Reviews | Abortion history repeats itself

Reviews |  Abortion history repeats itself

Much of the country no doubt watched in amazement last week as a woman whose pregnancy was doomed to fail was forced to flee her home state of Texas to have an abortion her doctors deemed necessary to protect her future ability to have children. Could this really happen in the United States in 2023?

But then, should anyone who has been following the recent dystopian abortion trend in America have been surprised? After all, on the other side of the half-century in which abortion was a constitutional right, something eerily similar had happened in an episode that shocked the country when abortion was a non-issue. discussed in polite society.

The year was 1962, and Sherri Chessen Finkbine, 29, a mother of four and host of a popular children’s television show in Phoenix, was pregnant again. Suffering from morning sickness, she tried pills, marketed in Europe as a sleeping pill, that her husband had brought back from a trip to London. It was only after taking several doses that she learned of an outbreak of devastating birth defects in Europe among babies born to women who had taken a drug called thalidomide. Her doctor confirmed that she had taken thalidomide.

The doctor recommended a “therapeutic” abortion and arranged for a discreet abortion at a Phoenix hospital. Ms. Chessen – the media called her by her husband’s last name, Finkbine, but she had always preferred Chessen – felt compelled to warn other women who might unknowingly be facing the same situation . She spoke to the medical editor of The Arizona Republic newspaper, who granted her anonymity. But her name became known, and in part because of her notoriety – she was Miss Sherri of the popular “Romper Room” – the story blew up. The hospital refused to perform the planned procedure, and because abortion was illegal in all states, she couldn’t go anywhere in the country.

She and her husband, a public school teacher, traveled to Sweden to have an abortion. At that time, she was 13 weeks pregnant. When they returned to Phoenix, she lost her job and her husband was suspended from his teaching position.

Ms Chessen’s trauma 61 years ago was even more upsetting than Kate Cox’s this month, as a subject largely hidden from public view suddenly became national news. I still remember, at the age of 15, being fascinated by the long story in Life magazine that covered not only Ms. Chessen’s experience but also the issue of abortion itself; media coverage included heartbreaking photographs of surviving “thalidomide babies,” lacking arms or legs, or both.

His story brought the once-forbidden subject into the nation’s living rooms in the most sympathetic light imaginable. “Her wholesome image clashed so dramatically with the public conception of abortion – the anarchic choice of rebellious women – that her decision to undergo the procedure sparked a heated national debate,” writes Jennifer Vanderbes in a new book, ” Wonder Drug: The Secret History of America’s Thalidomide and Its Hidden Victims.

Even though Ms. Chessen has received numerous hate mail, as well as condemnations from the Vatican, a Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans thought she made the right decision. It is possible to see this episode as a spark that helped ignite the abortion reform movement that culminated in Roe v. Wade 11 years later. “Common sense is required,” the Tulsa Tribune wrote in an editorial.

I first contacted Ms. Chessen in 2009, when Yale law professor Reva Siegel and I were compiling material for a documentary history of how abortion was discussed and debated before the 1973 decision. In the archives of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, I found the text of a speech Ms. Chessen gave in 1966 on her experience.

“We desperately tried to do what was right, but thousands of people sought to judge for us,” she said in her speech.

As I held the document in my hands, I felt a sense of wonder that such a thing could have happened in my lifetime and relief that it would never happen to another woman. . I found a phone number and called Ms. Chessen to get permission to reprint the speech. We included the text in our book, “Before Roe v. Wade.”

Sherri Chessen is now 91 years old. After her abortion, she had a sixth child, a daughter named Kristin Atwell Ford, an award-winning filmmaker who is making a documentary about her mother. Ms. Chessen later wrote and published children’s books. She lives alone in Southern California. When I called her the other day, it was as if she was waiting to be asked what she thought about repeating the distant chapter of her long life.

“I’m losing patience!” she exclaimed. “I have a new fire that wants to knock out all these idiots. Will they ever learn?”

Is “never” the inevitable answer? When I speak to student groups and others about the history of abortion, I am no longer surprised to find that few people have heard of Sherri Chessen and her flight to Sweden. This is unfortunate, because her story provides essential context for understanding what Texas – its politicians and judges – did to Kate Cox this month. Those of us who are old enough to remember the story of Sherri Chessen and thought it could never happen again have now seen it happen on our watch. If her experience lit a spark in 1962, that of Kate Cox should light a fire in 2024.

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Mattie B. Jiménez

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