Why Sherri Chessen’s Abortion Still Matters

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.

About Sarah:
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.

Comments

  1. Such an important story–and an important story ABOUT stories. I imagine Sherri Finkbine thought she was doing women a service by coming forward. Not that she didn’t realize the risk–to her privacy and popularity–and, ultimately, her life. But she did it anyway. Reminds me why we have to keep talking, even, or especially about the things we’d rather keep quiet.

    I watched Romper Room many–but not so many–years after this. Now I remember there was always a certain buzz around the house whenever it came on.

    And on a much lighter note, why am I not surprised that this happened in freakin’ Arizona????

  2. Great post! We covered this on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog last month as well. Interestingly, some of the traffic to that post was driven by people who felt that by validating Finkbine’s right to choose to terminate her pregnancy, we were actually celebrating the worst kind of ableism. It is interesting to me how many anti-choice folks choose to present incredibly complicated situations in very simplistic terms.

    • Sarah Erdreich says:

      Thanks, Anna! I found the post on your blog to be incredibly helpful when I was researching this piece.

      Anti-choicers really do have a knack for boiling complicated and personal situations down to simplistic terms, don’t they? It’s a one-size-fits-all view to the world that I’ve never been able to understand – and how anyone could judge Chessen, fifty years ago or today, for her choice is just beyond me.

  3. Sarah, et al…..it continues to amaze me (50 years later) that we are still fighting the same battles in this incredibly PRIVATE matter. I personally detest abortion and ache for any woman having to endure the never-ending memories, but damn it, sometimes it’s just the lesser of two evils.
    I think I was chosen to be the ‘poster child’ for this movement because you’ll never find a more child-oriented person in the entire world. Children, not only my own 6, but the universe of kids are my focus and my life. Having to terminate a pregnancy came straight from my intellect (both to protect the poisoned fetus and to put the care of the 4 small children I had at the time in a fiduciary position) and not from my emotional self. Strength and peace to all who have to choose the route of abortion, for whatever PRIVATE reason they may have. I’m much happier working with kids in the 4th trimester. (Yes, it’s a joke :) Thanks, Sarah and all the tough-thinking Sarahs of the world. Love you…Sherri

    • Sherri, it’s an honor to hear from you, and thank you for your comment. Having just recently given birth to a daughter, I understand better than ever what you mean about the intellectual and emotional aspects of making a private choice for your family. Thank you again, and best to you and your family.

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