Update, Sept. 1, 2021—Pat Maginnis died August 30, 2021, at the age of 93. I am thinking today of her determination to fight for a better world for women, even as Texas celebrates the passage of a law criminalizing not just abortion but any such “aid,” vaguely defined, to a woman seeking to live her life on her own terms. Maginnis’ story isn’t past; it’s prologue. -LL
There was nothing remarkable about the small woman carrying a box of leaflets—certainly nothing to justify the clutch of reporters waiting for her across from San Francisco’s Federal Building on a July morning in 1966. Still, there they were. She arrived at exactly 9 a.m., greeted them, and began distributing fliers to anyone who passed. There were two of them: One was a yellow slip of paper titled “Classes in Abortion,” listing topics like female anatomy, foreign abortion specialists, and police questioning. The other—which she gave only to the assembled journalists and the five women who signed up for her class that Wednesday evening—described two techniques for DIY abortions. “I am attempting to show women an alternative to knitting needles, coat hangers, and household cleaning agents,” she told the reporters, adding that she had notified San Francisco police of her whereabouts and plans.
The woman was Patricia Maginnis, a laboratory technician and founder of the Society for Humane Abortion, an organization that she ran out of the front room of her small apartment in San Francisco. She’d started the SHA in 1962 (back then, it was called the Citizens Committee for Humane Abortion Laws). Arguably the first organization of its kind in America, its mandate was radical: The SHA sought to repeal abortion laws, endorse elective abortions, and offer women any resources it could in the meantime. These resources would come to include “the List,” an up-to-date directory of safe abortion specialists outside the country, classes on DIY abortions, and symposia where sympathetic doctors could confer with each other about the safest and best abortion techniques. SHA would eventually formalize its legal strategy with a branch called the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (ARAL, which would form the basis for NARAL), specifically devoted to challenging legislation.
But on this particular day, and on this particular mission, Maginnis claimed she was acting alone, outside of her organization. The leaflets were her way of knowingly violating both a city ordinance and Section 601 of the California Business and Professions Code, which declared it unlawful to distribute information about abortion. She was also flouting Penal Code 276, which made it a crime to “solicit any woman to submit to any operation, or to the use of any means whatever, to procure a miscarriage.” The violation was the point: Maginnis had politely informed the police of her every move in advance. The aim was to goad the legal apparatus into an ugly confrontation that it preferred to keep as merely a threat; she wanted to make the system own the consequences of its laws. “I could get arrested for soliciting women to undergo a felony,” Maginnis told the alt-weekly Berkeley Barb, “but I feel it is necessary at this point to have a test case.” To get a law thrown out, you first need to go to court. And to get to court, you must be arrested.
She’d launched her leaflet campaign about six weeks earlier, and the police had so far refused to respond to her provocation (some cops would later tell Maginnis that they knew she wanted to be arrested—implying this was why they’d refrained). Still, things were going smoothly enough this morning; a man named Steve Hooper, writing for the Barb, described the women to whom Maginnis gave leaflets as ranging from neutral to receptive. Some wished her luck. (As for the men, they “seemed indifferent except for one old suit who said he wanted a leaflet for his secretary,” Hooper wrote.)
Then it happened. While the reporters watched, a documentarian named Gary Bentley interviewed Maginnis for 10 minutes with a camera crew. Content with his footage, he asked his cameraman to film as he walked up to Maginnis. Here’s Hooper describing what happened next:
With microphone in hand and cameraman turned on, he said, “I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest for violating Section 188 of the Municipal Police Code. What do you think of that?”
“Excuse me, please,” Pat Maginnis said, and she hurried after one more woman to give her a leaflet.
When the police arrived in response to Bentley’s citizen’s arrest, they did so unwillingly. They tried to argue that they weren’t the ones arresting her even as they helped Maginnis into a cop car. It didn’t matter. Maginnis’ “test case” paid off. San Francisco’s Section 188 would be declared unconstitutional, and the case against her would be thrown out in court. It was the first of her many legal victories.
A social history of American abortion shows two things: 1) that it’s always been around, and 2) that anti-choice efforts tend to intensify in response to women’s perceived “liberation.” This was certainly true when Pat Maginnis came of age. Women had joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers during World War II, and the 1950s were engaged in the genie-rebottling project of fetishizing traditional gender roles. One result, as Leslie Reagan points out in When Abortion Was a Crime, was a sharp increase in the (medicalized) oversight of women’s choices. A system in which abortions were decided between the patient and her doctor or midwife would eventually give way to hospital committees, which debated on a case-by-case basis whether women deserved “therapeutic” abortions. The discussions were humiliating and sometimes even coercive, particularly when they concerned lower-income women and women of color: It wasn’t uncommon for committees to approve the requested abortion if the woman agreed to be sterilized. As medical bureaucracies solidified, hospitals started reporting abortions (and attempted abortions) to police.
That this compromised women’s privacy and subjected their health care to literal policing barely registered in these discussions, which tended overwhelmingly to prioritize the physicians’ perspective rather than women’s needs. Doctors worried about the semilegal status of “therapeutic” abortions, but they also didn’t like committees telling them what to do with their patients. In either case, the debate revolved around doctors’ preferences and anxieties. There were plenty of organizations trying to reform abortion laws, ranging from Planned Parenthood—which in 1955 held an “abortion conference” to address possible reform efforts—to the California Committee to Legalize Abortion. Some abortion activists also chose to work within the existing framework: steering patients toward favorable hospital committees or training women on what to say to get “therapeutic” abortions, whether by emphasizing excessive vomiting or offering up stories that would earn them permission on psychiatric grounds.
Maginnis aimed for more than reform. She wanted a total system overhaul. As a figure in feminist history, Maginnis, now 90 years old, may not loom as large as a Margaret Sanger or a Betty Friedan. But while she’s finally getting some belated recognition, she was never particularly interested in taking credit for her work. Nor was she much invested in making herself or her positions respectable or palatable to mainstream culture. This may have made her an awkward figure for a movement that was then treading delicate territory. And yet, a decade before Roe, with her ungainly activism, her proclivity for wearing clothes she’d found on the street, and her righteous, unquenchable rage, Maginnis helped to fundamentally reshape the abortion debate into the terms we’re still using today. She was the first to take a passionate, public stance arguing that the medical stranglehold over women’s reproductive lives was corrosive. And the Society for Humane Abortion was arguably the very first American organization to advocate a pro-choice position that centered the woman, instead of the legal dilemmas of the physician—specifically, her right to privacy and choice. Rejecting the finicky gatekeeping protocols, the committees and evaluations and red tape, Maginnis proposed that the only question anyone should ask prior to approving an abortion was a simple one: whether the woman wanted it.
Pat Maginnis grew up with six siblings in Okarche, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression. Her father, a veterinarian, barely scraped by. Her family’s troubles were compounded by Catholic strictures: Her mother had converted in order to marry her father and—because birth control was not an option—consequently continued having children long after the doctors advised against it. “She had constant ‘female trouble,’ ” Maginnis says, recalling her mother’s unhappiness and pain. “I don’t know what that meant, but she had constant problems.” Her father, the illegitimate son of an opera singer, was differently scarred by the vagaries of unplanned pregnancy. “My grandma was on her way to be a star,” Maginnis says, “but she got pregnant. And apparently pregnancy was just a killer of dreams.” Her father never got over the humiliating circumstances of his birth. “He was a good soul, but forever tortured because he had been conceived out of wedlock.”
It’s hard to separate Maginnis’ refusal to become a parent herself from the misery that this litany of reproductive events inflicted on her family. Maginnis says that her father was so abusive that her older brother confessed to her that growing up he’d feared for his life more than once. Her family was not, in consequence (and despite its size and religious piety), particularly close. Some years after she started the SHA, her mother sent her a letter: “Dear Patricia,” Maginnis reads now, affecting a formal, slightly prissy voice, “I was thinking you must be about 40 years old. I do think you could do something besides teaching these girls to commit murder. P.S. If you come this way, do look us up. Love, Mother.”
It was a sufficiently chilly relationship—and Maginnis was so eager to get away—that she describes her banishment to a boarding school as a relief and remembers her mother’s trip to visit her in California with some acidity. “I never talked to her about my sex life,” Maginnis says. I’d asked whether she ever discussed abortion with her mother; that her answer took this form surprised me slightly. I wouldn’t necessarily have used the phrase “sex life” (which, to me, connotes pleasure) to include abortions. But Maginnis would; in fact, that was sort of her point. Any campaign for elective abortion is, of course, at least in part aimed at granting that women, too, might find joy and delight in sex (rather than just pain, danger, and obligation). As a guilt-ridden ex-Catholic myself, I was both baffled and impressed by Maginnis’ immunity to the shame that ailed her family: How does a soft-spoken, scrupulously polite Oklahoma girl who attended Catholic schools with strict Catholic parents shed her sexual guilt to become not just sexually adventurous, but a pioneer in activist lawbreaking?
When Maginnis was growing up, the family’s house looked out on a highway where convoys of young soldiers would pass during World War II. The Maginnis girls didn’t date, but, Pat says, “I was bursting with hormones.” She gasps at the memory of a convoy of young men passing her house: “Oh, I was just—I ran in the house, and I grabbed a pink satin bedspread. … In about five minutes, I made a halter.” Her parents came home to find their 14-year-old busily waving at trucks filled with men in her pink halter. When she saw her parents, she ran back inside and changed back into her gray togs, but it was no good: She was sent to a convent school. “I was naughty,” she says. But as with all these sorts of stories, the prudery only half-strangled her desire.
Instead of going straight to college like her sisters, she went to work in a lab at the Bureau of Mines in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and funded her own sea voyage to the Netherlands to meet a longtime pen pal and notional fiancé. They did not marry in the end. (“I knew that the intimacy required and the responsibilities and the thought of children I couldn’t face,” she says. “I decided that marriage was not for me.”) Then, partly because a friend told her the uniforms were cute, she joined the Women’s Army Corps. She was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina until she was spotted walking with a black soldier: “The captain called me in and scolded me. She said, ‘You’re setting a bad example for young white women who might join the military.’ ” She was shipped off to Panama as punishment.
During those two years in Central America, she experienced a different kind of discrimination. She’d trained as a surgical technician, but instead of being allowed to work in surgery as she’d hoped, she was assigned to the pediatrics and obstetrics wards—the realm of women. There, she was exposed to women suffering from botched abortions, women being forced to give birth, infants with terrible abnormalities. What she didn’t get in surgical experience, she got in perspective. “A general overview of the status of women,” as she puts it to me. “And I wasn’t at all happy with it.” Then she went to college at San Jose State—and got pregnant. She’d been fitted for a diaphragm. Used foam. None of it worked.
Maginnis is amiable and funny. She has a gift for impressions and chuckles ruefully at things I find sad or hard to hear. But when I ask her about her decision to terminate, she speaks with real anger—present-tense anger she still feels, decades later. “I was not in the family-ing business, and a child coming from me was not going to happen,” she tells me. “I simply thought my parents were ruthlessly forced into parenthood, and they … took it. They accepted it,” she says. “My mother would tell you she enjoyed having children. I didn’t go through childhood with that impression.”
She got her first abortion in Mexico and swore to herself that she would never again leave her own country to get medical care. She spent the next decade producing a list of legitimate abortion providers outside the country while also working quietly with those within it. Despite her best efforts, she would get pregnant twice more. But she would continue to have a sex life. And the horror of having to wrestle down her own fertility forged her into the formidable antagonist to the law that she became.
It helped, perhaps, that Maginnis was no longer young by the mid-1960s. She came of age long before the sexual revolution, which meant she had a particular experience of—and a particular fury about—what women had been routinely expected to tolerate. It’s hard for statistics to express just how urgent the abortion conversation was in the 1960s, or how difficult it was to even have the conversation, given the laws. In 1961, Los Angeles County Hospital admitted over 3,500 patients treated for illegal abortions. As of 1967, almost 80 percent of the women who died as a consequence of botched abortions were nonwhite.
From Dorothy Fadiman’s documentary “Motherhood by Choice, Not Chance”
Maginnis can’t pinpoint a single moment that turned her into an activist. She admits to once feeling great sympathy for a celebrity who was pilloried for needing an abortion, but it’s clear that there was no single precipitating incident. Her work, rather, was inspired by a slow and building rage. “What I saw was law, medicine, and religion were largely at fault for our problems,” she says.
When Maginnis launched her leaflet campaign, she chose a location that would maximize her ability to confront a medical community she saw as at best patronizing to women and at worst exploitative and controlling. The state Board of Medical Examiners had gathered at the University of San Francisco to discuss the implementation of hospital committees that would determine whether women could receive abortions. As the mostly male board debated the circumstances under which women could be forced to give birth, Maginnis was outside handing out information on how to abort without the help of the doctors within. She was shocked at how unseriously the board took their mandate. She told the Berkeley Barb that when she’d handed some board members a leaflet titled “Are you Pregnant?” with abortion information on it, they “twittered like a bunch of schoolgirls.”
This, she felt, was the collective effect of the laws and ordinances that made even talking about abortion illegal: The entire concept had become untouchable, a boogeyman. “The word abortion was taboo,” she says. “And I thought: That’s crazy. People won’t talk about abortion! They’re afraid to. I’m going to talk about abortion! ABORTION!” she yelled. “Women weren’t talking about it. They were afraid to talk about it.”
Maginnis wasn’t. She relied on logistical help from two women, Lana Phelan and Rowena Gurner, who joined her to form the Society for Humane Abortion’s central trio, which came to be known as the “Army of Three.” Maginnis was the fire, Gurner the strategist and organizational genius, and Phelan the organization’s eloquent mouthpiece. Gurner, like Maginnis, also worked full time, professionalizing the organization in her spare hours. She spent many nights sleeping on SHA’s floor. Gurner “had polish,” Maginnis tells me, her eyes lighting up. “She gave me $20 once. Now, Patricia!” she says, mimicking her. “You go buy a new dress for this occasion, and don’t bring something that you found on the street or in the thrift store!”
Gurner’s gift for strategy and Maginnis’ grit turned the leafleting plan into an all-out, accelerating assault on laws they saw as punitive or unjust—using themselves as bait. “I plan to leaflet for abortion until they get sick of me and arrest me or repeal the law,” Maginnis had announced to the Berkeley Barb when she launched her campaign on June 16, 1966. Her initial plan had been to distribute a thousand leaflets. A week later, when she hadn’t been arrested, she escalated. “My minimum goal is to distribute 50,000 leaflets by July 25, telling women where they can get abortions,” she announced through the press. When she finally was arrested (in late July, thanks to that “citizen’s arrest” by Gary Bentley), she caused the city ordinance under which she was arrested to be ruled unconstitutional. She had no intention of stopping there. “I was arrested under a local ordinance,” she told the Barb in 1966. “Now it’s the state laws that need changing.”
When the San Mateo County district attorney announced that if Maginnis and Gurner showed up, he intended to enforce California’s state law forbidding the dissemination of written matter on abortions, the pair immediately arranged a class in San Mateo that covered abortion laws and DIY abortions. As Gurner put it to the Barb: “We just want to get this law on trial. … We obviously and willingly broke the law. And we did it so that no DA could weasel out because of ‘insufficient evidence.’ ” It worked. They were arrested on Feb. 20, 1967, and faced (according to the Barb) a sentence of five to seven years in state prison if found guilty. While their hearing was in progress—in a courthouse in Redwood City—an unrepentant Gurner and Maginnis advertised that they were still looking for a place in Berkeley they could rent on Thursday nights to hold more abortion classes. (The room needed to hold 50 people, and they were willing to pay $10 a night.)
It took six years from their 1967 arrests for Maginnis and Gurner’s efforts to pay off. Initially, both women were convicted of violating Section 601 of the California Business and Professions Code—the state statute that made it unlawful to advertise abortion. But in 1973, the state Court of Appeals overturned their convictions, ruling that Section 601 was overly broad—for one thing, it “does not distinguish between abortions which are permitted and those which are not”—and thus unconstitutional.
The Army of Three hadn’t been trying to get arrested merely as a matter of strategy: They had real information to distribute, information that was hardest to obtain for women who weren’t rich. Maginnis was incensed by a medical consensus that effectively discriminated against the poor. “The medical profession’s committee idea of legalized abortion is very discriminatory,” she told the Barb. “It will help those with lots of money or contacts, not the majority of women.” Lower-income women suffered—like the third member of the Army of Three, Phelan, who struggled to collect the $50 she needed for an illegal abortion. Women in search of abortions were also easy to exploit. According to Maginnis, some parties whose phone numbers and addresses were being circulated (or sold) as abortion providers weren’t actually doctors. This discovery, and the accompanying stories of botched abortions and sexually exploitative abortionists, spurred her to create “the List.” Essentially a Yelp for abortion seekers, the List offered a continuously updated and reliable list of qualified abortion providers in Japan, Sweden, and Mexico. The Jane Collective in Chicago would follow suit a few years later, performing the abortions themselves.
By 1969, the Society for Humane Abortion claimed to have sent 12,000 women out of the country to get abortions from reliable, trustworthy providers. To give you a sense of just how necessary the List was, here’s an excerpt from one List user’s earlier attempt to obtain an abortion domestically (as printed in a set of letters to ARAL published by the Los Angeles Free Press): “I was two weeks along then and he made me wait until I was 3 months along. Then he said it was too late to get any help from anyone but he would do it if I would sleep with him!” The classes SHA organized instructed women on every aspect of an abortion: how to schedule one, how to prepare, what to expect, how it was done, how to respond to police interrogations if you had to be hospitalized, and how—if you couldn’t travel—to perform your own.
The classes sometimes included DIY abortion kits with items like gauze, a thermometer, cotton, and a syringe. Maginnis was by all accounts a vivid teacher. Newspapers reported that she lectured using an IUD for a pointer and that she “graphically illustrated the dangers of unsanitary abortion by holding up anal bacteria cultures and infected blood samples.” The class taught women female anatomy. It instructed them on how to calculate how many weeks pregnant they were. It instructed them on exactly how to call for an appointment (the woman, not the man, should place the call).
These classes were understood by many to be essential but legally risky. When the Los Angeles Free Press took the bold step of republishing the entire class’s contents across several pages of an October 1967 issue, the layout was anxiously peppered with editor’s notes and legal disclaimers like: “The Free Press can not and does not advise women who are not legally entitled to an abortion to follow the advice of Pat Maginnis.”
The Society for Humane Abortion didn’t interact much with the feminist movement or Planned Parenthood directly, at least at first. “It was too touchy,” Maginnis says. In the SHA’s early days, Planned Parenthood was more invested in advocating for contraception than abortion. Margaret Sanger’s theory was that abortion would become unnecessary if women had sufficient access to contraception. Maginnis disagreed. “Margaret Sanger, bless her,” she says. “We can’t thank her enough for Planned Parenthood, but it isn’t enough.” Under Maginnis’ leadership, the SHA spoke out—and in certain regards, provoked change—in ways Planned Parenthood wouldn’t. “We used to say we made Planned Parenthood respectable,” Maginnis laughs.
Her admiration of Sanger, though, is genuine. “Sanger took rotten eggs and tomatoes and rotten fruit thrown at her when she went out, and I don’t think people know that today,” she says. She understood that an organization with Planned Parenthood’s institutional heft needed to keep some distance from the SHA; Maginnis’ strategy of flagrantly flouting the law had made her something of a too-hot-to-handle legend.
When the Therapeutic Abortion Act was signed into law by California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1967, the Army of Three planned a program of civil disobedience. The act, an unhappy compromise between groups whose politics hadn’t yet coalesced into well-defined positions like “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” ostensibly aimed to make legal abortion more widely available. (National Review called the signing of this bill Reagan’s “darkest hour.”) Abortion at the time was only legal to save the life of the mother; the act made “therapeutic” abortion legal in cases that would “gravely impair” women’s mental as well as physical health. But it also added a draconian 20-week limitation and required that any medical committee discussion of a prospective abortion for reasons of rape or incest include the relevant district attorney. Functionally, as even some attorneys at the time argued, it meant that wealthy women (who dealt with private hospitals) would have access to abortions, whereas women in public hospitals would be bound by a more conservative take on the law: They would need to show sufficiently “severe” mental distress—like psychosis—to obtain a legal abortion. (“How much for a psychosis?” reads a political cartoon Maginnis once drew, depicting a patient asking a psychiatrist for a diagnosis that would legitimize a therapeutic abortion.)
“We’re going to instruct women in the arts of phony psychosis and false hemorrhage,” Pat Maginnis told reporters. “This unbelievable piece of legislative slop must be violated to the point that the medical profession and legislature is pressured into accepting more modern abortion techniques.” ARAL issued a leaflet asking members of Congress whether they would request permission to get a vasectomy or treatment for venereal disease from a panel of female doctors.
It was a combative stance—and a sign of SHA’s uncompromising position on the right to choose—for a bill that Planned Parenthood, among others, now credits with being among the first to functionally legalize abortion.
The “Che Guevara of abortion reformers,” as alt-weeklies called her at the time, now seems like an unlikely avatar of female rage. When I visited her at her home this summer, I found a 90-year-old woman who laughs a lot and peppers her speech with gentle exclamations. “Oh, my goodness,” she chuckles, remembering the time she invited police to attend a class she was teaching on DIY abortions—and they asked her to pay $3 an hour for a female officer’s time. “I think a policewoman did show up, but more out of personal interest,” Maginnis says wryly. She conveys a bemused mildness I found hard to reconcile with the working-class firebrand I’d expected.
But there’s no real contradiction here: The woman who said “excuse me” to the man detaining her in 1966 is also the woman who faced down the San Francisco homicide squad in 1959 in the hospital while recovering from a self-induced abortion. Had she given herself an abortion? the police asked. “Sure I did,” she replied. “Want me to demonstrate how in court?”
In her 10th decade, Maginnis remains equal parts polite and independent. She lives alone in a house in the San Antonio neighborhood of East Oakland that she bought back in 1979 for a song (the owner had tried to burn it down for the insurance money). Until just a few years ago, when she gave her archives to a library, her house was filled with several decades’ worth of handwritten letters from women telling her about their abortions or asking for help.
In the ’60s, especially given the respectable caution that characterized organizations like Planned Parenthood, there was a radical politics to the matter-of-factness with which the Army of Three openly talked about their own abortions. And that matter-of-factness still feels radical today. The second time she got pregnant, Maginnis recalls, she was deeply frustrated at the prospect of being forced to leave the country again for an abortion. But by then, she says, “I had figured out, if I start just giving my uterus no rest, that fetus is going to fall out.”
Startled, I ask Maginnis to explain. She elaborates that her plan was to “squat down and take my clean, scrubbed fingers and manipulate until I could get it to rebel and kick the fetus out.”
“So you could reach your cervix?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, very easily. You probably could too.”
“Does that work?”
“I manipulated, I worked on it, and finally, at five months, the fetus went into—I went into labor. It took a long time and a lot of work.”
Five months of daily effort to induce an abortion, followed by labor and police questioning—all instead of a simple, fast, safe procedure. In telling me this story, she betrays none of the story’s weight; rather, there is a relationship between her tight understatement and her rage.
In interviews, Phelan was less circumspect and much more graphic about the horrors she endured because safe abortions weren’t easily available. After she had one child, her doctor told her another pregnancy would kill her but didn’t tell her how to avoid getting pregnant. When she did—as a woman, she once said, “you don’t know how to say no to your husband. That silly Bible says you can’t say no!”—it took her so long to gather the $50 she needed for an illegal abortion that by the time she’d saved it, she was four months pregnant. The abortionist—a woman on the outskirts of Tampa, Florida—stuffed her uterus with slippery elm bark and told her not to come back. She was at her sister-in-law’s house when she started to feel extremely ill. She’d told no one, not even her husband. As she recalled in 2004:
This is a thing you do yourself. And if you die and go to hell, it’s you that goes, not anybody else. So I excused myself to go to the bathroom because it was hurting so. When I sat down on the john and looked down, there was a little tiny hand protruding from my vagina and the blood was just flying, and I thought, “Oh my God, what do I do now?”
I didn’t take as long to think about it as Bush did the war … [laughs] I gathered up all the toilet tissue I could get in my hand and stuffed it back inside of me, pushed everything back up inside my vagina and just packed it. And got all the blood off I could and cleaned everything up. And then I went out back inside and said I had to go home because I was so sick, and that was not a lie.
She was 16. First came fear. The anger would follow. This seems to be a pattern: Restrict women’s rights, force them to suffer needlessly, blame them when they fail impossible tests, and you will eventually create unsuspected forces for change. “It seemed to me when I got involved wasn’t really when I got involved [in the abortion rights movement],” Maginnis says. “I’d been involved for years before, just not driven to do anything except be angry. In a constant rage over it. And wondering why women, in addition to myself, were in a constant upheaval.”
Was Roe v. Wade a relief when it was passed? I ask her. “For me it wasn’t a big relief,” she says. It had felt more like the expected course of events—reality inching closer to how things should be. But then she continues: “I thought, yeah, that is a good thing. Now, let’s hope we can at least maintain the healthy ideas of it being available. We don’t have to sneak, we don’t have to beg.”
If the Federalist Society—which supplied the list of judges from which Donald Trump chose Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court—has its way, we’re in danger of returning to the times when women had to sneak and beg. Trump pledged during his campaign that Roe would be overturned “automatically” through the pro-life judges he would nominate. It probably won’t be so straightforward: The route the GOP is taking to greatly restrict women’s access to abortion has been circuitous, with progress marked by legal restrictions, by expanding definitions of fetal personhood, by permitting women to be lied to in the service of a single end goal. As my colleague Dahlia Lithwick has written, “women’s experiences, memories, and suffering don’t matter; their control over the truth of what they themselves have lived through is determined by those who win.”
Faced with a similar orthodoxy half a century ago, Maginnis and her cohort refused to let it stand.
The classes a modern-day SHA might teach would likely be different. There’s the internet, for one. The first time we met, I asked Maginnis what she thought women should be doing now, as the country seems poised once again to try to control our bodies. “I’ve thought about that,” she said then. “If I was going to reinvolve myself at this point, what would be the entry point? Kind of like setting out a map, looking for an entry.” She doesn’t quite have an answer. Yet.
It’s late afternoon on my final visit with Maginnis, and the warmth and long conversation have made the upstairs room where we sit feel especially lived-in. Her compatriots Gurner and Phelan died years ago. It’s not lost on me that I’m talking to someone who fought for reproductive freedom pre-Roe, at a moment when a Supreme Court justice has just been hand-picked to take it away again. In recent months, rage has been much on my mind. If over half of Americans stand to have a committee of men overrule their right to bodily autonomy after a mere 45 years, we can learn a lot from Pat Maginnis—about how women survived, and how they died, and how they fought. So what should we do now? I ask her again, as she raises the blinds to open the window overlooking the street below. “Keep talking about the issue,” she says. “Sure, not everyone is a brilliant speaker, but I think people have to keep talking about it.” She looks at me, her eyes bright. “Don’t you?”