Twenty years ago, TV viewers were subjected to what the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) called a “high-profile, long-ranging and costly” anti-choice media campaign. At an estimated final cost of $100 million, the conservative Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation launched a series of television ads from 1992 to 1998 bearing the message, “Life. What a Beautiful Choice.” Featuring images ranging from idyllic family scenes to in-utero fetuses, the ads ran on national networks and local stations alike.
A Private Matter dramatizes a story that changed minds about abortions as it captured headlines.
On the media front, the DeMoss Foundation ads presented a formidable challenge to the pro-choice majority, but more came out of 1992 than these glossed-over vignettes about difficult reproductive choices. That same year, HBO premiered its movie A Private Matter, a dramatization of the true story of Sherri Finkbine, a Phoenix-area woman and local TV celebrity who was known as Miss Sherri on the children’s program Romper Room. Finkbine made national headlines in 1962, when she and her doctor decided she should have an abortion. Finkbine had already given birth to four healthy children, but during her fifth pregnancy she learned that the sleeping pills she had been taking contained thalidomide, a drug that had recently been banned after being linked to severe fetal deformities.
Sherri Finkbine is played by Sissy Spacek, who puts on a convincing and absorbing performance. Spacek is cheerful and charismatic at first, a natural fit for the star of a children’s show, but apprehension takes over one morning when she glances at the front page of the local paper. “U.S. Bans Crippler Drug” is the first headline she sees. At work later, Sherri phones her physician, still sounding hopeful that she didn’t take the pills long enough for its side effects to have done any harm. When her physician, Dr. Werner, calls Sherri and her husband into his office later, she learns otherwise. Dr. Werner shows them photos of the effects of thalidomide and advises them to terminate Sherri’s pregnancy. Trying to ease Sherri’s shock, Dr. Werner assures her that she hasn’t done anything wrong, that it was the drug that made terminating her pregnancy so imperative. Dr. Werner promises to arrange an abortion, even as Sherri is still indecisive.
In Arizona at the time, abortion was illegal, but exceptions were made if the mother’s life was at risk. Under the cover of that exception, abortions were performed in hospitals regularly. The Finkbines scheduled their abortion so that it could be performed like hundreds of others at their local hospital, but they ran into obstacles when Sherri’s story was picked up by the media and created a frenzy of news coverage and a heated controversy. An acquaintance who worked for the Arizona Republic had asked Sherri, on a promise of anonymity, to share her story. Sherri agreed, hoping that by doing so she could warn other women about the dangers of thalidomide. Her identity was exposed, however, and her private decision was soon subjected to public scrutiny.
The movie shows the Finkbines as they are turned down for abortion services by a Scottsdale hospital. Sherri needs a court to rule that her abortion would fall under the allowable legal exceptions, and the hospital administrators fear that such a high-profile abortion would have legal repercussions if Sherri’s abortion isn’t cleared in court. As the movie continues, so does their turmoil. In stark contrast against a backdrop of middle-class suburbia and a picturesque mountain view, their distress only gets occasional reprieve from a supportive neighbor and the physician who continues to search for a resolution.
A Private Matter dramatizes a story that changed minds about abortions as it captured headlines. It was a pivotal episode of history that generated greater sympathy for therapeutic abortions. A Private Matter is a well directed and well acted treatment of that story that deserves more viewing, some 20 years after the movie premiered and 50 years after the story it dramatizes took place. The Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona blog will take another look at the significance of Sherri Finkbine’s story later this month, a month that marks the 50th anniversary of a private decision that created a public debate.