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

Katharine Dexter McCormick: Fierce Feminist and Secret Smuggler

Katharine Dexter McCormick was born into a life of wealth and privilege — and progressive politics. The family home in which she was born in 1875 had once been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Her parents encouraged her education, and she was among the first women to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and, in 1904, one of its first female graduates, having earned a bachelor’s degree in biology.


Katharine McCormick harnessed stereotypes about wealthy women to hide subversive acts of civil disobedience in plain sight.


Katharine wanted to be a doctor, but in 1904 she married Stanley McCormick, a Princeton-educated man and heir to a vast fortune. Her oath to stay by his side in sickness and in health, until death did them part, was tested just two years into their marriage, when Stanley’s mental health had deteriorated to the point that he was institutionalized. He was diagnosed with what today is called schizophrenia, and his family sent him to their mansion outside Santa Barbara, a “gilded cage” run by an all-male staff of doctors and nurses who provided round-the-clock care.

The all-male staff was necessary, as Stanley had developed violent tendencies that seemed to be directed primarily toward women. Katharine went nearly two decades without any physical contact with her husband — though she could write letters, talk to him on the phone, or crouch in the bushes and watch him through binoculars. Katharine stayed married to him until his death in 1947. The entire time, she was heavily involved in directing his care — despite constant clashes with his family — and remained optimistic for a cure.

But outside of her marriage, Katharine cultivated a rich life, devoting herself to women’s rights and becoming a high-ranking leader in the fight for the right to vote. After women’s suffrage was won, she was eager to turn her attention to the next fight — and was invigorated by the energy of the birth control movement, which, like the suffrage movement before it, drew ire and outrage from both church and state. Continue reading

Sentencing Survivors: The Trials of Joan Little and Cyntoia Brown

Cyntoia Brown. Photo: Tennessee Department of Corrections

After spending almost half her life behind bars, Cyntoia Brown leaves prison this month, freed on the clemency she received in January. Brown was convicted in 2006, at age 18, for committing murder and robbery to escape an alleged sex trafficking scheme.

While it marks the beginning of freedom for Brown, this month also marks the anniversary of a pivotal event in the life of Joan Little, whose own escape from sexual violence — and its aftermath — have drawn comparisons to Brown’s.


A justice system that targets people of color makes Joan Little’s and Cyntoia Brown’s cases the exception rather than the rule.


The incidents that fractured their lives were separated in time by decades, but otherwise the details share numerous similarities. Both Brown and Little are women of color. Both lived in the South. And both gained strong public support from activists and celebrities who viewed them as women caught in a criminal justice system fraught with racism and sexism.

In the Hands of the People

The case of Joan (pronounced “Jo Ann”) Little represented a turning point in the way Black victims of sexual violence were treated in the courts. Throughout much of U.S. history, sexually degrading Black women has been part and parcel of maintaining the racial order in many communities — enough so that, as one Black newspaper observed in the 1950s, it was a “commonplace experience for many of our women … to be propositioned openly by white men. You can pick up accounts of these at a dime a dozen in almost any community.” 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

Women Fighting for Everyone’s Health

Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout the history of medicine, the health of women and children hasn’t always been prioritized. Safeguards might not have been in place to ensure drugs were safe during pregnancy, the right to abortion care has been under attack by both terrorists and lawmakers, and people haven’t had the tools they needed to prevent pregnancy. But throughout that same history, women have confronted these issues head on, creating a better world for everyone and keeping important conversations alive.

Let’s meet some of these incredible historical figures now!

Frances Oldham Kelsey

President Kennedy honors Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey with the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in 1962.

In 1960, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey was evaluating drug applications for the FDA. When she received an application for a sleeping pill called Kevadon, she was unsettled by scant information on the drug’s safety and demanded additional data, triggering a game of tug-of-war between the pharmaceutical company and the FDA that persisted for more than a year.

In November 1961, Dr. Kelsey was vindicated. Kevadon — aka thalidomide — was discovered to cause severe birth defects. According to the New York Times, children “were born without arms or legs, some with no limbs or with withered appendages protruding directly from the trunk. Some had no external ears or deformities of the eyes, the esophagus or intestinal tracts.” One estimate holds that 20,000 babies were born with deformities, while 80,000 died during pregnancy or shortly after birth. But, thanks to Dr. Kelsey, thalidomide was never approved in the United States.

Frances Kelsey’s career might have been made possible by a misunderstanding. Her graduate advisor at the University of Chicago wasn’t a big booster of women in science, but he hired her after reading her name as Francis and assuming she was a man. Dr. Kelsey always wondered, “if my name had been Elizabeth or Mary Jane, whether I would have gotten that first big step up.” At the time, though, she wondered if she should even accept the offer to join the University of Chicago as a grad student.

“When a woman took a job in those days, she was made to feel as if she was depriving a man of the ability to support his wife and child,” Dr. Kelsey told the New York Times in 2010. Fortunately for an untold number of wives and children — and everyone else — she decided to claim her rightful place at the university, leaving behind an incredible legacy.

Sherri Finkbine

The Finkbines traveling back to Phoenix, en route from London.

Sherri Finkbine was known to thousands of children as Miss Sherri on the local edition of the children’s show Romper Room. But Finkbine entered the spotlight for another reason in 1962, when she learned during her fifth pregnancy that she was at risk of having a child with severe birth defects. Finkbine was using sleeping pills that her husband had brought back from Europe, and the pills, she found out, contained thalidomide. Wishing to warn others about the drug, Finkbine shared her story with a reporter from the Arizona Republic.

Though she had been promised anonymity, her identity was exposed and her story created a media firestorm. Continue reading

Women Harnessing the Law

Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout this country’s history, the law hasn’t been consistently fair across gender lines, classifying women as second-class citizens and making assumptions about people based on gender stereotypes. But throughout that same history, women have harnessed the law to right these wrongs, changing the national conversation around issues as varied as medical privacy, marriage, caring for family members, and sexual harassment.

Let’s meet some of these trailblazers now!

Estelle Griswold

Estelle Griswold, left, and Cornelia Jahncke, of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, celebrate their Supreme Court victory.

The birth control pill came onto the market in 1960, but in Connecticut, contraception was outright banned by a law that predated the birth of the Pill by more than 80 years, imposing fines and jail time on people using any type of contraceptive device. Additionally, anyone “aiding and abetting” would-be birth-control users — including doctors and pharmacists — could be punished.

In 1961, in an act of civil disobedience, Estelle Griswold, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, opened a birth control clinic — and was promptly arrested, prosecuted, and fined $100. Griswold immediately challenged the constitutionality of Connecticut’s anti-contraception law, but it was upheld in state courts. In 1965, however, the Supreme Court ruled that married couples had a constitutional right to make private decisions about contraception.

Griswold v. Connecticut was a landmark case in contraception access — but it was only a first step. In restricting its ruling to married couples, the Supreme Court perpetuated the idea that birth control was only appropriate within the confines of marriage. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Supreme Court ruled that unmarried people, too, had a right to birth control.

Mildred Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving

Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times

Richard Loving was white and Mildred Jeter was black. In 1958, the couple obtained a marriage certificate in Washington D.C., and were jailed for violating Virginia code 20-54, which prohibited marriages between “white and colored persons,” and code 20-58, which prohibited couples from marrying out of state and returning to Virginia to reside as husband and wife.

The Lovings pleaded guilty and were banished from the state, forcing the couple to leave their families and home behind. A series of court battles culminated in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1967 decision that Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage violated the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Syphilis Treatment Through the Ages

The spiral-shaped bacteria that causes syphilis.

When syphilis first descended upon Europe, questions surrounded this mysterious scourge. Was it a punishment from God? Was it introduced by a hated Other? Was it caused by the stars’ alignment or the presence of “bad air”? We now know that syphilis is not caused by supernatural forces, foreigners, or a harmful atmosphere, but rather by a species of corkscrew-shaped bacteria called Treponema pallidum, which is spread by sexual contact — vaginal, anal, or oral sex — in which one person comes into contact with a syphilis sore.


Thanks to penicillin, we don’t have to go back to the “good old days” of puke chalices, antivenereal underpants, and rat poison.


Before good treatments were developed in the 20th century, syphilis was the most feared STD out there. Its initial symptoms can include a painless sore filled with a highly infectious liquid. As the infection spreads, lesions and rashes might appear on the soles of the feet or the palms of the hand. After these first waves of symptoms, the infection enters a latent phase, which can lull people into a false sense of security, thinking the disease has disappeared. Unfortunately, 15 percent of people with untreated syphilis reach the late stage, which can occur up to 20 years after initial infection, and includes severe damage to the nervous system, brain, heart, or other organs, and can be fatal.

These days, a shot of penicillin is all it takes to cure syphilis. Back in the day, though, there were myriad “treatments” for syphilis — but they were highly toxic and ineffective. Unfortunately, thanks to the latent phase of syphilis, it often seemed like these treatments did work, which probably explains why folks tortured themselves with them for centuries. If only penicillin had been around: Countless people would have been spared the unpleasant — and often fatal — quackery that syphilis attracted. Continue reading