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She was out in front of the fight to legalize abortion, but few know her name


There was a time in most places in this country where if you got an abortion, you could face interrogation by police, which meant decades ago, the vast majority of people seeking abortions in the U.S. had to go underground for a doctor or secretly perform the procedure on themselves or simply leave the country.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Reading) If you can only give me the name of a Mexican doctor, please use the enclosed envelope as soon as possible.

CHANG: Thousands upon thousands of people wrote desperate letters back in the 1960s to a woman named Pat Maginnis. She was an abortion rights activist who had compiled a very special list.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Reading) Please send me a list of doctors in Tijuana that...

CHANG: It was a catalogue of sorts of dozens of abortion providers outside the U.S. because for many people, this was the only choice.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Reading) I've seen several doctors and all have refused to even try to help me. Writing this, I feel ashamed and desperate.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (Reading) I am married, but my husband has just been called for jungle training in Korea for 18 months, so a child would cause too many problems at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (Reading) I'm 18 years old, single and three months pregnant by a married man. You are my last resort.

ANDREA BOWERS: She had stacks and stacks, almost like towers of, like, the plastic shopping bags with letters in them.

CHANG: Andrea Bowers was the artist who recorded these actors reading out loud these letters addressed to Pat Maginnis and two women who worked closely with her. Bowers compiled these accounts into a video project called "Letters To An Army Of Three." And then Bowers found out that two days before a new law in Texas banning almost all abortions went into effect, Pat Maginnis died at 93 years old.

BOWERS: I miss her. And this work changed my life, you know?

CHANG: To see Maginnis's life end just as a new restrictive abortion law in Texas was set to begin has prompted new reflection on where Pat Maginnis fit into the abortion rights movement, a movement that often didn't know what to do with a radical activist who demanded immediate, direct action.

BOWERS: She felt like the people running the movements were a little fearful of her tactics and politics. And perhaps their tactics and politics at that time were too radical for the direction the movements were going. And so I always thought that she was kind of hidden because of the radicality of their actions.

CHANG: Hidden from much of the story people tell today about the reproductive rights movement in the U.S., even though Pat Maginnis helped change the trajectory of that entire movement. What's happening in Texas right now is reminiscent of the world Maginnis first entered in the 1960s as an activist.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (Reading) I was told you would refer names and phone numbers of someone in this area who will perform an abortion. We could also manage to leave the state if necessary. My last menstrual period was approximately January 6. I've missed one period.

CHANG: So to help us understand what might lie ahead, we wanted to revisit the battle Pat Maginnis fought. You see - back in the early 1960s, abortion was illegal all across the U.S., except when doctors granted certain medical exceptions. But for anyone who didn't fall under one of those exceptions and wanted an abortion, the procedure could be dangerous.


PATRICIA MAGINNIS: Women were dying every year. This was the largest cause of maternal death, just savage.

CHANG: This is a snippet of an oral history Pat Maginnis gave to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College back in 1975.


MAGINNIS: It left little children without mothers. It left husbands without wives. It was just demoralizing in the extreme. And yet what was so overwhelming was that people were so terrified of the word abortion.

CHANG: But Maginnis was about to change that.

LILI LOOFBOUROW: So she made a point of actually saying the word as much as she could.

CHANG: Lili Loofbourow profiled Maginnis for Slate and says Maginnis was kind of the first person to take the taboo out of the word.

LOOFBOUROW: I'm going to talk about abortion, abortion. She just was really determined to not let conventions that I think she had found extremely stultifying keep her from liberties that she felt she and other women deserved.


MAGINNIS: Some hundred thousand women every year - this is California women alone - subject themselves to improperly or illegal abortions.

CHANG: Here's Maginnis giving an interview on the street in 1963.


MAGINNIS: I think that in itself is a rather staggering figure. And I feel great indignation as a woman to think that women have to subject themselves to second-rate medical care for a safe surgical procedure.

LESLIE REAGAN: She was the first person who spoke publicly saying abortion should be completely decriminalized. I'm Leslie Reagan. And I'm the author of the book "When Abortion Was A Crime."

CHANG: Maginnis, Reagan says, would stand on street corners in San Francisco in the early '60s, passing out leaflets to people about abortion classes and even do-it-yourself abortions.

REAGAN: How to self-induce and where you could go to get a safe abortion. So she's the first to do that.

CHANG: Maginnis distributed this literature partly to get the information out, but also to try deliberately to get arrested.


MAGINNIS: We'd made great efforts to point out that we were soliciting you to have abortions (laughter). And we would go around the whole...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In order to be arrested and challenge the law.

MAGINNIS: Well, show people how ridiculous it was that...

CHANG: Remember, this was a time when abortion was illegal everywhere in the U.S., except in rare cases. And by the late 1950s, early '60s, local and state governments were getting aggressive about enforcing these laws. They went after providers, shut down clinics. Seeking an abortion became this clandestine, sometimes dangerous experience.

REAGAN: They're blindfolding women. They're telling them to come to a corner where they'll be picked up blindfolded, driven around until they don't know where they are. And they are alone at all times, so the experience for women seeking abortions is extremely frightening.

CHANG: As I pictured what it would have been like to live as a woman during this time, I was fascinated to learn that this wasn't what most of American history was like. You see, during the 17 and early 1800s in the U.S., ending a pregnancy was totally permissible under the law, at least up until a point known as quickening.

REAGAN: Quickening is when a woman could feel fetal movement inside of her.

CHANG: And Reagan says in the months before quickening, a pregnant person could deliberately self-induce a miscarriage without any penalty. Even the Catholic Church at the time did not condemn this practice. There were literally domestic guidebooks that describe various ways to do this. Some of it is graphic and hard to hear. Here's Reagan explaining.

REAGAN: There were different kinds of teas and herbs that people grew in their gardens. And then if those didn't work, people would turn to other things - using crochet hooks to invade the vagina and the uterus and induce a miscarriage. But, you know, first they tried a lot of other things before they would go there. So it's really something that is shared information, and it's quiet. It's not talked about.

CHANG: It's not debated.

REAGAN: Exactly.

CHANG: Like, there wasn't this nationwide conversation about whether that was ending life.

REAGAN: Yeah, there isn't a public debate. It's just part of commonplace health care.

CHANG: But eventually, states start outlawing abortion in the mid-1800s, and then the legal landscape begins to shift even more in the 20th century. As women's rights movements grow, crackdowns on abortions accelerate. Law enforcement agencies intensify efforts to catch abortionists in the act, interrogating women suspected of seeking abortions. This was the world Pat Maginnis grew up in - a woman who knew from a very early age that she never wanted to have children. She grew up in an unhappy home with a mother who never seemed to like being a mother.


MAGINNIS: She had many frustrations, which she often took out on us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So you saw lots of conflict?

MAGINNIS: Oh, yes.

CHANG: She later goes through three illegal abortions of her own, two of which were self-induced. I mean, as Maginnis told her boyfriend once...


MAGINNIS: All I wanted was bed fun...

CHANG: Bed fun.


MAGINNIS: ...And that I did not want babies. I only wanted bed fun (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You were clear in your mind about this?

MAGINNIS: I was fairly clear.


CHANG: Trying to leave her Oklahoma past behind, Maginnis joins the army. She trains as a surgical technician. And in the wards, Lili Loofbourow says, Maginnis sees women injured from botched abortions or forced to give birth even when they didn't want to have a baby.

LOOFBOUROW: And it was all truly horrifying for her. And she said to me more than once, that was really the thing that radicalized her was seeing sort of the gamut of things that women have to go through in the name of irreversible biology that nobody lets them opt out of.

CHANG: Maginnis plunges into activism after the army. She moves to San Francisco, and at first, her advocacy starts with smaller stuff like collecting signatures to reform abortion laws. But then pretty quickly, she gets to a point where she's like, forget reforming these abortion laws.

REAGAN: Those reform laws aren't going to work.

CHANG: Let's abolish those laws.

REAGAN: We need to argue for repeal.

CHANG: Let's repeal every law that criminalizes abortion. Leslie Reagan says this idea, repealing all laws that criminalize abortion, it's an idea that may feel commonplace today. But back then, in the early '60s, this idea is what made Pat Maginnis a radical.

REAGAN: She's earlier than the movement that we know of as women's liberation and when the major women's organizations like NOW also endorse the legalization of abortion. She's ahead of everybody.

LOOFBOUROW: So she was pro-abortion in the most explicit way, in a way that Planned Parenthood refused to be. And so that's why she said, we made Planned Parenthood respectable.

CHANG: And Maginnis and her group do something that's pretty revolutionary.


MAGINNIS: We got together names of doctors. And we had at the very top of this, in large letters, this whole thing we've mimeographed.


MAGINNIS: Large letters - are you pregnant?

CHANG: She puts together a list, a special list, Lili Loofbourow says, that could make safe abortions possible even for people living in a country where it's basically illegal.

LOOFBOUROW: That meant basically putting together a Yelp inventory of doctors outside the country who it was safe for women to go to.

CHANG: This list contains not just names of doctors but their fees, also descriptions of the procedure and, as Leslie Reagan discovered, tips for how to even make the trip to places like Mexico.

REAGAN: So the list in 1968 said in capital letters, first, carry as little luggage as possible.

CHANG: Because border guards could otherwise get suspicious. Also, the group advised...

REAGAN: Officials expected tourists in border towns like Ciudad Juarez to buy trinkets.

CHANG: So they encouraged the women to buy souvenirs at the border. Reagan says Maginnis and her group acted sort of like a feminist public health agency. They wanted to make sure the providers followed certain standards of practice.

REAGAN: You have to wash your hands. You have to use sterile equipment. You have to disinfect the room.

MAGINNIS: The U.S. woman generally was quite naive as to whether someone was a physician or someone was a specialist. They didn't know the questions to ask. They knew that they were desperate.

REAGAN: You want to make sure that this bit is being done in a medically appropriate manner.

CHANG: The group would try to enforce these standards by asking women to fill out surveys after the fact, and bad actors would be removed from the list. But sometimes, Reagan says, after the fact was too late. For example, one woman who had used the list claimed later that a specialist had raped her.

REAGAN: The really interesting thing as, you know, somebody looking at this later is the way that they handled it. Instead of immediately taking that doctor off the list and warning people that, you know, he had assaulted somebody; do not see him, they sent a letter saying that they were very concerned and they did not want him to do anything like that again. It took...

CHANG: It simply admonished the doctor.


CHANG: And remarkably, the group didn't remove that person from the list until a second woman claimed that that same specialist had raped her. Now, we don't know how many women were harmed as a result of relying on the list. There very well could have been other accounts. But Lili Loofbourow says there's no question what Pat Maginnis and her group were at least trying to do in their work.

LOOFBOUROW: This was really the way to return power to women. Even if it was hard, even if it was painful and even if it was scary, she thought it was crucially important to actually return some of that power to the people concerned because women had been reduced to an almost infantile state by a medical community that thought that, like, you know, the authorities should be making those decisions for them.

CHANG: This fundamental principle Pat Maginnis lived by, advocated by - this principle that decisions about your body belong to you and not to some doctor or lawmaker - that principle eventually becomes a given in the whole abortion rights movement. Pat Maginnis the maverick becomes the mainstream. And yet she remains an obscure figure in the history of the reproductive rights movement. I asked Loofbourow, why was that, even after all these decades?

LOOFBOUROW: She was not an attention seeker or a credit seeker. And she did not make particular common cause, to my surprise, with the feminist movement in general. Her strategy was blunt, and I think that may have prevented her from being known as, like, the activist superstar that she really was. I mean, she was not Gloria Steinem.

CHANG: Loofbourow was often struck by this dichotomy in Maginnis - a fiery activist with self-effacing habits, someone who never really went for the camera-ready look, instead opting for clothes from thrift stores or even found on the street, and someone who would drop unexpectedly sweet phrases on the regular despite being so intense.

LOOFBOUROW: For somebody who was so openly confrontational and insistent on, like, screaming abortion at people and, like, chasing them down with leaflets, she was just incredibly, like, polite and demure and, like, oh, dear, and, oh, my goodness.

CHANG: At one point, Loofbourow was photographing Maginnis for the profile she wrote and asked her to pose with anything she liked.

LOOFBOUROW: She went out back into her backyard and came back with a shovel and a pitchfork, and the pitchfork was just incredible. And so she's just standing there in her front yard with this pitchfork, like, re-enacting American Gothic in the most incredible way (laughter). I mean, what a symbol to choose - a pitchfork...

CHANG: Yeah.

LOOFBOUROW: ...For your profile.


CHANG: This story was produced by Matt Ozug and edited by Sarah Handel with help from Sarah McCammon and Ammad Omar. Also, many thanks to the Schlesinger Library and to NPR's Ayda Pourasad for helping us with research.


Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.