Human Rights Hero: Jane Hodgson, M.D.

Vol. 30 No. 2

By

Marcia D. Greenberger is co-president and founder of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C. Rachel K. Laser is senior counsel for the organization. 

Dr. Jane Hodgson, now eighty-eight years old, has devoted her entire life to improving women's health and protecting women's lives. She has worked to ensure that women receive full reproductive health care, including contraception and abortion, and that the law respects women's autonomy and right to make these most personal and fundamental reproductive health decisions for themselves. She has been a champion of reproductive rights for all women, never forgetting the poor, the young, and those most in need. As a provider, Dr. Hodgson has helped thousands of women who were her patients, and as an advocate in the courts, Dr. Hodgson has helped millions of others throughout the country.

Dr. Hodgson's life work is especially inspiring today, when women's reproductive rights are increasingly under attack. Health care providers are a particular target of those who want to eliminate safe and legal abortion as an option for women. Violence and threats against abortion providers are commonplace and vast numbers of counties throughout our country have no abortion provider at all. Many women in underserved areas cannot afford the cost of the procedure, let alone the travel costs to secure one far from home. And many women must jump through countless hoops to obtain an abortion, while minors face hurdles that are particularly severe.

To this day, despite the intimidation she has faced, Dr. Hodgson remains fiercely committed to preserving a woman's right to choose. Just this past January, on the 30th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion, Dr. Hodgson was the featured guest on the Washington Post's "Live Online" e-mail discussion of abortion rights. She brought to bear her recent experiences based on her active schedule of teaching, lecturing, and involvement in legal cases and patient care. She has worked in a school-based clinic in St. Paul to offer contraceptive services to teenagers. And she has traveled regularly to perform abortions at the Duluth Women's Health Center, which she helped found in 1981 and which continues to have great difficulty recruiting local physicians. A recipient of the National Reproductive Health Award of the American Medical Women's Association in 1994, Dr. Hodgson is a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a member of the Board of Directors of the Duluth Women's Health Center, founding fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the author of numerous articles on reproductive health.

Born in 1915 in rural Minnesota, Jane Hodgson demonstrated at an early age how truly exceptional she was. She matriculated at Carleton College at the age of fifteen. As she explained to a Chicago Tribune reporter, "I didn't plan on studying medicine when I was at college . . . . The two options for women at the time of my graduation from college were either to get married or teach school. I didn't particularly want to teach school. The other option-marriage-was the end of everything, I thought, at the age of nineteen." Time would temper her negative views on marriage, but not her determination to make a difference. She married Dr. Frank Quattlebaum, a cardiovascular surgeon whom she met while a medical intern, and they had two daughters.

While in medical school at the University of Minnesota and in her advanced obstetrics/gynecology training at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, during the late 1930s and early 1940s, Dr. Hodgson was presented with much negative information about abortion, but little actual information about the procedure itself. After she opened her private practice in obstetrics/gynecology in the Twin Cities area in 1947, she received numerous pleas for abortions from her desperate patients. "The tears that were shed in my office in those days, you wouldn't believe," she recalled to Professor Carol Joffe, who recorded insightful conversations with Dr. Hodgson. All she could do under the law at that time was perform the few abortions that hospital "therapeutic abortion committees" approved for women whose pregnancies were life threatening, give referrals to maternity homes, or, by the late 1960s, refer those patients who could afford the substantial travel costs to abortion providers outside the country. Meanwhile, her practice was booming, she was receiving numerous community service awards, and by 1964, she was elected president of the Minnesota state obstetrics/gynecology society.

In 1970, at the age of fifty-five, Dr. Hodgson deliberately risked her great success, the loss of her medical license, and even jail when she performed an illegal abortion to challenge Minnesota's law prohibiting abortion. The patient was a twenty-three-year-old mother of three who had rubella, a condition that can result in birth defects. Under Minnesota law at the time, as enforced by a hospital therapeutic abortion committee, no abortion could be approved for the woman because her life was not threatened by the pregnancy.

Dr. Hodgson first petitioned the federal court to declare the Minnesota law unconstitutional. By the twelfth week of the woman's pregnancy, the court still had not ruled, and Dr. Hodgson performed the procedure. The police arrested her in her office shortly thereafter. She was tried, convicted of performing an illegal abortion, and sentenced to thirty days in jail and a year of probation.

When asked why she took such a personal risk, Dr. Hodgson told Professor Joffe, "It just seemed like a role that had been created for me and it was sort of inevitable, kind of a role you feel you have to play . . . . I figured I was fifty-five and I'd led a very good life . . . . I was ready to go to jail . . . . It was the matter of establishing the truth on an issue."

With a suspended medical license and awaiting the results of her appeal, Dr. Hodgson spent several years as the medical director of the newly opened Preterm Clinic, located just a few blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C. (where, as of 1971, abortion laws had become less restrictive). She traveled home to Minnesota on weekends to visit her husband and two daughters-one then in college and the other a teenager living at home. Her appeal was still pending when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973. With Minnesota's abortion law now clearly invalid, her conviction was overturned.

In 1974, Dr. Hodgson returned to St. Paul. Filled with energy for her cause, she helped to establish free-standing clinics throughout the state where women of all ages could receive excellent gynecological and reproductive care, including safe outpatient abortions. She also worked to refine and improve abortion techniques. At the same time, she continued her legal activism. She sued a hospital that would not provide abortion services after Roe, joined in legal actions to secure the coverage of abortion for Medicaid recipients, and was the lead plaintiff in Hodgson v. Minnesota, the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court case that held that Minnesota's statute requiring a teenager to notify both parents before obtaining an abortion would be unconstitutional without a judicial bypass procedure.

Her commitment to women's reproductive rights continued to demand great personal sacrifice. Some of her former patients refused to return to her practice. Many of her peers from the state obstetrics/gynecology society-the society she had been president of years before-gave her a cold and unfriendly reception when she delivered her paper on abortion complications at its annual meeting. When she was presented with an alumnae award at Carleton College, the experience became a painful one. She recalled to Professor Joffe, "I hadn't been to [a reunion] and some of these people I hadn't seen since college, and I'd rush forward to greet them and they'd turn away. It was kind of a low blow and I think that bothered me maybe as much as anything." Dr. Hodgson also faced repeated harassment. Her home was picketed. Her mailbox was filled with hate mail.

But Dr. Hodgson would do it all over again. She told Joffe, "The pluses have outweighed the losses. I think in many ways I've been lucky to have been part of this." Dr. Hodgson has said about Justice Blackmun, the author of Roe v. Wade, "I . . . rejoice in his greatness." We rejoice in hers.

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