Pat Maginnis

On this date in 1928, reproductive rights activist Patricia Therese “Pat” Maginnis was born to Miriam (Mansfield) and Ernest Maginnis in Ithaca, N.Y., where her father was attending Cornell University’s veterinary school. Her mother had been a school teacher. One of seven children, she grew up in a strict Catholic home in Oklahoma and attended a boarding school run by nuns.

She worked as a lab technician after graduation and then joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1950 after leaving a job at the Bureau of Mines. While stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., an officer saw her walking with a Black soldier and she was reprimanded and sent to Panama as punishment. Trained as a surgical technician, she worked in Army pediatrics and obstetrics wards, where she saw women recovering from botched abortions and others forced to give birth to babies they didn’t want.

Leaving the Army, she attended San Jose State College in California and became pregnant. She went to Mexico for an abortion. She would end two other pregnancies with self-induced methods. “I don’t want children,” she said later. “I had seen enough overpopulation, starvation and human brutality and once told a boyfriend, ‘All I wanted was bed fun.’ ” She’d also witnessed the “many frustrations [her mother] took out” on her children. (NPR “Consider This,” Oct. 14, 2021)

She founded the Citizens Committee for Humane Abortion Laws in San Francisco in 1962. A few years later, she and Lana Phelan Kahn and Rowena Gurner started the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws, the forerunner to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Not long after that, her mother sent her a letter, wrote journalist Lili Loofbourow: “Dear Patricia,” the letter said. “I was thinking you must be about 40 years old. I do think you could do something besides teaching these girls to commit murder. P.S. If you come this way, do look us up. Love, Mother.” (Slate, Dec. 4, 2018)

The trio became known as the “Army of Three” for their civil disobedience campaign at a time when even mailing literature about birth control was illegal. They taught women how to safely induce abortions as an alternative to coat hangers, knitting needles, toxic household products or visits to unsanitary back-alley offices. Lists of qualified abortion providers in Mexico, Japan and Sweden were updated. (Go here for an interesting article on the “Che Guevara of Abortion Reformers.”)

They wanted a test case to test the San Francisco ordinance in court. Maginnis and Gurner were arrested in 1967 and convicted of unlawfully advertising abortion, but in 1973 a California appeals court deemed the convictions unconstitutional.

With the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing abortion that same year in Roe v. Wade, Maginnis put more focus on issues such as gay and animal rights and demanding accountability for clergy sex abuse. But she kept a close eye on reproductive choice. As a longtime member of FFRF, she was a valued ally of Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF founder and co-founder of the Women’s Medical Fund. Gaylor had started the ZPG Abortion Referral Service in 1970.

Gaylor and Maginnis both strongly believed that “abortion is a blessing” (the title of Gaylor’s 1975 book, available online here) — and that nothing should be allowed to interfere with a woman’s right to determine her own reproductive destiny. Maginnis and Kahn had published “The Abortion Handbook” in 1969.

Anti-abortion laws in the early 19th century were pushed by self-appointed moralists and enacted “to keep Grandma from becoming an alley cat,” Maginnis once opined. “[T]he religious sects … wish to control the whole country through whatever buying of political power they can, and I would be certainly able to name one such religious sect, which is the Roman Catholic Church, which has tremendous political power throughout the whole United States.” (Pacifica Radio, Jan. 7, 1970)

FFRF was the recipient of a modest and heartfelt Maginnis bequest when she died at age 93 in a hospital in Oakland, Calif. She died two days before Texas enacted a law banning abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy and 10 months before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe. v. Wade. (D. 2021)

PHOTO: Maginnis (left) and Rowena Gurner at one of their DIY abortion classes c. 1963. (The newspaper photo caption had the names reversed.) Photo credit: patmaginnis.org.

Freedom From Religion Foundation