The San Franciscans who pioneered safe and legal abortions

Patricia Maginnis created an underground system of abortion providers to help women who wanted them.

By Sydney Johnson

Examiner staff writer

Long before the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave women the choice to terminate a pregnancy, San Franciscans were charting a path for safer reproductive care in The City and far beyond.

Among the earliest in The City’s recorded history is abortion access pioneer Patricia Maginnis. Born in Oklahoma in 1928, Maginnis found her way to California and San Francisco at a time when abortion was still illegal across the United States. In interviews, she has said she knew from a young age she didn’t want to have children and lamented the tortuous process women had to go through in order to get abortion care during the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“It kills me to see these young, healthy women be expected to jeopardize their lives for what is a simple, safe surgical procedure,” Maginnis told the San Francisco Examiner in 1966.

Maginnis, a trained surgical technician who served in the Women’s Army Corps, is credited by historians as being one of the first women in modern U.S. history to talk openly and publicly about having her own illegal abortion, and she dedicated her life to sharing information with anyone who wanted to learn more about the taboo topic. Her fierce openness helped lead to a national shift in the way abortion laws were discussed, going from rules governing medical practitioners and focusing more on women’s rights to control their bodies.

Not only did Maginnis talk about abortion, something unheard of when abortion was still criminalized, but she created an underground system of abortion providers to help women who wanted them. The group, called the Society for Human Abortion, advocated for changes to laws around women’s bodies and abortions while secretly creating a network of doctors where women could safely receive abortions — all without the help of cellphones or the internet.

“No other medical procedure has to be legislated,” reads a pamphlet handed out by the Society for Human Abortion.

Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Maginnis hosted gatherings of women like one in Berkeley that brought together 15 women in 1966, according to the San Francisco Examiner. At the meetings, Maginnis talked to women about their options for reproductive care and explained the health risks of self-administering abortion, which Maginnis did herself and was hospitalized for a week after. The experience was painful and expensive, and the procedure was something she wanted other women to have safer access to. It was in these meetings that Maginnis began cultivating a mindset among determined women to demand safer and legal abortions, which were available in other countries at the time.

“There is no present safe method for self-induced abortion,” she told the class, according to the Examiner, warning women to seek out safer options in places such as Mexico and Japan, if they could afford to travel there.

Maginnis’ advocacy and empowerment for women gave way to a new era both for people seeking abortions and physicians providing them in San Francisco. At the time, so-called “therapeutic abortions” could only be done by doctors if there was a determined need.

“Pat helped people work the system. She taught them how to fake psychosis in order to get cleared for an abortion. She was a character, and a very influential character,” said Carole Joffe, author and sociologist of reproductive health and politics.

The S.F. Nine case

When abortion was criminalized in the 19th century, it didn’t mean there couldn’t be any abortions anywhere. It meant that only doctors could decide which abortions were reasonable or acceptable and which weren’t, according to Joffe.

“Doctors made subjective judgments,” she said, “it could vary within one city.”

In 1966, a group of San Francisco doctors dubbed the San Francisco Nine were sued and threatened by the State Board of Medical Examiners for providing abortions to women who were exposed to rubella, then-called German measles, which had an outbreak in 1965.

Nodding to the arbitrary standards, Maginnis, known as an outspoken woman with a sense of humor, joked to the Examiner the same year: “Maybe we should have German measles parties” to qualify for the serious medical danger that the medical system required before allowing women an abortion. Allowing abortion only under the pretext that it could save a mother would “make nervous wrecks of people,” she said.

The landmark case quickly sent ripple effects through the medical field.

“That case showed medical professionals that they were working in this untenable area. They didn’t know when someone would go after them,” Joffe said.

The decision to go after the San Francisco doctors, however, would backfire. Physicians in San Francisco and beyond rallied in defense of their colleagues. Dr. Edmund W. Overstreet, then vice chairman of obstetrics at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote: “We do not believe that violation of an archaic statute is unprofessional conduct, nor that it is unprofessional for a physician to conduct himself in accord with the ethics of the community, the wishes of patients and the best medical judgment of others.”

More than 200 doctors from around the county and every medical school dean in California signed on to defend the San Francisco Nine, whose cases were dropped in 1970.

In response to the S.F. Nine, physicians and activists in San Francisco continued to push their movement forward.

“The American Medical Association had been one of the leading forces in the 19th century to criminalize abortions and put it completely in the hands of doctors. By 1970, at the annual AMA meeting, there was a vote to liberalize. They didn’t decriminalize completely, but they voted that acceptable grounds for abortion should go beyond medical needs and should encompass the social,” Joffe said. This included whether a pregnant person wanted a child or had the social support and capital to raise a child. “That opened a wide door.”

Research on abortion methods and women’s health care grew immensely in the late 1960s and ‘70s, culminating with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. The fight, of course, does not end there.

A new era

As sentiment around abortion continued to evolve, opposition remained fierce and at times brutally violent. Following the murder of Dr. David Gunn, a doctor who provided abortions and was killed by an anti-abortion radical in Florida, students at the University of California, San Francisco, mobilized by creating the group called Medical Students for Choice.

Jody Steinauer, a medical student who co-founded the group in 1993, connected with medical students in Los Angeles, New York and other institutions around the country and started a petition to make abortion training a requirement for obstetrician-gynecologist students.

“All of a sudden, everyone woke up around the country and started organizing events. This person was murdered for doing abortion care, which is an important part of medicine. A group targeted us with offensive cartoons about abortionists,” said Steinauer, who now directs the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health UCSF, where Joffe also serves as a professor.

At the time, just about 12% of OB-GYN residency programs required abortion training despite being a legal procedure, according to Steinauer. In 1996, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education voted to mandate that access to experience with abortion must be part of residency programs.

With potential cuts to abortion care all but imminent, Steinauer now fears for medical residents and practitioners who could soon face a much harder time performing abortions in states that limit or ban access.

“I think we will see a huge outcry among learners who say, ‘I can’t be a physician in a place where patients of mine can’t receive this care’,” said Steinauer. She recently led a study at UCSF that shows 45% of OB-GYN residency programs are in states where Roe could be overturned.

Knowing the dark histories that were a prelude to Roe v. Wade, Joffe acknowledged the current crisis unfolding:

“This moment is devastating, clearly, for all of those who will need abortions. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that these are the real victims. I am deeply shocked and sad at the misogyny that this reveals,” Joffe said. “Now, what I’ve become really concerned about is doctors forced to practice bad medicine. If Roe is overturned, to put it in blunt terms, women are going to die.”

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com

How Chinatown’s last photo shops have avoided becoming a relic of the past

“We have the best Chinatown in the whole United States, really, but now I see it suffering more and more.”

Julia Bullock raises ‘History’s Persistent Voice’ at San Francisco Symphony

A multimedia performance of Black female history, experience and liberation

Bay Area multimedia phenom mxmtoon hits the Regency

The 21-year-old singer-songwriter keeps conquering new entertainment worlds