Before Roe v. Wade - and After

IN July of 1962 Sherri Finkbine, a young mother of four in Phoenix, discovered that the sleeping pills she had taken early in her fifth pregnancy contained thalidomide, a drug linked to severe birth defects. Rather than risk the birth of a malformed child, she sought an abortion. But a local hospital, fearing legal repercussions, refused. In desperation, Mrs. Finkbine and her husband flew to Sweden, where doctors terminated the pregnancy. The fetus, they announced, was severely deformed.

The Finkbines' saga became front-page news across the country, galvanizing opinion on both sides. Gallup even mounted a special poll, reporting that 52 percent of respondents said Finkbine was right, 32 percent said she was wrong, and 16 percent had no opinion.

Today, 27 summers later, the drama of Finkbine's then-daring flight has been all but forgotten, overshadowed first by Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in 1973, and now by the explosive debate surrounding the Supreme Court's decision allowing states to exercise increased power in controlling abortions.

Yet Finkbine's case is worth remembering. In 1962 it gave most Americans their first serious consideration of the subject, and their first hint of the politics of pregnancy. Today it serves as a reminder of the dramatic medical developments that have changed the reproductive landscape since then, forever altering the context of the debate over abortion.

At the time of Finkbine's experience, advances in birth control were just beginning to give women more reproductive freedom. In 1960 the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the first birth control pill. And in the spring of 1962 an international conference on intrauterine contraception in New York City hailed intrauterine devices (IUDs) as the risk-free contraceptive of the future.

Even more revolutionary was the growth of genetic testing and fertility treatments in the 1970s. When Finkbine decided to terminate her pregnancy, no prenatal tests existed to determine whether her fetus was deformed. She could only make her decision on the basis of statistical probability, which was high. Now fetal diagnostic tests such as amniocentesis and ultrasound have become routine.

Yet Barbara Katz Rothman, a sociology professor who has written widely on reproductive issues, suggests that if abortion were to become illegal, legal prenatal diagnosis programs might also cease to exist. If that happened, she says, it is likely that these services, like abortion, would continue to be available outside the law.

Already there is evidence of a growing network of underground reproductive services. Even before the Supreme Court ruling, abortion activists in some areas, anticipating a time when abortion might again be illegal, began stockpiling medical equipment and teaching others how to perform the procedure.

Other women have flown to Canada in recent years to obtain IUDs, which were withdrawn from the US market because of massive legal suits. Still others have vowed to find ways to bring RU 486, the French abortion pill, into the US, even illegally if necessary - an act they prefer to see as civil disobedience.

Whatever happens from state to state with abortion laws, the sobering truth is that the ranks of women like Sherri Finkbine - normally law-abiding but now, in pregnancy, desperate and determined not to lose what they see as their reproductive rights - have grown in numbers and resolve since 1962.

As the same old placards are thrust at news cameras and the same rote arguments are recycled on both sides, it is not always easy to measure how much has changed during 27 years. In one sense, the painful dilemma of abortion remains a moral constant. In another sense, what is at stake has been profoundly altered. There is all the history of those 27 years now at risk of being taken back - all the new options provided by technology and the law, not only to the Finkbines but to the poor, unable now as then to bypass the system with an overseas plane ticket and a pricey medical bill.

Still, the most fundamental change in this quarter-of-a-century-plus must be the difference in the way women look at their lives. They see choice in all its aspects as the new and central drama of a woman's life, and this cannot help having an effect on how they now view the particular choice of reproductive autonomy, whichever side they come down on.

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