Wednesday, January 18, 2017

ARIZONA'S ABORTION CONTROVERSY, CIRCA 1962

With a new administration taking over, a renewed battle over abortion rights is likely to be waged in the U.S. Supreme Court over the next few years.  But in 1962, eleven years before the court decided the landmark Rowe v. Wade case, Arizona was at the center of a national firestorm regarding the issue of abortion.  The controversy raged around Sherri Finkbine, a local television host on the kiddie program, “Romper Room.”  I was a young boy at the time and, like many other children, I had grown up in Phoenix watching the show.  I still remember Miss Sherri, with her magic mirror, her pretty smile, and her soothing voice.

The problem began when Sherri’s husband came back from a trip to Europe.  Sherri was pregnant with her fifth child; and when her husband returned he brought with him a bottle of pills to treat her morning sickness.  Neither Sherri, nor her husband, were aware that the medication contained Thalidomide, a popular drug in Europe and other countries, but one which was not widely used in the United States.  During the early stages of her pregnancy, Sherri took thirty-six of the pills.

That’s when the nightmare began.  News reports began filtering into the United States that Thalidomide had been found to cause gruesome birth defects in fetuses.  The media reported that Thalidomide babies were being born without arms or legs.  Sherri and her husband checked the medication that she had been taking and were horrified to discover that it, indeed, contained the dreaded Thalidomide.  In an instant, their once-happy lives were turned upside-down. 
Sherri’s physician discussed the almost certainty of incapacitating birth defects that the child would be likely to suffer for a lifetime, and he strongly recommended that she obtain a therapeutic abortion.  Abortions were illegal in the United States.  The alternative, one which many women chose at the time, was to undergo a secret “back-alley” abortion.  These were often performed by unethical and incompetent doctors out to make a buck, and they were highly dangerous.  Some were performed by people who were not physicians, and who had no medical training at all.  As a result, it was common for women to contract infections and became seriously ill, or die, following abortions.  That was the landscape in 1962.

Therapeutic abortions were considered to be a narrow exception, and could be performed in hospitals by doctors under very limited circumstances.  Based on her doctor’s recommendation, Sherri prepared herself for a therapeutic abortion.  She was concerned that other women who were taking -- or might take -- Thalidomide should be warned, so before undergoing the procedure she contacted a friend who worked at a local newspaper and related her story.  Sherri was promised anonymity.  But when the newspaper article hit the streets, her identity was disclosed.  The hospital at which the abortion was planned became skittish and backed off.  Fearing bad publicity and possible prosecution, it canceled the procedure.  Sherri’s physician asked for a court order to proceed with the abortion, and that’s when all hell broke loose.

Overnight, Sherri Finkbine, her husband, and her four children became public figures.  She was fired from her job at the television station.  Her children were tormented and bullied mercilessly at school.  Letters and hate mail came pouring in from all over the country, including more than a few death threats.  Ultimately, the FBI was brought in to protect the family.

Now desperate and terrified, Sherri attempted to travel to Japan to obtain the abortion, but was denied a visa by the Japanese Consul.  In the end, she flew to Sweden, where a legal abortion was performed in the twelfth week of her pregnancy.  The Obstetrician who performed the procedure later told Sherri and her husband that the fetus had no legs, and only one arm, and was too badly deformed to be identified as a boy or a girl.


More than fifty years later, the controversy over abortion is still raging.  Our nation has become bitterly polarized over the issue.  Are you Pro Life?  Or Pro Choice?  Should women have the right to make decisions concerning their own body?  Or do the rights of the unborn child trump the rights of the mother?  Should abortion be legal in cases of rape, incest, severe birth defects, or where the mother's life is at risk?  Or are we willing to return to the days of illegal and dangerous back-alley abortions? These are matters of utmost importance.  But instead of engaging in a healthy dialogue, battle lines have been drawn.  Foxholes have been dug.  And rather than welcoming a productive discussion, people on both sides angrily ridicule and demonize each other.  Each side views the other as stupid or evil.  Maybe it’s human nature.  We like to look for simple answers.  And by delegitimizing those with whom we disagree, we are able to avoid the process of having to carefully examine and think through the issues.  But that’s too bad.  Because if we truly attempted to see the matter through our neighbor’s eyes then – even though we may still disagree -- we just might be forced to conclude that there can be more than one legitimate point of view, and maybe then we could reach a reasonable consensus. 

Regardless of the many differing opinions on the subject, I think most would agree that no woman should ever have to suffer the agony, or be faced with the impossible choices, that Sherri Finkbine had to endure in 1962.


Gary Frank


At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., both Gary Frank and attorney Hanna Juncaj are strong litigators and compassionate counselors. Gary Frank is a Family Law Attorney with over 30 years of experience as a litigator and mediator, which includes having acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court; and serving on the Governor's Child Abuse Prevention Task Force. Hanna Juncaj is a highly-skilled attorney with a passion for Family Law and children's issues. We handle Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called "Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), division of property, spousal and child support, modification and enforcement actions, grandparent and non-parent rights, and all other matters pertaining to families and children. If you are in need of a consultation, please do not hesitate to call our office at 602-383-3610; or you can contact us by email at gary.frank@azbar.org, or through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com.   We look forward to hearing from you.