In 1962 Sherri Chessen was a married mother of four, and star of “Romper Room,” a children’s TV show in Phoenix, where she was known as Miss Sherri, when she became pregnant. To treat morning sickness, she took a sedative her husband, Bob Finkbine, brought back from Britain.
That drug, she later discovered, contained thalidomide, a chemical linked to severe birth defects. “What I did was poison myself with a drug whose name I didn’t even know,” she said in a 1998 interview.
Not wanting to bring a child with a congenital disorder into their family, Sherri and Bob opted for an abortion, which at the time was only available in rare cases.
Chessen told a 1962 interviewer, “In all the soul-searching I have done, I sincerely feel I would not be giving life to anything. I feel that I would be giving a kind of living death.”
First, though, with the promise of anonymity, Chessen called the local newspaper to warn the community about thalidomide. The story rocked Phoenix; Chessen’s name leaked out, and the hospital canceled the abortion after the local prosecutor threatened legal action.
Soon, Chessen’s painful story was in the pages of Life Magazine, and the nation began to ponder the deeper complexities of abortion and a woman’s choice. Eventually a hospital in Sweden promised to provide the abortion. So, the couple flew to Stockholm, their every move covered by an aggressive press corps.
Upon her return, Chessen was asked, “Now that it’s all over, do you still think that you’ve done the right thing?”
“More than ever,” she replied. “I don’t know if it was womanly intuition, or the God inside of me said, ‘Don’t have this baby.’ And I didn’t. And now, I know it was the right decision.”
Threatening letters piled up. The FBI provided security for the family, while the Vatican condemned Chessen and called the procedure murder.
Her response: “It was a good thing, it was an honest thing, it was a thing any mother would do to save her own child from suffering.”
She recalled in 1998, “I remember waking up after the operation and saying to the Swedish doctor, ‘Was the baby a boy or girl?’ And he said, ‘It was not a baby. It was an abnormal growth that never would be a normal child.'”
That August, the same month of her abortion, President Kennedy praised a top Food and Drug Administration official, Dr. Frances Kelsey, for keeping thalidomide out of America. “Recent events in this country and abroad concerning the effects of a new sedative called thalidomide emphasize again the urgency of providing additional protection to American consumers from harmful or worthless drug products,” Kennedy said.
In the years after Chessen’s 1962 case, some states legalized abortion. When the Supreme Court defined abortion as a Constitutional right in 1973, 13 states already allowed the procedure.
Chessen knew a world without Roe’s Constitutional protections. Now, she – like the rest of America – has been. Sixty years on, and three weeks shy of 90, Sherri Chessen is a bit fragile, but focused and fierce about what has been lost: “We can’t go back to willow sticks and knitting needles and all the things that women have perforated their uteruses with,” she told CBS News’ Major Garrett. “The Supreme Court may be surprised to know there is light in what they’ve done: they have empowered women everywhere. I feel it. My granddaughters feel it. Added to all of that is a great dose of anger, and we as women, I will say it again and again, we shall prevail.”
Chessen’s thoughts about abortion are, like the issue itself, layered and complicated. She thinks of herself as pro-choice and anti-abortion.
“Some people think it’s, ‘Oh, it’s a form of birth control. If I go out and get pregnant, I can have an abortion.’ No, that’s not the reality of abortion,” she said. “The abortion has a great, ugly forelife, if you will, where you think: Can I? Should I? There’s a lot of tears for a lot of people. And the aftermath is horrendous.”
Chessen said she never set out to be an abortion rights activist. “I didn’t know a thing about abortion. My abortion was, to me, the most hateful and yet the most loving thing I ever did. But I didn’t know a thing about it.”
Garrett asked, “What you wanted to do was warn people about thalidomide?”
“That had to have been a scary time.”
“It was very scary,” Chessen said. “And I just heard on the radio yesterday where women here – because of the trigger laws – are being thrown out of their doctor’s office. I know how that feels because, you know what? 60 years ago, it’ll be 60 years – don’t do the math – in August, I was thrown out of my doctor’s office, out of the city, and out of the state.”
After her abortion, the TV station fired Chessen, telling her she was no longer fit to be around children. They gave her another, less prominent show. But when she got a pregnant again, she was fired for that, too. “Think of the irony, Major: I didn’t have a baby, and I lost my beautiful, wonderful ‘Romper Room’ job. And I did have a baby, and I lost my beautiful, wonderful job. Make up your mind!”
Chessen’s daughter, Terri Finkbine Arnold, was seven years old in 1962: “I remember both my parents sitting me down, and they didn’t use the word abortion. They told me that mommy had a bad seed inside her and the doctors were going to take it out.
“All the press was there, and they had all these cameras with the old-fashioned flashbulbs that would pop and hiss. I was terrified.”
Chessen had two more children after the abortion. Kristin Atwell Ford, her youngest, still lives in the Phoenix area. “She paid dearly for standing up for herself and her family,” Ford said. “But I wouldn’t be here if she didn’t.”
Chessen said, “No, she wouldn’t be here, because if I had had to carry a baby around in a basket, I mean, it would’ve been impossible. I never, ever, ever would have had another child.”
Ford said, “I’m grateful that my mother stood up to the state of Arizona, to the United States, and found a way to determine what was best for her and her family. She’s my hero.”
Story produced by Arden Farhi. Editor: Joseph Frandino.
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