OB-GYN Jane Hodgson, 91; Prominent Foe of Abortion Limits

Jane Hodgson felt the medical establishment failed to see abortion as a health issue that could improve infant and maternal mortality rates.
Jane Hodgson felt the medical establishment failed to see abortion as a health issue that could improve infant and maternal mortality rates. (By Jerry Holt -- Minneapolis Star Tribune)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Jane Hodgson, 91, a Minnesota obstetrician-gynecologist who directly challenged her state's restrictive abortion laws in 1970 and, long after her conviction was overturned, remained a stalwart of reproductive rights for women, died Oct. 23 at her home in Rochester, Minn. She had congestive heart failure.

The daughter of a country doctor and the wife of a prominent cardiac surgeon, Dr. Hodgson developed her own thriving OB-GYN practice in the Twin Cities after World War II. She was deeply conservative and for years shunned requests for abortion procedures.

Dr. Hodgson was considered an unlikely person to defy the state law, which said abortions were legal only when the woman's life was at risk. "I've always had a proper respect for the law, and I've performed very few of even the so-called 'legal' abortions -- not over a dozen in 23 years of practice," she told the New York Times in 1970. "But those aren't the ones that bother me. It's the ones I've refused to perform that haunt me."

In other interviews, she described being increasingly "besieged" by desperate women bleeding from botched motel-room abortions. "I'd take them to a hospital and finish it for them," she said.

After attending law school classes at night, she approached medical boards about changing the state's antiabortion laws. When this proved unsuccessful, she began seeking out a test case that would openly violate the state law.

In 1970, she found what she called her ideal subject, a 23-year-old married mother who contracted German measles weeks into her newest pregnancy. The woman feared the virus would cause birth defects.

"I thought it should be somebody the public would accept," Dr. Hodgson told The Washington Post. "I didn't want a prostitute or a single woman. I thought someone with children would be better, someone who had a family -- a logical reason they could swallow."

Soon after performing the abortion in a hospital, Dr. Hodgson was indicted in St. Paul. The chairman of the University of Minnesota's OB-GYN department testified against her. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a year of probation.

Her sentence was overturned after the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision invalidated the antiabortion laws of 46 states as well as the restrictions in the other four states.

Afterward, she became medical director of the state's Planned Parenthood chapter, helped start reproductive care clinics and mentored younger doctors in safer abortion techniques.

She spoke out against legislators' efforts to curtail Roe v. Wade in the 1980s, arguing that parental notification laws passed by lawmakers significantly harmed abortion-seekers. She said such laws often delayed women from getting treatment until a later trimester.

"I'd challenge any consent law," she said, noting that treatment of venereal disease and AIDS did not have a similar requirement.

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