Politics

The Forgotten Story of Shirley Wheeler

Two women changed the debate about abortion in America forever. We only remember one for a reason. Introducing Slow Burn, Season 7.

A close-up of Shirley Wheeler embracing her cat.
Shirley Wheeler. Robert Wheeler

When you read almost any book about the history of abortion in America, one name comes up again and again: Sherri Chessen. Sherri—who, tellingly, was often identified as Sherri Finkbine, though she didn’t use her husband’s surname—was a television personality on a kids show called Romper Room back in the early 1960s. She lived in Arizona, and she was the mother of four kids. When she got pregnant with her fifth baby, she’d been having trouble sleeping, so she took a sleeping pill her husband had recently bought over the counter on a trip to England.

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The sleeping pill was thalidomide. When she told her doctor she’d been taking it, he told her that she’d better come into his office: Thalidomide had been associated with extreme birth defects. Sherri consulted with her doctor, and she decided that the right thing to do, given the risks to the fetus, was to get an abortion. She was devastated by the choice, but she couldn’t imagine making a different one. And she was worried that other women might be in a similar situation, so she used her platform to warn them about the dangers of thalidomide to fetal development.

[Subscribe now to Slow Burn and listen to the first episode of Season 7: Roe v. Wade.]

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The problem was that this happened in 1962, and abortion was illegal in the state of Arizona unless the pregnancy threatened the health of the mother. There was no protocol for what to do if the pregnancy threatened the fetus. As soon as she started speaking out about what she was facing, authorities in the state of Arizona told her that she wouldn’t be able to get an abortion after all. A firestorm ensued. Sherri tried to make a plan to travel Japan for the procedure, but she was denied entry. She eventually had to travel all the way to Sweden to get her abortion.

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When I first started researching the years before Roe v. Wade, I came across Sherri’s story again and again. What happened to her is gutting and dramatic, and there’s no doubt she has earned her place in history—her willingness to speak out for the sake of other women is particularly brave, considering all the grief it caused her. But I also came across another woman’s story, a story that started eight years later, and felt equally significant, even though it was rarely mentioned and seemed mostly forgotten: Shirley Wheeler’s.

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Shirley got an illegal abortion in 1970. And she became one of the first women to be arrested for doing so. Her legal troubles dragged on for two years and took all kinds of surprising twists and turns. Her experience showed what the cost to women could be when a procedure they so frequently found themselves needing was against the law.

Shirley Wheeler’s story was not as palatable as Sherri Chessen’s. Shirley, unlike Sherri, was not married to the man she was dating when she got pregnant. Shirley had had a child, but that child was the result of rape, and she chose not to raise him. Shirley knew that she didn’t want to have a second baby—she didn’t want to bring another child into the world, and she didn’t want to be a mother. The abortion she got in trouble for wasn’t even the first illegal abortion she’d gotten; it was her second.

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It’s no real surprise that people still talk about Sherri but not Shirley. And yet both women spoke to the press about what was happening to them. Both women’s stories were told nationally as they unfurled, and both influenced how abortion was talked about and understood. Sherri’s story got the nation talking about abortion, but Shirley’s story became a rallying cry for women, and a warning about what could happen to them if the laws didn’t change. It fueled the anger of women who were fed up with having to couch their desire to have control of their own reproductive health in what was considered “proper” or right. When Shirley’s story took off, women were still willing to say that what they were fighting for was abortion on demand.

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For a time in 1971, Shirley herself became an inspiration to a budding movement. She was an unlikely person to step into that role. When she stepped onstage to speak to a crowd of women in the fall of 1971, it was actually the first political rally she’d ever attended. But her tale offered specifics to a movement that needed a hero, and women rallied around her.

Today, hardly anyone knows her name or what happened to her. I think that’s a clear indication of how far the conversation has shifted since women won the right to abortion. The language of choice—even for politicians who support abortion rights—has moved back to being about how abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.

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This season on Slow Burn, I’m telling the stories about what happened before Roe v. Wade. I wanted to understand what life was like for women before abortion became legal, how so many women came together to fight for the right, and what that fight actually entailed. I wanted to understand why the issue was so much different politically then than it is today: Before Roe, more Republicans supported abortion access than Democrats. Before Roe, there was no real alliance between religion and the right on the issue—in fact, in many cases, clergy were actively involved in making sure that women had access to safe abortions. Maybe most of all, I wanted to understand what the Supreme Court thought about the decision it was handing down in January of 1973. Did the justices have any clue that it would go on to change our politics forever?

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I wanted to understand Roe for the most obvious reason: It has become the justification for so many choices that the most powerful people in our country have made. Those choices have distorted our institutions and have left us in a contentious battle between two sides whose beliefs seem utterly impossible to reconcile. There is no resolution in sight to this standoff, but we are certainly on the precipice of change. If Roe falls later this month, as seems likely, we will be catapulted back into a world that most American women alive today have never experienced.

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This season, we’ll tell you Shirley’s story. We’ll revisit an irresistible Catholic couple who started as sex ed lecturers and almost inadvertently helped spark the rise of the right-to-life movement. And we’ll talk about the legal arguments that helped a Supreme Court stacked with Nixon appointees to rule overwhelmingly for the constitutional right to an abortion. Along the way, we’ll see stark glimpses of where American women are likely to find themselves if Roe falls.

Listen to Slow Burn on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Join Slate Plus for your ad-free feed and member-exclusive episodes every week.

The season’s reporting was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.