Long before women seeking abortions had NARAL or Planned Parenthood, in the days before Roe vs. Wade, some 12,000 relied on the work of a petite woman named Pat Maginnis. Slate profiled the radical abortion activist and pioneer, now 90, who spent her early days “attempting to show women an alternative to knitting needles, coat hangers, and household cleaning agents.”
In 1962, Maginnis founded the Society for Humane Abortion, an organization that “sought to repeal abortion laws, endorse elective abortions, and offer women any resources it could in the meantime,” by creating a directory of abortion providers and helping physicians exchange knowledge about the best techniques. SHA’s policy arm later turned into the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws, which birthed abortion rights organization NARAL.
Here’s what Maginnis taught women:
The classes SHA organized instructed women on every aspect of an abortion: how to schedule one, how to prepare, what to expect, how it was done, how to respond to police interrogations if you had to be hospitalized, and how—if you couldn’t travel—to perform your own.
The classes sometimes included DIY abortion kits with items like gauze, a thermometer, cotton, and a syringe. Maginnis was by all accounts a vivid teacher. Newspapers reported that she lectured using an IUD for a pointer and that she “graphically illustrated the dangers of unsanitary abortion by holding up anal bacteria cultures and infected blood samples.” The class taught women female anatomy. It instructed them on how to calculate how many weeks pregnant they were. It instructed them on exactly how to call for an appointment (the woman, not the man, should place the call).
SHA went farther than Planned Parenthood, whose mission was to encourage contraceptive use in order to curb abortion. Maginnis was more radical, pushing for legislative change and to remove the stigma from abortion entirely. “We used to say we made Planned Parenthood respectable,” Maginnis told Slate.
“She was the first to take a passionate, public stance arguing that the medical stranglehold over women’s reproductive lives was corrosive,” Slate writes. “And the Society for Humane Abortion was arguably the very first American organization to advocate a pro-choice position that centered the woman, instead of the legal dilemmas of the physician—specifically, her right to privacy and choice. Rejecting the finicky gatekeeping protocols, the committees and evaluations and red tape, Maginnis proposed that the only question anyone should ask prior to approving an abortion was a simple one: whether the woman wanted it.”