When 'Miss Sherri' Got an Abortion : A 1962 Ordeal Becomes an HBO Movie

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the front lines of today's abortion wars, where Roe vs. Wade is the rallying cry, the name Sherri Chessen Finkbine is an antiquity--if it is recognized at all.

Yet the emotionally charged issue, which split Wichita, Kan., into two armed camps last year and promises to raise the temperature of an increasingly fiery presidential campaign by next fall, was first defined for many Americans by a frail young mother of four, known to "Romper Room" TV audiences in Scottsdale, Ariz., circa 1962, as Miss Sherri.

For those who don't remember the twin curse of the drug thalidomide and America's illegal abortion clinics of a generation ago, Home Box Office, executive producer Sydney Pollack, director Joan Micklin Silver and the producing team of Bill Pace and Ronnie Clemmer are spending $4.2 million to remind them.

Faced with the prospect of giving birth to a limbless child, Finkbine bucked her saccharine TV image of those days and defied an Arizona court by traveling to Sweden to abort her fetus.

Her story is being told in "Miss Sherri," a TV movie that HBO plans to present in August with Sissy Spacek in the title role.

According to producers Pace and Clemmer, who have spent four years trying to get some studio or network to make their film, memories of thalidomide birth defects and shady quacks who used coat hangers to perform abortions should be more than enough to jar audiences back to that schizoid era, when a woman could be alternately portrayed on morning television as a winsome, toothsome, wholesome children's puppeteer and on the evening news as a child-murdering pariah.

"I challenge anyone to watch and not see the anguish this family went through," Pace said of his production. "We will have failed if it appears to be a movie about just politics."

And yet it is no accident that the blatantly pro-abortion rights story will air just three months before the 1992 presidential election. Increasingly, HBO is making a name for itself by producing in-house movies featuring big screen stars in controversial stories that neither Fox nor the three mainstream networks will touch for fear of upsetting sponsors, viewers or network affiliates.

"This is a story about men making decisions for women," said filmmaker Silver, one of the first women to break male-dominated Hollywood's grip on feature film directing.

That was reason enough for the director of "Hester Street" and "Crossing Delancey" to take on the job of shooting a two-hour TV movie. "Miss Sherri" is as politically charged as the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, in terms of demonstrating how powerless women remain in a male-dominant culture, Silver said.

"This shouldn't be an issue in the political arena," said the real Miss Sherri, who visited the HBO set in North Hollywood last month. "When a woman has to make this kind of decision, she should see her doctor, not her lawyer."

Despite the passage of three decades, however, not a lot has changed in terms of U.S. attitudes toward abortion, according to both Silver and the former Mrs. Finkbine, who now goes by her maiden name of Sherri Chessen, although she recently remarried (having divorced Robert Finkbine several years ago). A male majority on the Supreme Court and in most state legislatures still have the power to decide whether a woman may abort her unborn child, they pointed out.

"I would bet you that in 1992, it (abortion) will define more political candidates than any other issue," Chessen said.

Chessen, whose new spouse is an obstetrician-gynecologist, can sum up her story in a few sentences: In the spring of 1962, she took tranquilizers that her husband brought back to the United States following a business trip to England. Then, in the space of a few weeks, she discovered that she was pregnant and that the tranquilizer contained thalidomide. When she revealed this to the news media, along with her plans to seek an abortion, she was pilloried by the local courts, which forbade the operation at a Scottsdale hospital.

Following a public outcry against her decision and several days of demonstrations--even after she had been told by her doctor that the child would have no arms or legs--the Finkbines left Arizona.

She planned to go to Japan for the abortion, but was refused a visa when the Japanese government heard of her notoriety. Finally, a Stockholm hospital notified the Finkbines that its medical board would consider her case.

"It took three weeks (for a decision)," said Chessen, who added with considerable venom that it was a "10- man medical board" that finally granted her the abortion.

"Meanwhile, I did what most women do during pregnancy: threw up."

Despite two more successful pregnancies and an anger untempered by 30 years, Chessen is not beyond genuine grief over the decision to abort her thalidomide-afflicted fetus. She saw a recent segment on CBS' "60 Minutes," in which several thalidomide children who are now approaching middle age appeared to have adapted their vestigial limbs to a productive and happy lifestyle.

She weeps openly over her own paradox. On the one hand, she remains guilty over what might have been had she given birth to the limbless child. On the other, she is revolted by the idea of a son or daughter who "sits in the park and has people give him peanuts and things."

Chessen assuages her conscience by telling herself that she would not have had two more healthy children, for a total of six, if she had not had the abortion.

"Had it not been for the abortion, I would have taken care of the four children I had, and the head and torso," she said.

"Miss Sherri," with its inherent ambivalence, is precisely the brand of drama that HBO is going after, said the cable channel's movie production chief, Bob Cooper.

"(An HBO movie) doesn't pull back its punches," Cooper said. "As long as we're accurate, we can be offensive."

With both its critical and commercial success last spring in broadcasting "The Josephine Baker Story," HBO has conjured up a slate of original productions that Cooper says are deliberately designed to stir up emotions and controversy--including biographies of Joseph Stalin and Roy Cohn.

"We want to create a signature to these HBO pictures," Cooper said. "These are reality stories done in a way that is unlike anything the networks can do. They have resonance, noise, size, impact--but they have a reality base to them and they make you think."

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