Reading the recent coverage around the first apology in 50 years from the manufacturer of thalidomide to those affected by the drug, I was reminded of another half-century anniversary. Fifty years ago, Sherri Chessen – an Arizona wife, mother, and local host of the TV show Romper Room – sparked a national debate when she sought a therapeutic abortion.
In the summer of 1962, Chessen (then known as Sherri Finkbine) was pregnant with her fifth child. During this pregnancy, she learned that medication she had taken, which her husband brought back from a trip to England, contained thalidomide. The drug, which was introduced in the 1950s and primarily used in Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia, had initially been hailed as a wonder drug of sorts, and was considered safe for use in pregnant women to treat morning sickness and insomnia. But by the early 1960s, doctors and researchers had become aware that thalidomide could cause both miscarriage and horrible fetal deformities, including babies born without limbs.
Chessen’s doctor recommended that she terminate the pregnancy, and scheduled an abortion. Before the procedure, Chessen decided to share her story with the Arizona Republic, to warn other women about the drug. She believed that her identity would be kept anonymous, but the article caused such a stir that the hospital canceled her procedure; and Chessen’s name soon became known. Public response to her plans was so intense, and so negative, that FBI agents had to be stationed at her home; she lost her job, and her husband was suspended from his.
At the time Arizona, like many other states, only allowed abortion if the mother’s life was in danger. Although Chessen asked the state Superior Court for immunity from prosecution if she did get an abortion in Arizona, her case was dismissed under the rationale that there was no legal controversy and the judge lacked the authority to make a decision on the matter. Following the ruling, and concluding that she would not be able to obtain an abortion in the United States, Chessen and her husband went to Sweden. The press attention followed her overseas, but on August 18, 1962, she was able to get an abortion following the approval of a medical board in that country. The three-month fetus was found to be severely deformed.
While Sherri Chessen’s ordeal may not have resulted in the kind of groundbreaking legal decisions found in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, it did have a profound and lasting influence on public opinion. For all the negative publicity that her case drew, there were also thousands of people that supported her decision and found a lot to relate to in the story of a wife and mother trying to make the best choice for herself and her family. In a Gallup poll about the Chessen case, 52% of respondents felt that she had made the right decision; by 1965, 77% of Americans felt that abortion should be legal if the health of the mother was in danger, and The New York Times endorsed the reform of abortion laws. Two years later, Colorado reformed its law to permit abortion if, among other circumstances, the fetus had a severe mental or physical defect; and other states soon followed Colorado’s lead, liberalizing their own laws. While a substantial amount of credit for this change must go to the American Law Institute’s work on the matter, as well as individual activists and attorneys that worked at the state level to change laws, it is also undeniable that stories such as Sherri Chessen’s helped present a more complex and relatable picture of reproductive rights than was often portrayed in the media.
In reading about Sherri Chessen and the changes that she helped bring about by going public, I’m reminded of a conversation I had several years ago with a pro-choice activist. “Women’s stories will always carry the day,” she said, and she’s right. Anti- and pro-choice laws and policies garner attention, but nothing compares to the power of stories from women – and men – about the way reproductive rights have affected their own lives. That’s where real and lasting change will come from.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.