Jane Hodgson, MD

Jane Hodgson, MD, was clinical associate professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Minnesota at St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Reproductive Rights and a member of the Board of Directors of Women’s Health Center in Duluth, Minnesota, which she helped found in 1981. Arrested before Roe v. Wade for performing an illegal abortion, Dr. Hodgson was the lead plaintiff in Hodgson v. Minnesota, an abortion case. This case was nullified when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. Dr. Hodgson died at the age of 91 on October 23, 2006.

When I first came to St. Paul, Minnesota, it was 1947. And being the only woman physician practicing at that point in St. Paul, I was besieged by women who wanted pregnancies interrupted. So I had more than my share of women with problem pregnancies. I would warn them about illegal abortions. At that particular time, we weren’t sending them out of the country. So there was no alternative except to carry the pregnancy to term. And, you’d warn them about the dangers of an illegal abortionist and infection and all, but you knew very well that some of them were going to ignore you. And sure enough, they’d be back in my office in a few days and they’d be bleeding and I would have to take care of them.

Some of them were very sick. I sat up with many of them at night and worried considerably about them, felt very badly about some of them.

I was very discouraged in Minnesota at the way our legislature was behaving. I’d testified. We tried to get some kind of a reform law in but they just wouldn’t listen. I went to court and asked to have the law declared unconstitutional, which they refused to do. It was not because I did not respect the law. But the law was bad and it was an immoral law.

And so I was getting more and more frustrated and I thought, “We’ve tried to educate them and tried to convince the legislature only they won’t listen. About the only thing left to do is to challenge the law, but what kind of a case?” So I’d been looking, subconsciously, been looking for a case for a long time. I thought, “The public won’t approve” — they always think a woman who had an abortion is probably a young, single woman. But this should be a married woman and she should be maternal and have two or three kids. They’ll like that better. She’d be more of an ideal case, and there’s got to be a good medical reason.

And she walked into my office the very next day. She was a patient that I had done a D&C on in January; I knew exactly when she got pregnant. We were able to figure out the conception date right down to the actual day, and she was in early pregnancy. She was about ten weeks at the time. She got pregnant after I had done the D&C because she’d had some irregular bleeding and polyps or something, benign, that had been causing her bleeding. And she could have afforded to have gone to Mexico or Canada, and I made those suggestions to her. We were sending quite a few out at that time.

The Clergy Counseling Service, the group of clergymen that were running it, were doing a great job and we were sending about 100 women a week, from Minnesota to either Mexico or Canada, California some of them. And so I made the suggestion to her and she said, “No, but I want you to do it, and I don’t want to leave my children.” She had three children. And I got to thinking, “Well, no. I don’t think you should have to leave either. This ought to be available to you in Minnesota with the proper care.”

At that time everybody realized that it was a perfect case because her children had all come down with Rubella and been diagnosed and she apparently had gotten it — they had it almost simultaneously. So I did send her over to a pediatrician and she got the blood tests, which documented the case, proved without any doubt that it was Rubella. She knew what she had. She had suspected it. The kids having had it and she was smart enough to know that the chances of fetal anomalies were very good, particularly when it’s that early in pregnancy. So she definitely had made up her mind and she was a perfect candidate from the standpoint of no vices, a very wholesome woman and a good mother and stable family and all that. And so after I thought about it for a little while, I asked her if she would like to be a test case in court. She’d be open probably to a lot of criticism and publicity and so forth. It wouldn’t be very pleasant. But the only way I could do it for her there would be by testing the law. I could be arrested. She could be arrested and she understood all that. She went home and talked to her husband and called and said yes, that’s definitely what she wanted to do.

And so I called an attorney in town and he went to the Federal Court and laid it on the table. I went ahead and scheduled her at the hospital as an abortion. Well, of course, the papers had gotten wind of it. The press kept following it. And I didn’t object because I thought, “Well, this is supposed to teach people, I have to bear up with the publicity.” And it was nothing I sought, but it was spontaneous. I mean, they sought it out. They were interested.

The police came to the office and took me down to the city jail, where I was fingerprinted and pictured. The day I was arrested, I was very annoyed to be called away when I was in the middle of seeing patients. I wondered what some of them would think, having the police come and take their doctor off. I mean, those policeman were doing what they were told to do and they were ignorant about the whole thing and I just knew I was right all the time.

And I was indicted and they set a date. The trial wasn’t set until fall. I don’t know why the delay but there were a lot of delays. I got a very expert lawyer from New York I had heard about, Roy Lucas. His thesis in law school was on privacy rights as far as abortions were concerned, the reason why it was an invasion of privacy for the government to make that decision for women. He was just a kid, just out of law school. But very smart, and he said he’d be glad to take the case. No charge, nothing said about money.

My nurses didn’t show up, two of them, the day after I did the abortion. I never saw them again, and they were two of my good friends. I’d delivered both their children. They were good Catholic gals that felt they had to, I guess, or were pushed into it. And there were a lot of friends I lost, that I thought were good friends, that I valued, but you know, you can’t help it. I had been the first woman to be President of the State Medical Society. And that was right after that time, and I know that many of those that were in control of the state politics were totally disapproving. And I’m sure I lost my status as far as they were concerned, I mean, there’s nothing they could do to me, but just the remarks they would make. See me on the street, “Well, been in jail lately?” Or something like that. Well, they just didn’t understand.

The judge said that he had to, for the sake of the law, pronounce me guilty, he had no choice. It wasn’t an easy decision for him and I said, “Well, you know, it wasn’t easy for me.” And I had enough legal background that it didn’t bother me, I expected it and I wanted it. Actually I sought that decision when the chips were down, but I wanted to get the decision without any penalty.

I wanted the guilt. Because if he’d let me off and said, “Well, forget it. You’re an exception to the law this time,” we’d still have the same old condition. It would be illegal for the ordinary person and we’d still have to fight for each and every case we ever did and I was hoping for the day when it would just be another medical procedure like anything else and women wouldn’t have to go to their knees for it and go to committees and the doctor wouldn’t be hiding and it would be ideal. And we’re still not there, and there are so many restrictions and so many hypocrisies that still surround the problem. It isn’t just the pre-Roe v. Wade days that were bad, we’re still bad. We haven’t gotten nearly where we ought to.

I was convicted of a felony, of performing an abortion, which was definitely against Minnesota law at that time, and the only exception that Minnesota allowed was to save the life of the mother. And I was very clear in my testimony that the abortion would not necessarily save the women’s life, it was because of the deformed fetus for which Minnesota did not make an exception.

I thought it’d be simple enough; Minnesota would just change their law. And I thought, “Well, at least that would be a step. Minnesota would be an example.” I was thinking, of course, of the United States Supreme Court, but I knew that I’d have to go through the Minnesota Supreme Court first. But I was hoping that I might possibly be involved in a Supreme Court decision.

Well, I could have gone to jail, of course. But Roe v. Wade was the thing that kept me ultimately from being a felon. I appealed to the State Supreme Court and they just sat on it all those years. They couldn’t come to a decision and so it wasn’t until after Roe v. Wade, they reversed my conviction.

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. We have practically no complications now. Abortion is so safe.

I invited a number of the legislators to come to our clinics and listen. Just sit alone with a patient in a room and ask them their history, and get it from their point of view. And I did get a few of them to come over, some of the real hard ones. And I think that some of them softened up a good deal after they’d actually talked to patients. And very few of the doctors would even discuss it, because they were so afraid of being earmarked as an abortionist, it was about equal to being a convicted felon, to be an abortionist at that stage.

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. I was very naïve. You know, I didn’t realize how slow it is to change a public opinion and I was very surprised at the viciousness of the opposition, the people that weren’t really rational about it. There’s so many extremists—it’s 30 years and we still are getting threats.

Women have always had abortions and they’re going to continue to do so and having a law isn’t going to change it one iota. And by making it legal, we can make it safe so that women and their children will be safer. Subsequent pregnancies will be safer overall.

—Edited transcript from Voices of Choice