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Encore: She was out in front of the fight to legalize abortion, but few know her name

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If the Supreme Court does indeed overturn Roe v. Wade as a leaked draft of a forthcoming opinion seems to indicate, abortion access in the U.S. will change drastically. In many parts of the country, abortion will be against the law, which would essentially return the U.S. to a time that Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts remembers all too well. Here she was speaking to a crowd outside the Supreme Court yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: Understand this - I have seen the world where abortion is illegal, and we are not going back.

CHANG: With this in mind, we're revisiting a story we aired in October about the early abortion rights activist Patricia Maginnis. She died last year at the age of 93.

Maginnis started her work at a time when, in most places in this country, you could face interrogation by police if you got an abortion. Most people seeking abortions in the U.S. had to go underground for a doctor or secretly perform the procedure on themselves or even leave the country.

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PATRICIA MAGINNIS: Some hundred thousand women every year - this is California women alone - subject themselves to improperly or illegal abortion.

CHANG: Here's Maginnis giving an interview on the street in 1963.

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MAGINNIS: I think that in itself is a rather staggering figure. And I feel great indignation as a woman to think that women have to subject themselves to second-rate medical care for a safe surgical procedure.

LESLIE REAGAN: She was the first person who spoke publicly saying abortion should be completely decriminalized.

I'm Leslie Reagan. And I'm the author of the book "When Abortion Was A Crime."

CHANG: Maginnis, Reagan says, would stand on street corners in San Francisco in the early '60s, passing out leaflets to people about abortion classes and even do-it-yourself abortions.

REAGAN: How to self-induce and where you could go to get a safe abortion - so she's the first to do that.

CHANG: Maginnis distributed this literature partly to get the information out, but also to try deliberately to get arrested.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAGINNIS: We'd made great efforts to point out that we were soliciting you to have abortions (laughter). And we would go around the whole...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In order to be arrested and challenge the law.

MAGINNIS: Well, show people how ridiculous it was that...

CHANG: Remember, this was a time when abortion was illegal everywhere in the U.S. except in rare cases. And by the late 1950s, early '60s, local and state governments were getting aggressive about enforcing these laws. They went after providers, shut down clinics. Seeking an abortion became this clandestine, sometimes dangerous experience.

REAGAN: They're blindfolding women. They're telling them to come to a corner where they'll be picked up blindfolded, driven around until they don't know where they are. And they are alone at all times, so the experience for women seeking abortions is extremely frightening.

CHANG: As I pictured what it would have been like to live as a woman during this time, I was fascinated to learn that this wasn't what most of American history was like. You see, during the 17- and early 1800s in the U.S., ending a pregnancy was totally permissible under the law, at least up until a point known as quickening.

REAGAN: Quickening is when a woman could feel fetal movement inside of her.

CHANG: And Reagan says in the months before quickening, a pregnant person could deliberately self-induce a miscarriage without any penalty. Even the Catholic Church at the time did not condemn this practice. There were literally domestic guidebooks that describe various ways to do this.

REAGAN: It's really something that is shared information, and it's quiet. It's not talked about.

CHANG: It's not debated.

REAGAN: Exactly.

CHANG: Like, there wasn't this nationwide conversation about whether that was ending life.

REAGAN: Yeah, there isn't a public debate. It's just part of commonplace health care.

CHANG: But eventually, states start outlawing abortion in the mid-1800s, and then the legal landscape begins to shift even more in the 20th century. As women's rights movements grow, crackdowns on abortions accelerate. Law enforcement agencies intensify efforts to catch abortionists in the act, interrogating women suspected of seeking abortions.

This was the world Pat Maginnis grew up in - a woman who knew from a very early age that she never wanted to have children. She grew up in an unhappy home with a mother who never seemed to like being a mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAGINNIS: She had many frustrations, which she often took out on us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So you saw lots of conflict?

MAGINNIS: Oh, yes.

CHANG: She later goes through three illegal abortions of her own, two of which were self-induced. I mean, as Maginnis told her boyfriend once...

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MAGINNIS: All I wanted was bed fun...

CHANG: Bed fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAGINNIS: ...And that I did not want babies. I only wanted bed fun (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You were clear in your mind about this?

MAGINNIS: I was fairly clear.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

CHANG: Trying to leave her Oklahoma past behind, Maginnis joins the Army. She trains as a surgical technician, and that's when Lili Loofbourow, who profiled Maginnis for Slate, says Maginnis saw women injured from botched abortions or forced to give birth even when they didn't want to have a baby.

LILI LOOFBOUROW: And it was all truly horrifying for her. And she said to me more than once that that was really the thing that radicalized her, was seeing sort of the gamut of things that women have to go through in the name of irreversible biology that nobody lets them opt out of.

CHANG: Maginnis plunges into activism after the Army. She moves to San Francisco. And at first, her advocacy starts with smaller stuff, like collecting signatures to reform abortion laws. But then pretty quickly, she gets to a point where she's like, forget reforming these abortion laws.

REAGAN: Those reform laws aren't going to work.

CHANG: Let's abolish those laws.

REAGAN: We need to argue for repeal.

CHANG: Let's repeal every law that criminalizes abortion. Leslie Reagan says this idea, repealing all laws that criminalize abortion, it's an idea that may feel commonplace today. But back then, in the early '60s, this idea is what made Pat Maginnis a radical.

REAGAN: She's earlier than the movement that we know of as women's liberation and when the major women's organizations like NOW also endorse the legalization of abortion. She's ahead of everybody.

LOOFBOUROW: So she was pro-abortion in the most explicit way, in a way that Planned Parenthood refused to be. And so that's why she said, I made - we made Planned Parenthood respectable.

CHANG: And Maginnis and her group do something that's pretty revolutionary.

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MAGINNIS: We got together names of doctors. And we had at the very top of this, in large letters, this whole thing we've mimeographed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

MAGINNIS: Large letters - are you pregnant?

CHANG: She puts together a list - a special list, Lili Loofbourow says, that could make safe abortions possible even for people living in a country where it's basically illegal.

LOOFBOUROW: That meant basically putting together a Yelp (laughter) inventory of doctors outside the country who it was safe for women to go to.

CHANG: This list contains not just names of doctors but their fees, also descriptions of the procedure. Reagan says Maginnis and her group acted sort of like a feminist public health agency. They wanted to make sure the providers followed certain standards of practice.

REAGAN: You have to wash your hands. You have to use sterile equipment. You have to disinfect the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAGINNIS: The U.S. woman generally was quite naive as to whether someone was a physician or someone was a specialist. They didn't know the questions to ask. They knew that they were desperate.

REAGAN: You want to make sure that this bit is being done in a medically appropriate manner.

CHANG: The group would try to enforce these standards by asking women to fill out surveys after the fact, and bad actors would be removed from the list. But sometimes, Reagan says, after the fact was too late. For example, one woman who had used the list claimed later that a specialist had raped her.

REAGAN: The really interesting thing as, you know, somebody looking at this later is the way that they handled it. Instead of immediately taking that doctor off the list and warning people that, you know, he had assaulted somebody, do not see him, they sent a letter saying that they were very concerned and they did not want him to do anything like that again. It took...

CHANG: They simply admonished the doctor.

REAGAN: Yes.

CHANG: And remarkably, the group didn't remove that person from the list until a second woman claimed that that same specialist had raped her. Now, we don't know how many women were harmed as a result of relying on the list. There very well could have been other accounts. But Lili Loofbourow says there's no question what Pat Maginnis and her group were at least trying to do in their work.

LOOFBOUROW: This was really the way to return power to women. Even if it was hard, even if it was painful and even if it was scary, she thought it was crucially important to actually return some of that power to the people concerned because women had been reduced to an almost infantile state by a medical community that thought that, like, you know, the authorities should be making those decisions for them.

CHANG: This fundamental principle Pat Maginnis lived by, advocated by - this principle that decisions about your body belong to you and not to some doctor or lawmaker - that principle eventually becomes a given in the whole abortion rights movement. Pat Maginnis the maverick becomes the mainstream.

And yet she remains an obscure figure in the history of the reproductive rights movement. I asked Loofbourow, why was that, even after all these decades?

LOOFBOUROW: She was not an attention seeker or a credit seeker, and she did not make particular common cause, to my surprise, with the feminist movement in general. Her strategy was blunt, and I think that may have prevented her from being known as, like, the activist superstar that she really was. I mean, she was not Gloria Steinem.

CHANG: At one point, Loofbourow was photographing Maginnis for the profile she wrote and asked her to pose with anything she liked.

LOOFBOUROW: She went out back into her backyard and came back with a shovel and a pitchfork. And the pitchfork was just incredible. And so she's just standing there in her front yard with this pitchfork, like, reenacting American Gothic in the most incredible way.

(LAUGHTER)

LOOFBOUROW: I mean, what a symbol to choose - a pitchfork...

CHANG: Yeah.

LOOFBOUROW: ...For your profile.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OCTOPUS PROJECT'S "BALTIMORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Sarah Handel