Judith A. McWhorter Widdicombe obituary: Abortion rights pioneer | St. Louis Public Radio

Judith A. McWhorter Widdicombe obituary: Abortion rights pioneer

Nov 5, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 5, 2011 - Judy Widdicombe, an obstetrical nurse who helped guide women to safe abortions before the procedure was legal and who opened the first abortion clinic in Missouri after Roe v. Wade made it the law of the land, died Thursday, (Nov. 3) at Gambrill Gardens Retirement Community. She was 73.

She had lived in Kirkwood until moving to North Fort Myers, Fla., 11 years ago. She returned to the St. Louis area in May.

Several years ago, Ms. Widdicombe had a heart attack and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. In 2009, she received a quadruple heart bypass. Six months later, she entered hospice care, but improved enough to return to work as a hospice nurse eight months later.

A memorial service is being planned.

In 1968, while working the second shift as a labor and delivery nurse at the old St. Joseph Hospital in Kirkwood, Ms. Widdicombe began volunteering as a suicide prevention counselor for the Life Crisis Services hotline.

After hearing a number of pleas from pregnant women who threatened suicide if they could not have an abortion, Ms. Widdicombe soon set about to deliberately break the law by referring women, herself included, to safe but illegal abortion providers in New York, Chicago and Mexico.

She said an earlier experience played a paramount role in that decision.

While working as a 16-year-old nurse's aide at a local hospital, she saw a woman in her hospital's emergency room die from complications of a botched illegal abortion.

In a 1998 St. Louis Post-Dispatch Commentary page article, she wrote: "What could have made that woman so desperate that she would risk her life not to be pregnant? The experience would shape the direction of my life."

Entering The Storm

Judith Ann McWhorter was born May 6, 1938, in Warsaw, Ind., the oldest of Helen E. (nee Breeding) McWhorter and Herbert W. McWhorter. The family moved to the St. Louis area when Ms. Widdicombe was about 8 years old. She graduated from Kirkwood High School and St. Luke's Hospital School of Nursing with an Excellence in Pediatric Nursing Award.

There was nothing unusual about the way she began adult life. As a registered nurse, she had a traditional career and was soon a wife and mother.

By the time she was 30, there was little convention left. She was quickly becoming engaged in work that was not only highly controversial, it was illegal.

After deciding to help potential suicide victims find the means to terminate unwanted pregnancies, she found that an underground network of resources already existed.

She joined with people who were providing women with access to abortion services, including transportation and after-care. The network included a Washington University professor, medical students and the Clergy Consultation Service, a general name given to unaffiliated groups that were aiding women in finding safe abortions.

Sometimes those services were illegal facilities; other times women went to states where abortion was legal prior to Roe v. Wade.

Ms. Widdicombe often accompanied women to facilities in-state and out-of-state, and many of those women stayed in her home to begin recuperating.

It would be five years before she could do her work openly.

Law Changes

Within days of the 1973 court ruling, Ms. Widdicombe declared her intent to open Reproductive Health Services, a clinic that would provide abortion services to all women without regard to their ability to pay. "Judy provided a safe, medically sound facility to provide abortions that saved women's lives," said Jean Berg, who offered counseling at the clinic through her work with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. "Without Judy Widdicombe, thousands of women would have died."

Reproductive Health Services opened its doors in the Doctor's Office Building at 100 North Euclid in the Central West End on the rainy Wednesday morning of May 23, 1973. It had been scheduled to open a day later, but Ms. Widdicombe was becoming impatient.

The clinic had been ready for a month, just waiting for the Supreme Court's formal announcement. But when it did open, Ms. Widdicombe, and her small medical and counseling staff were nervous. The court said it was now legal, but it didn't feel legal yet. An attorney was on standby and a stack of bail money was on-hand just in case she or the surgeon was arrested.

There were no complications during the first procedure, nor during any of the others that were performed that first day. No one went to jail.

But each day, they ran the gauntlet.

Hundreds of anti-abortion protesters showed up on May 24, the day after the clinic opened, and a contingent kept vigil every day thereafter.

The Long Fight

After getting the news that abortion had been made legal, Ms. Widdicombe said she naively thought, "It's settled; we can move ahead."

It would not be settled in her lifetime.

Frank Susman became counsel for Reproductive Health Services and challenged almost all of the anti-abortion laws that the Missouri Legislature adopted. He successfully argued six cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The clinic stood behind many more cases.

"Even if the case didn't bear the organization's name, Judy saw to it that RHS was involved in much of the litigation post-Roe v. Wade," Susman said from his home Santa Fe, N.M.

Many of the challenges to the clinic weren't merely legal, they were dangerous.

"We had real risks, they weren't imagined," Susman said.

Staff was often escorted through harassing picketers and into the building by volunteers; sometimes picketers invaded the offices and glued locks. Staff frequently received vitriolic calls and letters; Susman once had the utility lines at his home cut.

But the greatest fear was firebombing.

That's what happened to the organization's satellite office in West County, and the damage was so great the office closed for a while.

Everyone was aware it could have been worse.

In August 1982, a Granite City abortion doctor and his wife were kidnapped at gunpoint by members of an anti-abortion group, the "Army of God," and held hostage in an underground bunker for more than a week.

Ms. Widdicombe and other staff sometimes stayed overnight in the Doctor's Office Building to protect their clinic. She would alert the police when someone was staying the night so that "if the offices were firebombed, the charge would be murder."

"Judy believed so strongly that it was the woman's right to choose," Susman said, "that she was willing to take those risks."

Articles Of Faith

In 1998, "Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion War," by Cynthia Gorney, was published. She spent six years writing her tome about America's abortion battle.

Gorney found her leading characters with distinctly opposing views and equal passion in St. Louis: Samuel Lee, who became a leader of the anti-abortion movement in Missouri, and Judy Widdicombe.

Of Ms. Widdicombe she wrote: "In 1968, the year Judith McWhorter Widdicombe began recruiting medical doctors into a conspiracy to commit repeated felonies in the state of Missouri, she was 30 years old."

Ms. Widdicombe was chosen for the book because she had founded and led the first legal abortion clinic in the state, a model that would be used throughout the nation; co-founded the National Abortion Federation; co-founded the Health Policy Institute; served on the board of NARAL and served as a consultant to Planned Parenthood, which absorbed RHS in 1996. She received the Faith and Freedom Award for her pro-choice work.

Her Health Policy Institute co-founder, Alison Gee, now an executive at Planned Parenthood, said Gorney made a good choice.

"Working with Judy was magical," Gee said. "When she got an idea in her head, she was going to make it happen."

She got the idea that Reproductive Health Services could do many things.

"She established a model of 'all options' counseling," Gee said. "It had been her dream not only counsel women about their options, but provide adoption services to women who felt that was the best decision for them."

In 1989, Adoption Associates part of RHS and Gee and Ms. Widdicombe fostered the first child. They would foster many others. Gee eventually adopted two foster children.

"I have Judy to thank for my two sons," she said.

Ms. Widdicombe's career came full circle. After moving to Florida, she again devoted herself full-time to nursing, working at Hope Hospice in North Fort Myers, where she would eventually also become a patient. Ms. Widdicombe was preceded in death by her father and mother, a staunch supporter of her work, and her brother, John H. McWhorter.

She is survived by her children, David A. (Theodosia) Widdicombe of Ballwin, Mark W. (Diane) Widdicombe, of Wildwood, and Cindy Kronauge of Fort Collins, Colo. She is also survived by six grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned.

Memorials would be appreciated to Reproductive Health Services at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, Attention: Development Office, 4251 Forest Park Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63108, or go to www.plannedparenthood.org..

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.