to the population organizations which are voluntary like mine, and we receive no government money. Our money comes from big foundations and individuals. We saw the prospect down the road, as the U.S. ws the leader, in being able to reach that 75% of the world’s fertile couples with education and commodities of all kinds, a full array of contraception. But now they have cut the budgets so sharply, and it’s been done with a kind of gun to the head. Chris Smith, who is a Congressman in New Jersey wrote a series of amendments to our foreign assistance bills making it so tough, that the government was coming to a standstill over these issues. And so in order to settle it so that the FY96 funding could come forward, an agreement had to be made in the White House, between the Senate and the House, to move the Foreign Aid Bill forward. At least it’s gone forward to keep the government in business until March 15th! But the cuts financially are gigantic, because that was the trade-off. And so that’s where we are. And so there isn’t the money we expected to do the job with our colleagues out there, with all the Western developed nations, because we’re the ones who spearheaded a lot of this with the Scandinavians, going back some 30 years. And I don’t know if you know the history of this, but if you let me, I will just tell you briefly…

HEFFNER: Please.

DUKE: Ah, President Eisenhower asked a blue ribbon commission to go out and look at foreign aid and decide, to bring back to him some basic decisions about “what was it doing out there”? Is it effective? Are we taking our taxpayers’ money in the right way to help these nations who are desperate, who have major problems? So General Draper, and McClure (???), a distinguished group of men went out to study this problem, they came back to President Eisenhower and they said, “Sir, we know a lot of things that’s doing, this foreign aid from America, but we want to tell you one thing it’s not doing. It is not addressing the most important problem, that people are having 10-12 children, and they can‘t feed them, and they can’t educate them. And the tragedy is a wasted mind, a wasted life, because it’s never educated. And the mother, usually…there are high mortality rates among mothers who die after producing so many children and having a limited nutritional diet and even being able to take care of these children. Something must be done. They must chop firewood to cook their food, and as a consequence they’re eroding their forests. And the gases in the air from all these fossil fuels are destroying their environment.” So Eisenhower, of course, when you get right down to the nitty-gritty, is talking about human fertility. It is talking about sex. And there is no more retarded nation in the world than the United States when it comes to sex. Now, there’s pornographic sex all over the place, but when it comes to constructive discussion about it in the public school system, it’s taboo. And even with the introduction of this terrible virus of AIDS, you still can’t get, you know, you get a fight over the distribution of condoms. And you’re trying to protect youngsters. You want to educate them, and tell them…you don’t want to encourage them to go into sexual relationships, but you want them to know the consequences of disease, and the seriousness of getting pregnant and having a baby you can’t take care of, and yet we can’t do these things. And yet you can go out and see a dirty movie, and you can even turn it on on television, unfortunately. So…

HEFFNER: Now, when Mario Cuomo was my guest here, the other week, someone said to me when they saw the show, “you weren’t needed. Mario was so articulate, you just had to ask the question. You could have gone home.” I feel that way, too. I’m not needed here. You’re so incredibly articulate about this, and I think the quotation from the magazine, from Avenue, is correct. That you’d expect if you were locked in a room with the Pope himself, HE’D emerge pro-choice. Why then, quite seriously, do you remain hopeful if your presentation has found itself up against a stone wall? If, as you say, until a short time ago, you thought we were going to make the goal that you mentioned, how do you maintain your hopefulness here, one. Two, how do you account for it?

DUKE: I’m the wallflower at the ball, I guess. (Laughter)


DUKE: But…no, I think I understand it, in that there are certain elements in the society…first of all in the American society, which are very puritanical. That’s for starters. You will admit, that there isn’t any other nation you can think of…you don’t think of Jacques Chirac, or John Major, or anybody, would be running on the abortion issue, because it would be ridiculous. The world is looking at us wondering “What are those Americans doing over there?”. I would say that we’re out of a very puritanical society, going back to our roots. I would say that controlling people, which is a very important fact within the religious community, is part of it, and it gets people very excited. And if you look at the role of women over time, the effort has always been made, through women, to control. I mean, they’ve been victims of circumcision, female circumcision, which is a horrendous thing that’s done, but on the other hand, part of that is to control the woman.

HEFFNER: We’re not now talking about America, though.

DUKE: You’re not talking about America, no, but what we are talking about is that in America, you have this overlay of control of what I call the coalition of churches, which feel this is one way of controlling the population.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting…

DUKE: …the population…

HEFFNER: …you talk about controlling the population. I thought you were going to say, and I could certainly embrace the idea, that it’s a means of controlling women.

DUKE: Of course, sure…

HEFFNER: But they’re…

DUKE: …but they’re the instrument…


DUKE: Mm hmm…

HEFFNER: They’re the instrument in terms of controlling the population.

DUKE: And they talk about family, and how the family has deteriorated. If you…you know, tracking a lot of the dialogue that’s used by the anti-abortionists…they even go so far as to call a man, like the young boy Salvi, who killed two young girls in the Boston clinics, where they gave abortion services…they called him a hero. You can kill young women who are alive, sitting at their desks, and they compare that with the abortion procedure.

HEFFNER: But now you’re going further and further out to the fringe.

DUKE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: You’re not talking now about, ah, the substantial number of people proportionately, who must have voted in the recent Iowa Caucus primary, for candidates who are strongly anti-abortion. How deep is this?

DUKE: It’s a very brilliantly organized minority, from the polls we take around the country. But I must tell you…that you know, that if Helen Gurley Brown, my very darling friend, asked you probably on very bended knee to have me on this show! We can’t get on television. Once we were on with Don Hewitt, on 60 Minutes and wanted to discuss population. We took them into the barrios in Mexico, we showed them what the problems were. That’s the last time I’ll get one of my people on 60 Minutes. We…it is a subject that most people don’t want to talk about. You deal with serious…I think they’re serious…important issues. But I promise you, the only way now, which is what I told her, that we’re going to win this battle, is to get on television and talk about it intelligently, if we can, and make people understand that in the long run, even from a practical point of view, it is economically more sound to encourage the use of contraception, to move toward educating young people about sex, than it is to continue with abortion fighting. If you don’t like abortion, for goodness sakes, get on the stick and make sure that children in public school have education about sex.

HEFFNER: And now, just between the two of us, what do you think is going to happen in this country on this question?

DUKE: Well, I don’t think it’s going to be the lynchpin of the election, and what is going to happen, in my opinion, is that people who have made it the front and center piece of their campaigns are not going to win. I have…obviously that’s a very strong conviction I have, because most of the time…I can tell you stories, chapter and verse, of traveling not the world, but the United States…and sitting between two men at dinner parties and having them tell me they’re on my team, BUT, “Robin, I don’t want to give your organization any money because I don’t want to be associated with that sort of thing. You know, it’s all about sex and the rest of it”. And I’d say, “But look, sex is what…this is what it’s all about!” And why can’t we be intelligent about it and talk about it and be constructive, if, in fact, you know, you can, as I said before, avail yourself of pornographic sex. That’s OK. It seems to be acceptable. Nobody’s going out there picketing the television stations that are running these naughty sex programs. But we are the subject victimized, because, in effect, this has been one of the most brilliant instruments that I think the coalitions, the right-wing people, have ever gotten their teeth into. And, you know, it was no problem before ’73. Roe/Wade, in the ’73 ruling, in the Supreme Court, triggered…brought out all these people who are fanatical, and they say things like abortion on demand. We never supported abortion on demand! IN the ninth month of pregnancy…you couldn’t expect…this is a living child that’s born. We don’t endorse infanticide. The Supreme court ruling has very positive parameters during which time you can obtain an abortion, under what circumstances, and all that goes into that whole process.

HEFFNER: You say that about the Roe v. Wade decision. But when you get down to it, and when you use viability as your primary guideline…

DUKE: Yes, when you get into the third trimester…

HEFFNER: Well, you say…I say “viability”. You say “when you get into the third trimester”…suppose we come to understand that viability is moving closer and closer and closer to the very beginning…

DUKE: Mm hmm…

HEFFNER: …of conception. Then what are you going to do? Are you prepared to wage that battle? If you stand on viability, then it’s not going to be this date, it’s going to be a much, much earlier date if we learn now…think of the scientific developments since Roe v. Wade. Don’t you think that that makes the notion of viability a very tricky matter?

DUKE: I don’t think there is any question about it, which is why we say repeatedly that this should be a fundamental issue that is a medical issue. And I can’t pretend to be a doctor, and I can’t sit here and say that I am, but what I do say to you is that this is why we feel that the whole question of abortion should be between a woman and her doctor, and he makes these decisions for her. If a woman, in my opinion, were very far along into her third trimester, but it was a matter of life or death, I think the mother’s life should be saved. That’s what I think. But that’s my own personal conviction. And I’m…this is very delicate territory…this is why this is such a difficult issue. But I certainly believe, as hard as it is to resolve, I…as I said, feel it should be focused, basically, on getting out more contraception, to have less need for abortion. But you’re never going to get rid of abortion. Since recorded history, women have self-induced, and done m any things to damage their health, and in many cases, render themselves sterile.

HEFFNER: Then how…

DUKE: All to end a pregnancy.

HEFFNER: Then how do you fare in terms of contraception? We know the political problems in the area of abortion. What’s happening in the contraception area? You’re saying that certain people…

DUKE: Well, ultimately, what’s going to happen…I won’t be here, because being at my age, I’ll be long gone…ultimately, we have contraception today that you can use the day…Let’s say you have a sexual relationship and you think that the diaphragm broke, or the condom broke, or you didn’t use contraception. The very next morning you can take two high-dose Ovral contraceptive pills. This is called…a whole new technology…these are a whole new contraceptive pill that women take when they are trying not to have a pregnancy. And they twelve hours later take two more. And you’ve protected yourself before there’s an implantation on the wall of the uterus. So it’s before conception. Now, we cannot get, in the United States today…the manufacturers of contraceptive pills, to label this instruction, for the patient and the doctor, because again, they’re afraid of a boycott. And we’ve tried every technique…I sit on the Board of a pharmaceutical company…I deal with a lot of corporate men on a lot of these issues. The fear of boycott…

HEFFNER: Economic reprisal…

DUKE: Yeah. The fear of…if you knew what happened to Nestle…I went over that whole procedure…this was about a milk formula causing malnutrition in the third world…it was inappropriately and dishonestly reported out. I don’t think the press was dishonest. They got the wrong information. And it was finally proven that we were right. But in the process, all these companies that made milk formula, Bristol-Myers, American Home, Nestle, were all boycotted. And these men who run these companies are beholden to shareholders. And this is where the pressure is put on. And these organizations, who are one-issue people, focus on these things. And that’s what we’re dealing with with the anti-abortion people. And, you know, Democracy is compromised. I couldn’t understand better if you don’t approve of abortion. We want to be just as cooperative and work this out with you. But don’t say that those of us who feel that it should be kept legal and safe should be denied the use of these services. And we are saying, in the world population scope of it, you wouldn’t have some of these problems if you had more research on contraception, better products out there, and have them available to everyone.

HEFFNER: Is the “Morning After” pill, so-called…has this been sufficiently tested in your estimation?

DUKE: Oh, yes. You know, they didn’t change the name of the French drug from RU-46 because there are so many problems associated with it, and yet what we’re talking about is available in Europe by French women. I mean, if you look at religion, and the organized coalition of religion in this country today, it’s interesting how much more conservative it is in the United States than elsewhere, and this is what’s driving our foreign policy. And it’s keeping us from being on the crest of the wave, leading people on the whole question of world population. And unless we look at world population, unless we know that one of the important ways to help women is by educating them about their fertility we are going to be missing an opportunity that will be very hard to capture again. And abortion is a side-bar of this, but in the United States it’s driving the foreign policy.

HEFFNER: You make it sound, and you undoubtedly mean this, as if our level of enlightenment is key to what happens around the rest of the world.

DUKE: Yes, because we were the leaders. We were the people…we went forward to the UN and said, “You should have an agency in the United Nations addressing population. So, in fact, there is the United Nations Fund for Population under UNDP, led by a Pakistan woman doctor who is also a public service, a public officer of the Public School of Education at Hopkins, a brilliant woman. This is…every nation in the UN has joined in supporting this agency. We’ve been de-funding them for quite a few years.

HEFFNER: But you say…we have less than a minute left…I need to ask you the question in a sense…not quite “so, what?”, but can’t the rest of the world, more enlightened than we are, less concerned with sex…

DUKE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: …carry this game?

DUKE: No. The United States…they look to us all the time…look at us, we’re in Bosnia now. Why didn’t Europe get that crowd together and have a man called Holbrook in Bosnia. We are the leaders of the world. This is our…this is the responsibility we inherited. And, and people still…all over look to the United States for that kind of leadership. And we have given that kind of leadership.

HEFFNER: Well, listening to you, I don’t know how we’ve resisted. Mrs. Duke, thank you so much for joining me today and I suppose it’s not appropriate for me on The Open Mind to say “Good luck”, but I’ll say it anyway. Thank you.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us here again on The Open Mind. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $4.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.