The 'Che Guevara of Abortion Reformers' Fought Hard For Reproductive Rights

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n October of 1968, a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner spent an evening inside a third floor office at 345 Franklin Street in San Francisco. By day, the place belonged to an attorney named Vincent Hallinan. After 7pm every Thursday, Hallinan offered his office—free of charge—for America's very first post-abortion center.

The free clinic was a safe space for young women who'd recently undergone illegal abortions and weren't able see their regular doctors for post-operative care. The clinic also offered free pregnancy tests, birth control prescriptions and advice from a Planned Parenthood volunteer. It was staffed by volunteer gynecologists, a nurse, a receptionist and a lab technician named Pat Maginnis.

It was Maginnis who had started the clinic. It was she that was the most unapologetic about a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy. And it was she that told a waiting room full of young women that night in 1968:

Remember. Your abortion is your business and no one else's. You have a right to silence guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. Abortions performed outside of the state are not reportable to police.

By the time the Examiner paid Maginnis' clinic a visit, she was already a well-known figure in San Francisco, and a pro-choice thorn in the side of anti-abortionists across the country. In 1962, Maginnis had started the Society for Humane Abortion (SHA). In 1964, she co-founded the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (ARAL), alongside Rowena Gurner and Lana Phelan Kahn. (It was the precursor to today's NARAL Pro-Choice America.) Maginnis, Gurner and Kahn were such a force to be reckoned with that they earned the nickname 'The Army of Three.'

Three women wearing 1960s attire sit at a table strewn with papers. One of them holds up a sign that says 'REPEAL ABORTION LAWS'
Pat Maginnis organizing in Sausalito, alongside (center) Rowena Gurner and (right) Lana Phelan Kahn. (Bettman)

The two organizations served different purposes. ARAL operated in an official capacity, releasing statements, campaigning, working diligently to change the laws of the day and holding free reproductive health classes across the United States—many of which prompted bomb threats and protests. (Maginnis welcomed the extra attention because it increased publicity.) Classes often had to be moved at the last minute to private homes, motel rooms, church basements and union halls. In the Bay Area, ARAL contended with protests staged by Mothers Outraged at the Murder of Innocents (MOMIS). MOMIS pushed district attorneys all over the region to prosecute Maginnis, to no avail. The D.A.s of San Francisco, Sacramento, Alameda, San Mateo, Sonoma and Santa Clara all refused to penalize Maginnis and her cohorts for their work.


The SHA operated in a more underground capacity, compiling and distributing lists of safe abortionists and how much they cost. The society—run out of Maginnis' $90 per month apartment, south of Market Street—taught women how to book an appointment, what to expect and how to prepare for the procedure. It gave classes on anatomy and step-by-step instructions on how to perform abortions at home for people who couldn't afford to travel to Mexico, Japan or Sweden. The SHA even explained how to deal with police after an abortion, should legal problems arise. It 1969, the SHA claimed that, since its formation, it had assisted 12,000 women in accessing safe abortions. By that time, local alt-weeklies had started referring to Maginnis as "the Che Guevara of abortion reformers."

The white and blue cover of a textbook titled THE ABORTION HANDBOOK.
One of the publications created by Pat Maginnis and Lana Phelan during their time as abortion educators in a pre-Roe v. Wade America. (NPR/Courtesy of Andrea Bowers)


atricia Theresa Maginnis' road to becoming the most prominent pro-choice campaigner of the 1960s was not an easy one. She was compelled to act only after bearing witness, for many years, to the consequences of women being denied access to their own health decisions.

One of seven children, Maginnis was born in Okarche, a small town outside of Oklahoma City, in 1928. She was raised in dire poverty by a veterinarian father who never escaped the stigma of being born illegitimate, and a mother who endured chronic pain and ailments caused by giving birth so many times. ("My mother would tell you she enjoyed having children," Maginnis once said. "I didn't go through childhood with that impression.")

In 1950, Maginnis left a job at the Bureau of Mines and joined the Women's Army Corps, training as a surgical technologist. After being assigned to a pediatrics and obstetrics ward in Panama, she bore witness to the aftermath of botched abortions and forced births. In 1966, she told the Examiner: "My first real contact with abortion was in the Army. A woman pregnant by another man and expecting her husband's return tried to abort herself [and] was hospitalized. The poor thing, who received no sympathy or understanding, became so distraught, a wire cage was placed over her bed. She was held captive like an animal. I still shudder at the memory."

Maginnis left her three-year enlistment as a corporal and decided to attend San Jose State College under the G.I. Bill. During her studies there, she got pregnant three times. On the first occasion, she traveled to Mexico for an abortion. She administered the next two on herself at home. After one of them landed her in the hospital, she was asked if she had given herself an abortion. Her response? "Sure I did. Want me to demonstrate how in court?"

After Maginnis graduated in 1961, aged 33, she worked nights as a medical technologist. Her late schedule was by design—she needed her days free for pro-choice campaigning. That year, she was arrested for the first time for distributing literature that advised women how to access abortion services.

At the time, Section 601 of the California Business and Professions Code made it a felony to "willfully compose and publish a notice and advertisement of a medicine and means for producing and facilitating a miscarriage and abortion." Still, the judge at Maginnis' trial concluded that she had been arrested on grounds that were unconstitutional, and promptly set her free. "Now I can paper the town with leaflets," Maginnis joyfully announced after the verdict, "and that's exactly what I plan to do."

It was by no means the end of Maginnis' legal troubles; eight years later, Maginnis found herself convicted again of "willfully writing, composing and advocating abortion techniques." In 1966, she and Rowena Gurner were arrested in San Mateo after teaching an abortion class. They paid their fines and carried on, unrepentant. Maginnis told the Examiner shortly afterwards, "It kills me to see these young healthy women be expected to jeopardize their lives for what is a simple, safe surgical procedure."

That same year, Dr. Theodore Montgomery of the State Public Health Department stated that the number of legal abortions performed in California was around 500, sanctioned only when the life of the mother was in jeopardy. But Montgomery also estimated that around 100,000 California women were acquiring illegal abortions each year. Significantly, in 1968, the New York Times reported: "Some leading obstetricians say privately that when they feel they must refuse to abort a patient, they usually send her to Miss Maginnis."


n addition to making her own doctor lists, health guides and abortion handbooks, Maginnis was also fond of drawing satirical cartoons. Many skewered the institutions that sought to deny women control over their reproductive healthcare. Maginnis continued to draw her cartoons after Roe v. Wade, concerned that it hadn't yet been codified into law and that people were still being denied access to the procedure.

A cartoon of a sobbing woman, clutching $500 and begging at the feed of three men labeled 'MERCY HOSPITAL/POLITICIAN.' The caption reads: "Please may I have a US Supreme-Court-Approved, Politician Sanctioned, Psychiatrist Rubber-Stamped, Clergy-Counseled, Residency-Investigated, Committee-Inspected Therapueticked, US Health Dept Statistized, Contraceptive-Failure, Religious-Sect-Guilt-Surmounted ABORTION."
A cartoon by Pat Maginnis lambasting the lengths women had to go to access an abortion—even in 1977, four years after Roe v. Wade. (Pat Maginnis)

Pat Maginnis stayed dedicated to activism for the rest of her 93 years—animal rights, gay rights and, yes, reproductive rights. Her interest in environmentalism inspired her to take up beekeeping in her 80s. At home, she painted watercolors. Those present at Occupy Oakland in 2011 might recall Maginnis showing up to hand out pea soup and hand-drawn cartoons.

Pat Maginnis died on Aug. 30, 2021, just two days before Texas enacted its six-week abortion ban, SB 8. As America now braces for a future in which Roe v. Wade is overturned and millions of people no longer have legal access to abortion, Maginnis' legacy is more important than ever. Her tenacity, her boldness, and her willingness to talk candidly about her own abortions may all serve as inspiration to a new generation facing life-stunting healthcare restrictions.

"These are personal matters, private matters. They don't concern others—not doctors or judges or boards," she told the Rapid City Journal in 1969. "Women have got to fight. They've taken this kind of vile abuse too long."


To learn about other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.