Fans of the University of Arizona football team will arrive by the thousands at Arizona Stadium on September 3, the start of the fall football season, as the UA Wildcats face off against the UTSA Roadrunners, a team they defeated 26 to 23 in San Antonio last September. For fans, the stadium is a place where legends and losses are remembered. For reproductive rights advocates, it represents a devil’s bargain that took place more than 40 years ago and continues to compromise health care to this day.
In 1974, abortion rights were sacrificed to expand Arizona Stadium.
Arizona has long had a unique role in the abortion battle. In 1962, Sherri Finkbine, a Phoenix-area woman, entered the national spotlight after she found out the thalidomide she was taking as a sleep aid could cause severe fetal abnormalities. The early mortality rate among infants who were exposed to the drug was about 40 percent, in large part due to internal defects that commonly affected the kidneys, heart, digestive tract, and reproductive system.
Fearing how thalidomide would affect the development of her own fetus, Finkbine wanted to terminate her pregnancy in a state — and nation — that put legal barriers in the way of abortion. Already known to many as the star of a locally produced children’s show, she became a topic of national debate when she shared her story with a reporter from the Arizona Republic. She spoke to the reporter in the hopes of warning other mothers about thalidomide. An unintended consequence was that the publicity made it harder to quietly seek an abortion; providers who might have otherwise taken a legal risk for her couldn’t escape the attention that followed her.
Finkbine went to the Arizona Supreme Court with a request to be pardoned from prosecution if she terminated her pregnancy. When her request was rejected, she had to travel to Sweden for the procedure, where providers confirmed that her child, had it been carried to term, would have been severely deformed. The effects of the drug exposure were severe enough that after the procedure they were unable to answer whether the fetus would have been a boy or a girl.
Finkbine’s story signaled a change in public feelings about abortion, a change that set the stage for the Supreme Court’s decision several years later in Roe v. Wade. But Arizona itself didn’t do an about-face on the issue — at least not its legislature. Just months after Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, then-Rep. Jim Skelly (R-Phoenix) and a group of 14 House Republicans pressured the UA’s president at the time, John P. Schaefer, to order a moratorium on abortions at the university hospital. Skelly and the other House members threatened to withdraw a $543 million appropriations bill if the procedures continued.
It was the following year, however, that Skelly and fellow Republicans took a bigger step toward shutting down abortion at the university hospital. In 1974, Arizona Stadium was pushing its seating capacity at games. The opening game of that year’s football season filled more than 97 percent of its seats. The university had its mind set on expanding the stadium well before the season started, though. The Arizona Daily Star ran several articles in February, March, and April of that year, covering what began as an ordinary bond issue to finance a $5.5 million project to add 22,100 seats to the north and east sections of the stadium. The stadium bill became more newsworthy, as well as controversial, when Rep. Skelly added a rider that would prohibit the university’s College of Medicine from providing clinical training for abortion — and prohibit the hospital from providing the service. “The taxpayers are financing an abortion mill at the UA,” Skelly complained in an interview that spring.
Skelly’s rider was met with criticism by a fellow Republican House member Diane McCarthy (R-Phoenix), who argued that it was unconstitutional because the abortion issue was unrelated to bonding. Nevertheless, as the Star reported later, the House Education Committee approved the rider, and the bill made its way to the House Appropriations Committee. UA President Schaefer vowed to scrap the expansion project if the bill went through with the anti-abortion rider, promising that he would not “sacrifice any academic program” for the sake of stadium seating. “It would set a dangerous precedent to let a group of legislators dictate academic programs,” he stated. He called the rider “simply another version of book-burning.”
By mid-May, however, the Star was reporting that the Arizona Board of Regents and UA administrators had agreed to accept the bill — rider and all — but planned to challenge the anti-abortion provision in court. The UA officials kept their promise, but the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the provision two years later.
The stadium bill made Arizona the first state to pass a restriction on the administration of abortion in a publicly funded facility. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America’s state profile database, nine other states followed Arizona’s example: North Dakota in 1979, Kentucky in 1980, Pennsylvania in 1982, Missouri in 1986, Kansas in 1988, Louisiana in 1994, Mississippi in 2002, Oklahoma in 2007, and Texas in 2009. (With the exception of Kansas, though, these same states use publicly funded resources to support anti-abortion messaging; as a recent Slate article reveals, they are among the 29 states that sell “Choose Life” license plates through their motor vehicle departments.)
In addition to the bad precedent it established, the stadium bill meant that the responsibility for providing abortions has fallen entirely on private clinics, since no other hospital in the city provides elective abortions. Clinics have carried the burden of care for Arizona’s second-largest city — and many surrounding communities.
Eliminating abortion training also contributes to a larger, national problem: a critical shortage of abortion providers. Today, 87 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider. There are 37 percent fewer providers today than there were in 1982, and 57 percent of current abortion providers are over the age of 50 — threatening to make the shortage even worse without more abortion providers entering health care.
Today, most medical schools — 55 percent — do not offer students any clinical experience with abortion. Medical students at those schools have to pursue abortion training outside of their standard curriculum, often at off-campus facilities, when they already face considerable time restraints. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also points out a more abstract effect: the reinforcement of the stigma of abortion among those in medical training.
What medical schools undermine by omission is further threatened by the intimidation medical students can expect to face if they pursue careers as abortion providers. A recent survey of clinics by the Feminist Majority Foundation found that almost 70 percent of abortion providers say they experience frequent harassment by opponents of reproductive rights. Their safety — and that of their patients — is even more uncertain after last year’s by Supreme Court’s decision to overturn buffer zone laws that were used to keep anti-abortion protesters at a safe distance from reproductive health clinics.
For more than 40 years, the stadium bill has stood in direct conflict with patients and their providers — and their ability to make their own decisions about reproductive health care. It has also stood in direct conflict with public opinion. Although abortion has long been a contentious issue, in almost every year since Roe v. Wade, polling has shown majority support for its legality under at least some circumstances. Its eradication from medical training clashes with popular will.
Today, 53 percent of Americans want Roe v. Wade upheld. In addition, recent research suggests that simply sharing personal stories about abortion can sway more voters to support abortion rights — much like Sherri Finkbine’s story did in the 1960s.
Abortion was never meant to be a bargaining chip. It was sacrificed in 1974 to give more football fans a seat at the game. It’s time undo the damage and give more abortion supporters a seat in the legislature.