SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. -- Sherri Chessen did not hear the story until recently, when her eldest daughter Terri began to write a screenplay based on the events that made their family front-page news a long time ago.

It happened in 1970, eight years after the abortion. Chessen's 5-year-old daughter Jody, on a random childish impulse, tied 1-year-old Kristin's arms to her sides and pulled a shirt over her. "Look Daddy, look Daddy," she said, tugging on Kristin's empty shirt-sleeve. "Kristi has no arms!"

An even-tempered, thoughtful history teacher, Bob Finkbine rarely raised his voice to his children. But after one look at the scene he exploded. "Untie her this minute! Take it off before your mother sees it and never do that again!"

Chessen, still friends with the man she divorced in 1973, recites the story as an interesting curiosity, a harmless echo of the events that once made her a reluctant celebrity but seem so irrelevant to her life today. Bob Finkbine feared the thoughtless play of their two youngest children might revive all the unanswered, unanswerable questions, the darkest moments of those days. Instead, those two girls -- now attractive and active young women -- provide their mother with the answer to the question much of America was asking in the summer of 1962:

Did she do the right thing?

Those were the days of the back-street abortion, the trip out of town, the flight overseas, and no one in U.S. history ever had a more exhaustively chronicled abortion than Sherri Finkbine. When doctors in a Swedish hospital finally terminated the life of her thalidomide-deformed fetus, every editorial writer in America had had a crack at her. Gallup had mounted a special poll (52 percent said she was right, 32 percent said she was wrong, 16 percent had no opinion). FBI agents were protecting her children. Doctors and lawyers were inserting her name into the briefs and speeches and legislative committee statements that would eventually make the operation she had four times as common as an appendectomy.

Lawrence Lader, who included a chapter on the Finkbine case in his 1966 book "Abortion," said the story hit the American consciousness at a key moment. For many members of a coming generation of feminists, it provoked the first serious thoughts about abortion and its place in U.S. society.

It is a measure of the dizzy pace of American social change in the last 25 years that what happened to Sherri Chessen seems so odd today. To be denied an abortion, particularly with a deformed fetus, seems as old-fashioned as the manner in which Chessen was referred to in most American newspapers of that era -- Mrs. Robert Finkbine.

But the abortion issue, with a moral potency that has surprised many futurists, remains very much with us. A quarter century after her own experience, Sherri Chessen has concluded it "will never, ever be resolved."

Sitting in the sunny living room of her tile-and-sandstone house, part of a development of high walls, bright blue swimming pools and crisp desert air, Chessen talks often of choices, of exploring all of life's possibilities. Her story of her globally publicized 1962 abortion, and its unreported 25-year aftermath, is a chronicle of painful choices and their unexpected consequences, recalled in the survivor's perspective.

If she had not selfishly chosen to help herself and her family by terminating the pregnancy, she is certain she would never have given birth later to Jody, the sun-tanned prospective broadcaster, or Kristin, the neophyte actress with the outstanding early reviews.

If she had not unselfishly tried to warn her unsuspecting Arizona neighbors of the poisons contained in some innocent-looking tranquilizers purchased in Europe, she would never have become a public spectacle, and probably would have had no trouble getting a quiet Arizona abortion and continuing with her life.

"There's a whole new generation of women now who can't believe that what happened to me happened," she says. "Especially the girls who've grown up having the privilege of freedom of choice since {the 1973 Supreme Court abortion decision}. They can't fathom people having to go to Mexico or some back-street abortionist who stuck a willow stick in them."

With 1.5 million American women a year undergoing much less tumultuous abortions than Chessen's, each one wondering, at least for an instant, how she will view that decision many years hence, a recounting of that notorious experience, and what happened afterward, might be in order.

Sherri Chessen and Bob Finkbine met as undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin. "The cheerleader and the football player," she says. "How romantic can you get?" They married when she was a junior, majoring in broadcasting. By the time she graduated she was pregnant. While she had three children in rapid succession, he spent two years in the Army and two years beginning his teaching career at a Lawrenceburg, Ind., junior high school.

They moved to Phoenix in 1958 so Bob could pursue graduate work at Arizona State University. "I got a baby sitter and decided I would go to work," Chessen recalls. "The next babies I had on weekends." She wrote promos and in-house commercials for a local television station. Pretty, slim and at ease on camera, she was soon hired by another station to host its "Romper Room" program. The nationally franchised format, a televised nursery school with a small rotating class of local children, made her a celebrity, known forever as "Miss Sherri" to a whole generation of Arizonans. Her salary eventually climbed to the modest sum of $110 a week. She began to act in local theater, pulling her husband in with her, and concentrated on her family.

Chessen had a fourth child in 1960. The next summer Bob Finkbine conducted a 10-week tour of Europe for 40 high school students. A London doctor prescribed tranquilizers when he complained of exhaustion. He took just a few and brought the rest home. When his wife developed chest pains early in her fifth pregnancy in May 1962, she was also given tranquilizers. Her supply ran out, and she began to use the ones Bob had left in the medicine cabinet. She took 30 to 40 pills through June and July.

At first she was drawn to the mid-July item on Page 23 of The Arizona Republic simply because she was a mother with all the usual fears of what pregnancy could bring. The article said some London doctors were suggesting the mercy killing of babies born with missing limbs because of the effects of a drug called thalidomide. The article said it was a sleeping pill. Chessen put the paper aside. The next day another article called the drug a tranquilizer. Alarmed, she called her doctor. He examined the bottle, cabled the London drugstore and learned that she had been taking pure thalidomide.

Eventually more than 7,000 deformed births, almost all of them in Europe, were traced back to the drug. A persistent U.S. Food and Drug Administration official, Dr. Frances Kelsey, kept all but a few test samples off the American market. That would be small comfort to the Finkbine family.

"I have four children, too," her doctor told her. "If you were my wife, and if you really want to have baby number five, I would strongly recommend you terminate this pregnancy and start again next month under better odds." There was no amniocentesis, no way to determine the condition of the fetus short of birth or abortion. The chance of deformity was about 50 percent. The doctor said he would need approval from his hospital medical board, routine in such cases. He showed her a medical journal with pictures of thalidomide babies -- legless, armless infants made more pitiable by the black bar superimposed across their faces. "It made a very vivid impression on me," Chessen says.

That was a Saturday, Chessen's 30th birthday. The doctor won approval on Monday for a Wednesday operation, just one of 8,000 hospital abortions throughout the United States that would be approved in 1962. Then Chessen's civic conscience, and ignorance of public passion about abortion, got the better of her.

"I thought, gee, if I had found a drug like this in a remote corner of Arizona, maybe there's somebody else who's about to take it." She remembered that a contingent of the Arizona National Guard had served in Berlin the previous summer. She reached the medical editor of The Republic and gave him her story, in return for his promise she would not be identified.

The front-page headline read: DRUG CAUSING DEFORMED INFANTS MAY COST WOMAN HER BABY HERE. The story was more prominent than she expected, but perhaps it would do some good. She prepared for her own brief hospital stay, unaware of the power of publicity to change events.

The thalidomide scare, added to the tragedy of an American mother forced to abort, created a sensation. Cameras and reporters descended on Phoenix. Roman Catholic and fundamentalist clerics demanded action. "So you're blind in one eye," a Catholic spokesman was quoted as saying. "Does that give anybody the right to kill you?" Other clergy defended the operation, but the county attorney, a Catholic with nine children, said he would have to prosecute if someone filed a complaint against the still-unnamed Phoenix woman.

"Forget coming into the hospital today," Chessen's doctor told her. Panicked by the mere threat of legal action, the hospital board had postponed the operation. To cover itself legally, it sued the state and county to force a declaratory judgment on whether the abortion was legal.

Charles Stevens, a lawyer who answered the city attorney's office telephone when she called with a question, recognized her voice before she even identified herself. "You're Miss Sherri," he said, explaining he had stayed home a few days with his sick daughter and had watched her show. "I'll do everything in my power to help you."

He was true to his word, but the press had learned her identity and her house was now full of reporters. No U.S. hospital would risk the publicity barrage to help her. The Japanese government turned down her visa request for the same reason. The Finkbines headed for Sweden, leaving their children with relatives. A Stockholm newspaper had arranged appointments with the proper authorities, and some free lodging, in exchange for their story.

The days in Stockholm became a weary blur, interrupted by moments of low comedy. A reporter for a competing Swedish paper at one point "literally picked me up and put me in his car and sped away." He tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to give him the story.

She was in a hurry. "The thing I was afraid of was feeling life. The quickening, you know, feeling the baby move. I always felt that would be the end of any decision to abort." Bob Finkbine, interviewed recently, said he thought the decision to proceed with the abortion was easier for him, and would be for almost any husband. A piece of hate mail, of which there was a great deal, would send his wife into an emotional whirlpool, but, Chessen says, "he was very steady and very together and always knew what we had to do."

The day of the abortion, Aug. 18, Radio Vatican called the operation "a crime." The 3-month-old fetus was found to have no legs and one arm. The Swedish doctor declined to tell her whether it was male or female. "It was not a baby. It was an abnormal growth," he said. She appreciated not having to visualize it. "I used to have nightmares. Once I dreamed that it was no arms and legs but had the head of my youngest son."

The Finkbines returned to Phoenix, where they found letters threatening "to cut the arms and legs off my other children." The FBI escorted the older children to school for a month. Chessen found her doctor reluctant to see her again, agreeing only to a very late afternoon appointment. Some of her husband's students asked to be transferred to other classes; his student assistant, a Catholic, quit at her mother's urging.

Chessen's television supervisors turned pale at the idea of putting her back on "Romper Room." But she had many friends and supporters in the small world of the Phoenix media. They applied pressure on her behalf. After six months the station "gave me what they thought was a token 15 minutes to do kind of a magazine of the air, thinking, well, she'll go away." A sponsor materialized, and the show, "Here's Sherri," expanded to a half-hour.

The Finkbines had been serious about having another child. In early 1964 Chessen was pregnant again. Only then did she receive a letter "from two University of Maryland geneticists saying that thalidomide causes permanent mutation of a mother's genes and any subsequent baby would be affected." She thought about that, and decided to continue with the pregnancy. When the baby was a week late, her doctor reluctantly agreed to an X-ray. It seemed fine, but as Chessen was leaving the clinic a nurse called after her: "Mrs. Finkbine, could we ask you to come in and take another picture?"

Her heart was pounding. "What's the matter?"

"Oh, nothing. We just couldn't see an arm and so we'd like to move the baby a bit."

The second X-ray showed everything normal. Jody was born, a perfect little girl. "But even thinking about it now makes my mouth go dry. I was thinking, here I've done it again and the geneticists were right. Well, they weren't."

The pregnancy had forced her off television. Soon she was back hosting "Phoenix After Dark" and then an issue-oriented Saturday night program, "The Sherri Chessen Show." She had a miscarriage in 1967 before giving birth to Kristin in 1969. After that, the marriage began to fall apart, for reasons both Chessen and Finkbine say had little if anything to do with the 1962 episode.

Finkbine says that in the years that followed the abortion "I appreciated more and more the complexity of the issue." He could see the moral anguish and the source of the strong feelings on the pro-life side, but never felt a twinge of doubt about their right to keep from bringing a deformed baby into their family.

Asked whether she has any second thoughts, Chessen will talk about Jody's budding television career or show reviews of Kristin's debut in the title role of a Phoenix Little Theater production of "Agnes of God": "a stunning performance" -- The Phoenix Gazette; "so clear, so sure, that we do not hesitate to suggest she is a major talent" -- The Arizona Republic.

If she had completed her pregnancy in 1962, she says, she never would have wanted to have another child. When she reads of thalidomide babies who have grown up to succeed at school or otherwise overcome their handicaps, "I have great compassion and empathy and joy for them ... but at no time does that make me feel that if I'd gone ahead and continued that pregnancy, I'd have given birth to this genius who had no arms and legs ... Kristi and Jody would not exist if I had been forced to give birth to a head and a torso."

When the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1973 that abortions like Chessen's were entirely legal in the United States, "I thought, now nobody will have to go through the almost criminal process that I did." Her relief "was short lived. I mean, look at it now. The states are trying to overturn it."

She finds some of the aftermath of her own abortion disquieting. "I don't like the direction of the ensuing 20 years. God knows the mess we're in as far as social disease and AIDS and herpes and sexual permissiveness," she says.

"My feelings about abortion today are the same as they've always been. While I think it's not a path that any woman would want to choose or go through -- I think it's something you never forget, or maybe some people never forgive themselves for -- I think that often it's the lesser of two evils, and I don't think there should be any laws against it."

After her last television show went off the air in a 1967 conversion to religious programming, Chessen opened two clothing boutiques. In 1973, her marriage irretrievable, she moved to La Jolla, Calif., and joined the real estate firm of a longtime woman friend from Wisconsin. She made a great deal of money: "I had more luck than sense." In 1981 she returned here and continued in real estate. With her last child almost out of high school, she confesses now to a new wanderlust and is considering a male friend's offer to join him in Brazil.

She is occasionally asked to appear on talk shows or at conferences on abortion. Sometimes she does; sometimes she doesn't. When she sees old clippings of the 1962 controversy, "it doesn't feel like me ... it's something I just went through, like a role I played."

"But," she says, looking back at that former self, "I'm proud of her. She did what she had to do."

In 1980, she happened to attend a speech by Gloria Steinem at a women's conference in a Minneapolis hotel. She went up to the podium afterward and introduced herself. Steinem recognized the name immediately and hugged her tight.

"Poor baby," she said, "you had to do it all alone."