Roots of Roe

Activist Judy Smith reflects on a life of choice

| January 16, 2003

Today, fencing surrounds the Blue Mountain Clinic, but at least there’s a clinic. Judy Smith is one reason why.

On Jan. 22, 1973, in the class-action suit Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of Roe, and in favor of Everywoman. Since then, at least legally, women have had a freedom and a choice formerly denied them. That includes women who have chosen to have a child, but who, at some point, may have considered other options. It also includes the young lawyer—Sarah Weddington—who successfully argued for Roe. It was another woman, though, a young activist, who convinced that lawyer to file the suit. Smith is that activist, and women are at the core of her activism.

Before she started Women’s Opportunity & Resource Development, or the Blue Mountain Women’s Clinic, as it was first called, and before she lived in Montana, Smith studied molecular biology at the University of Texas. She came from a family she describes as progressive, with a mother who admired Eleanor Roosevelt. Smith, it seems, didn’t stray far. It was probably 1968, she says, and university students in general were politically active. Amid the activity, the women started asking themselves a question: “If we’re talking about liberation of people, why aren’t we applying that to women?” In a backyard in Austin, Smith and a group of other women talked. They decided to call themselves feminists. When talking wasn’t enough, they asked themselves another question: “What could be something we could significantly do?”

Times were different. On campus, there was no ready access to the pill. Instead of clinics offering safe medical procedures to address unwanted pregnancies, there were back-alley operations. There were women who beat their own bellies nightly until bruises swelled and welts rose. There were women who stuffed bandages or slid metal coat hangers up into their uteruses hoping to become un-pregnant. Sometimes, these women died.

What the feminists could do, they decided, was start a referral service for women needing abortions. “We all knew women who had to do the dangerous alley stuff,” says Smith.

A scouting trip to Mexico revealed two respectable clinics. The referrals started. Women called in the middle of the night. Those who worked at the service used code words, knowing the phone was tapped. Eventually, they ran down the street to return calls on a pay phone. Sometimes, Smith escorted women to Mexico. “The hard part about that is going across the border,” she says. It’s hard to imagine Smith, at almost six feet tall, being hassled, but the border guards were unpleasant, she says. Sometimes they wanted to be bribed. “You’re an outlaw,” she says, with some mischief in her blue eyes, “but you know you’re doing the right thing.”

While she helped run the referral service, she worked on her Ph.D, and she wrote for an underground paper called The Rag. The demands on her time sound great, but Smith explains that away: “Multi-tasking has always been something that I’ve been pretty good at.” It was her work for the paper that gave her the idea to challenge the illegality of abortion. When the regents decided The Rag could not be sold on campus, Smith got herself arrested doing just that. The paper sued and won. If the justice system had worked to protect one right, Smith reasoned, why couldn’t it work to protect another? She convinced a lawyer to file a suit challenging the constitutionality of the Texas anti-abortion statute. The lawyer, Sarah Weddington, worked for reproductive rights within the judicial system. Smith, in the meantime, worked the trenches, participating in demonstrations, “agitating.” She remembers briefly carrying on over the phone with Weddington when Roe won.

Shortly afterwards, Smith moved to Montana. Here, she found “no real access to abortion.” Although abortions were now legal, doctors weren’t jumping at the chance to perform them. They were afraid of the stigma, she says, or of losing their respectable hospital jobs. As she did in Texas, Smith decided to act. She started a referral service that sent clients to Spokane and Seattle. Then, in Missoula, she discovered a group of doctors that wasn’t as worried about social stigma: ER doctors. Many didn’t have a regular practice, says Smith; many lived in Montana to recreate. “They didn’t mind that [abortion] was a little controversial,” she says. She and several others wrote promissory notes for between $15,000 and $20,000, and with that money, they started the first post-Roe abortion service in Montana. Advertising wasn’t necessary. Clients came, even from Canada. The clinic promptly paid back its loans.

The business grew. Then, in 1993, the clinic burned down. Smith was no longer with the clinic, but she was called. “I do remember showing up on site,” she says. “Looking at it. Unfortunately, not being amazed.” She was not amazed because around the country, other clinics that performed abortions had already seen firebombs, shootings, clients barred from entering. “It wasn’t shocking, but it was very saddening,” she says. The clinic, of course, was rebuilt.

Smith hopes there’s now enough feminism rooted in society to avoid a return to the time when abortion was illegal, and women were “so desperate they’d do something everybody already knew was a bad idea.” She worries a little bit, but she works more than worries. “The commitment I can say I have,” says Smith, “is to make society different.”

The work sounds so vast, the schedule so packed, it’s easy to wonder if she ever burns out. “The simple answer is no,” Smith says, “because I get so much positive back.”

One place especially in Missoula—between Fourth St. and the Clark Fork River—offers her a special dose of positive. It’s there that she finds the community’s energy. “I walk in the native prairie and up and down the river,” she says. “I can remind myself of what’s possible and why I care.”

Smith will speak at a benefit for the Blue Mountain Clinic from 5-8 p.m. on Jan. 22, the 30th anniversary of Roe’s victory, in the Governor’s Room of the Florence Building downtown. Tickets cost $30 per person, $50 per couple. Call 721-1646 for info.

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