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They Called Her “the Che Guevara of Abortion Reformers”

A decade before Roe, Pat Maginnis’ radical activism—and righteous rage—changed the abortion debate forever.
There was nothing remarkable about the small woman carrying a box of leaflets—certainly nothing to justify the clutch of reporters waiting for her across from San Francisco’s Federal Building on a July morning in 1966. Still, there they were. She arrived at exactly 9 a.m., greeted them, and began distributing fliers to anyone who passed. There were two of them: One was a yellow slip of paper titled “Classes in Abortion,” listing topics like female anatomy, foreign abortion specialists, and police questioning. The other—which she gave only to the assembled journalists and the five women who signed up for her class that Wednesday evening—described two techniques for DIY abortions. “I am attempting to show women an alternative to knitting needles, coat hangers, and household cleaning agents,” she told the reporters, adding that she had notified San Francisco police of her whereabouts and plans.

The woman was Patricia Maginnis, a laboratory technician and founder of the Society for Humane Abortion, an organization that she ran out of the front room of her small apartment in San Francisco. She’d started the SHA in 1962 (back then, it was called the Citizens Committee for Humane Abortion Laws). Arguably the first organization of its kind in America, its mandate was radical: The SHA sought to repeal abortion laws, endorse elective abortions, and offer women any resources it could in the meantime. These resources would come to include “the List,” an up-to-date directory of safe abortion specialists outside the country, classes on DIY abortions, and symposia where sympathetic doctors could confer with each other about the safest and best abortion techniques. SHA would eventually formalize its legal strategy with a branch called the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (ARAL, which would form the basis for NARAL), specifically devoted to challenging legislation.
 
But on this particular day, and on this particular mission, Maginnis claimed she was acting alone, outside of her organization. The leaflets were her way of knowingly violating both a city ordinance and Section 601 of the California Business and Professions Code, which declared it unlawful to distribute information about abortion. She was also flouting Penal Code 276, which made it a crime to “solicit[] any woman to submit to any operation, or to the use of any means whatever, to procure a miscarriage.” The violation was the point: Maginnis had politely informed the police of her every move in advance. The aim was to goad the legal apparatus into an ugly confrontation that it preferred to keep as merely a threat; she wanted to make the system own the consequences of its laws. “I could get arrested for soliciting women to undergo a felony,” Maginnis told the alt-weekly Berkeley Barb, “but I feel it is necessary at this point to have a test case.” To get a law thrown out, you first need to go to court. And to get to court, you must be arrested.
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