Susan Matthews: This podcast contains some graphic language and a mention of sexual assault. Nancy Stearns never planned on being a lawyer. She didn’t think she was smart enough. But in the early 1960s, she saw something that changed her mind.
Speaker 2: When I was in college, there was a TV program called The Defenders that was about lawyers who did constitutional cases.
Susan Matthews: The Defenders was a black and white courtroom drama long before Law and Order. It told stories ripped from the headlines.
Horace Smith: What did you see? The doctor was bending over a girl. She was lying on a table and he was operating on her. Objection. The sergeant is not a medical expert.
Speaker 4: He doesn’t know what the doctor was doing.
Susan Matthews: In one episode from 1962. The lawyers represent a doctor who’s on trial for providing illegal abortions. His patients are called to testify.
Horace Smith: Mr. Byrne, you were the personal doctor Montgomery’s operating table when the police broke into the office.
Speaker 5: Yes. Did you go to that.
Horace Smith: Office for the purpose of obtaining an illegal operation?
Speaker 5: Yes.
Speaker 2: I knew people who needed abortions. God knows I went through periods when I wondered whether I would need one.
Susan Matthews: Abortion was not only illegal, it was also taboo to talk about. The defender’s abortion episode was so controversial that some network affiliates refused to air it, but its boldness captivated Nancy.
Speaker 2: I thought it was the most fabulous show, and I thought it would be so wonderful to be a constitutional lawyer.
Susan Matthews: A few years later, Nancy was one of just a handful of women in her graduating class at NYU.
Speaker 2: One of the things it was like to be a lawyer in the sixties is that there were no ladies rooms in the courthouses, which was not great, let me tell you.
Susan Matthews: The bathrooms were just part of it.
Speaker 2: I realized that I was much more comfortable in a courtroom wearing pants rather than skirts. Of course, some people were appalled, but I wouldn’t have to worry about whether the male lawyers or judges were spending their time looking at my legs rather than listening to what I said.
Susan Matthews: Nancy took a job at the Center for Constitutional Rights and started working to overturn state abortion laws. In the summer of 1970, momentum really seemed to be on her side.
Horace Smith: Today in various numbers in various places. Women were out demonstrating for full equality and some of them were demanding free abortions and 24 hour a day child care centers.
Susan Matthews: Nancy earned a national reputation as a pioneering abortion lawyer, and she became known as an ally for women who needed help. In December 1970, she got a handwritten letter postmarked from Florida. It came from a woman who’d had an illegal abortion and had been interrogated by the police.
Speaker 2: Dear Miss Stearns, this is December 7th, 1970. The state has threatened me with persecution and have tried to make me tell who I went to and where and said I will make it harder on myself by my unwillingness to cooperate. And then she said, I know you’ve heard it a hundred times, but if men had to go through pregnancy, it would have been legal years ago, underlined.
Susan Matthews: The woman from Florida said that she had been charged with manslaughter. She’d even been thrown in jail for four days. All of this was extremely unusual, even though the procedure was illegal. It was typically the people who performed abortions who got in trouble, not the women who received them.
Speaker 2: I mean, this was somebody just sort of pouring out her heart and was terrified.
Susan Matthews: As the two exchanged more letters, Nancy became convinced she had to do something to help this woman.
Speaker 6: Now we have Nancy Stearns.
Speaker 5: A lawyer from New York City from the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Susan Matthews: In the summer of 1971, she was one of the featured speakers at the first ever gathering of the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition. Women had traveled across the country to join in the fight for abortion rights in.
Speaker 5: Almost every case. The courts are still controlled by old men. Basically the same people who were controlling the legislature. And that is a severe problem.
Susan Matthews: Nancy told the crowd about a couple of important court cases. One of them was out of Texas, a case called Roe v Wade.
Speaker 5: As the Supreme Court is going to be dealing with abortion cases in the fall. And our job is basically now to educate them.
Susan Matthews: The plaintiff in Roe v Wade, Jane Roe, hadn’t wanted to be pregnant, but the law in Texas mandated that she give birth anyway. She’d given up the child for adoption. But her lawyers argued that the state had still violated her constitutional rights. In 1971, the facts of Roe v Wade were known. But Jane Roe herself was completely anonymous. That made her story difficult to humanize.
Speaker 5: But I really want to tell you.
Susan Matthews: So at that conference, Nancy pivoted to another case, the story of the woman from Florida.
Speaker 5: About a year and a half ago, she needed an abortion.
Susan Matthews: Nancy shared everything she learned from the letters about the woman’s arrest and how she got put behind bars. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
Speaker 5: During the time that she was in jail, the cops came into her cell, showed her pictures of a fetus, and said, How can you deny having abortion? Here’s your baby. Look at it. This is your baby. She was pretty near hysterical at that point. Last week, I got another letter from her saying my trial has been set for July 12th. Manslaughter in Florida carries up to a 20 year penalty. Her name is Surely Wheeler.
Susan Matthews: Shirley Wheeler wasn’t a pseudonym on a legal docket. She was a real person, someone the whole abortion rights movement could rally around.
Speaker 5: What we do here from this weekend on is going to make a critical difference as far as what happens to Shirley. We are responsible for keeping her out of jail. We are responsible for Shirley’s freedom. And we’re also responsible for our own freedom. And that’s what we’ve got to fight about.
Susan Matthews: This is a slow burn season seven roe v wade. I’m Susan Matthews this season will be looking at the years leading up to one of the most important supreme court rulings in history. How did abortion become such a divisive issue in American life? Why were the politics back then so dramatically different than they are now? And was it ever really possible for the courts to find a solution? But first, how one unlikely woman for a brief moment became the public face of the fight for abortion rights.
Speaker 5: I don’t claim to know everything about legalizing abortion, but I am proof of what will happen to you if you have not legal one.
Susan Matthews: In 1970, when abortion was still against the law in most states, Shirley Wheeler, like so many other women, got one anyway. This is episode one. Get married or go home. Shirley and Johnson was born in the foothills of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Growing up, she never had a stable home life.
Speaker 7: Not only does she grow up economically disadvantaged, she grows up really abandoned.
Susan Matthews: Catherine Parkin is a history professor at Monmouth University.
Speaker 7: She had a mother who died when she was just over a year old. She had an alcoholic father who abandoned the family. She’d been taken in by an aunt and uncle, but was really at loose ends with her family and friends.
Susan Matthews: When she was 18. Something awful happened to her. She was raped by two men she knew. The rape resulted in a pregnancy. In the aftermath, Shirley felt ashamed and alone. She knew she didn’t want to have a baby. But it was 1966, and abortion was illegal. Abortion had been criminalized in America in the 1860s. But those laws weren’t seriously enforced until after World War Two, when premarital sex was on the rise and women were entering the workforce as more women sought abortions, particularly young, unmarried women. More states cracked down. By the 1960s, the practice had gone further underground.
Speaker 5: Most women who want abortions must get around the law, and a million do that in this country every year.
Susan Matthews: Abortions were dangerous, expensive and hard to find. Shirley was young and poor. She likely had no hope of getting an abortion from a trained professional. Instead, she tried to terminate the pregnancy herself, throwing herself off a porch to try to induce a miscarriage. It didn’t work. Shirley carried the pregnancy to term and gave birth to a son. She left him to be raised by her older brother and sister in law, and then she tried to move forward.
Speaker 7: She has a hasty marriage that only lasts a few months. The couple never lived together. She describes it kind of as a mistake that they shouldn’t really have done.
Susan Matthews: At this point, she decided to leave North Carolina altogether. She moved to Daytona Beach, Florida. It was there that she found some peace and somebody to love.
Speaker 4: I have a picture of Sheryl in a plaid skirt and black blouse. She has boots and she has a real nice smile in that.
Susan Matthews: Robert Wheeler had moved to Daytona Beach for the waves.
Speaker 4: I lived just a few blocks away from the ocean. There’s a picture of me with my surfboard, and I was constantly surfing as much as I can get out there.
Susan Matthews: Robert had long hair and a beard. He wouldn’t describe himself as a hippie, but he was kind of a renaissance man. He loved listening to classical music. He also painted, did taxidermy and was an amateur photographer. His girlfriend, Shirley, was his favorite subject.
Speaker 4: She was attractive first and then easygoing, too.
Susan Matthews: One of his photos of her. It’s a striking picture. It’s actually the cover art for this podcast. Shirley is at the beach wearing a floral bikini top and high rise jeans. Her auburn hair is long and windblown and her eyes are covered by sunglasses.
Speaker 4: It was shot low up towards her face at first, just trying out a pose.
Susan Matthews: How does she look in that photo?
Speaker 4: How did she look?
Speaker 5: Yeah.
Speaker 4: Well, Jared look good the way.
Susan Matthews: Robert and Shirley lived together in an apartment in a yellow clapboard house. The outside wasn’t much to look at, but inside they hung beads from the doorways and had cotton printed curtains on the windows. They were mostly homebodies. They watched TV and spent time with their pets. A poodle, a Siamese cat, a rabbit and a raccoon named Rocky. Whose idea was it to get a raccoon?
Speaker 4: That was probably mine. But we took care of the animals together.
Susan Matthews: Shirley was still technically married to another man, but she took Robert’s last name. She worked at a wig shop, but she was just part time because of health problems after she’d given birth back in North Carolina. She had developed rheumatic fever and became hypoglycemic. Her condition made it hard for her to use birth control. And so in 1969, Shirley got pregnant again. This time, she was determined to control her own fate.
Speaker 4: She told me that the doubt there recommended never to have a child again. So that was a big part of her life, is that she knew that she could have problems with her health if she went ahead and had gone full term.
Susan Matthews: So she decided to terminate the pregnancy, but it wouldn’t be simple. Abortion providers took all kinds of precautions to protect themselves from arrest and prosecution. Often, patients wouldn’t know their names or even see them. Women would be told to wait on a street corner to be picked up and then be blindfolded. Once they got in the car. All of this would be terrifying enough, but many women had to deal with worse. Here’s how one couple described their experience in 1965.
Speaker 5: The operation was performed in the kitchen of the motel, using some of the kitchen equipment. He turned to my husband and said, How can you expect me to take dangers like this myself for such a low fee? It wasn’t clear that he would go ahead and finish the operation if I didn’t pay him the extra money. But I didn’t at that time want to argue or even, of course, delay the procedure.
Susan Matthews: When Shirley was six weeks pregnant. She found a doctor in Jacksonville nearly 2 hours away. That doctor would do the procedure for $400. That’s about $3,000 today. Shirley never said much about the experience, possibly because she’d been blindfolded during it. All we know for certain is that the abortion worked. About a year later, Shirley got pregnant again. She knew she would get another abortion, but this time she had trouble raising the money. It was weeks before she could schedule it. Once she did, she went through the whole thing over again. Catherine Parkin.
Speaker 7: She goes to Jacksonville. That kind of harrowing journey, being blindfolded and so on.
Susan Matthews: Shirley had a soft rubber catheter inserted into her uterus. It was a common abortion technique. The catheter was supposed to press against the cervix just enough to induce the miscarriage.
Speaker 7: It doesn’t work. The catheter that they placed doesn’t trigger the abortion. And she waits another month before she’s able to go back and have the procedure repeated. And it’s that second attempt that results in the bleeding.
Susan Matthews: Bleeding out was a common cause of death for women who had illegal abortions. Shirley knew she had to go to a hospital, though most doctors wouldn’t perform abortions. They would help women after they’d had one. The doctors did help Shirley. They stopped the bleeding. But Shirley’s ordeal wasn’t over. After she got home from the hospital. Police officers showed up at her and Robert’s door. It’s not entirely clear how they knew what Shirley had done.
Speaker 7: In one account, some orderlies were in a restaurant and talking about it and overheard by an off duty police officer who then starts to investigate the charges.
Horace Smith: So I’m not really sure how she was arrested, whether it was done by the police or perhaps I could have made that decision. My name is Horace Smith, Jr, and in 1971 I was the system state attorney working mainly in Volusia County, Florida.
Susan Matthews: Horace Smith still practices law in Daytona Beach. Neither of us could track down the original police report from Shirley Wheeler’s case. But more than 50 years later, he still remembers it landing on his desk.
Horace Smith: Usually we only hear about cases after someone’s arrested. This case was not that way. There had been at least one other death in the area, and I think there had been some other young ladies who had been hospitalized because of illegal and improper abortions.
Susan Matthews: That’s why Horace thinks the police showed up at Shirley and Robert’s apartment to get her to tell them who’d performed her abortion. But Shirley wouldn’t say anything. I’m not sure if that’s because she didn’t want to tell or if she honestly didn’t know. But if she didn’t tell out of principle, that would have been pretty normal.
Susan Matthews: Women rarely sold out the doctors and nurses who’d helped them when they were in such desperate need. The cops responded to Shirley’s refusal by putting her in jail to. According to a news account, Shirley got dizzy and fainted her first night behind bars. The officers amped up the pressure, showing her photos of what they said was her aborted fetus. They kept her in jail for four days, but Shirley wouldn’t budge. In one of her first letters to the lawyer, Nancy Stearns, Shirley wrote, I don’t want to tell who did it. Even if it does, make it easier on me.
Speaker 2: They basically said, if you’ll tell us the doctor, we won’t prosecute you. And she said, no.
Susan Matthews: It seemed like the police were just trying to scare Shirley. Even though abortions were illegal in most of the country, it was still basically unheard of for a woman to be prosecuted for getting one. It would be up to Horace Smith to decide if Shirley Wheeler would be the exception to that rule.
Horace Smith: I’ve never worked on an abortion case before or after, and I didn’t consider this an abortion case. I looked at it as a manslaughter case.
Susan Matthews: I was curious if it would have been the abortionist or Shirley who would be responsible for the death in your eyes?
Horace Smith: Who’s responsible.
Susan Matthews: For?
Horace Smith: Yeah, well, I think both of them are absolutely right. If she is going to kill a fully formed and viable child, then she is certainly responsible and someone is helping her do it. They’re certainly responsible. That’s just common sense.
Susan Matthews: Shirley has only previous scrape with the law with an $18 fine for cussing out a policeman who had given her a ticket for jaywalking. Now she was facing a felony charge and serious prison time.
Speaker 2: She wrote to me in April 1971. I apologize for not contacting you in so long, but I really have been out of it in quotes. I went to court once for arraignment, but then I got sick and had to postpone the trial. She says, Damn it, I’m not underlined a criminal.
Susan Matthews: These letters provide some of the only insight into how Shirley was feeling at the time. I couldn’t talk to her myself because she died of a heart attack in 2013. In the letters, she keeps restating what happened to her as if she can’t believe it. She says she’s terrified of going back to jail and she’s angry at the people who want to put her there. She writes, Men make up all rules, which to me is very unfair.
Susan Matthews: By 1971, those rules were starting to change. Several states have loosened their abortion laws, but Shirley didn’t feel optimistic. She wrote to Nancy. Things are so much slower here in the South. But Charlie’s life was about to change in ways she never anticipated. She’d soon be thrust into the national spotlight. Her face splashed across newspapers around the country. And for some women, she’d become an example of what they were fighting for and why. Great. We’ll be back in a minute.
Susan Matthews: On July 10th, 1971, more than 200 women came to Washington, D.C., for the first ever meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug were there. So was Gloria Steinem. We are talking.
Speaker 5: About a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution.
Susan Matthews: Just two days later, Shirley Wheeler entered the Volusia County Courthouse to stand trial for manslaughter. She was represented by a male public defender. Nancy Stearns followed the case from afar.
Speaker 2: I did not know Florida criminal law. I didn’t want to give her big constitutional theories when she was facing a criminal statute which could put her in jail for 20 years.
Susan Matthews: Even though Nancy couldn’t represent Shirley herself, she learned everything she could about Florida’s abortion law.
Speaker 2: It’s Section seven 82.10. Every person who shall administer to any woman pregnant with a quick child any medicine, drug or substance, whatever, or shall use that.
Susan Matthews: Law dated back to 1868.
Speaker 2: I mean, it.
Susan Matthews: Said that abortion was only allowed to preserve the life of the mother or if two doctors said it was necessary, but otherwise an abortion meant the woman could.
Speaker 2: Be deemed guilty of manslaughter. That’s the statute.
Susan Matthews: To prove that Shirley’s abortion counted as manslaughter, the prosecution would have to demonstrate one key point.
Speaker 2: First of all, they have to prove that the child is quick.
Susan Matthews: We don’t really use the term anymore. But quickening is the moment when a pregnant woman feels fetal movement. It doesn’t happen on a set schedule. The typical range is 16 weeks on the early side and 24 weeks on the lighter side. Quickening used to be the dividing line between when terminating a pregnancy was acceptable and when it was out of bounds. Fetal movement was one of the biggest points of contention in Shirley’s trial. Shirley said that she never felt it, but Horace Smith found that hard to believe.
Horace Smith: From my memory, which once again, I’m 50 years old. Here we have a baby, I think seven and a half, maybe eight months pregnant. This was a viable child that would have survived.
Susan Matthews: On this point, Horace’s memory seems off. 50 years ago, the county medical examiner testified that Shirley had been 23 weeks pregnant, not anywhere close to seven and a half or eight months. But Horace must have believed that even 23 weeks was far enough along to prosecute. During the trial, he entered photographs of the fetus into evidence. He was trying to convince the jury that the pregnancy was so advanced that Shirley must have felt fetal movement. According to one news account, Harris later told the court, We are not speaking of a soulless blob of protoplasm. Our records showed a very well formed, for lack of a better word, baby. A reporter heard Shirley whisper a reply. Try fetus.
Susan Matthews: Shirley Wheeler’s trial lasted two days. The three men and three women on the jury took just 45 minutes to reach a verdict. Guilty. Shirley had cried earlier in the trial, but now she was quiet. According to the New York Times, she was believed to be the first American woman ever held criminally responsible for submitting to abortion.
Speaker 7: Women are told, don’t worry, it’s never going to be you. It’s going to be the person who does the abortion. And here’s a case where women are being told, actually, no, we’re coming for you to.
Susan Matthews: For prosecutor Horace Smith, Shirley’s conviction had been unfortunate but necessary. He told me that he thought it had protected other women from the danger of illegal abortions.
Horace Smith: The good part of the whole thing is that we had no more deaths.
Susan Matthews: So do you think that that was related to what happened with Shirley?
Horace Smith: Well, if all of a sudden I have a death by someone who has a coat hanger up their vagina, which has then affected them to such an extent that they die. And then after she’s arrested and prosecution no longer, there’s this occur anywhere in the entire county. I’ve got to believe that that had to be determined on someone.
Susan Matthews: Shirley was now facing a sentence of up to two decades in prison. Just a few days after the verdict, Nancy Stearns raised the alarm about Shirley’s case. At that first conference of the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition.
Speaker 5: Her name is Shirley Wheeler. Wheeler I’m hoping that before the conference is over, we will have petitions drafted to go to the governor, to go to the judge, and mostly to go to Shirley to say how we feel about all of this and to give our support to her and to express our anger at the state of Florida.
Susan Matthews: While Shirley awaited her sentencing, Wonaac and other groups drafted messages of support. Even the Playboy Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Playboy? Yes, that Playboy sent a hotshot lawyer to work on an appeal. Suddenly, a lot more people knew Shirley Wheeler’s name.
Speaker 2: The front page is a picture of her with her dog. In the headline is Daytona Woman in a Legal Storm.
Susan Matthews: Over Her Abortion. That’s Molly Sinclair. She wrote that article for The Miami Herald.
Speaker 5: To put my.
Speaker 2: Magnifying glass on here, maybe. The dateline is Daytona Beach and says Shirley Ann Wheeler seems an unlikely choice to be the center of a controversy that has included such diverse elements as feminist groups the Playboy Foundation, Volusia County legal authorities, and Florida’s century old abortion law. As Mrs. Wheeler puts it, I don’t smoke. I don’t use drugs. I’m not a hippie and I don’t throw wild parties.
Susan Matthews: How do you feel reading those lines today?
Speaker 2: I think it’s pretty good.
Speaker 5: Good lead.
Susan Matthews: Molly wrote for the women’s section of the newspaper.
Speaker 2: Which.
Susan Matthews: Traditionally covered what she calls the four FS food, fashion, family and furnishings. But in 1971, she started getting meatier assignments. One of those was the Shirley Wheeler case. Molly learned that Shirley’s conviction had rested on a disputed claim that Shirley had felt her fetus move. So Molly started her own investigation. How far along had Shirley really been in her pregnancy? Molly had an idea of how to find out.
Speaker 2: It occurred to me that if there was a death certificate for the fetus, which the state had prepared, maybe it would have the weight. So I specifically talked to the police about the death certificate, which was actually sealed, wasn’t supposed to be public. And I remember the guy said, oh, well, you can get that from so-and-so at such and such a number. And to my surprise, the woman answering the phone who had the death certificate told me it was 14 ounces.
Susan Matthews: 14 ounces. That’s less than a pound. Given that weight, the pregnancy was likely around 20 weeks along. That finding helped bolster Shirley’s claim that she hadn’t felt fetal movement. The lawyer from Playboy thought it would help them get a new trial, but the judge wasn’t having it. The manslaughter conviction would stand. All that was left to decide was Shirley’s sentence. Paul Smith remembers that the courtroom was packed. Dozens of people were turned away at the door.
Horace Smith: As I recall, there were protesters outside. Gloria Steinem was outside.
Susan Matthews: I don’t think Gloria Steinem was actually there, but this was a big moment. Shirley Wheeler was the first woman in America to be held criminally responsible for having an abortion. Everyone was waiting to see how she would be punished. On October 15th, 1971, the judge issued his ruling. Two years probation. In some ways, that was a relief for Shirley. No prison time. But the terms of the probation were highly unusual. Historian Catherine Parkin again.
Speaker 7: She could not live alone or with another woman in Florida. She could not live out of wedlock with a man in Florida because it was against the law.
Susan Matthews: Shirley needed to marry her boyfriend Robert Wheeler or leave the state.
Speaker 7: The Village Voice reported that Miss Wheeler was told the next time she goes to bed with a man, she had better make sure she has a marriage license hanging over it.
Speaker 2: The male judiciary was exceedingly sexist. Nancy Stern’s so on that level, doesn’t shock me at all that they would basically be treating her like a child and say, all right, you were the one who had the abortion, but if you get married, we’re going to it’s going to be okay. She’s in her twenties. It’s not like she was a teenager.
Susan Matthews: Shirley and Robert were still living together, and he’d recently gone so far as to get a vasectomy.
Speaker 4: I just got it done because we didn’t want to go through another abortion and Cheryl’s health.
Susan Matthews: Robert and Shirley didn’t want to break up, but Shirley had gotten married quickly once before back in North Carolina, and it hadn’t worked out. At age 23, she had no interest in going through that again. But now, based on the terms of her probation, they couldn’t live as they had been as an unmarried couple in that little apartment by the beach in October of 1971. Shirley made her choice. She was going back home.
Speaker 4: That’s the part that I can’t figure out because I thought our relationship was pretty good.
Susan Matthews: Robert remembers driving her up to North Carolina in his van and driving back to Florida alone. They’d see each other again, but their relationship wouldn’t last.
Speaker 4: I’ve kind of always wondered about that, and it seemed best I can tell you that we lost touch with each other and why that happened, I don’t know. Certainly the legal part of it didn’t help it.
Susan Matthews: Yeah. Do you think that that puts stress on the relationship?
Speaker 4: Well, I think it did it well. And then, of course, the question would be, did she think there was something more I could do? So, you know, I just I just don’t know.
Susan Matthews: In an article from around this time, Shirley said, I just hate to be forced to leave. If I ever thought to people that were happy, it’s us. Let’s take a quick break. I want to take a break to acknowledge the International Women’s Media Foundation, the global non-profit that funds and supports women and non-binary journalists. They saw the value of our reporting and dove in early to make slow Burn’s seventh season possible. The IWM F has enabled this type of work for more than 30 years and they can use your support to check them out at IWM forward or go follow them on social media to learn more.
Susan Matthews: After Shirley Wheeler got sentenced in Florida, the judge gave her a week to leave the state. He pushed her to go back to where she’d grown up and start a whole new life. But for Shirley, North Carolina didn’t feel like home anymore. She moved in with her brother and sister in law. But she felt judged by everyone in town, she told her reporter. I know a lot of people think I’m a slut or a murderess. Shirley was miserable. She felt trapped. But she was about to get drafted into a much larger movement.
Horace Smith: Women’s Liberation The Unfinished Revolution of American Women. ABC News correspondent Marlene Sanders.
Speaker 5: 50 years ago, women got the vote. Today, the things women want are more complex. Those involved in what has come to be known as the Women’s Liberation Movement do not necessarily agree on all of the objectives. One of the unifying issues of the movement has been the goal of repeal of abortion laws throughout the nation.
Speaker 6: Before the women.
Susan Matthews: By the early 1970s, women’s groups were bubbling up everywhere and several were focused on abortion. One of those was Narrow, which originally stood for the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. Another was the Jane Collective, an underground group out of Chicago that learned how to perform abortions themselves. And then there was Wonaac. The Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition. In July 1971. Nancy Stearns had told the first Wonaac conference about Shirley Wheeler and the urgency of her case. Four months later, Wonaac organized big rallies in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. They were touted as the first national protests for abortion rights.
Speaker 5: Where the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band. Really? We’re really quite thrilled and overwhelmed to be here today on this historic occasion and go about what we are going to. We’ve got to do better. And we want to welcome all of our sisters here from Texas, Florida, Ohio, Connecticut, Michigan, many other states we got out here.
Susan Matthews: By this point, states including Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and New York had liberalized their abortion laws. Others, including North Carolina and Colorado, were moving in that direction. But the 3000 women marching in D.C. that day weren’t satisfied. They didn’t want to live in a country where abortion access was left up to the states. They wanted it to be legal everywhere.
Speaker 5: And the women who organized this demonstration are eminently more qualified to determine our rights than the nine old men who sit on the Supreme Court.
Susan Matthews: They were carrying signs that said, we demand free abortion and babies are not our only business. And they were shouting about how fed up they were with a country that didn’t seem to care about them and with laws that treated them like second class citizens.
Speaker 5: These abortion laws have nothing to do with murder. These abortion laws have to do with keeping women in chains.
Susan Matthews: Abortion wasn’t their only concern. They also talked about forced sterilization.
Speaker 5: But what does this mean? It means that we are against racist laws. But polls in some states will stipulate that welfare mothers must be sterilized after they’ve had a certain number of children.
Susan Matthews: Forced sterilization didn’t just happen after women gave birth. Women also got sterilized when they went to the hospital, suffering from the aftermath of illegal abortions. Often these procedures were performed without consent.
Speaker 4: What in Spanish is called La Operacion La Operacion the operation. That’s how people would talk about it in the community. Did you have the operation?
Susan Matthews: That’s Pat Romney. Her organization, the Third World Women’s Alliance, was focused on the needs of women of color. According to one study, the mortality rate for non-white women from illegal abortions was 12 times higher than for white women. A few years before Pat became an activist, she’d gone through her own illegal abortion.
Speaker 4: You know, over 50 years later, I still don’t know exactly what happened to me.
Susan Matthews: Pat had been referred to a nurse who performed the procedure in a dark apartment. As far as Pat knew, the woman put a clamp on her uterus. She was then sent home to miscarry.
Speaker 4: Then went to the bathroom, you know, bleeding and and the embryo expelled. And in some way all, you know, really hush hush. Not having certainly told my father who I was living with and having to be really quiet about, you know, the pain I was experiencing.
Susan Matthews: It was only later, after she’d given birth to her first child, that she realized she’d essentially gone through labor.
Speaker 4: I had never talked to anybody who had an abortion one on one to know what it would be like. It was all the fear that was driven by my ignorance of what I was going through.
Susan Matthews: But now, Pat wasn’t alone. She was part of a national movement.
Speaker 5: Talking about abortion going to change the.
Susan Matthews: Law. The women who came to D.C. in November 1971 had developed a shared understanding of what reproductive freedom meant. They called out the government, the Catholic Church, and what one speaker referred to as the so-called right to life people. And they invoked one woman’s name over and over again.
Speaker 5: Never again will Shirley Wheeler face a 20 year prison, have not heard of the name of Shirley Wheeler and will see to it that Shirley Wheeler is remembered not as the first woman ever convicted of having an abortion, but that Shirley Wheeler is the last woman ever to be convicted for having an abortion. Shirley Wheeler.
Susan Matthews: Shirley Wheeler herself spoke that day in Washington, D.C. It was just a month after she’d been banished to North Carolina.
Speaker 5: Hi. You’re all you make me feel good.
Susan Matthews: Her voice sounds a bit tentative. It was the first rally she’d ever attended, but her message was clear.
Speaker 5: Sisters, we must unite to fight for the pill. Our restrictive abortion law. I have been labeled a criminal by this society. The state of Florida is the criminal, not me. I am killing my conviction because I would hate to see another one of my sister go through the living hell that I have. Thank you. Japan, surely.
Speaker 7: People could imagine themselves as surely as a person who took this action, and it could have been them and it could have been their sister or their daughter or their neighbor.
Susan Matthews: The Shirley Wheeler case wasn’t just a sad story. It gave women something to be angry about and someone to advocate for. Kathryn Parkin points out that many of the newspaper articles about Shirley included her photo.
Speaker 7: This is a really sharp contrast to Roe in Roe v Wade, in which women appear with pseudonyms and are not shown are not known.
Susan Matthews: Jane Roe remained anonymous, but she did get her day at the Supreme Court.
Horace Smith: Will hear arguments in November 18 Roe against Wade.
Speaker 5: Mr. Chief Justice, and they have pleased the court.
Susan Matthews: The justices heard oral arguments in Roe v Wade on December 13th, 1971. It would take them more than a year to issue a ruling. At the same time, Nancy Stearns is working on her own appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. She was finally representing Shirley herself. Early in 1972, that court struck down the state’s abortion law, calling it vague, indefinite and uncertain.
Speaker 2: Immediately after I knew that the statute had been struck down, I filed papers asking that her conviction be reversed.
Susan Matthews: Nancy’s motion was granted and Shirley’s sentence was vacated. In the fall of 1972, more than two years after it began, Shirley’s case was over. No more probation. No one telling her where she could or couldn’t live. Oh.
Speaker 2: I mean, as it turned out, it wasn’t we that freed Shirley. It was the good fortune that the Florida Supreme Court struck down their abortion statute. But we helped to give her the strength to continue. The fight she was carrying on to make sure that it wouldn’t happen to other women.
Susan Matthews: After her big speech in Washington, D.C., Shirley Wheeler spoke at another rally in Boston, and she kept talking to the press. But as soon as her case was over, she withdrew from public life. Shirley ended up staying in North Carolina and eventually remarried. When she died in 2013. She requested no public funeral services.
Susan Matthews: Shirley Wheeler’s story helped fuel the fight for abortion rights in America. Now hardly anyone remembers her name. I think that’s because her story isn’t the type we normally celebrate. Shirley didn’t want to be a mother. She gave up her only child and she had more than one abortion. But the women chanting Shirley’s name in 1971 didn’t think Shirley had anything to be ashamed of. They believed every woman deserved the right to control her own body. And they knew there were Shirley Wheeler’s everywhere.
Susan Matthews: What do you hope people who are hearing about Shirley story for the first time, what do you hope they take away from it?
Speaker 2: That it could happen today? That it is happening today?
Susan Matthews: Next time on slow burn, the Catholic power couple who helped ignite the right to life movement.
Speaker 8: You look at these fully formed babies and your heart just sinks and you think these aren’t blobs of tissue. These are these are babies.
Susan Matthews: Later in the series, a Yale law student fights against her state’s abortion law.
Speaker 4: I had had an illegal abortion. And it was after he had done the abortion that I learned that another woman had died. And that stark reality hit me like a punch in the gut.
Susan Matthews: And the story of a rookie Supreme Court justice appointed by Nixon who got assigned the opinion of a lifetime.
Horace Smith: Frankly, when they decided the case, they were all of one mind that they had solved this issue once and for all.
Susan Matthews: Slow burn is produced by Samira Tazari so he Summergrad Soul Werthan and me Susan Matthews. Derek John is senior supervising producer of Narrative Podcasts Editorial Direction by Josh Levin Derek, John and Johanna Zorn Merritt Jacob is our technical director with Mixing Assistants by Kevin Bendis. Our theme music was composed by Alexis Cuadrado. Derek Johnson did our cover art based on a photo provided by Robert Wheeler. We had research help from Bridget Dunlap and production help from Madeleine Ducharme. Some of the audio you heard in our show comes from the Wonaac records from the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Susan Matthews: This recording was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. Slow Burn is a production of Slate Plus Slate’s membership program. You can sign up for Slate Plus to hear a bonus episode every week of this season. We’ll go behind the scenes and you’ll get access to some exclusive interviews that will explore more about the history of Roe and abortion in America. In this week’s bonus episode, you’ll hear about The Defenders, a TV show that convinced Nancy Stearns to become a lawyer. The episode about abortion showed up on Mad Men. We’ll tell that story to listen to that.
Susan Matthews: Head over to Slate.com slash slow burn to sign up now. And right now, we’re offering 50% off an annual membership only until June 15th. We couldn’t make a slow burn without the support of Slate Plus. So please consider becoming a member at Slate.com. Slow burn. And if you’re looking for breaking news analysis of everything going on with the Supreme Court right now, you should subscribe to Slate’s legal podcast Amicus, hosted by Dahlia Lithwick. Amicus has new episodes every Saturday this month to tell you all about the major decisions being released this SCOTUS term, and there’ll be special episodes for Slate plus members to find Amicus wherever you listen.
Susan Matthews: Special thanks to Leslie Regan, Ruth Belinsky, Talia Blake. Claire Reynolds. Lynn Paltrow. Cheri Chisholm. Barbara Roberts, Matilda Zimmerman. Ron Sachs, Ronnie Klemmer, Laura Bennett, Rachel Strom and all the women of Wonaac and special thanks to Slate’s Rebecca Onion, Mark Joseph Stern. Christina Carter, Rookie Evan Chung, Seth Brown Chao two. Bill Carey. Katie Rayford, Lowen, Lu and Alicia montgomery. Slate’s VP of Audio. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.