How One Woman Built an Underground Railroad of Abortions - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How One Woman Built an Underground Railroad of Abortions

How One Woman Built an Underground Railroad of Abortions

By Libby Coleman


Because someone had to give birth to pro-choice.

By Libby Coleman

Patricia Maginnis says she was spurred into action by the cry of a pregnant woman at a U.S. Army hospital in the Panama Canal Zone in 1952. She couldn’t bear the thought of giving birth to a baby who wasn’t her husband’s; nor could she face the divorce or abuse that would surely result if she returned home with another man’s child. Despite her cries for help, American military personnel restrained the woman, telling her to “Shut up!”  

“Abortion was barely more than a word in my brain,” Maginnis says. But at that moment, “it took on a meaning lit up in glaring, blazing lights.” And so, in an era when abortion was illegal nationwide, Maginnis began visiting labor union halls, church meetings and living rooms across the country, teaching women how to use contraception and self-induce abortions (though she strongly discouraged it). Later, she founded the Society for Humane Abortion and, in 1968, founded the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (ARAL), with definite similarities, not just in name, to a later organization — NARAL. While drawing a grateful female following, Maginnis’ progressive approach also drew plenty of hate — so much so that she found herself face-to-face in California one day with a sign reading “Fetuses of the world, unite! Here comes Pat Maginnis!”  

“I like men, but I prefer their company in a well-planned affair, and not a life sentence.”

So why isn’t her name as recognizable as other feminist leaders from that era? “Maginnis was an activist,” historian Leslie Reagan says, but that didn’t guarantee her fame. “Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were writers, they were in the media,” she notes by way of contrast. Plus, Maginnis was in Northern California, not New York. But that didn’t mean Maginnis was averse to seeking attention. In fact, part of her strategy consisted of trying to get arrested in the hopes of netting a more public platform to use while campaigning for legislative change, but the police wouldn’t arrest her.

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Patricia Maginnis in the film Motherhood by Choice, Not Chance.

Source YouTube

Maginnis fought for the total repeal of U.S. anti-abortion legislation — slight changes wouldn’t be enough, she insisted. Short of achieving that, she embarked upon her most daring mission in 1966, when she broke the law to disseminate a list of abortion providers in Mexico, Japan and Puerto Rico. Four years later, Reagan says, 12,000 women had obtained abortions thanks to the information on “The List,” as it was called. “Carry with you a toothbrush, Spanish-English dictionary, oral fever thermometer, sanitary napkins and belt…” the list noted. And it advised women to carry as little luggage as possible, but to make sure they picked up a souvenir during their travel to throw off suspicious border guards.

The sources making up the backbone of this so-called underground railroad came via former patients. If a woman wrote in to vouch for a doctor, he would be added to the directory, even if he wasn’t certified. Maginnis herself traveled to Mexico to evaluate the clinics many times; most passed her test, but a few alarmed her for their unsanitary accommodations. And wherever she went, she advocated for lower abortion prices. She also offered plenty of other advice — important, as well as trivial. She once wrote that doctors should serve toast after abortions, for example, rather than tortillas, to help patients feel comfortable. Despite her work, the list sometimes proved dangerous. Occasionally the information led to women reporting faked or failed abortions, and in at least one case, rape. “There’s nothing safe in the underground,” Maginnis notes.

Needless to say, Maginnis wasn’t alone in trying to help: There were others, like the Clergy Consultation Service, which talked to women about “problem pregnancies.” This required women to tell their (often male) religious leaders about their unwanted pregnancies, which put men in a position where they could compromise women’s rights. Planned Parenthood also helped women sift through an underground network to get abortions, Reagan says (Planned Parenthood could not confirm this) — but leading physicians often sent people to Maginnis for more information or used her list. 

Maginnis, who grew up in a large Catholic family where the home life was stressful and money scarce, had long puzzled over why the rich had so few children while the poor had so many. By the time she was a teenager, she decided to steer clear of parenthood and marriage altogether. “I like men,” she says, “but I prefer their company in a well-planned affair, and not a life sentence.”

Even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal based on the gestational period, Maginnis continued her activism, working “to invigorate women to defend this particular issue,” she says. And in her late 80s, she’s still fighting for women’s reproductive rights today.


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