Wednesday, September 5, 2012

50 years ago: American mother of thalidomide baby gets an abortion in Sweden

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: Deuteronomy 30:19

On August 17, 1962, Sherri Finkbine, 30, a mother of four from Phoenix, Arizona and hostess of the local Romper Room television program, obtained a legal abortion in Sweden. Mrs. Finkbine had taken the morning sickness drug thalidomide (which her husband obtained during a visit to England in 1961) and was afraid that the child she was carrying would be born with serious physical defects. She told her story to the Phoenix newspaper The Arizona Republic, and interest in her case extended to an article about her and thalidomide in the August 10, 1962 issue of Life magazine.

At the time, abortion was permitted in Arizona only if the mother's life was believed to be in danger. A Phoenix hospital had originally promised to perform an abortion for Mrs. Finkbine, but when the newspaper story broke, the hospital cancelled the procedure. Mrs. Finkbine became the target of much criticism; she was unsuccessful in obtaining a court order to obtain the abortion and ended up going to Sweden. The abortion was permitted on the grounds that Mrs. Finkbine's "mental health" was in danger. The Finkbine case is cited by abortion advocates as a turning point in the history of abortion laws in the United States, as there was an increasing sympathy for and use of mental health as a ground for abortion. Danger to the mother's "mental health" was also a loophole criterion for allowing large numbers of "therapeutic" abortions to be performed in Canada from the time the practice was legalized in 1969 until the law permitting, but restricting abortion, was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988.

Another aspect of the increasing sympathy for abortion that resulted from the Finkbine case that legislators and media, now as then, seem reluctant to address (although it's what directly influenced Mrs. Finkbine's decision), is the belief that abortion is permissible if the baby is likely to be deformed. As the saying goes, hard cases make bad law. The Swedish abortionist who performed Mrs. Finkbine's abortion said that the baby had no legs and only one arm, and could not have survived. When Mrs. Finkbine asked if the baby was a boy or girl, the doctor reportedly told her that the deformity was so severe that he couldn't tell. I don't believe that the baby's certain death justified an abortion, as severe as the deformities may have been. If you allow an abortion for that baby, what is the next level of deformity where you draw the line? Those who object to the "slippery slope" argument should read Dr. Leo Alexander's classic article Medical Science Under Dictatorship, which appeared in the July 14, 1949 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Alexander, an American psychiatrist and neurologist, was a leading adviser to the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II. The article is must reading. This paragraph is particularly relevant:

Whatever proportions these crimes finally assumed, it became evident to all who investigated them that they had started from small beginnings. The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans. But it is important to realize that the infinitely small wedged-in lever from which this entire trend of mind received its impetus was the attitude toward the nonrehabilitable sick.
On a personal level, I went to university with a thalidomide victim, a young lady who was born with phocomelic arms and hands without the usual number of fingers. I was amazed at how well she did despite her disability. I haven't seen her in many years, but she was a lovely woman, now living in another city. I know another woman who was born a couple of years later with deformities that weren't caused by thalidomide, but were rare enough to be reported in medical textbooks. We became good friends, and I'm very glad that neither of these people were aborted.

As for Mrs. Finkbine, she reportedy received hate mail and death threats, which is regrettable. It would have been much better had Christians and other pro-life advocates reached out in love to the Finkbines, without approving of the abortion. Indeed, the pro-life movement is much better at that now. Mrs. Finkbine lost her job at the television station; she and her husband had two more children before the marriage ended in divorce, and she acquired six stepchildren through a subsequent marriage. Back living under her maiden name, Sherri Chessen is now 80, and not beyond the grace of God. Let us pray for her.

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