The “Never-Ending Story” of the Fight for Reproductive Rights

“The past is never dead; it isn’t even past.” Weekend read from Linda Greenhouse, in the NYTImes, on the long history of human tragedies and inhuman legislative tinkering:

… [T]he German pharmaceutical company that had once made thalidomide, a sedative that 50 years ago led to deformed or missing limbs in thousands of babies whose mothers took it during pregnancy, [has] issued an “apology” to the drug’s victims.

The route that led me from there to thoughts of the Republican platform ran through one of the most compelling stories in pre-Roe v. Wade America: the story of Sherri Chessen, a mother of four young children who left the United States for Sweden in order to obtain a legal abortion after learning, to her horror, the consequences of the pill she had taken to help with morning sickness early in a much-wanted pregnancy. (Thalidomide was not available in the United States, but her husband had picked up a prescription as a sleeping aid while on a business trip to London.) The fetus she was carrying turned out, as feared, to have neither arms nor legs.

It was 1962 — “50 years and two weeks ago,” Ms. Chessen said when we spoke on the phone this week. Sherri Finkbine, as the national media dubbed her, bestowing on her a married name she never used, lived at the time in Phoenix, where she was Miss Sherri on the Phoenix franchise of the popular children’s television program “Romper Room.” Abortion was illegal in every state, and Arizona, like most states, had an exception only for abortions necessary to save a woman’s life.

It’s unclear from the language of the Republican platform — “we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed” — whether the Republicans would permit even that single exception….

In any event, Ms. Chessen’s situation matched no exception, either then or those proffered by the Republican nominee today. Her own life was not in danger, but she was well connected, and her doctor arranged for a Phoenix hospital to give her a quiet abortion. However, wanting to warn other women who might unknowingly be in her position, she told her story, on the promise of anonymity, to a Phoenix newspaper editor she knew. The newspaper kept its promise, but the article it published under the headline “Baby-Deforming Drug May Cost Woman Her Child Here” caused a sensation and led the hospital to cancel the scheduled procedure. Soon enough, her name became public and she was on the cover of Life magazine, on her way to Sweden after concluding that she had no prospect of obtaining a legal abortion anywhere in the United States. Upon her return, she lost her job, expelled from “Romper Room.”

The publicity, and specifically the Life cover story, had a galvanizing effect on public opinion….

A decade later, when the Supreme Court had Roe v. Wade under consideration but had not yet issued its decision, the Gallup Organization reported that sizable majorities of men and women in all demographic groups agreed with the statement: “The decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician.” The majorities included Protestants, Catholics, Democrats and, most notably, by a margin of 68 percent to 27 percent, Republicans. What a difference a generation makes — a generation of determined effort by Republican strategists to use the abortion issue as a tool of party realignment and political self-interest….

42 replies
  1. 1
    cathyx says:

    Does anyone know the age demographics of pro vs. anti abortion?

  2. 2
    Cermet says:

    We can lay the blame solely on the evangelist church’s and its core of loonies for the current situation. The thugs are, like any disease, opportunist that use any means to gain an advantage to suck off the money of the middleclass.

  3. 3
    danah gaz says:

    We need more female representatives in congress. If the percentage of women serving in congress even approached the percentage that make up our general population we would not be having this discussion. Full Stop.

  4. 4
    JPL says:

    I’m 63 and I can remember the romper room story. There are a lot of folks younger and much older than I that remember back room abortions unless you had money and could go overseas. I actually think Mitt’s position will hurt him more among the older crowd.

  5. 5
    Schlemizel says:

    Only poor sluts will be denied reproductive services, relax!

    No woman, who can afford to fly to Sweden, will be denied an abortion so its all OK.

  6. 6
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    I remember that time period vividly. I was 20 years old and had just begun to be sexually active. Abortion was a huge topic of conversation in the (all-female, of course) dorms at Northwestern late at night.

    It’s almost impossible to describe the sick panic a woman experiences when her period is even a day or two late (assuming she doesn’t want a pregnancy, that is). Obviously I don’t want to go back to a time of back-alley coat hangers, but I don’t even want women to feel that panic without knowing they have a CHOICE. Thank you, Sherri, for all you did to advance the conversation and the policy. Let’s not, pray FSM, let the GOP team take us back to those days.

  7. 7
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    You know, this isn’t even just the story of abortion rights. The entire Republican ethos is a rear-guard action against human progress.

  8. 8
    JPL says:

    Yesterday Margaret Doris wrote an article for Esquire which was highlighted here that speaks to concerns in the late sixties and early seventies and I’m going to provide a link for those that missed it. link
    It’s not just forced pregnancy, it’s title IX and a lot of other issues those who are younger than me take for granted.

  9. 9
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    Will no one ever fix the goddamn comments on this blog!? Fuck, this is ridiculous!

  10. 10
    Chris says:

    @Cermet:

    We can lay the blame solely on the evangelist church’s and its core of loonies for the current situation. The thugs are, like any disease, opportunist that use any means to gain an advantage to suck off the money of the middleclass.

    Yeah, the rise of the religious right’s been one of the biggest blows to progress for the last thirty years. Interesting that the phenomenon happened in Christianity, Judaism and Islam at about the same time.

  11. 11
    Dennis SGMM says:

    @JPL:
    I’m 64 and I remember those awful days. The sad fact is that the GOP has held out the promise of once again banning abortion to the religious cohort of its base for decades. That segment was variously bought off to take the talk for action. Now, along with the teahadists, they’re demanding more than just talk. Winning the presidency is great, taking back Congress is essential.

  12. 12
    Nickws says:

    when the Supreme Court had Roe v. Wade under consideration but had not yet issued its decision, the Gallup Organization reported that sizable majorities of men and women in all demographic groups agreed with the statement: “The decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician.” The majorities included Protestants, Catholics, Democrats and, most notably, by a margin of 68 percent to 27 percent, Republicans.

    I’m not a numerologist, but this is beginning to get scary.

  13. 13
    JPL says:

    @Dennis SGMM: What concerns me are those that don’t remember those days. I do think that Obama’s position helps him with those my age and older.

  14. 14
    Yutsano says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: JC feed your goddamned gerbils better dammit!

  15. 15
    Violet says:

    by a margin of 68 percent to 27 percent, Republicans.

    Holy cow. The crazification factor. It has always been so, apparently.

  16. 16
    Violet says:

    @Chris:

    Yeah, the rise of the religious right’s been one of the biggest blows to progress for the last thirty years. Interesting that the phenomenon happened in Christianity, Judaism and Islam at about the same time.

    Yeah, it definitely makes you wonder. Why is it happening at the same time everywhere?

  17. 17
    karl says:

    I used to watch Miss Sherri on Romper Room! Several years after she “left” the show I was old enough to understand the full story — one of my first lessons in how the world (and politics) works.

  18. 18
    Mark S. says:

    @Nickws:

    It’s best not to think about it. You’ll turn into that Mel Gibson character in Conspiracy Theory.

    Come to think of it, was Mel even acting in that movie? It might have been a documentary.

  19. 19
    gogol's wife says:

    Somewhat OT, but MoDo has hit a new low today. It’s all about how Obama superciliously told us in his speech that it was all our fault that his promises haven’t been kept. It’s really disgusting. I can’t even read it, but that’s the gist. Why do I even acknowledge her existence on the planet, why, why, why?

  20. 20
    Dennis SGMM says:

    @JPL:

    What concerns me are those that don’t remember those days. I do think that Obama’s position helps him with those my age and older.

    It is terribly dispiriting to me that so many people are enthusiastically advocating a return to the days when young women’s lives and their bodies were ruined not because they had to be but, because society deemed that they should be. That strikes me as barbaric.

  21. 21
    Chris says:

    @Violet:

    Might just be coincidence. In the United States, I’d say religion was basically a tool that the segregationists used to cloak themselves in after their overt beliefs became unacceptable (the religious right began as a pushback against Carter after he stripped all-white “Christian academies” in the South from their tax-exempt status, though you’ll never hear them mention that today) – and more generally, I’d say that White Christian Males gravitated towards the “Christian” part of their identity as “white” identity movements became more unacceptable.

    In the Middle East, it was the failure of secular, socialist, modernist Arab Nationalism to deliver on its promises (failure to defeat Israel, failure to deliver the equality or efficiency that was promised, slowly reaching an accommodation with the West and even turning into one of its stooges) that created a space for islamism to come back with a vengeance.

    I have no idea what was going on in Israel that caused the shift, I welcome enlightenment there. There was definitely an overall trend of pushing back against the secular and modernist consensus, but in all three cases the causes for that seem to’ve been specific and native to the region – just happened to occur at around the same time.

  22. 22
    Mike in NC says:

    As has been said time and again, to the GOP, life begins at conception and ends at birth.

  23. 23
    Chris says:

    @Dennis SGMM:

    It is terribly dispiriting to me that so many people are enthusiastically advocating a return to the days when young women’s lives and their bodies were ruined not because they had to be but. because society deemed that they should be. That strikes me as barbaric.

    Seems to be a trend in the U.S. (maybe everywhere? I don’t know) that great leaps forward are followed by decades of backlash. Progress on civil rights didn’t just stop after Reconstruction, I think it went backwards for quite a while – culminating in the 1910s/1920s with a federal government that was fully re-segregated, a Ku Klux Klan revival that was nationwide and patriotically themed this time rather than regional and separatist, and eugenicists trying to enshrine racism as a science. Wasn’t until after World War Two that things started moving in the right direction again.

    I can only hope women’s rights don’t regress quite that badly, but the pushback has definitely been comparable.

  24. 24
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @arguingwithsignposts:

    Your comment doesn’t even exist until it’s gone up three or four times MINIMUM.

  25. 25

    I remember seeing a sign or bumper sticker that stated “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

    ETA: And in a very odd and disconcerting way the GOP embraces this form of “birtherism” as well.

  26. 26
    JGabriel says:

    __
    __
    Linda Greenhouse via Anne Laurie @ Top:

    A decade later, when the Supreme Court had Roe v. Wade under consideration … the Gallup Organization reported that sizable majorities of men and women in all demographic groups agreed with the statement: “The decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician.” The majorities included Protestants, Catholics, Democrats and, most notably, by a margin of 68 percent to 27 percent, Republicans.

    There’s that 27% Crazification Factor again.

    I don’t know what the percentage of people is who would disagree with the above Gallup statement today, but I think we can safely hypothesize a new corollary to the Crazification Factor: Whatever the difference is, that’s the percentage that are persuadable by crazy people.

    .

  27. 27
    Violet says:

    @JGabriel: 27% is the absolute floor. Everything over that is negotiable.

  28. 28
    Dennis SGMM says:

    @Chris:
    Thank you for the history. It seems to me to be akin to when a two-year-old says “No!” all the time. They don’t do it because it advantages anyone, including themselves, they just do it to exert control.

  29. 29
    burnspbesq says:

    If you’re in SoCal, heads up. Flash flood warning in effect for Orange and Riverside Counties. Apparently we’re about to get whacked by a big-ass thunderstorm.

  30. 30
    Cermet says:

    @Chris: No, not really. What else started to happen about thirty years ago (No! Not raygun but that too, is part of it.) AGW was starting to get a strong grip (it’s have even been ‘seen’ by people since the 1700’s but many effects occured far longer ago and our climate has been changing for thousands of years, now.) Also, both the US economy was loosing its strangle hold on the world total economic output and we were first hitting issues with cheap oil. These things do not happen in a vacuum.

  31. 31
    👽 Martin says:

    @burnspbesq: It’s mostly up against Saddleback. So if you’re anywhere flat away from there, it looks like you’re probably just fine.

  32. 32
    curious says:

    @JGabriel: the 27% we will always have with us.

  33. 33
    JGabriel says:

    __
    __
    gogol’s wife:

    Somewhat OT, but MoDo has hit a new low today. It’s all about how Obama superciliously told us in his speech that it was all our fault that his promises haven’t been kept.

    Join the club. I mostly wrote off Dowd here, a couple years ago.

    .

  34. 34
    Dennis SGMM says:

    @burnspbesq:
    Just looked at the radar on Wunderground. We’re still to the NW of the heavy weather. Shit, it’s 95 out there. All we need is rain to make it just dandy.

  35. 35
    gogol's wife says:

    @JGabriel:

    That’s good! Cheered me up. I only subscribe to that paper for the crossword puzzles, but I feel I have to read the rest of it to justify the expense. Not worth it.

  36. 36
    SBJules says:

    I remember this all too well. It is a treat for me to read Linda Greenhouse again. I had an illegal abortion around the same time. Shortly after that, Governor Ronald Reagan legalized abortion in CA. Only thing he ever did that I approved.

  37. 37
    Schlemizel says:

    @karl:
    Oh my. I’m old enough to remember Romper room
    Romper bomper stomper boo

    but I never knew the story of Miss Sheri. I looked her up & am stunned. Wow! I remember the arguments when abortion became legal, they were passionate but focused on the well being of the mother. Today not so much

  38. 38
    Interrobang says:

    The “think of the children” brigade also never bothers to think what happens to the unwanted child after it actually is born. Apparently there’s some kind of magic that if you just don’t have that abortion, everything turns out just fine, and you wind up being able to take care of your armless, legless baby and four other small children besides, or, like the one commenter at the NYT, you wind up giving birth at fourteen, and it doesn’t either kill you or wind up making the baby unhealthy (my birth mother was sixteen, and I wasn’t so lucky; wound up with cerebral palsy as a consolation gift from the forced-birthers), and maybe your baby gets adopted by a nice rich white family, and there are no ethical or emotional issues surrounding adoption ever

  39. 39
    RedKitten says:

    We need more female representatives in congress. If the percentage of women serving in congress even approached the percentage that make up our general population we would not be having this discussion.

    You know, I’d LIKE to think that. I really would. But I think we’ve seen all too often lately that there are a LOT of women out there who are very much in the forced-birth camp. Look at any photograph of a pro-life protest…you’ll see quite a lot of women there.

    A lot of these women are mothers. When you are pregnant and it’s a wanted pregnancy, you really DO start to think of it as “a baby” right from the get-go. You see that first early ultrasound (I had one at 9 weeks) and see the little heart beating.

    And a lot of us mothers have a hard time not projecting our own beloved children onto any child who is hurt or suffering. I hear of abducted or abused or murdered children, and I can’t help but imagine SamKitten going through that, and I forcibly have to make myself think of other things, before I break down. So for these women, I would imagine that a large part of their passion is the fact that they project their own beloved babies onto these unborn. It still doesn’t excuse them from trying to take away our rights over our own bodies. Far from it. But it does help me to understand why the very idea of it upsets them so much.

    So we can’t really sit here and say, “If only women were in charge, it would all be so much better.” Women can be some of the most militant pro-lifers out there. And as we’ve seen in cases like Palin, Bachmann et al, women can be just as batshit dangerous as the men.

  40. 40
    JoyfulA says:

    I don’t know of anyone who got a back alley abortion in those days—surely some did, but I didn’t know about it—but I do know lots of high school couples who got married suddenly—as well as a pair of eighth graders!

  41. 41
    mainmati says:

    @Chris: The nationalist, secular strain in the Middle East was an early 20th century, anti-colonialist reaction but that, in turn, was also a result of being exposed to the modernity of Europe (science, rational systems of thinking), which, ironically the Arabs had contributed to Europe much earlier in the early Middle Ages. US was not a factor except the creation of the American universities in Istanbul, Beirut and Cairo. The secular, nationalist strain, which also led to many Arabs getting Western educations and middle class lifestyles was not accompanied by democratic systems of governance. Successive defeats against Israel didn’t help. Also, the entire Arabian peninsula was (and is still) a feudal, reactionary state, culturally. So, the political culture has remained tribal, feudal and increasingly sympathetic to Islamists even though most Arabs would actually never want to live under a strict Shari’ah or Salafist rule.

  42. 42
    YellowJournalism says:

    What is sad is that along with banning abortion and putting other limits on women’s rights, they want to roll back or weaken regulations on industries like pharmaceuticals that would put women and children at risk and create a need for more abortions due to pregnancy complications and other health dangers.

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