Sherri Finkbine (born Sherri Chessen in 1932) is an American former children's television host. Known locally as Miss Sherri on the Phoenix, Arizona, version of the franchised children's show, Romper Room, she became a subject of controversy in 1962 when she sought an abortion, after discovering that the Thalidomide sedative she had been taking caused serious deformities when used in early stages of pregnancy.
In 1961, Finkbine's husband chaperoned a group of high school students on a European tour, where he purchased over-the-counter sedatives, and carried the remainder home. She took thirty-six of the pills in the early stages of her fifth pregnancy, unaware until July 1962 that the pills contained Thalidomide, which could cause deformity in the fetus(es) while in utero. Her physician[who?] recommended that she obtain a therapeutic abortion, the only type permitted in Arizona at the time. To publicize the danger of Thalidomide, Finkbine contacted the Arizona Republic. Although she was assured anonymity, her identity was not kept adequately secret.
Following the paper's publication of Finkbine's story, the hospital at which she planned to have the abortion performed, wary of the publicity, sought assurance that it would not be prosecuted. When such assurance was not forthcoming, the scheduled abortion was canceled. When her physician asked for a court order to proceed with the abortion, she and her husband became public figures, receiving letters and phone calls in opposition to her requested abortion. A few letters included death threats, and the FBI was brought in to protect her. She also lost her job at the TV station. Finkbine’s case was dismissed by Judge Yale McFate, who found that he didn’t have the authority to make a decision on the matter.
Finkbine attempted to go to Japan to obtain the abortion, but was denied a visa by the Japanese Consul. She and her husband then flew to Sweden where she obtained a successful and legal abortion, which caused a minor controversy. The abortion panel of the Royal Swedish Medical Board granted Finkbine's request for an abortion on August 17, 1962, to safeguard her mental health. The operation was performed the following day.
The Swedish obstetrician who performed the abortion told Finkbine that the fetus had no legs and only one arm and would not have survived. It was too badly deformed to be identified as a boy or a girl. In 1965, Finkbine had another baby, a healthy girl.
The incident was the subject of additional controversy, due to Finkbine's role as host on the local Phoenix production of the children's television show Romper Room at the time of the termination of her pregnancy. The events became a made-for-TV movie in 1992, A Private Matter, with Sissy Spacek in the leading role.
The termination of Finkbine’s pregnancy is seen now as a pivotal event in the history of abortion rights in the United States. According to Dr. Mary Frances Berry, her story “helped change public opinion [on abortion]. Fifty-two percent of respondents in a Gallup poll thought she had done the right thing.” By 1965, “most Americans, 77 percent, wanted abortion legalized ‘where the health of the mother is in danger’”; in that same year, The New York Times called for reform of abortion laws. Planned Parenthood wrote that Finkbine was able to afford going overseas to have the abortion, but many other women seeking to terminate unwanted pregnancies would turn to illegal abortions.
Lee Epstein, a professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California, wrote that “Finkbine’s situation evoked sympathetic reactions from various organizations and in essence, led to the creation of an American abortion reform movement.”
Sherri Finkbine, now Sherri Chessen, has six children from her first marriage and six stepchildren from a later marriage. From September to December 1970, Sherri had her own one-hour variety show on KPAZ, Channel 21 in Phoenix, Arizona, which aired on Friday nights at 8 PM. In the 1990s she did voice acting for cartoons and wrote two children’s books to address the issues of gun violence and bullying.
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