The illegal abortion in California that paved the way for abortion rights across the nation is a history lesson in what might happen next now that Roe's been struck down.
A 22-year-old woman and an abortion doctor from California played key roles in the legal fight that eventually led to Roe vs. Wade. But now that Roe’s been struck down, is that history our future? Today, we look at what it was like for women seeking abortions in California and the doctors who served them before the procedure was legalized, and what that past might say about a future without the constitutional right to abortion. Read the full transcript here.
Host: Gustavo Arellano
Guests: L.A. Times reporter Brittny Mejia
Her illegal abortion paved the way for Roe. 56 years later she shares her story
“The Future of Abortion” series
California will see rush of people from out of state seeking abortion care, study says
Cheryl: I just felt we would be totally derailed by this experience. We didn't have any money and we were, um, struggling through college and it was, uh, impossible…
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Gustavo: Fifty-six years ago, Cheryl Bryant…found herself in a difficult situation.
Cheryl: I just couldn't believe that I was in this predicament
Gustavo: The 22-year-old and her boyfriend, Clifton Palmer, were in college when they learned that Cheryl was pregnant. Poor, and with their futures on the line, they landed on a way out: an abortion.
Cheryl: I was getting more and more desperate and this doctor probably saved my life
Gustavo: It was 1966, and their legal abortion in California led to the arrest of a doctor... and eventually... a legal fight that paved the way for Roe versus Wade.
Linda Coffee: And I was able to read the case and that really was exciting. Cause I thought that that if we could, we could challenge it on the basis of right to privacy…
Gustavo: But now that Roe is gone….is that history…our future?
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Gustavo: I’m Gustavo Arellano. You’re listening to THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times.
It’s Friday, July 1, 2022.
Today…how a California woman and her doctor played key roles in the legal fight that led to Roe versus Wade.
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Gustavo: Here to tell this story is my LA Times colleague, Metro reporter Brittny Mejia. Brittny, welcome to THE TIMES.
Brittny: Thanks much for having me.
Gustavo: So a couple of weeks ago, I saw an Instagram that you were going to Montana and I thought, oh cool, she's going on vacation. But I was surprised when I found out that you were actually going to do a story on a historic abortion case in California and a couple at the center of it lived in Montana. So how did you hear about their case and what got you interested in it?
Brittny: Yeah. So it's actually kind of interesting. So I attended a press conference that Governor Newsom had at Planned Parenthood, where he basically declared the state of sanctuary for those seeking abortion. And it made me start to wonder about California's history around abortion and that search actually of our history brought me to the case of People versus Belous.
Gustavo: So Cheryl and Cliff Palmer, where are they now and what are they like?
Brittny: Yeah. So Cheryl and cliff they're in their late seventies.
tape: Okay. I'm Cheryl Palmer. Originally, I was born in Pasadena, California, lived in south Pasadena as I was growing up.
Okay. Yeah. My name is Cliff Palmer and I'm related to this lady to my, right next to me here, by way of marriage. I grew up in the desert in California, the Mojave desert area, Needles, Barstow, those kinds of places.
Brittny: They now live in Big Fork, Montana where they've been since 1993,
tape: I just arrived in Big Fork, Montana. I'm heading up the driveway to visit Sheryl and Clifton Palmer going down a very gravelly long driveway. Uh, lots of snowcap mountains. Um, it's beautiful out here.
Brittny: They live on this beautiful ranch. It's like near snowcap mountains, lots of forestry.
tape: I see. At least, uh, half a dozen wild turkeys, uh, few different horses that they have. I think you'd hear that one in the background.
Brittny: So Cheryl and Cliff both focus mostly throughout their days on the care of their horses. They have more than a dozen. They bred horses and cliff actually still works as a school psychologist and also teaches a yoga class every week.
Gustavo: How did they meet?
Brittny: Honestly, their story's very funny because they had actually initially met in a class.
tape: I was going into this next class at, uh, California State University at Los Angeles, statistics of psychology and this attractive lady came in and sat down right in front of me. And it turned out to be Cheryl.
Brittny: And Cheryl blew Cliff off.
tape: I thought he was a very nice person, but I was, um, going with someone else right at that time
Brittny: Then they happened to re-encounter one another on campus.
tape: We just had so much in common. Uh, we were like two lost souls.
Brittny: It's just very cute. I don't know, hearing them tell their story. It's very Adorable.
Gustavo: So they were young and in love. And then Cheryl found out that they were pregnant. They were both like 19, 20 years old at the time. How did they react to the news?
Brittny: Honestly, it was a big shock for them.
tape: It would just put us, uh, in a bad place, a real hardship to try to have a baby and interrupt our, uh, dreams.
Brittny: They just weren't prepared for that.
tape: I wanted to be a school teacher and Cliff wanted to be a school psychologist. So it just, the whole thing derailed us and people don't understand how hard it was.
Brittny: Clifton was gonna start graduate school. He had a scholarship to go to school. They didn't have a lot of money. She described them themselves as like poorest church mice.
tape: We put ourselves through college and we both had jobs.
Brittny: And so they just weren't in the position to have a child.
Gustavo: And this was in 1966, when abortion was still illegal in California, what did they decide to do?
Brittny: So actually they were trying to figure out how to get an abortion. //And they happened to be watching TV one night and the Louis Lomax show came on and that was like a newscast show that broadcast every week. And while they were watching that show, a doctor came on, who was talking about legalizing abortion.
tape: We saw this show and I, I told Cheryl, I said, why don't we call this guy?
And he said he would not turn a woman down if she was desperate and needed, um, an abortion.
Brittny: And so they actually called the program and tracked down this doctor's phone number.
Gustavo: Who was the doctor?
Brittny: Dr. Leon Belous.
Brittny: He was a gynecologist. He had an office in Beverly Hills and was a huge advocate for legalizing abortion.
Gustavo: And so Cheryl and Cliff called Dr. Belous, what happened then?
Brittny: So they went to his office in Beverly Hills. They met with him and they basically were thinking that they could get a legal abortion. And the doctor told them, no, you can't. At that point in California, you can only get an abortion i it was necessary to save a woman's life. You know, the doctor Dr. Belous kind of was turning them down saying, you know, I can't do this. I'm trying to legalize abortion. I'm not trying to break the law. And they just kept persisting and saying that they would do anything it took, like they would go to Tijuana and at that time, Dr. Belous knew kind of the dangers of what that was, and eventually kind of relented and gave them a name of somebody that could do the abortion.
Gustavo: Coming up after the break, the risks that Cheryl took to get an abortion in California in the 1960s.
Gustavo: Brittny, what was it like to try and get an abortion in California, i the 1960s before it was widely legalized?
Brittny: It's so interesting digging into, especially LA Times’ historical clips about what it looked like in the 1960s and at this point where Cheryl was looking and trying to get an abortion. For decades, women had been crossing the border into Mexico to get the procedure because they couldn't get it in California. I mean, you had abortion rings that were operating throughout the state. There were doctors being put on trial. You know, there was a case I found there was a doctor who served a year jail sentence after being convicted for abortions. It was very difficult at the time. It wasn't like you could just //go into, for example, like a Planned Parenthood schedule an appointment. I mean, a lot of this was really under the table type things. It was very risky. One of our clips from 1966 was talking about how there were 70 maternal deaths a year in the county, about 25 of which were the result of abortions.
Gustavo: Yeah, this is the time where you're hearing, you know, these really tragic stories like clothes hangers, or other things that women were doing to themselves because they didn't have that legal right to abortion.
Brittny: Right. Exactly. I mean, one of the stories that still is kind of //haunting me since reporting this story is reading about this woman whose husband used a bicycle pump to push air into her uterus and it ended up killing her.
Gustavo: Wow. But all these risks didn't deter Cheryl from getting an abortion?
Brittny: No, it really didn't. I mean, and that's what stood out to me. When I first spoke with her, I was so shocked at the landscape and I wondered if she was scared or how she was feeling. And she was basically telling me like, no, I was determined.
tape: I had that strong determination. This was the right thing for me to do at that time in my life.
Brittny: She just was very dead set on getting it, regardless of the risk.
Gustavo: So they kept asking this Dr. Belous, the man that the Palmers saw on the television show, talking about abortions. If they could get one from him and he refused, but then he put them in contact with a doctor who would. Who was that doctor? And what was the story?
Brittny: Yeah. So this was Dr. Carl Laritus. He actually was a doctor in Tijuana who Dr. Belous had met because Dr. Belous had gone to Mexico to see how the abortions were happening there and kind of what the system was like. And he had overseen some of this doctor's work and trusted him as somebody who would do a safe job. And eventually Dr. Laritus moved to Los Angeles and told him that he was doing abortions in Los Angeles. And so this was someone that Dr. Belous knew and trusted.
Gustavo: And what did the Palmers tell you about the actual appointment with Dr. Laritus?
Brittny: It was in this apartment building on Kenmore avenue.
tape: And I remember pulling into the parking lot and I looked over, there were a couple of, uh, guys there in suits, which I thought was kind of unusual. You don't see people wearing suits and this, I don't know what time of the year this was.
Brittny: It was, this happened like midday on May 10th, 1966. And you know, they went up, they knocked and this doctor let them in, checked off Cheryl's name in a book.
tape: And I sat on the couch. It was $500. So I put the money right there on the table and I was sitting on the couch there. I just kind of killing time here while this was unfolding.
Gustavo: What does Cheryl remember about the procedure itself?
Brittny: She was describing to me that she wasn't really scared that she was mostly just determined.
tape: He just said, you have to be very quiet. I don't want to hear any noises from you. Uh, or I will stop. So I was very compliant. Didn't say a word, which is pretty hard.
Brittny: The doctor told her she had to be silent,
tape: Not one peep out of me, not even a peep.
She's afraid of needles.
Oh, I'm terrified of needles. So I know he never gave me any shots.
Brittny: In reading the court testimony also of what happened at the time, it detailed a little bit more like her getting into the smock, her getting a gas mask put on, basically to help deaden the pain. And the doctor saying, you know, if you feel pain, just like inhale this deeply and it should help.
tape: I was a brave girl and, you know, and I thought the doctor did a good job.
Gustavo: And what happened after Cheryl's appointment?
Brittny: As it turned out, the police had been staking out that apartment building because someone else had tipped them off. // Basically the hospital told them that a woman had come in to get treated and get antibiotics for an abortion she had had. And eventually they got it out of the woman that she had gone to this apartment building. And so they staked it out and just so happened to get there and ring the doorbell as another couple was arriving for their appointment. And so they basically followed that couple in and arrested the doctor.
Gustavo: And then after they arrested Dr. Laritus what happened there and what happened afterwards?
Brittny: Yeah. So they arrested him, they read him his rights, patted him down, and then they realized that the couple they had seen downstairs outside in the car was the same couple who had gone in for an abortion.
tape: So they went, went in and, uh, confronted Cheryl and the doctor there. B
ut I just finished the abortion. I was just, uh, cleaning up. He was cleaning up.
Brittny: So they found Cheryl in the back bedroom, they questioned her. She admitted to having gotten abortion. And they asked how she had learned about this doctor.
tape: And I can't say they were overly push or hostile, but they, they told us that if we didn't cooperate and testify against the doctor, that they were gonna take us straight away to jail right there. So so,
Brittny: and she gave up the name, Dr. Belous.
tape: We were pretty scared, so we just agreed to do whatever they felt like they wanted us to do. So they released us.
Brittny: And so that same afternoon, the police showed up at Dr. Belous as Beverly Hills office and arrested him
Gustavo: After the break, the story of Dr. Belous and the case that changed American history.
Gustavo: Brittny. So Dr. Belous, the man who gave Cheryl the name for the abortion doctor, but didn't do the abortion himself. What was his story? I mean, how did he get into basically being an advocate for abortions and an underground abortion provider?
Brittny: Yeah. So that was what was so interesting is reading up on Dr. Belous and kind of going through our own clips in our archives, because he wrote so many letters to the LA Times, pushing for legalization of abortion and saying how there were just so many needless deaths and recounting some of the experiences he was seeing. And so throughout the 1960s, this was a huge fight for him.
tape: Our next speaker is a diplomat in the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecologists are outspoken advocate of broader concepts in the legalization of abortions. Dr. Leon Belous.,
Brittny: As a lot of people will say, like he wasn't just some quack.
tape: Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, the subject tonight is should abortions be legalized?
Brittny: He was somebody who was really held in high regard and that people really listened to and they valued his opinion.
tape: I think a more appropriate title for tonight's discussion would be man's inhumanity to women.
Brittny: And so coming from a physician like him, it held more weight.
tape: All those who oppose me have never brought out any constructive suggestion, what to do about these women who die. They just sit back and just, uh, have philosophical discussions about, uh, the moral issues and so on. But in the meantime, there's death and destruction going on, we have to do something about it, something concrete.
Gustavo: How did you learn so much about his personal history?
Brittny: Yeah, actually I was able to track down his granddaughter, Amy Stone.
tape: Okay. First, can you introduce yourself? Hello, I'm Amy Stone. I am the granddaughter, the only granddaughter, of Dr. Leon Belous.
Brittny: That was so huge for me because I, I really wanted to track down a relative because he had passed away. And so there was no way I was gonna be able to get the history from him other than just pulling stuff from clips at the time. And from letters he wrote. And so tracking down his granddaughter, I mean, they were so close and at the time of, you know, his arrest, she was like four years old.
tape: My most flattering feature to this day is my belly button because my grandfather made that knot.
tape: He delivered me. I swear. I remember it. I swear that that pink blob holding me upside down was my grandfather. We bonded for life. I mean, literally bonded. I mean,
Brittny: She was growing up basically in this moment where things were really heavy and this fight was starting
Gustavo: And there was also a //personal connection to abortion for Dr. Belous.
Brittny: Yes. So Dr. Belous’ daughter actually was a college student in the 1950s. When she got pregnant, she was at the time dating somebody that she didn't see a future with. And she went to her father and she went to confide in him and he asked her, you know, how would you feel if you dropped out of college? And she said she'd be devastated. He asked her, you know, do you wanna marry him? Do you wanna have a family? Do you wanna be a wife and mother? And she told him, you know, no, I don't, I don't want that. So when she decided to get the abortion, her father supported her.
tape: And I asked my mother, I said, well, was that heavy? And she said, honestly, it wasn't. I never connected to that part of what was happening.
Brittny: That was a huge thing. I think Belous’ granddaughter's stress is that he listened to his patients and it wasn't coming from a place of judgment. It was coming from a place of understanding
tape: Women's bodies were taboo and that became a real //part of his practice was really talking to women and being able to counsel them about their bodies and particularly pregnancy. in ways that he started to understand more, more greatly what a woman was going through.
Gustavo: It seems similar to Cheryl's story.
Brittny: Yeah, exactly. It was very reminiscent to that story. I mean his own daughter, she was a college student just like Cheryl and Cliff were at the time, you know, she wanted to finish school. She wasn't ready to have a baby. I mean, Cheryl and Cliff, it was the exact same situation.
Gustavo: So even though Dr. Belous didn't do Cheryl's abortion, he still was arrested for it. So what were the official charges?
Brittny: So he was charged with abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion.
Gustavo: And he was convicted at first. Right? But then he //appealed that conviction. What was that like for Dr. Belous and his family?
Brittny: Yeah, so he was convicted //in January, 1967, and that ended up in a huge appeals process. And that was really difficult for his family and Amy Stone, his granddaughter, was just describing at the time, you know, rocks shattering windows.
tape: I knew how to spell “die.” I knew how to spell “baby.” And some rocks had messages written on them directly.
Brittny: The phone was ringing with people, threatening, calling him a baby murderer, leaving threats at his office on his car.
tape: We stopped eating in the dining room because the windows were close to the table.
Brittny: You know, everyone knew where he lived. And so it was just a very scary time.
tape: He wasn't afraid for his own life. He was afraid for everyone else’s.
Brittny: So one of the huge examples of the strain that this took on Dr. Belous was an example, actually Amy told me about, which is at one point he sat her on his lap.
tape: And he said, puppy, how would you feel if I went away for a while? So I asked questions, well, how long a while? And he said, I don't know, probably for a very long while. And I said, no, no, you can't go. I told him I needed him because I did. I mean, you know, you're, I was four and a half or five and my grandfather and I spent every afternoon together when he was home, it it seemed like.
Brittny: Later, she learned that he had actually had a gun in the back of his closet.
tape: And he said, when I, when I told him that I needed him, that was everything. God, I'm sorry.
Brittny: He knew that the fight was important, but he didn't want to endanger his family, you know, to keep going with this fight.
Gustavo: But Dr. Belous ended up winning that appeal. What did that victory mean for abortion rights in the United States?
Brittny: Yeah. So the Supreme Court ruled that the 1850 California law that said that you can only do an abortion when it's necessary to save a woman's life. They found that to be vague, they basically struck that law. And at the time in California, there was a therapeutic abortion act that had passed in 1967 and that kind of legalized a little bit more abortion at the time. And so it once it felt like that law was gonna make such a difference in California, but it did make a huge difference across the country. I mean, this was the first time a Supreme Court had weighed in on the constitutionality of an abortion law. This was the case that was reviewed by Linda Coffee, who was one of the ones who drafted Roe versus Wade, like this legal argument.
Gustavo: And now here we are all these decades later and Roe versus Wade, it's gone. In covering this story and the abortion debate more broadly, did you get a sense of where we might be heading next? Or is it gonna be a return to a past that was very similar to what Dr. Belous and Cheryl Cliff Palmer faced?
Brittny: I mean that's, what's so striking to me is seeing all the parallels and seeing the ways in which history can repeat itself. I think in reading up on the landscape at the time in California, in the 1960s, and, and earlier that law that existed, you know, abortion only when it's to preserve a woman's life, that was kind of across the board that was in other states across the country. And so I think a big worry, a big concern people are having is that this is just a return to that moment that it's just a reset on what already existed years past, that was already fought against.
Gustavo: Finally, Brittany, how does the end of Roe make Cheryl and Cliff Palmer feel?
Brittny: I think Cheryl and Cliff's big thing throughout my interviews with them was that this is a decision that should rest between a woman and her doctor.
tape: I don't know. I just think people should have the right to make their, you know, looking at their life circumstances and what they want to do for their life.
Brittny: The one thing that they kept calling this and saying over and over was like, oh, this is just such dinosaur thinking like this is such a throwback.
tape: I, I just think there's a lot of positive energy in, in bringing a life into this world. Uh, sort of on your terms rather than being forced to, uh, to do it the way the government is, is, uh, prescribing. So, so …a personal decision.
Brittny: And I think one of the final things that Cheryl was telling me that was really striking was that no matter what happens from this point on on, women are gonna continue to have abortions, whether they're legal or illegal, like the exact same way she did.
Gustavo: Brittny. Thank you so much for this conversation.
Brittny: Thank you.
Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. Shannon Linn and Kasia Broussalian were the jefas on this episode and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it. Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato.
Our intern is Surya Hendry. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. Like what you're listening to? Then make sure to follow THE TIMES on whatever platform you use. I'm Gustavo Arellano.
We'll be back on Tuesday, with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.