As It Happens·Q&A

She dedicated her life to abortion rights, and died as they're being rolled back in many U.S. states

Patricia Maginnis — one of the first people in the United States to fight for safe and legal abortions — died last week at the age of 93.

Patricia Maginnis was 'extremely disappointed' about rollbacks in parts of United States, says grandniece

A leader in the movement for unrestricted abortion, Patricia Maginnis died last week at the age of 93. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Patricia Maginnis was one of the first people in the United States to fight for safe and legal abortions. But for Elana Bloom, Maginnis was not only a pioneer, but her beloved great-aunt.

Bloom died in hospital last week in Oakland, Calif., of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She was 93.

Maginnis worked as a medical technician and founded the Society for Humane Abortion, according to a Slate profile. In the era before Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court abortion rights case, she helped shift the narrative around abortion to focus on women's bodily autonomy. 

The fight for access to abortion is front and centre in parts of the world right now. In Mexico, the Supreme Court there has ruled that criminalizing abortion is unconstitutional. But across the border, in Texas, there is a new law banning people from getting abortions before most even know they're pregnant.

Bloom is reflecting on the rollbacks as she sorts through her late great-aunt's home. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

You came to know about your great-aunt's history of activism when you were growing up, but not at first. What can you tell us about when you first learned her remarkable story?

I definitely knew her as my great-aunt growing up, but I didn't know about her activism until I was a student. 

I was at Smith College and I was in a class. I was a women and gender studies major, and I saw her in a documentary. It was very surprising.

I honestly didn't believe, at first, that I was watching my great-aunt on the screen. I mean, I thought so, but I wasn't entirely sure and I didn't want to be presumptuous. But once I confirmed it with my grandmother, I mean, I was very impacted and very moved.

As soon as I found out about her work, the first thing I did was ask for her phone number and call her up. And I thanked her for what she had done because I felt like that was really important to do.- Elana Bloom, grandniece of Patricia Maginnis

How is it that you didn't hear about her when you were younger?

Our family never spoke about her activism. My father actually didn't know about it until I found out. 

Nobody had ever thought to tell me, which I always found pretty surprising, because I was always interested in feminism.... They just didn't think that it was something that you would tell a young girl.

Did you speak with your great-aunt about this later? Did you ask her about the story?

As soon as I found out about her work, the first thing I did was ask for her phone number and call her up. And I thanked her for what she had done because I felt like that was really important to do. 

This didn't just have an effect on all of the women in America, but from even just a personal standpoint, I just felt like, wow, here's a person in my family who fought for my own freedom to do with my body what I please as a woman. 

And she was so humble.... She did talk quite a bit about her views on abortion and ... reproductive justice, but she never spoke of her work as these accomplishments.

Elana Bloom, left, with her great-aunt at her birthday party in 2011. (Submitted by Elana Bloom)

This is pioneering work that she was doing ... before Roe vs. Wade. And most importantly, to try and shift the debate away from just laws around abortions and start to address the issue of the rights of women to control their bodies. I mean, this was new language. This was a new idea from her, wasn't it? Did she tell you about what was like in the '60s, what she was up against?

She mostly spoke to me about the horrors that she saw working in the army hospital in Panama — women being brought in who had either tried to give themselves an abortion, or women who couldn't get abortions, or women who were suffering horrific fates due to unwanted pregnancies or pregnancies out of wedlock. 

She always made it very clear that it wasn't just that women didn't have rights in regard to abortion. I mean, maybe you could get an abortion if you agreed to be sterilized. Or maybe if you went to seek contraception, the doctor — if you were a single woman or a divorced woman — would just recommend that she be sterilized right away instead of making it an actual choice. 

She [described] all of those things as very horrific and very upsetting, especially as she navigated the world as a single woman, as a woman who was never married.

She spoke about abortion. She distributed lists of abortion providers in other countries. She had had abortions herself. And she did something else extremely controversial she taught classes about the techniques for do-it-yourself abortions, didn't she?

It was mostly focused on the techniques ... whether it was surgical abortion or medical abortion and what kinds of challenges women needed to encounter in order to even get a safe abortion. 

Also female anatomy — that was really a huge focus, because a lot of these women had never had comprehensive sex-ed. She really wanted people to understand, so that if they were thinking about giving themselves an abortion — which obviously she would have said was very dangerous and a very, very risky thing to do — that they kind of understood that, you know, there's bacteria, there's things that can really hurt you ... under the wrong circumstances. And she wanted women to get that, because a lot of women just didn't have access to that information.

But this was against the law to give  — well, even to talk about it, even [in] the pamphlets... Abortion was against the law at the time. Was she ever arrested?

Oh yes, she was arrested.... That was one of her biggest goals ... because she knew that if she was arrested, she could be a test case. And that was extremely important to her. 

She was begging for them to arrest her. In fact, she would send the dates and times of her DIY abortion classes to the local police station.

So much of what she fought for is being rolled back, isn't it? Was she seeing the erosion of her efforts in some of the parts of the U.S.?

Over the last decade, she was very, very upset by it. And she never really stopped fighting for reproductive justice, even after Roe vs. Wade. She continued on. 

There's all kinds of letters and materials that I'm finding in her house, as I go through it, that really indicate that this was always an issue she was very passionate about and very focused on. 

She told me numerous times back when I lived with her, I think that was in 2014, that she was horrified by how much backlash there was against the very idea that women could exercise their right to an abortion. And I think it was really painful for her to watch all of that backsliding. She was extremely disappointed.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Elana Bloom by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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