Before Roe v. Wade: The 50th Anniversary of a Landmark California Case

Demonstrator at New York City Women’s March, January 21, 2017. Photo: © Edith Marie Photography

“Should abortion be legalized?” That was the question posed on a forum in 1964 on Pacifica Radio. Nine years before the Supreme Court would give its own answer in Roe v. Wade, a trio of panelists debated the issue for listeners in Los Angeles.

Prompting the forum was a bill in the Legislature to liberalize California’s abortion laws. At the time, abortion was illegal unless the mother’s life was at risk. The proposed legislation, endorsed by the California Medical Association, allowed exceptions in cases of rape or incest, or when a pregnancy was not life-threatening but posed other harm to a patient’s physical or mental health.


People v. Belous marked the first time a patient’s constitutional right to abortion was upheld in the courts.


Did the bill go too far — or not far enough? Each panelist had a different take. Attorney Zad Leavy discussed the legal quandaries of people facing unintended pregnancies. He was cautious about full legalization but critical of the existing ban. Dr. Robert Hood, an area surgeon, opposed the legalization of abortion and even questioned the validity of the medical reasons commonly cited for justifying abortions. In sharp contrast, Dr. Leon Belous, an attending physician at LA’s Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, did not mince words in his support for legal abortion on demand.

Belous felt outlawing abortion was an example of “man’s inhumanity to women.” As he put it, “An injured dog on the street is treated with more sympathy and concern” than the countless women dying annually, or who risked that fate, from self-induced or black-market abortions. “I have seen seven to 10 of these women every month for the last 32 years,” Belous continued. “I have been seeing them in my office, many of them in the operating room, and some of them in the morgue.” He told of one who had been raped and another in desperate poverty, unable to support a child.

Belous concluded by sharing his hope that California’s “antiquated, unrealistic, and barbaric” ban would be overturned. Five years later, Belous was at the center of a case that did just that. Continue reading

A Gentle, Compassionate Man: Remembering Dr. George Tiller

Dr. Tiller’s memory is honored at a vigil in San Francisco, June 1, 2009. Photo: Steve Rhodes

Ten years ago this week, Dr. George Tiller was murdered in church on Sunday morning, May 31, 2009. Since the the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in McCullen v. Coakley, which ended buffer zones at abortion clinics, violence in the anti-abortion movement has increased, as has racist violence, since the 2016 election. Leaders of what became the Christian right first mobilized their congregants to political action after private Christian schools were forced to integrate or lose tax-exempt status, and abortion was chosen by these leaders as the issue to keep their followers politically involved.


People who know nothing about the complex medical and personal needs that lead to late abortions tell stories that sow mass hysteria among abortion opponents.


When I volunteered to write something commemorating this sad anniversary, I was thinking of the connection between racism and the religious right, and of recent murders in churches, synagogues, and mosques. In this political moment, with the religious right passing flagrantly unconstitutional laws against abortion to get a case to the Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade, with the government itself stepping up violence against minorities and women, revisiting Dr. Tiller’s assassination seemed more crucial than ever.

But the more I learned about Dr. Tiller, the more I was captivated by the man and the doctor, by his essential decency and kindness, his commitment to his patients, and the way those who knew him felt about him. So, rather than a political argument, this post will be a tribute to Dr. George Tiller, using his own words and the words of those who knew and worked with him. Continue reading

Ending a Wanted Pregnancy: Jacqueline’s Story

The following guest post comes to us via Jacqueline M.

My name is Jacqueline. I’m 31, part of the upper-middle class, happily married to the love of my life, and I had a second-trimester abortion.

My world turned upside down on February 4, 2019. At my 19.5-week ultrasound, the tech became strangely quiet following several minutes of joking with my husband and me. I thought nothing of it as my eyes obsessed over every inch of my little girl on the screen. The ultrasound complete, I cleaned the cold gel off of my belly and eagerly dressed to go speak with my PA.


“As all of my daydreams about raising a child vanished in an onslaught of medical terminology, my husband and I knew one thing: We could not put our daughter through the brief life of agony that awaited her.”


When she walked in the door, I excitedly gushed my questions and observations, which she answered without the enthusiasm I had come to expect during my appointments with her. When I finally paused, she looked me in the eye and said, “We’ve noticed what looks to be an omphalocele. Your daughter will need surgery the moment she is born to put her intestines back inside of her, but there is a 90 percent survival rate. There is also a 3-inch cyst on your ovaries. It’s so large that we can’t tell whether it’s on one or both, and we need to send you to a high-risk prenatal doctor.”

Sad and afraid, but determined, we went to see the high-risk OB the very next day. I was given a detailed level 2 ultrasound by a tech, and I took in all of the tiny details of my little girl that I wasn’t able to enjoy from the quality of my routine images: her tiny toes, a dainty hand, the small curve in her button nose. I gobbled her up, my daughter, my first child, still completely unaware of how terribly wrong my pregnancy had gone. Continue reading

The Past Isn’t Always in the Past: Covington Catholic and the Politics of Race and Gender at Southern Private Schools

Nathan Phillips (center) leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March. Image (detail): Joe Flood

It was hard to miss the video that went viral on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

On January 20, footage of a white high school student, flanked by his classmates as he stood in front of a Native American elder, took the news and social media by storm. The student stood at a close distance, wearing an apparent smirk below his “Make America Great Again” hat. The Native elder stood calmly but firmly, beating a small hand drum and singing over the noise from the student’s classmates, many of whom also sported the iconic red baseball caps of Trump supporters. One classmate appeared to taunt the Native elder with a gesture mocking a “tomahawk chop.”


The March for Life incident is a troubling reminder of a history that links segregated private schools to the anti-abortion movement.


The scene was from Washington, D.C., where students from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, were attending the anti-abortion March for Life. It was an event that coincided with an Indigenous Peoples March, a grassroots gathering of community leaders, celebrities, and activists to address the environmental and human rights issues facing Native American, First Nations, and other indigenous people.

The incident drew conflicting narratives as more footage was pieced together to show how Nick Sandmann, the Covington student, came face-to-face with Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder, veteran, and activist. What gained general agreement was that tensions had first been elevated by verbal exchanges with another, smaller group identifying themselves as the Black Hebrew Israelites. A few members of that group could be seen subjecting the Covington students to inflammatory language and insults. Thereafter, people have been divided, often along partisan lines, on whether Sandmann or Phillips was the instigator of the face-off. Continue reading

Book Club: Shout Your Abortion

Shout Your Abortion hit the book shelves in time for us to celebrate the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22, 2019. That Supreme Court decision (finally) recognized that abortion is a normal part of a woman’s reproductive life and a right guaranteed by the Constitution. The book, edited by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes, presents the real-life abortion “shouts” of 44 women and how they think about what is typically a routine medical procedure.

Shout Your Abortion, edited by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes

In 1973, when Roe was decided, eight years had already passed since my (illegal) abortion, and I was raising two daughters. I was relieved to know that women, including my two kiddos, would never again need to risk their lives to get reproductive health care they might need.

I didn’t think we would ever go back to unsafe abortions or forced motherhood. It never occurred to me (and many other women) that staying quiet and just getting on with life would leave an open mic for anti-abortion zealots to chip away at our protection. Alas, we were wrong.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund article

Fast forward 46 years. “Stop! We’re not having it! Listen to us! We’ve had abortions!” Minority anti-abortion voices are no longer drowning out the majority of the American people (72 percent) who do not want to see Roe overturned and are taking action to prevent it, including our book’s “shouters.”

The genesis of the book was Amelia Bonow’s Facebook post about her abortion, passed along by Lindy West as #ShoutYourAbortion, prompting a deluge of “shouters.” Continue reading

Jesse Helms Is Dead: His Amendment Lives On

Here we are again, another dreaded anniversary — the Helms Amendment.

If you are a contemporary of that legislation’s author, Sen. Jesse Helms, you might also remember the title character from Sinclair Lewis’ powerful 1927 novel Elmer Gantry or the Academy Award-winning portrayal of Gantry by Burt Lancaster in the 1960 film. Rev. Gantry was a evangelical preacher who used religion to destroy the lives of women. So did Sen. Helms.

2016 video frame: Global Justice Law Center

A year ago my fellow Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona blogger Rachel Port reminded us that on December 17, 1973, Congress passed the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act — today marks its 45th anniversary. In a nutshell, this legislation prohibits using U.S. foreign assistance funds to “pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”

Other journalists and bloggers have joined Rachel in documenting the severe impacts of this legislation and its companion “Mexico City policy,” aka the “global gag rule,” denying women abortion care, particularly in poor and war-torn corners of the globe. (For a taste of its horror, remember the example of the women and girls forced to bear the children of their Boko Haram rapists.) Continue reading

The Kennedy Retirement and the Radicalizing of the Supreme Court

Protesters swarmed Washington, DC, to voice their opposition to Brett Kavanaugh.

When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, alarms went up about overturning Roe v. Wade, which would make abortion once again illegal in many states. As shown in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which Kennedy provided the decisive fifth vote overturning Texas’ draconian laws limiting abortion access, one justice can preserve the right to abortion. But Kennedy also voted with the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, when the Supreme Court upheld a state’s right to impose extra requirements — mandatory counseling, waiting periods, etc. — on those seeking abortions. So, while he was willing to curtail access, he never was willing to overturn Roe v. Wade altogether.


In Brett Kavanaugh’s twisted worldview, paperwork is the true burden, while an unwanted pregnancy is not.


But Kennedy was the last independent conservative on the Supreme Court. Anyone Trump nominated was going to be on the far right because he was using the Federalist Society’s list compiled by Leonard Leo. Not quite a kingmaker, but definitely a justice-maker, Leo is also responsible for Justices Roberts, Alito, and Gorsuch.

But some on the right have some doubts about Kavanaugh. In response, the National Review emphasizes Kavanaugh’s judicial defense of “religious freedom.” (Nothing shows the real danger Kavanaugh poses like pundits on the far right reassuring other conservatives.) They lauded Kavanaugh’s ruling in favor of the Trump administration in the case of Jane Doe, the teenage immigrant the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tried to stop from having an abortion, as “the latest in a long, unbroken line of consistent decisions on issues of religion and abortion.” Continue reading