A Never-Ending Story

Posted on September 5, 2012

New York Times, September 5, 2012 by LINDA GREENHOUSE

An article in the paper the other day caught my eye and led me to ponder something I’d rather not have to think about at all: the Republican Party platform.

The article that prompted these unwanted thoughts had nothing to do with politics. It reported that the 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, had 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. (Mitt Romney, trying to have it both ways, told the CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley the other day that despite his party’s platform, “I’m in favor of abortion being legal in the case of rape and incest and the health and life of the mother.”) Whatever.

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. Abortion was not considered a fit topic for the mainstream media at the time, and I remember as a child reading the Life story with fascination. I had never heard abortion discussed. Researching the period many years later for a book on the history of the abortion debate, I found newspaper editorials from the conservative heartland calling on legislatures to re-think blanket bans on abortion. “Here is a need for common sense,” The Tulsa Tribune wrote in its editorial response to Ms. Chessen’s plight.

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.

Fifty years is a long time. The “thalidomide babies,” as they were known, are middle-aged now. Sherri Chessen, who eventually had six children and who writes and publishes children’s books, is of course old enough to be their mother. She follows the abortion issue closely. “It’s a ploy,” she said of the Republican platform’s abortion plank. “What hypocrites. They’re against abortion until some woman in their family needs one. Believe me, I know.”

Her story beckons to us from across a generational divide. In lecturing on the history of the abortion debate, I often ask the audience if the name Sherri Finkbine means anything. People younger than 60 look at me blankly. It’s women my age who raise their hands.

Doing research several years ago among the manuscript collections of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, I came upon a typewritten manuscript of a talk Sherri Chessen gave in 1966, recounting her experience at a conference put on by an early, long forgotten abortion-rights group. Despite not having heard her name for decades, I recognized it immediately, found a phone number, and called her cold, requesting her permission to include the essay in the book I was working on. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had told me, a total stranger, that she had long ago put the episode behind her and had no desire to revisit it. Instead, she responded warmly in words I won’t forget. “I’ll help you any way I can,” she said. “People need to know my story.”