The evolution of California attitudes

In the decades before California decriminalized abortion and began loosening restrictions, public opinion on the issue had begun to sway. Driven largely by the worldwide thalidomide tragedy and U.S. rubella epidemic, California women were seeking illegal abortions in droves. 

Thalidomide was a sedative widely used in the 1950s to mitigate morning sickness in pregnant women, but unbeknownst to prescribing doctors it caused severe birth defects in the developing fetus, including limb malformations, kidney dysfunction and cognitive disabilities. Before most countries banned the drug, 10,000 “thalidomide babies” were born worldwide.

Many in California delved south of the border where a black market abortion industry boomed in Mexico, spurred by the 1953 Buffum decision. But the illegal procedures came at a high cost: Post-procedure infections, complications and death were common.

In a 1962 hearing before the Legislature, State Department of Public Health Officer Dr. Theodore Montgomery testified that illegal abortion was the leading cause of maternal mortality and attributed one-third of all maternal deaths to the procedure.

Then — in a time before vaccines — a rubella epidemic swept the U.S. in 1964, infecting 12.5 million people. Infection during pregnancy came with serious consequences, and 20,000 children were born with Congenital Rubella Syndrome, which included deafness, blindness and intellectual disabilities.

The risks associated with rubella didn’t meet California’s criteria for a legal abortion, however,  and more and more women sought illegal procedures in Mexico. By the time Dr. Leon Belous challenged the constitutionality of California’s ban in the state Supreme Court, hospitals on the California side of the border were reporting treating hundreds of women per month with complications from botched procedures.