1969 was quite a year. This year we’ve observed the 50th anniversaries of the first moon landing and Woodstock. But 1969 was quite a year–for good and ill–in the realm of reproductive rights, too. That year, seven states passed bills liberalizing their abortion laws to some degree. A sampling of some more 50th anniversaries we should be noting this year:
January: The radical feminist Redstockings group formed. In March 1969 they held a meeting at Washington Square Methodist Church in New York at which women publicly spoke of their abortion experiences.
February: The feminist group Jane formed in Chicago in February, at first to refer women to illegal abortion providers they had judged to be safe. When they realized that their main practitioner was not, in fact, a physician, members of the group learned to do the procedure themselves.
February 14-16: NARAL was founded, starting with the First National Conference on Abortion Laws in Chicago. The theme was “Modification or Repeal?” The organizers included writer Larry Lader, who had played a big part in urging the clergy to make abortion referrals; Chicago physician Lonny Myers; and ecologist Garrett Hardin. Speakers at the conference included Dr. Bernard Nathanson–soon to become director of the Women’s Services abortion clinic opened by the Clergy Consultation Service, and later an anti-abortion activist; and feminist writer Betty Friedan.
April: The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS) received a blackmail threat, and the New York Police Department itself helped Rev. Howard Moody to set up a sting to catch the culprit. (See pages 77-78 of To Offer Compassion.)
April 17: A moderate bill to reform abortion law in New York, sponsored by Assemblyman Albert H. Blumenthal, was defeated for a third time in the State Assembly. The bill would finally pass the following year, legalizing abortion in New York and permitting the 1970 opening of the CCS Women’s Services clinic in New York City.
May 19: Activist Bill Baird was sentenced to three months in jail for “exhibiting obscene objects” (contraceptives) and distributing such an object (handing a student a package of Emko contraceptive foam) at a public lecture in Massachusetts.
May 19: An 18-year old from Bay Village, Ohio, died in London. The Cleveland CCS had referred her to a previously very reliable clinic and was horrified at her death. The head of the Cleveland CCS, Rev. Farley Wheelwright, flew to London. He learned–and the official inquest confirmed–that her death was not the result of her abortion but of post-operative negligence by the anesthesiologist, who was dismissed by the clinic. (Page 78, To Offer Compassion.)
May 23: The New York City Police raided a group of abortion providers in Riverdale, Bronx. Writer Larry Lader and a few CCS counselors had referred to the group. Lader, Moody, Arlene Carmen, Rev. Finley Schaef, and other members of the CCS testified before a grand jury in the case that September. No charges against counselors came from the case.
June 10: Rev. Robert Hare of the Cleveland Clergy Consultation Service was indicted by Massachusetts for referring a woman to Dr. Pierre Brunelle for an abortion. Hare appeared in court in Massachusetts. Brunelle was convicted–he was unlicensed in Massachusetts at the time, for a start–and Hare’s charges were dismissed. But in a rare move, the prosecutor appealed the dismissal. The case was still in flux in early 1973 when the Roe v Wade decision by the Supreme Court made the matter moot. (Pages 78-83, To Offer Compassion.)
September 5: For the first time in the U.S., an abortion law was declared unconstitutional. The Supreme Court of California ruled that the state’s old abortion law, which permitted abortion only when necessary to preserve a woman’s life, and under which Dr. Leon P. Belous had been convicted, was unconstitutionally vague. Importantly, the Belous decision cited an established right to privacy and liberty in reproductive decisions. (Note: The case had great symbolic but little practical importance at the time, as California had passed a reformed abortion law in 1967, after Belous had been charged.)
November 10: Now, for the first time, an abortion law was declared unconstitutional by a federal court. Federal District Court Judge Gerhard A. Gesell dismissed the indictment of Dr. Milan Vuitch for performing abortions in the District of Columbia, ruling the law unconstitutionally vague on the subject. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 1971 overturned the ruling as to vagueness, but treated abortion as it would any other surgical procedure and upheld the judgment of physicians in medical decisions. Very shortly after that appeal, the Supreme Court justices voted to take up other abortion cases, including Roe v Wade.
And, in 1969, the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion continued to expand. New chapters officially opened in nine more states, including Colorado, Ohio, and Virginia; several more started referrals but were not yet public; and many more were in the works.