A public matter


IF I WAS in your position I'd do exactly what you're doing. I can't say that in public -- I know you understand that." -- The High School Principal

"You're not the only one, Mrs. Finkbine. We do a lot of terminations here." -- The Hospital Administrator

Don't be fooled by the big clunky convertibles and the sleeveless sheath dresses, by the black-and-white televisions and the pastel formica in the kitchens.

The props and sets are 1962. But the substance is today, and tomorrow, too.

The television movie "A Private Matter" is the story of Sherri Finkbine. She would probably be surprised to hear that, in an informal survey of 10 educated women in their 30s, all but two said "Who?" when they heard her name.

Sherri Finkbine was infamous once. She was pregnant. She took tranquilizers. She discovered that they were Thalidomide, a teratogen that was being linked to the births of thousands of European babies without limbs. Her doctor recommended a termination. She already had four small children. She couldn't imagine caring for them and a fifth with serious impairments. The doctor scheduled a therapeutic abortion.

"You know what I hate about it most? The way it has to be a secret. Like I'm doing something dirty." -- Sherri Finkbine in "A Private Matter"

"There are ways as long as nobody talks about it." -- The Doctor

Then Sherri Finkbine made a big mistake. She told a reporter. She wanted to warn other women about thalidomide. They were her friends, the small clique of newspeople in Phoenix, Ariz. In what would seem later to be God's gift to the media, she was a TV personality herself: Miss Sherri, the local hostess of "Romper Room."

Do Bee quiet about your abortion.

She lost that job. The abortion was canceled. It was finally performed in Sweden. The movie ends as she and her husband board the plane. It airs Saturday night on HBO, the networks loving cancer and true crime but steering clear of abortion.

Why dramatize this now, 30 years later, when many women don't even recognize Sherri Finkbine's name? Because they'll recognize her life.

Because we still keep quiet. Because our silence perpetuates the fiction that abortions are performed only on the promiscuous, the thoughtless and the uninformed. One survey showed that almost 50 percent of American women having abortions already had children. Loving mothers have abortions every day. After her abortion, Sherri Finkbine went on to have two more children.

"I'll have the baby. Spend the rest of my life taking care of him like everybody wants. And everybody'll say, 'Isn't she wonderful?'" -- Sherri Finkbine in "A Private Matter"

"Why don't you take your other four kids and strangle them, too?" -- Anonymous Letter Writer

The law that enabled Sherri Finkbine's doctor to schedule her surgery, then enabled the hospital to cancel it, is back in vogue in states seeking to restrict abortion. It permits abortion if the life of the mother is in danger. If it is interpreted narrowly, almost no one will be able to have an abortion; if it is not, it will be a farce, a way to make us dependent on the kindness of strangers.

In one of the movie's most compelling scenes, a psychiatrist examines Mrs. Finkbine to develop evidence that her life is in danger. Don't sleep? he asks. Cry a lot? But she won't cop to being suicidal. "Take my own life?" she says, incredulous. "I have four small children."

It wasn't that she thought she'd kill herself; she thought having that baby would kill her family. "Family values," she says of her motivation today, divorced and remarried and still psychologically sore in spots.

Thirty years later, and she is a pile of clippings on my desk, a memory in the minds of some, a "Who?" in the collective unconscious of others. So many people wanted to tell her what was best for her life, then walk away and leave her to live it.

So many want to do that today: insist that they know best what makes us good mothers, women, people, and then leave us to live with the consequences of their convictions.

Sherri Finkbine said no. She doesn't regret that, only that three decades later we still have to say no over and over and over and over again.

Anna Quindlen writes a column for the New York Times.

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