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An Arizona woman was fired from a TV show after an abortion in 1962. Legal scholars say it was pivotal in the abortion rights movement

Sherri Chessen made front-page news in 1962 for her decision to get an abortion. In an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, she spoke out about the reversal of Roe.

PHOENIX — In 1962 Sherri Chessen made a life-altering decision. She would get an abortion.

Little did she know that her decision would cost her the job she loved and inadvertently place her in the middle of one of the most heated debates in the country.

That year, Chessen had a “beautiful, wonderful job” as Miss Sherri for a franchised children’s television show in Phoenix called "Romper Room." She was also a married mother of four and was pregnant for the fifth time.

To treat the morning sickness brought on by the pregnancy, Chessen took over-the-counter sedatives that her then-husband, Bob Finkbine, had brought back after a trip to Europe, according to CBS Sunday Morning.

Unknown to Chessen was that the medicine contained thalidomide, a chemical linked to severe birth defects. Chessen’s doctor recommended that she have a therapeutic abortion.

Motivated by the desire to warn others of the dangers of thalidomide, Chessen contacted The Arizona Republic. The newspaper promised her anonymity; however, her name was exposed during a legal challenge to the abortion.

At the time, abortion was legal in Arizona only if the mother’s physical or mental health was deemed fragile. The judge in the case ruled that the abortion could go ahead but physicians would be vulnerable to lawsuits.

The hospital that was scheduled to perform her abortion canceled the procedure. Death threats followed and the FBI was brought in to protect Chessen and her family.

RELATED: Two children, other people pepper-sprayed at abortion rights protest

Eventually, Chessen and her husband flew to Sweden where doctors performed the abortion. After the procedure, it was determined that the fetus had no legs and only one arm. The fetus’ gender could not be determined.

After the procedure, Chessen was told she was no longer fit to be around children, and she was fired from her job as Miss Sherri. She was then hired for a 15-minute slot on a talk show but was fired from that position when she became pregnant again.

“Think of the irony. I didn’t have a baby and I lost my beautiful, wonderful 'Romper Room' job. And I did have a baby and I lost my beautiful, wonderful job. Make up your mind,” Chessen told CBS’ Major Garrett in an interview on Sunday.

Over the years Chessen has become a reluctant advocate for the pro-choice movement, stating on numerous occasions that in 1962 she was only trying to warn others of the dangers of thalidomide. She was described as “pro-choice and anti-abortion” in her Sunday Morning interview.

“Some people think, ‘oh, it’s a form of birth control. If I go out and get pregnant, I can get an abortion.’ No. That’s not the reality of abortion,” said Chessen. “The abortion has a great, ugly fore-life if you will, where you think, ‘can I? should I?’ There’s a lot of tears for a lot of people and the aftermath is horrendous.”

However, Chessen said she does believe in the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion. She believes the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will only empower women to continue the fight for their constitutional right to have an abortion.

RELATED: Arizona can fully ban abortion in just a few weeks, attorney general says

“The Supreme Court may be surprised to know there is light in what they’ve done,” Chessen said. “They have empowered women everywhere. I feel it, my granddaughters feel it. Added to that is a great dose of anger and we as women, I will say it again and again, we shall prevail.”

Chessen went on to have two more children after the abortion. In her CBS interview, she said those two children would not have been born if not for the abortion.

“If I had, had to carry a baby around in a basket, I mean, it would have been impossible,” said Chessen. “I never ever ever would have had another child.”

Legal scholars agree that Chessen’s abortion was pivotal in the abortion rights movement. In an ACLU report from 1981, Lee Epstein, a professor of law and political science, wrote, “[Chessen’s] situation evoked sympathetic reactions from various organizations and in essence, led to the creation of an American abortion reform movement.”

“I’m grateful. I’m grateful that my mother stood up to the State of Arizona, to the United States and found a way to determine what was best for her and her family,” Chessen’s sixth child, Kristin Atwell Ford, told CBS Sunday Morning. “She’s my hero.”

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