Recalling An Abortion That Made Headlines

Posted: June 19, 1992

NEW YORK — Three decades after the abortion that made her famous, Sherri Chessen

Finkbine is the mother of six, grandmother of four, and happily remarried. After years of avoiding publicity, she is placing herself in the public eye again.

Tomorrow night on Home Box Office, Sissy Spacek will portray Finkbine in a 90-minute telemovie titled A Private Matter. This week Finkbine - who goes by her maiden name, Chessen - talked about her case and the show in a 40-minute interview here.

Chessen, 59, said she avoided publicity for a quarter-century because "I didn't want a sideshow Sherri. But when Roe v. Wade started to be eviscerated, I think there was need for people to stand up."

Unhappily, she believes that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion.

In 1962, Chessen had to go to Sweden for an abortion, after learning that the Thalidomide she had taken as a sedative could cause serious birth defects. Although Thalidomide was never sold legally in the United States, her husband had brought some of the pills back from Europe, where they were widely used as sleeping pills.

Chessen had four children before her abortion and two more afterward. She said all of them, now ages 22 to 37, supported her decision. "They are all very much with me," she said. "Always have been, always will be."

As you will see if you watch A Private Matter, the America that existed in 1962 was more male-dominated than it is today. Both the telemovie's atmosphere and Chessen's conversation stress that reality.

For example, she had always used the name Chessen in her professional life as host of the Phoenix edition of the children's show Romper Room. But as soon as her case became publicized, newspapers called her "Mrs. Robert Finkbine" or "Sherri Finkbine," and the name stuck.

Chessen thinks that she was the only woman on-camera in 1962 at her TV station, then called KTAR, now called KPNX. Another station in town had a ''weather girl," as they were called then, and a cooking show hostess, and that was it.

"All the reporters running after me were men," she said of the hurly- burly of newshounds vividly depicted in A Private Matter. As portrayed on the show, when her hospital's medical council meets and rejects her request for an abortion, no women are in the room.

As usual with fact-based telemovies, some incidents and dialogue in A Private Matter have been altered or invented. Chessen candidly discussed several changes from reality.

"The biggest change," she said, "is that there are no real names except for my family and the hospital administrator, Stephen Morris, who gave his permission." Morris, who was sympathetic to Chessen's case, is portrayed by Leon Russom.

"I wasn't fired until I came back from Sweden," Chessen said. Scriptwriter William Nicholson created a dramatically effective but fictitious scene in which she learns she is being replaced by seeing another woman rehearsing on her set.

Her mother, Mary Chessen, who died in 1975, is somewhat ambiguously portrayed by Estelle Parsons. Although it's hard to tell for sure, she seems to be more opposed than in favor of her daughter's decision.

"My mother supported what we were doing," Chessen clarified. "My mother was more intelligent than she came out in the movie. She just wanted to make sure we explored all the options. She wasn't judgmental."

In a proposed change that Chessen successfully resisted, Nicholson wanted to drop one of her children from the story. She wrote a nine-page letter that kept her youngest son, Steven, in the script. "How do you tell a 34-year-old man that he didn't exist back then?" she said.

Although the telemovie doesn't mention it, Sherri and Bob Finkbine, portrayed by Aidan Quinn, were divorced in 1973 for reasons that both say had nothing to do with the abortion. Last year Chessen married David Pent, an obstetrician/gynecologist in Phoenix. With reference to his medical specialty, she joked, "Where was he when I needed him?"

Chessen lost her composure only once during this interview, when asked why she didn't accept offers from others to adopt her Thalidomide baby no matter what its physical condition. (The fetus was in fact severely deformed.) She replied with one sentence: "If I would have had that child, I would have taken care of it." And then tears wet her eyes.

"I'm going to cry," she said. "Would you excuse me for one second?" And then she withdrew for a couple of minutes to another room in the Rihga Royal Hotel suite where this interview was conducted.

Although she fears that the Supreme Court will turn back the clock on abortion rights, Chessen's support of the Roe decision remains firm. "I don't think that abortion belongs in the political arena," she said. "It's a medical issue, not a legal one.

"Abortion is an experience that I don't wish on anyone," she concluded, ''but what's worse is anyone sitting in judgment of any other human being and making the decision for them."

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