A great nation is not evidenced by high GDP, long life expectancy, and democratic freedoms. Rather, a great nation is evidenced by the character and hearts of its people. And one key indicator of a nation’s heart is its attitude toward abortion. Is abortion seen, as it is in the Philippines, Ireland, and many Latin American nations, as a heartbreaking violation of the right to life? Or is abortion seen, as it is in most of the western world, as a ticklish and complex problem best left to the individual conscience?
With this in mind, I turn to the depressing story of Sherri Finkbine. The year was 1962, and abortion was illegal in all 50 states with exceptions only for the mother’s life and (in a small handful of states) for serious threats to the mother’s health. It wasn’t even a political issue. NARAL did not yet exist, Planned Parenthood strictly limited their business to contraception, and no politician could ever expect to be asked for their position on abortion. One might easily think that America’s character was different in 1962. Maybe back then, Americans understood that there’s something fundamentally wrong about killing unwanted babies. That’s certainly the narrative that social conservatives often peddle these days.
In the early 1960s, Sherri Finkbine hosted an educational children’s show that aired in the Phoenix area. She sought an abortion after discovering that she had accidentally taken some Thalidomide pills that her husband had acquired overseas, thinking they were sleeping pills. When taken during pregnancy, Thalidomide causes all sorts of birth defects, most often turning limbs into tiny malformed appendages.
The Finkbines arranged for an abortion at a local hospital, in violation of state law. At the time, hospitals often quietly did this sort of thing if the patients were rich and well connected. But Sherri made the mistake of blabbing to a newspaper about it. Within a few days, her story had literally become front page news all across America, and the hospital hastily backed out of its prior commitment. Now unable to have an abortion in the US, the Finkbines flew to Sweden and had the operation performed.
Sherri Finkbine’s sad saga represented the entrance of abortion into the political realm. For the first time ever, the issue was being debated in the public forum. Perceiving the new political issue, Gallup conducted a poll asking whether Finkbine had done the right thing or the wrong thing. 52% said “right thing,” and only 32% said “wrong thing.” On day one, the battle had already been lost; as early as 1962, more than half of America found it justifiable to kill a baby if it had malformed limbs. America’s true heart was revealed.
The more one digs into the story, the sadder, and more merciless it becomes. First, Thalidomide did not always result in birth defects – there was still a good chance for a healthy baby. Ultrasound technology was virtually non-existent in 1962, so there was no way to find out for sure until birth. Finkbine was willing to potentially kill a normal baby as a hedge against a deformed one. As her story became public, she was inundated with pleas from less heartless couples. ‘Let us adopt and raise your baby’ they all pleaded. She remained unmoved, and instead reacted with indignant rage.
When Finkbine spoke with reporters, she gave them quotes of truly stunning callousness. In fact, I can think of no pro-choice advocate in the fifty years since who could so reliably provide such soul-chilling quotes. Here’s an example:
It would be the cruelest thing in the world to let my baby be born with only a 50-50 chance of being normal. And I am concerned about our other children. How would it affect them? Some people think that what I want to do is wrong. If it would make them happy, we would be glad to start again next month and try to have a normal baby (TIME, 1962)
She raises a good question: how will it affect her other children to learn that she only loves them because they’re “normal”? How will it affect them to learn that she considers them fungible commodities? How will it affect them to learn that being abnormal is considered worthy of death?
Again, this is what 52% of Americans in the Gallup poll said was the “right thing.” It was only a matter of time before the nation’s laws began reflecting its moral coarseness. The following three years were fairly quiet, but then in 1965 a German measles epidemic caused hundreds of babies to be born with birth defects. Abortion once again resurfaced as a political issue – this time for good. A mere eight years later, Roe v. Wade codified what was already in American hearts.