IN THE AIRY DINING ROOM HER SLEEK, contemporary one-story Scottsdale, Ariz., home, Sherri Chessen, still youthful looking at 60, reaches for a copy of The Arizona Republic. “Look at this! This just shocked me,” she says, pointing to the paper’s full-page story about debilitated infant victims of fetal alcohol syndrome.
It is 30 years since Chessen, then Mrs. Robert Finkbine, herself made headlines by seeking to legally abort a fetus damaged by her ingestion of thalidomide, a tranquilizer then widely prescribed in Europe but whose unforeseen side effects had resulted in some 7,000 babies being born without arms or legs.
Chessen’s agonizing dilemma is recounted in A Private Matter, an HBO movie starring Sissy Spacek, to debut on June 20 (see review, page 13). It is a period in her life that continues to shadow her, and even now she is shaken by the tragedy of drug-impaired children forced to cope with lifelong handicaps. Still, she emphasizes, “I take no issue with anyone who went ahead and had the child. They have my love and my empathy. That’s what the choice issue is all about.”
In 1962, 11 years before Roe v. Wade, the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision that would legalize abortion nationwide, the choice was Chessen’s. At the time she was the popular host of Phoenix’s version of Romper Room, the nationally franchised children’s series. A 30-year-old mother of four children ranging in age from 20 months to 7 years, she was two months pregnant with her fifth child. During that period, following highly active sessions with her Romper Room kids, she had taken more than 30 thalidomide pills, which had been prescribed for her husband, Robert Finkbine, a Scottsdale high school history teacher, when he was touring Europe with his students the previous summer. Alarmed by the reports of birth defects, she contacted her obstetrician, Edward Sattenspiel, who informed her there was a 50-50 chance that the baby could be born deformed. Chessen was horrified. And she felt she would be unable to cope with raising a severely disabled child along with four healthy kids. So she and Bob sadly decided to terminate the pregnancy. Although Arizona was one of 31 states that banned abortion except when the mother’s life or health was endangered, the law was interpreted flexibly, and a local hospital, Good Samaritan, scheduled Sherri’s operation.
But then Chessen, concerned that other pregnant mothers around the country might also be taking the tranquilizer, decided to tell her story to The Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper. Though her name never appeared, the front-page article led publicity-wary hospital administrators to ask a judge to define the legal basis of Chessen’s abortion. The judge declined to rule, but in the process her name leaked out to the press.
What ensued was a media free-for-all. The story had spread around the country, and reporters and TV crews swarmed outside the Finkbines’ four-bedroom home, forcing the family to live behind closed drapes for nearly two weeks. Because of the publicity, Chessen soon lost her high-visibility job. Good Samaritan, meanwhile, backed away from the abortion. Unable to find any other hospital in the U.S. willing to perform it, Sherri and Bob wound up in Stockholm, where she underwent what she then referred to as “the operation. To protect myself, I never called it anything else.” The 12-week-old fetus turned out to have no legs and one arm.
Back home, the couple were greeted with obscene phone calls and hate mail so vicious (“People threatened to cut off the arms and legs of my children,” says Chessen) that two FBI agents had to move in for a month and escort the two older kids to school. Gradually the hysteria dissipated, and the Finkbines got on with their lives. Six months after her abortion, Sherri returned to local TV with Here’s Sherri, an afternoon magazine show, and then as host of Phoenix After Dark, a late-night talk show. (She now does animation voice-overs and is negotiating to do local newscast reports about aging.) But her eldest daughter, Terri Arnold, 37, married and the mother of two, remembers Chessen confiding, years after Sweden, that she was having nightmares about an armless baby. “[Growing up] I had a strong sense that abortion was only a last resort,” Terri says. “This has really haunted her.”
“I knew the emptiness in me had to be filled by another child,” says Chessen. It soon was. In 1965, Chessen gave birth to a healthy baby, Jody, now 27 and a sportscaster in Idaho. But another pregnancy resulted in miscarriage. Determined to try again, she and Bob produced Kristin, now a bright, strikingly beautiful 22-year-old actress and writer who lives at home.
The Finkbines divorced in 1973. Both say the abortion was not a factor; in fact, says Sherri, “the time we went through the abortion brought us closer together. We just grew to a point where our differences were greater than what we shared.” (They remain friends, and Bob, who, at 61, is retired and unmarried, lives a quarter mile away.) After leaving TV, Chessen opened two clothing boutiques in Scottsdale and then sold real estate in La Jolla, Calif., moving back to Arizona in 1982. Now a grandmother of four, she last year married David Pent, 63, an obstetrician and gynecologist.
Even at the height of the turmoil, Chessen never sought therapy. “I probably should have,” she acknowledges. Indeed, the memories of her abortion still reverberate, sometimes painfully. Last month Chessen was to appear on a local TV talk show with two sisters, ages 9 and 11, who are sewing as the “research department” for her and a close friend, illustrator Michele DeLacey, on a series of children’s books that the women are planning. But the girls’ father, who is antiabortion, refused to let his daughters appear in public with Chessen. “I cried my heart out,” she says. “It was like a repetition of Romper Room telling me 30 years ago, ‘You’re unfit to handle children.’ That hurt.”
What has helped is belated recognition by the women’s movement. At a 1980 Minneapolis feminist rally, Gloria Steinem hugged Chessen and said, “Poor baby, you had to do it all alone.” Says Chessen: “That gesture made me feel warm and good.”
Now Chessen, who is assisting the campaign of her friend Claire Sargent, a pro-choice Arizona Democrat running in her party’s primary for the U.S. Senate, believes advocates and opponents of abortion may “start bridging our differences.” She recalls her anger the day her doctor agreed to see her for a checkup after the abortion—provided she enter by the back door. “Now I can use the waiting room,” she says, with a wry smile, “and even read the magazines!”
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
LOIS KATE ARMSTRONG in Scottsdale