In the early 1960s, abortion was illegal in Arizona, as it was in every state after more than a century of anti-abortion legislation. Arizona, like some other states, provided exceptions in limited circumstances, but abortion was otherwise restricted throughout the United States. However, the 1960s also ushered in a change in the public perception of abortion, a change that was conducive to the Supreme Court’s decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton to overturn many state and federal restrictions on abortion.
Sherri Finkbine’s story reminds us of the devastating impact of abortion restrictions we have since overturned.
The women’s movement played a big part in that change, as well as a rubella epidemic that raised widespread concern about fetal deformities and strengthened support for therapeutic abortions. However, if there was one person whose story had the biggest impact, it was a Phoenix-area woman named Sherri Finkbine. An abortion she had 50 years ago Saturday reminds us of the importance of keeping abortion safe and legal.
Sherri Finkbine was known to thousands of children as Miss Sherri on the local edition of the nationally televised children’s show Romper Room. But Finkbine entered the spotlight for another reason in 1962, when she and her doctor decided she should have a therapeutic abortion.
Finkbine, who had already given birth to four healthy children, learned during her fifth pregnancy that she was at risk of having a child with severe abnormalities. Finkbine was using sleeping pills that her husband had brought back from a trip to Europe, and the pills, she found out, contained thalidomide. In the previous decade, thalidomide had become a popular sleeping pill in numerous countries, but by the early 1960s it was under intense scrutiny for causing fetal deformities and other side effects. Alarmed at her discovery and wishing to warn others about the drug, Finkbine shared her story with a reporter from the Arizona Republic.
Finkbine had been promised anonymity, but her identity was exposed and her story created a media firestorm. Limited by abortion laws and fearing the publicity, hospitals in the United States denied Finkbine abortion services. She asked the Arizona Superior Court for immunity from prosecution if she obtained an abortion in Arizona. At that time, Arizona law allowed abortions only if the mother’s life was in danger. Judge Yale McFate dismissed Finkbine’s case, arguing that there was no legal controversy and that he didn’t have the authority to make a decision on the matter. Finkbine was finally able to obtain an abortion in Sweden on August 18, 1962. It was confirmed at the time of the abortion that her child would have been severely deformed.
Highly publicized at the time, Finkbine’s story is seen now as a pivotal moment in the history of abortion laws in the United States. In her book The Pig Farmer’s Daughter and Other Tales of American Justice: Episodes of Racism and Sexism in the Courts from 1865 to the Present, Dr. Mary Frances Berry wrote that Finkbine’s story “helped change public opinion [on abortion]. Fifty-two percent of respondents in a Gallup poll thought she had done the right thing.” Berry adds that by 1965, “most Americans, 77 percent, wanted abortion legalized ‘where the health of the mother is in danger’”; in that same year, The New York Times called for reform of abortion laws.
Dr. Lee Epstein, a professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California, wrote that “Finkbine’s situation evoked sympathetic reactions from various organizations and in essence, led to the creation of an American abortion reform movement.”
Finkbine’s story was also dramatized in A Private Matter (1992), an HBO movie that was reviewed here earlier this month. Her story reminds us today of the devastating impact of abortion restrictions we have since overturned. Although she was able to obtain an abortion overseas, for many more women with unintended pregnancies, that kind of travel was unaffordable or otherwise impossible, and the obstacles they faced drove them to seek dangerous — and even deadly — illegal abortions.
Although her name is so closely associated with abortion, Sherri Finkbine, now Sherri Chessen, always made children a significant part of her life, from her role in Romper Room to her role as a mother and grandmother. Chessen had six children from her first marriage and, in her later marriage, six stepchildren. In the 1990s she did voice acting for cartoons and wrote two children’s books to address the issues of gun violence and bullying. A remarkable person to say the least, Chessen has shaped our understanding of important issues for the better.