Remembering Sherri Finkbine

Something of a follow up to the last post — some of you younger folk (I assume at least a few younger folk beside my nephew Ian read this blog, although you wouldn’t know it from the comments) might not know about Sherri Finkbine. And the rest of you more mature (ahem) readers might have forgotten.

Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, Sherri Finkbine of Phoenix, Arizona, was one of the “Romper Room” ladies (it’s coming back to you now, isn’t it?). Romper Room was a popular children’s television program that I used to watch, although the only parts of it I remember is the stuff about “do bees” and “don’t bees” and the “magic mirror” segment in which the Romper Room Lady said happy birthday and such to various children watching at home.

Anyway, sometime in the early 1960s, Finkbine was pregnant with her fifth child when she took some tranquilizers. Back then we didn’t know about drugs crossing the placenta and getting into the fetus; pregnant ladies smoked and drank too. It turned out these tranquilizers contained Thalidomide. Thalidomide was a new drug not approved for sale in the U.S.; Mr. Finkbine, a high school teacher, had bought the tranquilizers in London while chaperoning a school trip.

But doctors in Europe had just figured out that Thalidomide was causing a rash of extreme birth defects, including missing limbs, deafness, and blindness. This was actually one of the first big clues doctors had that things women eat and drink might affect a fetus.

Finkbine’s physician advised her to terminate the pregnancy; she and her husband agreed. A local hospital tentatively agreed to do the procedure. But state and local law enforcement got wind of this and told the hospital, the doctor, and the Finkbines that they would all be subject to prosecution under Arizona abortion law if the abortion was performed.

But then Finkbine gave an interview to a local newspaper about her situation, possibly in hopes of gaining public support (although she said later she had expected anonymity) and to warn pregnant women not to take the tranquilizers. And then all hell broke loose.

Finkbine’s pending abortion became global news. Wingnuts from the Atlantic to the Pacific publicly vilified her. The Finkbines appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court to allow the abortion, but lost. And time was passing.

Finally, in August 1962, Finkbine and her husband flew to Sweden and had a late-term abortion performed there. The Swedish hospital confirmed that the fetus was missing both legs and had only one arm.

After the Finkbines returned to Arizona, Mrs. Finkbine was dismissed by the television show and Mr. Finkbine was suspended from his teaching job. “Their children were hounded, anonymous death threats poured in by post and telephone and the press swarmed around their home,” the BBC said. The Finkbines had two more children but eventually divorced in 1973.

Just a reminder of what America was like before Roe v. Wade.

19 thoughts on “Remembering Sherri Finkbine

  1. “Just a reminder of what America was like before Roe v. Wade”

    Ahh but that’s what the dimwittedteabaggers want, the good old days, before that colored fella, before Roe-v-wade, before social security, before medicare, before medicaid, before the civil rights act, before science, before the civil war, before……….

  2. Now, I’m sure Ms. Finkbine and her husband wanted their 5, then more, children. And it’s horrible what happened to her with that pregnancy – during, and after (and if you’re my age, you remember the devastating photographs of the unfortunate children who were brought to term). But if this was another couple and they didn’t even want the wife to get pregnant, there was little legal recourse to prevent what is sometimes the result of a little intercourse, ‘legal, or illegal.’

    And so, for someone else other than her, this is also a reflection of the country prior to Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 (the precursor to Roe), when couples were finally legally allowed to buy contraceptives not only in that state, but nationwide.
    In other words, if you didn’t want to get pregnant, you didn’t have much recourse to trying to prevent pregnancies, and if you got pregnant, you had NO recourse at all.
    Up until Griswold, in many parts of the country, and not to make light of a terrible situation, but, well, it was either the rhythm method, something else like that, or cross your legs – because if you didn’t, you’d better cross your fingers.

    And the righties won’t be happy until we return to those miserable times. When if someone unlike Ms. Finkbine, didn’t have the resources to go outside the country, their choices were either back steet abortionists, coathangers, or chemicals.

    If some of you haven’t read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, please do. It’s frightening.

  3. If some of you haven’t read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, please do. It’s frightening.

    One of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th Century. Try mentioning it in front of a religious conservative sometime; you’ll get a perfect example of “doth protest too much.” I’ve seen their heads do a complete 360 at the mere mention of the title. It’s utter malarkey! We’re not like that at all! And then they go and behave exactly as Atwood predicted.

    Sigh. Smaller government, indeed.

  4. If I remember correctly the fact that the drug was not sold in this country was thanks to one lonely woman scientist employed by the fed to test drugs. She was the person who prevented the sale of the drug here.

    If Republicans have their debt/deficit economizing measures enacted, the Food and ‘Drug Department will have its funding cut to the point where food and drug regulations/regulators will be non-existent. If the measure goes through, drug ingestion of any kind is not recommended.

  5. I had to read most of your blog post before it came back to me. I remember now. God, that was a long time ago. But scary to think how much thinking hasn’t changed.

  6. Felicity: I didn’t realize that thalidomide was never sold in the States. Here in Canada, it wreaked havoc. There is a very active association for thalidomide victims (now in the 40s and 50s).

    • It’s true that thalidomide was never approved for sale in the U.S., but it seems I’ve argued that point with a gazillion people over the years who believed it was. A lot of Americans got their hands on it elsewhere, so some thalidomide babies were born here, too.

  7. While I’m young enough to remember Thalidomide (and Romper Room), I didn’t know anything about Sherri Finkbine. Gulag and Joanie – I had heard of The Handmaiden’s Tale but had no idea what it was about. Any great literature that provokes religious conservatives is prima facie worthwhile, in my book. Thanks for a great posting and comments.

    @Felicity: If Republicans have their debt/deficit economizing measures enacted, the Food and Drug Department will have its funding cut to the point where food and drug regulations/regulators will be non-existent….

    I once read a dystopian novel about the future (I don’t remember the name, it may have been serialized in Harper’s?). At any rate, there is a scene where the main characters are walking past a sewer openly discharging into a waterway. One character noted that it was properly labeled, discharging Thorium (or some highly toxic waste). The understanding was, in this future nobody tries to control or restrict anything (except the population), but by damn, the authorities at least have some toxic things labeled – and that’s extent of their responsibilities. You’re on your own for everything else.

  8. I’m so old I remember Romper Room from the 50s, when I believe it was produced by WGN in a Chicago studio. My mom took us kids to Lunchtime Little Theater which followed it, and as we were being seated RR was ending, with Miss Whoever (was it Rosemary? my brain hurts trying to pull it from my memory bank) gazing into that famous looking glass…at us children across the room.

    Was it local then and did it eventually go national? I’m confused over the Arizona connection. Anyway, after the mid-show LLT presentation of “it’s lunchtime now, it’s fun and how…” the program went to a cartoon and I watched the crew munching on the sandwiches from the lunchtime segment.

    • I think how Romper Room worked is that the “brand” and format were franchised to several local television stations, which produced local versions of the show. They did the same thing with Bozo the Clown, although I believe the Chicago Bozo also was picked up by stations around the country.

  9. Maha and Daphne — Romper Room was a franchise. I believe the first one was in Chicago and then the idea was taken to local stations in other cities. I remember watching in NYC but I don’t remember who the Romper Room lady was. I remember vividly Sheri Finkbine’s story and the press coverage at the time.

    What is interesting is that Thalidomide has shown to be helpful with a number of diseased (cancer, skin conditions among others). But women have to be cautioned not to use it for any condition if they are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant.

  10. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was made into a movie in 1990. I saw it on DVD just recently:

    Although not made into a movie (as far as I know), “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis is worth a read. A lot of people thought it wasn’t Lewis’s best book, and maybe it wasn’t, but what he said is beginning to sound awfully prescient.

  11. You know I read this post today and it made me so goddam mad, especially the stuff about forcing women to sign zee papers. In fact I may have posted under an assumed name? LAter this afternoon I was on my way home from work to celebrate the long weekend and I was held in traffic behind a japan made mini-van with “choose life” virginia plates! Wow that says it all, I wonder are there any choose choice plates available? In honor of the upcoming long weekend and all the over droned 9-11 crap we will all be subjected to next week, I offer this American gem!

  12. Candide, I read IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE back when Bush was President and it was eerily on target for what our country was turning into. Thanks for the link to the article.

  13. Ditto for reading the Lewis book and thinking it may have been prescient – not close to his best writing, though, imo. Still, an excellent book, so if anyone hasn’t read it, it’s worth it.

  14. Dr. Frances Kelsey (Canadian born) prevailed upon the FDA not to approve thalidomide for use in the United States.

  15. Thanks for saving me from having to Google in search of Frances Kelsey’s name. This was a heroine of our time. Then, of course, I had to Google for more up-to-date information.

    It’s a bit optimistic to speak of “prevailing on the FDA”. She was assigned to process the Tahlidomide application, and she didn’t like the state of the safety data. She delayed the work of the agency by insisting on review of a study that seemed to show bad side effects. She defied pressure from her boss to get on with the job. Then the news broke, and she was an official hero.

    She held some significant positions after that, influencing the reform of drug testing. And she’s alive and kicking after retiring in 2005. She’s 97.

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