Jessica L. Andersen
Latest posts by Jessica L. Andersen (see all)
- Willie J. Parker and the Complexity of Choice - February 20, 2017
- Desperate for Hope in the Trump Era: Dr. Jane E. Hodgson - January 17, 2017
Today it seems there are nearly constant threats to our reproductive freedoms. Will Planned Parenthood be defunded? Will the birth control mandate survive into next month? Will state restrictions continue to close women’s health clinics unchecked by the federal government? Amid all this, it’s easy to lose sight of hope. It’s easy to forget the progress we’ve made and, while I would never advocate for complacency, if we forget even the small progress, do we also risk forgetting those who fought for it? Instead can we turn to examples of the past for hope? Can we use those examples to inform our activism today?
One of our forgotten pro-choice heroines is OB/GYN, Dr. Jane E. Hodgson. She was born in 1915 — five years before white women gained the right to vote. Dr. Hodgson completed her training at the Mayo Clinic, was the first woman President of the Minnesota State Medical Society, and was an OB/GYN at a hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1970, she wanted legal permission to perform an abortion in an extremely anti-choice state. This was three years before Roe v. Wade.
Dr. Hodgson didn’t begin her career with feminist intentions, but after serving poorer communities and volunteering her medical skills abroad, she realized how disproportionately women were represented among the poor. These experiences inspired her to change Minnesota’s restrictive abortion laws, where it was illegal except to save the life of the mother. Her role as a physician had revealed the dangers of illegal abortions, and she knew the current laws were obstructing her from providing adequate health care. When later interviewed about her role in women’s health, she stated,
“I just wanted to practice good medicine, and I knew this wasn’t good medicine. It wasn’t moral medicine. It wasn’t the way I’d been taught public health. I mean, so much of it could be prevented, all the infection and the horrible aftermath and the illegal abortions could all be avoided almost entirely.”
Dr. Hodgson pursued multiple avenues for reforming the law. She went to court, she tried to convince the legislature, but by 1970 she realized the law needed to be directly challenged. She was willing to be the test case, but needed a patient who was also willing to risk jail time.
Finding the ideal patient was not easy. Anti-abortion groups painted the picture that women seeking abortions were irresponsible, uneducated, and poor. Not only did this bolster existing stereotypes of the poor, it also allowed lawmakers to feel far removed from the abortion issue. It was easy for them to believe that they, and their loved ones, would never be affected. Dr. Hodgson knew that her ideal patient would be someone to remind them that the abortion issue was closer than they knew.
Eventually, Dr. Hodgson found this patient. She was a happily married, 24-year old, white woman, who already had three children. As a picture of ideal domesticity, Dr. Hodgson hoped that the very traditional courts might be more sympathetic to this woman. Her children had come down with the German Measles, and there were lab results proving that the patient had also contracted the virus early in her pregnancy. Both Dr. Hodgson and the patient understood that this exposure was likely to result in congenital defects. The patient wanted an abortion, and she wanted Dr. Hodgson to perform it.
On April 16, 1970, Dr. Hodgson petitioned a federal court for permission to perform the abortion. She requested an early decision. The pregnancy was at 10-weeks and she hoped to perform it no later than 12-weeks, the end of the first trimester. After 2-weeks the decision had not come back, so Dr. Hodgson performed the abortion openly in the hospital, with advisement from other physicians. The day after, she received notice that the federal court was refusing to grant her permission, citing it was not their jurisdiction. On that same day, she was indicted by the state district court. Five months later, by September 1970, she was arraigned, tried, and convicted.
Her sentence was suspended, pending appeal. This process took long enough that her conviction was eventually reversed by Roe v. Wade in 1973, three years later. However, during those years, she performed medicine in a legally ambiguous state, unsure of the full status of her medical license. To this day, Dr. Jane Hodgson remains the only person convicted of performing an abortion inside a hospital.
Her career in reproductive health certainly didn’t end after this. She was an early voice for establishing a clear safety record for the, then new, technique of suction abortions under local anesthesia. The previous standard practice was a formal operating room procedure under general anesthesia. Dr. Hodgson and her staff maintained careful records, published their results, and taught physicians this less invasive, and ultimately safer practice.
In her lifetime, Dr. Hodgson witnessed the legalization of abortion, and then the rising of a violent, extreme anti-choice movement in response to these new freedoms. She endured the heartache of her community as providers and clinic staff were threatened, stalked, and murdered during the 1990’s. Even after all of this, in a 1998 essay, she wrote,
“Despite recent setbacks, I find reason for hope that this power struggle will end and we can move on… Laws may be changed overnight, but social customs and attitudes change very slowly. Prejudices must be overcome, and a gigantic medical delivery system must be developed to deliver early, safe, and low-cost reproductive health care to rich and poor alike”.
And although the fight appears never ending, during an interview, well into her nineties, she said,
“I haven’t had any regrets. I realize the futility of attempting such a thing, yes. I realize that it takes time, progress is so slow, an inch at a time, and then we seem to backslide.”
Dr. Jane E. Hodgson died in 2006, at the age of 91. If this woman kept hoping after almost a century battling for our reproductive freedoms, then surely we can find the hope we need to continue to fight during this new presidency.