Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Feinstein’s Weird Abortion Remark

A law professor who was watching the confirmation hearing for Attorney General-designee Jeff Sessions contacted me after he was stunned to hear Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein claim to have sentenced women to prison for abortion in the 1960s. C-Span’s transcript (underlining added; otherwise unchanged) indeed quotes Feinstein as making such a claim:

Okay. As you know, the Constitution protects woman’s right to access to health care. I’m old enough to remember what it was like before, when I was a student at Stanford and thereafter. In the early 1960s, I actually sentenced women in California convicted of felony abortion to state prison for a maximum sentences of up to ten years and they still went back to it because the need was so great.

What is Feinstein talking about? She’s never been a lawyer, much less a judge, so I don’t see how she ever would have “actually sentenced” anyone for anything. She apparently was a member of the California Women’s Parole Board in the 1960s, so she might have been involved in deciding whether “women … convicted of felony abortion” should be released early in their prison terms.

Any such women, I’ll note, were surely performing the role of abortionist (as Feinstein’s “they still went back to it because the need was so great” comment would reveal to the very attentive listener). According to this account, no woman obtaining an abortion was ever prosecuted in California (and only two such prosecutions, in 1911 and in 1922, ever occurred in any state).

Perhaps Feinstein somehow misspoke. (It seems unlikely that both the law professor and the C-Span transcriber misheard her.)  If so, she should correct the record.

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