Unborn Yesterday

Written by Dewey Webb Category: History Issue: April 2015
Group Mid-Level
Character count 2500

Fifty-two years ago, Valley TV personality Sherri Finkbine terminated a tragic pregnancy –
and unwittingly gave birth to a controversial legacy that lives on today.

It was the biggest medical story in Arizona history. And more than a half century later, it might still be – a watershed case replete with every imaginable intrigue: “An evil drug company, court battles, mercy killing, crime and religion,” in the words of a character in A Private Matter, a 1992 HBO docudrama based on the case and starring Sissy Spacek.

Not to mention graphic death threats. Cat-and-mouse encounters with zealous reporters from several dozen countries. Even moral condemnation from the Vatican, which denounced Sherri Finkbine – a Scottsdale mother known as “Miss Sherri” in her role as hostess of the Phoenix version of global children’s TV show Romper Room – as a “murderer” when she traveled to Sweden in 1962 for what was probably the most famous abortion of its era. Or any era, in the estimation of the woman who would know best.

“When did the interest die down? It didn’t. We’re still talking about it 52 years later.” Speaking from her home in San Diego, Sherri Chessen (her maiden and professional name), 82, still sounds very much like the sunny schoolmarm who’d peer into her swirling Magic Mirror, announcing names of dedicated “Do-Bees” to children sprawled around TV sets in living rooms Valleywide. Now married for the third time, she has authored several children’s books and continues to avidly monitor new developments surrounding thalidomide, the drug that led to her own medical dilemma.

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 “Sometimes I feel like Miss Sherri was someone that I knew a long time ago,” says Chessen of her bygone kiddie show personality and (depending on your views) role as a crusader or pariah. “Then, I start to think ‘She did what she had to do, she took a lot of crap from people and I am proud of her... and myself.’”

In fact, years after the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that paved the way for legal abortions, the lead attorney in the case personally congratulated Chessen for “making my job less difficult.”

What Chessen decided “she had to do” was abort her fifth child early in her pregnancy after learning that thalidomide, a German tranquilizer she’d taken for morning sickness, had been linked to births of thousands of severely deformed babies. Her husband Robert Finkbine, an Arcadia High School history teacher, had purchased the drug while abroad chaperoning a student trip. (The couple divorced in 1973.)

Pulled from the European market in the early ‘60s (it had never been sold in the U.S.), the drug left behind a monstrous heritage of  misshapen or foreshortened legs, fin-like limbs, handless arms and other crippling physical defects.

At that time, abortion was illegal throughout the U.S. – unless for therapeutic reasons that threatened the mother’s life or health. Chessen’s physician recommended she undergo a therapeutic abortion. A procedure was quietly arranged for Chessen at Good Samaritan Hospital. (According to Chessen and other sources, inconspicuous abortions were regularly performed in hospital settings for wealthy or well-connected patients in the pre-Roe v. Wade era.)

And there the story might have ended, had Chessen – days before her scheduled procedure – not felt compelled to share her cautionary tale with an Arizona Republic writer as a warning to other would-be mothers. Although promised anonymity, Chessen saw her name leaked to the public.

The hospital canceled the procedure, an Arizona Supreme Court judge declined to hear the case, the county attorney threatened prosecution, and Chessen’s doctor dropped her as a patient. The Finkbines’ modest Scottsdale home soon became Ground Zero for what is regarded as the defining moment in the country’s modern abortion debate. Today, it’s practically impossible to find a history of the subject that doesn’t refer to Chessen’s role.

While reporters and protesters trampled the couple’s lawn, FBI agents investigated death threats and chaperoned their children around town. Inside, LIFE magazine photographed the dazed-looking woman at the center of this media circus, sitting on the floor hugging her children. Abortion was illegal and rarely discussed outside police blotter stories of back-alley butchers and their unfortunate victims. As a result, few people in the world, let alone in Phoenix, were ready when Chessen’s name was tied to such a volatile issue.

With no other options, the couple decided to seek a legal abortion overseas. Decked out in a disguise of blonde wig, dark glasses and a pillow under her dress (the last thing reporters were looking for was a woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy; Chessen was in her first trimester), Chessen sailed through Sky Harbor with her husband unrecognized. Denied the procedure in Japan, Chessen arrived in Sweden and underwent the abortion in a Stockholm hospital. The fetus was reportedly so severely malformed – a near limbless torso, according to some reports – that doctors doubted it could have been carried to full term.

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 After she went public with her quest for an abortion, Chessen found herself in career limbo. Upon returning from Sweden, the Phoenix station that broadast Romper Room, KPNX/KTAR-TV, forced her to hang up her magic mirror. “It was unbelievable,” recalls Chessen, who had been wrangling Do-Bees for three years, regularly drew throngs of kids to personal appearances, and even won a regional Emmy for Best Children’s Show. “The vice president of the station called me in and told me I was ‘not fit’ to host a children’s program anymore.”

Chessen, who jokes she “came out of the womb directing traffic,” would extract some measure of vindication two years later when the station hired her back to host Here’s Sherri, an afternoon talk show aimed at housewives. Originally slated to fill a 15-minute afternoon slot, the show became so popular it snagged a sponsor and expanded to an hour. Still gun-shy, however, management parked her behind a large piece of prop furniture when she became pregnant during the show’s run.

“That desk was huge!” remembers Chessen, who had two more children after Sweden. Laughing, she adds, “I could have given birth under that thing during the program and no one would have noticed.”

Today, Chessen continues to follow the issue of abortion in the U.S., and openly speaks her mind, as in September 2012, when she told New York Times blogger Linda Greenhouse that the Republican party’s abortion platform was “a ploy” and calling Republican politicians “hypocrites” on the issue.

“They’re against abortion until some woman in their family needs one,” she said. “Believe me, I know.”