Before Roe v. Wade: The 50th Anniversary of a Landmark California Case
By Matt | Sept. 3, 2019, noon
Category: Abortion, Abortion Access
Pictured Above: Demonstrator at New York City Women’s March, January 21, 2017. Photo: © Edith Marie Photography
“Should abortion be legalized?” That was the question posed on a forum in 1964 on Pacifica Radio. Nine years before the Supreme Court would give its own answer in Roe v. Wade, a trio of panelists debated the issue for listeners in Los Angeles.
Prompting the forum was a bill in the Legislature to liberalize California’s abortion laws. At the time, abortion was illegal unless the mother’s life was at risk. The proposed legislation, endorsed by the California Medical Association, allowed exceptions in cases of rape or incest, or when a pregnancy was not life-threatening but posed other harm to a patient’s physical or mental health.
People v. Belous marked the first time a patient’s constitutional right to abortion was upheld in the courts. Did the bill go too far — or not far enough? Each panelist had a different take. Attorney Zad Leavy discussed the legal quandaries of people facing unintended pregnancies. He was cautious about full legalization but critical of the existing ban. Dr. Robert Hood, an area surgeon, opposed the legalization of abortion and even questioned the validity of the medical reasons commonly cited for justifying abortions. In sharp contrast, Dr. Leon Belous, an attending physician at LA’s Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, did not mince words in his support for legal abortion on demand.
Belous felt outlawing abortion was an example of “man’s inhumanity to women.” As he put it, “An injured dog on the street is treated with more sympathy and concern” than the countless women dying annually, or who risked that fate, from self-induced or black-market abortions. “I have seen seven to 10 of these women every month for the last 32 years,” Belous continued. “I have been seeing them in my office, many of them in the operating room, and some of them in the morgue.” He told of one who had been raped and another in desperate poverty, unable to support a child.
Belous concluded by sharing his hope that California’s “antiquated, unrealistic, and barbaric” ban would be overturned. Five years later, Belous was at the center of a case that did just that.
Drawing the Road Map
Before Roe legalized abortion nationally in 1973, smaller events brought the topic to the fore and raised the call for reproductive freedom. Planned Parenthood organized the first national conference on abortion in 1955, gathering and analyzing data that would raise awareness about the consequences of illegal abortions. In the following years, a handful of states, including Colorado and Georgia, passed laws to loosen or lift their abortion bans.
A build-up to Roe happened in the courts as well. One precursor was the 1965 Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which upheld the right for wedded couples to access contraceptives. Another was a decision in the California Supreme Court that turns 50 this week. It was a verdict reached on September 5, 1969, that was both a personal and political victory for Dr. Leon Belous.
Belous was openly critical of California’s abortion ban but didn’t openly violate it. He was an above-ground doctor who was respected by his colleagues. A veteran of the Navy’s medical corps, he completed medical school at the University of Illinois and studied psychoanalysis at the University of Vienna with no less than Sigmund Freud. Later, at Cedars of Lebanon, he rose to chief of obstetrics and gynecology and was inducted into multiple medical societies.
Pictured Right: Class photo from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Medicine, 1927. Image: Special Collections and University Archives, UIC Library
As an advocate for reform, though, Belous was in the public eye, and that drew the attention a patient who was frantically seeking an abortion, no matter what laws were in her way.
Cheryl Bryant and Clifton Palmer were a college couple when they learned in 1966 that Cheryl was pregnant. Both were devastated, fearing that having a child at that time would jeopardize their futures.
When the pair saw Belous on television discussing the state’s abortion ban, they decided to seek his help. The two showed up at his office, pleading for a way out of their situation. As the Los Angeles Times recounted, Cheryl “cried miserably, wretchedly, as did her fiance.”
Belous had made it clear that he didn’t perform abortions, but he could tell Cheryl was intent on getting one, even if it put her life at risk. She said she would “do anything under the sun,” including seek an abortion in Tijuana. It was common then for Californians to cross the border and seek abortions in the coastal Mexican town. They were outlawed in Mexico as well, but weak enforcement left a thriving industry outside the medical establishment. The procedures, though, often led to injury and infection.
Belous himself had gone to Tijuana to observe the “abortion mills” and saw their dangers firsthand. However, he met one provider there named Karl Lairtus, whose work was “outstanding,” and who later moved north of the border in hopes of getting a medical license in California.
Belous eventually relented and referred Cheryl and Clifton to Dr. Lairtus.
From Doctor to Defendant
Without a state medical license or an established office, Dr. Lairtus performed an abortion for Cheryl in his apartment in Chula Vista, California. Before Cheryl was even rested enough to leave, she witnessed a police raid of Lairtus’ home. Responding to a tip that he was performing abortions, police entered and arrested Lairtus and seized two of his notebooks as evidence.
The notebooks contained the names of various patients, along with their ages and dates of last menstruation. They also contained the names of other physicians, including Dr. Belous.
Belous was subsequently arrested as well, under a law that made it a felony to provide or assist in providing an abortion. Belous pleaded guilty, and at trial in 1967, he was convicted for conspiracy to commit abortion. The court imposed a $5,000 fine and placed him on a two-year probation.
Belous, however, decided to appeal his conviction. With the American Civil Liberties Union now backing the embattled doctor, People v. Belous went to the California Supreme Court in 1969. Belous made the defense that helping Cheryl find a safe abortion was protected by her constitutional right to receive medical care. Additionally, the penal code relevant to his conviction allowed abortions when they were “necessary to preserve” a patient’s life. Belous had made his referral in the hopes of sparing Cheryl from a high-risk procedure in Tijuana.
The judges were divided on whether the referral had truly been necessary to save Cheryl’s life. A conservative judge argued that carrying her pregnancy to term would have also averted the dangers of an illegal abortion. Ultimately, however, the court ruled that the language in the penal code was too vague to allow for Belous’ conviction to stand — and vague enough to be unconstitutional.
Belous had been vindicated, and the abortion ban he had long criticized was declared void by the court. The ruling would have effectively legalized abortion in California, but by then the bill he had discussed on Pacifica Radio five years earlier, the Therapeutic Abortion Act, had become law. Since that act wasn’t material to his case, it remained in place, putting California ahead of other states in the abortion rights it granted but falling short of full legalization.
Nonetheless, the ruling in Belous changed history. The court opinions marked the first time a patient’s constitutional right to abortion had been addressed, in particular on the grounds of privacy, a point that would later be the crux of Roe v. Wade.
Until People v. Belous, advocates for the reform of abortion laws had largely focused their energies on state legislatures. After Belous, though, many advocates turned their attention to the federal courts.
A victory in the most populous state in the Union became a catalyst for change in the rest of the nation. The following year, 1970, Roe v. Wade appeared on the docket in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. The journey to the U.S. Supreme Court was now beginning.
Tags: Abortion, Supreme Court, California, Unintended Pregnancy, contraceptives, gynecology, history