Tag Archives: Lana Phelan

Pat Maginnis: A Hero of Her Time … and Ours


Laurie and Debbie say:

In 1928, when Pat Maginnis was born, abortion was illegal in all 50 states (and many other countries) but according to Wikipedia, the laws were “unevenly enforced, at best.” According to the marvelous Lili Loofbourow’s profile of Maginnis in Slate, at some unspecified point, Maginnis

got her first abortion in Mexico and swore to herself that she would never again leave her own country to get medical care. She spent the next decade producing a list of legitimate abortion providers outside the country while also working quietly with those within it. Despite her best efforts, she would get pregnant twice more. But she would continue to have a sex life. And the horror of having to wrestle down her own fertility forged her into the formidable antagonist to the law that she became.

In the course of profiling Maginnis, Loofbourow delves into the history of abortion, something both of us know at first hand.

She came of age long before the sexual revolution, which meant she had a particular experience of—and a particular fury about—what women had been routinely expected to tolerate. It’s hard for statistics to express just how urgent the abortion conversation was in the 1960s, or how difficult it was to even have the conversation, given the laws. 

Laurie, who was born in 1942, remembers always having money on hand in the late 1950s for an abortion if needed, even when money was hard to come by, and also always having names of “good” abortionists for people who needed them–in effect, being part of an informal abortion underground. Debbie, who was born in 1951, remembers taking a friend to an illegal abortion in a nearby city in 1969 or 1970 — with meetings on street corners, surreptitious passing of cash, and bloody follow-ups because no abortionist at the time provided anything like aftercare. So we know just how urgent and difficult the conversation was.

In the same climate where we were doing those things, Pat Maginnis was making public statements on the streets of San Francisco,

The entire concept had become untouchable, a boogeyman. “The word abortion was taboo,” she says. “And I thought: That’s crazy. People won’t talk about abortion! They’re afraid to. I’m going to talk about abortion! ABORTION!” she yelled. “Women weren’t talking about it. They were afraid to talk about it.”

Maginnis wasn’t. She relied on logistical help from two women, Lana Phelan and Rowena Gurner, who joined her to form the Society for Humane Abortion’s central trio, which came to be known as the “Army of Three.” Maginnis was the fire, Gurner the strategist and organizational genius, and Phelan the organization’s eloquent mouthpiece. Gurner, like Maginnis, also worked full time, professionalizing the organization in her spare hours. She spent many nights sleeping on SHA’s floor.

Maginnis decided, without the support of her organization, to intentionally flout the law.

“I plan to leaflet for abortion until they get sick of me and arrest me or repeal the law,” Maginnis had announced to the Berkeley Barb when she launched her campaign on June 16, 1966. Her initial plan had been to distribute a thousand leaflets. A week later, when she hadn’t been arrested, she escalated. “My minimum goal is to distribute 50,000 leaflets by July 25, telling women where they can get abortions,” she announced through the press. When she finally was arrested…, she caused the city ordinance under which she was arrested to be ruled unconstitutional. She had no intention of stopping there. “I was arrested under a local ordinance,” she told the [Berkeley] Barb in 1966. “Now it’s the state laws that need changing.” …

As Gurner put it to the Barb: “We just want to get this law on trial. … We obviously and willingly broke the law. And we did it so that no DA could weasel out because of ‘insufficient evidence.’ ” It worked. They were arrested on Feb. 20, 1967, and faced (according to the Barb) a sentence of five to seven years in state prison if found guilty. While their hearing was in progress—in a courthouse in Redwood City—an unrepentant Gurner and Maginnis advertised that they were still looking for a place in Berkeley they could rent on Thursday nights to hold more abortion classes. 

Radical acts take many forms. Maginnis and her companions chose one of the most effective and most memorable is to simply stand up (or sit down, whichever is forbidden) and speak your truth, over and over, until the state is forced to take notice of you. A great majority of important legal changes begin with illegal activism, and a refusal to listen to anyone who tells you to stop.  This is perhaps made most clear when we look at Maginnis’s relationship to Margaret Sanger:

Her admiration of Sanger, though, is genuine. “Sanger took rotten eggs and tomatoes and rotten fruit thrown at her when she went out, and I don’t think people know that today,” she says. She understood that an organization with Planned Parenthood’s institutional heft needed to keep some distance from the SHA; Maginnis’ strategy of flagrantly flouting the law had made her something of a too-hot-to-handle legend.

Loofbourow goes on to describe what the Army of Three and the SHA taught in their classes, how they organized out-of-the-country trips for women needing abortions, the SHA’s response to the vicious (by the standards of that time, mild by the standards of our time) anti-abortion bill signed by Ronald Reagan in 1967, and exactly how Maginnis (and Phelan) induced their own abortions, her reaction to Roe v. Wade, and her sense of current abortion politics.

The first time we met, I asked Maginnis what she thought women should be doing now, as the country seems poised once again to try to control our bodies. “I’ve thought about that,” she said then. “If I was going to reinvolve myself at this point, what would be the entry point? Kind of like setting out a map, looking for an entry.” She doesn’t quite have an answer. Yet. … “Keep talking about the issue,” she says. “Sure, not everyone is a brilliant speaker, but I think people have to keep talking about it.” She looks at me, her eyes bright. “Don’t you?” 

We do.