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Roe:Telling the Tale

BEFORE MY HUSBAND, Len Berkman, and I married in September 1962, we spent the summer of that year in my hometown, San Jose, California. While working as a reporter for the Milpitas Post on the outskirts of San Jose, Lenny met Patricia Theresa “Pat” Maginnis. Pat offered night classes in English to poor and exploited Mexican farm workers, but she had another and related focus for her energies as well. In 1961, as a San Francisco medical technician, she founded the Society for Humane Abortion in California (SHA), the first organized movement in the United States to call for the repeal of all laws banning abortion. Previous resistance movements, grounded in the concept of therapeutic abortion, proposed to reform those laws by setting up medical review committees to review abortion applications and decide whether to authorize them. Pat repudiated this policy. She insisted that the authority over an abortion should reside with women alone. For poor women, the costs and likely humiliation of seeking a team of doctors’ authorization were prohibitive. In Pat’s mind, a woman’s bodily autonomy, especially her right to control her fertility, was not a matter that others, almost wholly medical men, should control. Over the course of the late 1960s, all women’s rights groups moved from advocating reform to endorsing repeal. Now, anew, the threat of doctors in certain states deciding a patient’s eligibility for an abortion resurrects a scary specter. Medical surveillance, Leslie Reagan crisply observes, determines that “When doctors and hospital staff questioned patients at the behest of the state, physicians became police and patients became suspects.”

Sensitive to the plight of vulnerable women, Pat Maginnis highlighted how mandated pregnancy risked a woman’s health, if not her life, and jeopardized the well-being of her other offspring. We can appreciate Pat’s vision when we consider the assumption of Roe’s recent reversal. Inherent in the Supreme Court’s majority ruling is the belief of antiabortionists that women cannot be trusted to make moral and enlightened decisions about childbirth and deserve to be controlled and terrorized by state authorities.

Pat’s activism included various strategies, for example, a petition drive for abortion law repeal. Lenny and I supported this drive, and Pat gave us petition pages that we placed right next to our wedding guest book the day of our ceremony. Almost every guest, spanning a range of political and religious affiliations, signed the petition.

The full essay is available here.

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(All profits from sales will be donated to the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts)

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