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

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

The Racist Roots of the War on Sex Ed

JBS-supported billboard accusing Martin Luther King Jr. of communist ties. Image: Bob Fitch photography archive, Stanford University Libraries

The 1960s were a decade of dramatic social and political changes, many of them catalyzed by the shock of assassinations or the dawn of culture-changing technology like the birth control pill.

It would seem, then, that by the end of the decade it would have taken an especially grave development to prompt warnings of a “subversive monstrosity,” a “mushrooming program” that was forced upon an unwitting public through an insidious campaign of “falsehoods, deceptions, pressures, and pretenses.”

The John Birch Society published those words 50 years ago this month in their January 1969 newsletter. What atrocity spurred JBS founder Robert Welch Jr. to write this clarion call? No trigger warning is needed for this one. He was alerting his readers to the “filthy Communist plot” known as sex education.


It wasn’t just premarital and extramarital sex that stirred anxieties. So, too, did interracial sex.


Welch’s alarmist language was common currency in an organization that was known for its anti-Semitism and its espousal of conspiracy theories. They were traits that kept the Birchers’ numbers modest throughout the 1960s and ’70s — an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 members — and led to the group’s decline in later decades. The JBS, a far-right group that advocated for limited government, got its name from a Baptist missionary and military pilot who was killed by Chinese communists — an early martyr of the Cold War.

However fringe they may have been, Welch’s words signaled the beginning of intensive backlash against sex ed among a broader base of conservatives. Within months, that backlash put organizations like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Medical Association on the defensive. As the debate raged, the NEA sought allies nationwide in churches, civic groups, and the media to save sex ed. By the following year, the NEA was reporting that sex ed programs had been “canceled, postponed, or curtailed” in 13 states and were under scrutiny in 20 state legislatures. Continue reading

On the Road to Marriage Equality in Mormon Country

Members of Mormons Building Bridges march in Salt Lake City pride parade, 2012. Photo: Jay Jacobsen

Earlier this summer, Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds gave us an up-close look at the uphill battle for LGBTQ rights in the Mormon community. In the HBO documentary Believer, the alt-rock vocalist took viewers through his personal struggle to reconcile his commitment to LGBTQ equality with the many homophobic views embedded in Mormonism, his faith since childhood.

The Mormon church has been on a slow road to reform. It still asks gay and lesbian Mormons to deny their sexual orientation and enter “mixed-orientation marriages” — or choose celibacy. Its official website uses the phrase “same-sex attraction,” suggesting that sexual orientation is not a fixed status but a feeling, something as malleable or trivial as their favorite brand of shoe. That is a step forward, though. In the past, gay and lesbian members would simply be excommunicated as soon as their sexuality was discovered.


In Utah, religious influence is a fixture that is written into the geography of the capital city.


Reynolds himself is heterosexual and could have quietly sidestepped the issue, but he couldn’t ignore the toll the church’s views took on people. He saw it early on when a childhood friend, who was gay and Mormon, was confined to the closet. As an ally later in life, he met people who shared devastating stories, like that of a Mormon couple who lost their gay son to suicide.

Believer follows Reynolds as he promotes tolerance and acceptance through what he knows best: music. Along with Neon Trees singer Tyler Glenn, a former Mormon who is openly gay, Reynolds organizes the LoveLoud Festival, a benefit and awareness-raising event. The festival was held in Orem, Utah — a city that is 93 percent Mormon — in the hopes of bridging the Mormon and LGBTQ communities. At the festival, the camera turns to the attendees. Viewers see parents embracing their LGBTQ children. They hear testimony from LGBTQ adults, who tell how events like this could have helped them out of the isolation and depression they felt growing up. Continue reading

Maternal Mortality: A National Embarrassment

Americans spend more money on childbirth than any other country, but we’re not getting a good return on our investment.

Less than a century ago, approximately one mother died for every 100 live births — an occurrence so common that nearly everyone belonged to a family, or knew of one, that was devastated by such a loss. Fortunately, in most nations, those tragedies have declined over the years. In fact, in the decade between 2003 and 2013, only eight countries saw their maternal mortality rates rise.

Unfortunately, the United States was one of those eight countries, joining a club that also includes Afghanistan and South Sudan. Within the 31 industrialized countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an American woman is more likely to die as a result of pregnancy than a citizen of any other country besides Mexico. Among developed countries, the United States has one of the highest maternal mortality rates — and those rates are only getting worse.

Graph: CDC

U.S. maternal mortality has attracted the attention of organizations whose oversight you wouldn’t expect. Amnesty International, which most Americans associate with the fight against human rights abuses in far-flung authoritarian regimes, considers our high maternal mortality rates to be a violation of human rights. Additionally — and pathetically — one of the biggest sources of funding for maternal health in the United States comes not from taxpayers but from the pharmaceutical company Merck. The Economist quoted a Merck spokesperson as saying, “We expected to be doing all our work in developing countries.” Continue reading

The Clash of Population and Prejudice in Madrigal v. Quilligan

Mural (detail) in Boyle Heights, East L.A. Photo: Mictlan Murals

In August 1973, Guadalupe Acosta was admitted to the county hospital in East Los Angeles. She had been suffering from labor pain for hours, but she would soon endure even more misery in the delivery room. She recounted later how the attending physician worked aggressively to induce labor, pushing down forcefully on her abdomen — even hitting her stomach when he was caught in the swing of her flailing arms. In the end, all the torment she endured culminated in the death of her baby in birth.

Acosta later said she was “very inattentive” in the aftermath of the experience. “People sometimes have to tell me things twice. It’s not that I don’t understand them, it’s that I’m not there.” For Acosta, it was not just the loss of her baby that devastated her but also the loss of her ability to have children in the future. She found out, months later, that the hospital physician had decided to sterilize her. At the time, she had been too traumatized to understand what was happening.


Just as the right to access birth control and abortion should be defended, so should the right to have children.


The University of Southern California – Los Angeles County Medical Center (USC-LAC Medical Center), as it was officially called in the 1970s, was a hospital that many in East L.A. tried to avoid. It was a place they would only visit out of necessity if other hospitals weren’t affordable. For Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, who worked there as a resident in obstetrics and gynecology, it was not hard to see how his own department reinforced that reputation.

Acosta’s traumatic experience was similar to other cases Rosenfeld witnessed — cases that showed a disturbing pattern of subjecting women, especially Spanish-speaking women, to sterilization without their informed consent. According to Rosenfeld, insistent medical staff would push sterilization on patients “before they go home” — often while they were still in pain or exhausted — so that they wouldn’t “change their mind by the time they come back to clinic.” Patients who had limited understanding of English were often uncertain of what was happening. Shocked by the unethical practices, Rosenfeld secretly copied hundreds of medical records to document what was happening at USC-LAC Medical Center. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 4: The Gathering Storm of Patriots and Plainclothes Politicians

This article is our final installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined the connections that developed in the 1980s between white supremacists and the anti-abortion movement, which bred a growing extremism and led to the first assassination of an abortion provider in 1993. This installment looks at the threats that developed in the aftermath.

1996 Planned Parenthood publication detailing militia movement links to anti-abortion terrorism

On March 11, 1993, Michael Frederick Griffin approached Dr. David Gunn outside his Pensacola clinic and shot him in the back three times, reportedly shouting, “Don’t kill any more babies!” Griffin, who had been radicalized by former Klansman and anti-abortion crusader John Burt, committed the first assassination of an abortion provider in the U.S. The following year, 1994, saw a record four murders and eight attempted murders by anti-abortion extremists, and more than half of the estimated 1,500 abortion clinics in the U.S. were targets of anti-abortion crimes, such as arson or bombings, in the first seven months of 1994. Although the next two years would see decreases in some types of anti-abortion crimes, clinics have never been free of threats in any of the years since.


Since the 1990s, anti-government groups have stirred racial hatred and anti-abortion extremism on the right.


Just weeks after Dr. Gunn’s assassination, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ended a 51-day armed standoff at a compound in Waco, Texas, the home of a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians. The standoff began in response to reports that the cult was abusing children and stockpiling illegal weapons. The siege ended on April 19, 1993 — 25 years ago this month — when the cult’s leader, David Koresh, ordered his followers to ignite fires that soon engulfed the compound in flames. By the end of the standoff, 75 people had lost their lives.

The federal government’s actions in Waco had overwhelming public support — 70 percent according to a poll conducted shortly after the siege — but to many right-wing activists, who held a deep distrust of the federal government, Waco was a gross display of heavy-handed government intrusion; tyrannical, military-style policing; and violent intolerance of religious liberty. Waco thus became a rallying cry for a growing, militant movement in the political right. Continue reading