Pregnant with unwanted children, two Ohio women take opposite paths back when abortion was illegal: From the archives

Editor’s note: With a U.S. Supreme Court decision looming on abortion, a reader suggested we explore our archives in the years before the court recognized a Constitutional right to abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision. We are republishing some of those stories, to offer perspective from an era when abortions were illegal in Ohio. In this story published in the Sunday Magazine on Nov. 2, 1969, Plain Dealer reporter Judy Sammon interviewed two women, one who opted against aborting an unwanted child and another who opted for an abortion.

By Judy Sammon

In 1962, Mrs. Robert Finkbine of Phoenix, Ariz., learned that Thalidomide, a drug she had taken during the early weeks of her fifth pregnancy, could result in the birth of a deformed child. Arrangements were made for a therapeutic abortion. But when news leaked out and reached the attention of the county attorney, who stated that he would have to prosecute if a complaint were filed, Mrs.Finkbine’s request was denied.

Abortion at that time was a crime in all 50 states, except when necessary to save the life of the mother. Five states had also extended their laws to permit the operation if the mother’s health were in jeopardy. Mrs. Finkbine, whose case did not fall under either of those considerations, flew to Sweden where the abortion was performed. Doctors there confirmed her suspicions. The fetus was severely damaged; her baby would have been foreign malformed.

“No one in this country seemed to care how I felt as a mother bringing a deformed child into the world,” she said in an interview.

The subject of abortion, once consigned to medical journals or women’s magazines, soon became a public issue, reaching the stature of a crusade. Sides soon formed, and the armies of reform and opposition fell into rank, armed with statistics, case histories, humanitarian interests and ethics, all carefully utilized to promote their respective cause.

The American law Institute, in 1962, stepped forth with a blueprint for reform of the existing abortion laws, recommending in its model penal code therapeutic abortions in accredited hospitals under the following conditions:

When the expectant mothers mental or physical health was in jeopardy, when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or was considered likely to result in the birth of a child with serious mental or physical defects. The American Medical Association endorsed the model penal code in 1967, its first policy change on the subject since 1871.

Since 1967, few state legislatures have escaped appeals for abortion law reform, and bill each year are introduced, debated, passed or defeated. Colorado, that same year, became the first state to change its law, followed by 11 other states and Washington, D.C., revising their statutes to include American Law Institute recommendations.

Ohio’s abortion bill, HB 71, is locked in committee and a vote is unlikely before the end of the current legislative session.

As in Mrs. Finkbine’s case, there are women of the opinion that only an expectant mother can understand the traumas and strains of an unwanted pregnancy, and that even the modest changes in recent state’s legislation do not consider the area of emotional distress.

The decision to abort a pregnancy is not reached easily. Many who have made it confess that they never felt so alone. Equally significant is the decision of an anguished expectant mother not to abort when illegal abortions flourish and are accessible to women who can raise the necessary money and are determined to have one.

Here are the stories of two women who faced such a decision.

Betsy’s voice only climbs to an excited pitch when she discusses her new position in the advertising field, and the opportunities it will provide to her express herself creatively. She joined an Akron company about six months ago, three months after she gave birth to an illegitimate son in a home for unwed mothers in Toledo.

Two months before she delivered, she said, three couples were screened as perspective adoptive parents. Her son has since been adopted by one of them.

“I only hope that he has a better life than I had,” said Betsy. “It would have been simple for me to prevent his birth, but I felt that he deserved a chance for what I hope to be a good life.”

Betsy, at 24 is hoping for a better life for herself, too.

“My earliest memory of home is that of a battlefield. My parents discovered that they detested each other shortly after they were married. I was the reason they married and was reminded of that fact by my mother until I was 14 and finally left home.

“They were married to others when they met; my father owned the company in which my mother’s ex-husband was an officer. I was conceived shortly before their divorces became final and they married five months before I was born. I heard my father once remark that the only good thing that resulted from their marriage was that he got rid of a man in his company he felt was incompetent.

“They divorced when I was six years old, and my mother returned to her first husband and her two other children shortly after, dragging me along.”

Her stepfather forgave her mother, she said, “but recoiled every time he looked at me.

“My mother was so delighted to be reunited with her older daughters that she forgot I was alive. My stepfather tried to accept me, but it was impossible for him. He had lost a good secure position because of me, and the mother of his children for six years. I can understand now, as an adult, his awkward position, but as a child, I was so bewildered why he never even held my hand or smiled at me.

“The only real attention and love I received in that house was from my step-sisters, both of whom were in their teens when I moved in. They loved playing with me, braiding my hair and dressing me up for trips downtown. Never once, during the eight years I lived in that house, did they ever reproach me for the unhappiness that occurred in their lives during mother’s absence. My existence became almost intolerable when Margo and Karen moved off to college. Even the excellent grades I received in school didn’t please my mother, she completely ignored me.”

Betsy had an aunt who invited her to stay with her when she was 14. She never returned to live at home after that. “My mother got in touch with my father and he consented to paying for my expenses in boarding school in Virginia. Neither my mother nor my father ever came down to visit me. I returned to my aunt’s home during two summer vacations. And when she died, moved in with another aunt, an alcoholic who was being divorced by her husband. I saw my mother four times during my high school years, only because I went home to visit. It never occurred to her to visit me.”

She spent her summers during her college years with her step-sister Margo, who had established a career in fashion illustration in New York., Margo later moved to San Francisco where Betsy joined her after graduation.

“I moved in with Margot and her roommate, who had rented a houseboat in Sausalito, got a secretarial job with an advertising agency in San Francisco and was promoted within eight months to copywriting. For the first time in my life, things were going great. And I was acquiring a self-confidence I never had before. About a year after I was there, I met Bob.”

Bob, a bachelor lawyer, lived in Santa Cruz, about 80 miles south of San Francisco. Betsy met him at a party on the houseboat. He had grown up with Sheila, her other roommate in that beach resort community.

“I thought he was God he was so good to me.,” she said. “We started dating immediately and he drove up every weekend to spend it with me. My whole life revolved around him.” His life, it turned out, revolved around another girl to whom he was engaged and who was winding up a year in Europe about the same time Betsy learned she was pregnant.

“He had been planning a marriage to this girl all the time he was dating me, which I learned later. I told him on a Sunday night that I was pregnant, and by next Saturday he was married. He phoned Sheila at work and begged her not to tell me about it until after the ceremony. She complied.”

Sheila also was the first to suggest to Betsy that she abort. Sheila’s aunt, a nurse, was performing abortions in Sacramento. She had inherited the practice from a doctor after he died.

“Margo and Sheila were charting my destiny for me. I couldn’t have cared less.”

Arrangements were made through Sheila and her aunt for the girls to drive up to Sacramento on a Friday evening and stay over the weekend. The abortion was scheduled to take place in their motel room on Saturda. Because Betsy was a friend of Sheila’s, the cost would be $250; the nurse’s going rate was $500.

“Sheila had explained to me all along how simple and painless it would be. I would receive a local anesthetic and her aunt would use sterilized instruments. Sheila had had it done two years earlier.”

According to Betsy, the enormity of the situation never hit her until the night before their scheduled departure.

“I was too involved with my own personal loss to give any consideration to my unborn child. I never realized what I was doing until then. And the thought made me sick. Perhaps the thought had crossed my mind once or twice, but I’m certain I dismissed it with another: that I would be doing the baby a favor by aborting. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take away the life of a child who wasn’t responsible for his existence. I had no right to destroy the life inside me. The thought repulsed me.”

When Betsy informed her roommates of her sentiments, “they nearly flipped. They thought I was mad, and begged me to reconsider. Sheila said that the only reason I wanted to have the baby was because of my obsession with Bob, that by having the baby, I would be holding onto a memory of Bob forever. She accused me of being selfish and then of being afraid of what she called ‘simple surgery.’ I exhausted myself in an attempt to convince them that it wasn’t the abortion itself that I feared, but my conscience afterwards, I could never have lived with myself if I had taken that course of action, I would never forgive myself.”

When Margo and Sheila realized that they were losing ground, they asked Betsy to postpone any definite decision until another week, “after I had time to think about it and other arrangements could be made.

“The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that I was right. How could I dare play God? I had been entrusted with a life and I wasn’t going to destroy it, no matter how simple it might be. Sheila had said that I was continuing my pregnancy to punish myself for my stupidity. But she was wrong. I simply felt that my baby had every right in this world to exist and to be loved and cared for by concerned parents. I remember reading an excerpt taken from the walls of an old church that said: ‘In spite of all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.’ I wanted my child to be a part of that world.”

Betsy quit her job the following week and flew to Toledo, where she stayed with a cousin until her fifth month of pregnancy. “When I felt that my condition was an embarrassment to her, I consulted a home for unwed mothers. They accepted me the following day.”

“Her months there were lonely, she admits, but they gave her time to put her life in order.

“I had considered keeping my baby after his delivery, but I realized that my dreams for a sound and secure life for him would never be fulfilled under those circumstances. I had to be constantly assured that the couples being interviewed as his prospective adoptive parents were really serious in their intentions of providing a happy home for him. He has been placed with fine people, I’m told. This is the most important thing to me.”

Betsy maintains that ethics, not religion, influenced her decision, not to board.

“I don’t belong to any church; I never have. But I always knew what was right and wrong for me. When I held my son after his delivery. I knew I had made the right decision. His birth was the first thing in my life that made any sense. I’ve regret the circumstances of his birth and that I had to give him up, but I shall never have to reproach myself for destroying him or for destroying a part of myself.”

Ann, in her late thirties lives in a western suburb, in a modest duplex house, comfortably furnished. In 14 years of marriage, she has had seven pregnancies, three of which reached full term and three of which terminated in natural miscarriages.

Earlier this year, anguished upon learning that she was pregnant again, Ann attempted to obtain a therapeutic abortion. However, a Cleveland gynecologist told her she would not qualify under the present Ohio abortion law.

“I could not bear that child,” she said soberly. “Her only recourse, she said ‚was to break the law. Her illegal abortion, an induced miscarriage, took place in a Cleveland physician’s office.

The cost: $300. Her husband borrowed the money from his company’s credit union.

Ann was in her third month of pregnancy when she learned from a friend about a local physician who was injecting distressed, pregnant women with a hypertonic saline solution to induce miscarriage. She made an appointment, told him her reasons for requesting the abortion and returned one afternoon for the injection. Three days later, she miscarried.

“I thank God that there are doctors who really understand,” Ann said. “The gynecologist I had for my other pregnancies didn’t.”

Anne’s last full-term pregnancy was a “nightmare” to her. She had been plagued for years with a breast disease that intensified during each of her pregnancies; and two operations on the breast over a period of three years failed to reduce the pain. One physician recommended removing it. Another told her that the condition would disappear after menopause. During her pregnancy with Mark, her youngest child, she was forced to remain in bed because of a gallbladder condition and an abdominal infection. Unable to eat, her weight gain during the gestation period was only three pounds, and she was so bloated that she was unable to walk.

A high fever raged for the next two months, and she went into labor on and off a month before Mark’s birth. Her physician, Dr. A, admitted her for an emergency Caesarian. She was told that her baby stood a 50-50 chance to survive. The doctor confided to her husband that her chances were about the same.

“You can’t imagine what passed through my mind during those months I was in bed. I knew how sick I was physically, and the doctors didn’t know how the infection might affect the baby. I was obsessed with the thought that the baby would be born dead. Or deformed. My mental state was deplorable.”

Mark was born technically crippled and had to spend a year in traction and in body casts. “He lay in bed for a year, his legs spread apart in traction, developing body ulcers from being on his back so long. My heart was broken for him.”

An emotional problem erupted for her during that period.

“My husband refused to accept the fact that a child of his was not born perfectly normal. And I had to take care of mark myself. Whenever a doctor came by to examine Mark, my husband would leave the house. He couldn’t face it. Perhaps it’s pride. I don’t know. Maybe all men react that way to sick children.”

Ann and her husband have what she calls personal problems. Their marriage has been an unstable one. He drinks and is occasionally absent all night from home. “I don’t think that he would have cared if we ever had the three children we do have. He had others by a previous marriage whom I raised. Don’t ever think that I don’t love children.”

Ann’s gynecologist advised her not to risk another pregnancy, and put her on birth control pills shortly after Mark’s birth. She tried five different kinds, each making her progressively sicker and causing the breast pain to flare up again.”My system couldn’t tolerate any of those pills,” Ann explained.

“When I asked him to insert a loop (an inter-uterine birth control device) he refused. I can’t understand why. I couldn’t take the birth control pills, and he had told me that another pregnancy might be dangerous. He had suggested a hysterectomy after Mark’s birth, but whenever I questioned him about it later, he ignored it. I had idolized him. I felt that he had saved a Mark’s life by performing that Caesarian. I had gone to him for years and trusted him completely.”

Dr. A put Ann on a hormone to regulate her menstrual cycle, to enable her to know when her fertile days occurred. That pill failed, and in a little over a year after Mark’s birth, she was pregnant again. She miscarried and was returned to the same medication.

“It failed the second time, and I was frantic. I just couldn’t go through a pregnancy again.”

When Anne contacted Dr. A to discuss an alternative, “he hung up in my ear. He was aware of all my problems, but he wouldn’t even listen to me.”

During the early stages of her pregnancy, Ann had watched a television news program featuring a short on a local consultation service on abortion. She said that she impulsively, jotted down the number given “for a friend of mine whose marriage was on the rocks, because of all her pregnancies. Several weeks later, Ann placed the call herself.

“I learned that I would need a letter from my physician attesting to the fact that I was pregnant before I could see anyone.” Doctor A, a Catholic, refused to provide the document.

Later, Ann read a newspaper account of local physicians who would addressed the Ohio Legislature in favor of abortion law reform. She made an appointment with Dr. B., a gynecologist and member of the Association for Reform of the Ohio abortion law.

“I approached his office timidly. You don’t know how it feels to have to turn to a complete stranger, a physician you’ve never met before and beg for help, but I needed someone to listen to me.”

“He told me that petitioning a hospital committee for a therapeutic abortion for medical reasons would probably fail, since he could prescribe drugs for my gall bladder condition and antibiotics against a recurring infection, which would not affect the baby. He suggested as an alternative, the psychiatry route, which I refused to take.

“I was depressed, but I could not sit in front of a psychiatrist and convince him that I was mentally unbalanced or suicidal when I had to be stable enough to raise my other children. I knew that I could never kill myself, but I also realized that if I carried this pregnancy to full term, I would take out my frustrations on my other children. My first responsibility was to them. It would have been belittling for me to have to convince a psychiatrist that I was some kind of an idiot when I had other children to care for. Wouldn’t that have looked marvelous on my hospital record. Even if I had decided to stoop to that, he still had a prerogative to say no.”

Dr. B gave Ann the letter she needed as an entree to the clergy consultation service, where she was told of two out of state physicians who performed abortions. One was in Detroit, the other in South Dakota. The combined costs for the abortions, the transportation and accommodations discouraged either consideration.

It was at this point that Ann’s friends stepped into the picture with information about Dr. C, the physician who was inducing miscarriage. Ann visited his office, convinced him that our husband consented to the action and returned later for the injection. She remained in contact with Dr. B, who assured her of hospital treatment should the need arise.

Three days after receiving the injection, Ann entered the hospital with a slight fever, chills, and a uterus infection, and miscarried there that day. A D and C (dilation and curettage) w Was subsequently performed by Dr. B.

She feels no remorse for her action.

“In my opinion, I killed no living being, I don’t think there is life until you can feel it. Only a mother knows if she is capable of accepting the responsibility of raising another child. The strain of my other pregnancies had taken its toll. I couldn’t consider having another child under my present domestic conditions. My other miscarriages, my sick child, our personal problems, and my family’s needs were overwhelming. I had followed my physician’s advice to prevent conception, but everything failed. I had no other recourse.”

Ann considers the present abortion law unreasonable and is anxious to see it liberalized.

“Why should a woman be forced to run from doctor to doctor, friend to friend, then desperately to a butcher to have an abortion when she has a legitimate reason for needing one. Why should any woman have to circumvent the law or break it? I don’t understand the law very well, but I do know it is supposed to protect people. I was lucky; I didn’t have to turn myself over to a butcher, but what of those poor desperate women who do?”

She is convinced her action was no crime.

“The biggest sin a woman could commit is bringing into this world a child she knows she will neglect or reject, or is incapable of raising. The most basic of obligations we have to a child is that he be wanted.