President Ronald Reagan at a press conference on May 22, 1984. / Photo via Shutterstock

Earlier this month, our historian Randy Dotinga explored the history of abortion in San Diego and California in the first of a series of articles. Here’s the second part, a look at the transformation of the abortion landscape from the late 1960s to the 1980s.

In 1967, almost all abortion was illegal in California. Being a Republican or Democrat had nothing to do with which side you were on, the state’s highest judges were quiet on the matter, and foes of abortion were more likely to oppose war than advocate violence.

Then the landscape shifted. Major players included a governor who’d become a conservative Republican president, a landmark state court case with ties to the San Diego region, and members of a fundamentalist Santee church who transformed into domestic terrorists.

Here’s a closer look at how things changed and who changed them.

An Abortion Bill and Reagan’s Regrets

It was, as a pair of conservative writers would describe it more than four decades later, “Reagan’s darkest hour.” Fifty-five years ago this summer, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act, a move the future “father of the pro-life movement” would later regret. 

With a stroke of his pen, California became one of the first states to legalize many forms of abortion, which had become an underground fact of life for countless women. An estimated 200,000-1.2 million women in the U.S. underwent illegal abortions every year in the 1950s and 1960s. San Diego had its own supply of illicit abortion providers, and Tijuana was a frequent destination for women in search of doctors willing to perform the procedure. 

The new law allowed abortions up to the 21st week of pregnancy in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the mother’s physical or mental health. “I am satisfied that morality and logic within a moral framework can justify those portions of the abortion bill that deal with the protection of the health of the mother,” Reagan said at a 1967 press conference. He went on to compare “liberalizing abortion” to the right to self-defense, and noted that he supported abortion in cases of rape and incest.

Reagan later, of course, became a firm opponent of abortion, although he wavered on exceptions in cases of rape and incest. “He was starting to have regrets because he’d learned that some psychiatrists were diagnosing unwed mothers-to-be with suicidal tendencies after five-minute assessments so that they could get abortions,” his daughter Patti Davis wrote earlier this year. “My father had a tendency to hear a story and assume it was indicative of some wider pattern. That’s how his mind worked. And it came to weigh on him.”

Reagan is hardly the only politician to switch positions on abortion. When the state legislature passed the abortion bill in 1967, recalled journalist George Skelton in a recent column, “party politics wasn’t a factor.” Instead, “lawmakers were divided by religion. Protestants generally supported the bill and Catholics opposed it.”

Skelton remembered watching a Democratic assemblyman, a Catholic, “sitting at his desk, head buried in his hands, weeping before casting his vote.” It was in favor of the law.

Politics shifted through the 1970s as Democrats tamped down their concerns about the effect of abortion on minorities – African-Americans reportedly were the group most opposed to abortion in the 1960s – and Republicans reacted to the growth of the religious right.

“It became increasingly untenable to be a pro-choice Republican or an anti-abortion Democrat,” said Karissa Haugeberg, a history professor at Tulane University who studies the history of women and medicine. “The election of President Ronald Reagan further entrenched social conservatism in the GOP, as he spoke more forcefully than his predecessors about his commitment to opposing abortion. He nominated long-time opponents of abortion to key posts in his administration, making it clear that one’s position about abortion would be crucial to one’s success in the Republican Party.”

But some anti-abortion activists wanted more.

Landmark Abortion Ruling Has Links to San Diego Region

When a young Los Angeles college student wanted an abortion in 1966, her options were limited and risky. Thousands of women ended up in L.A. hospitals every year after botched abortions, and dozens died. But the couple didn’t think they had a choice since a baby would halt their dreams. So Cheryl Bryant and boyfriend Clifton Palmer reached out to a doctor who publicly supported abortion rights named Leon P. Belous. Maybe he could help.

“At first,” the L.A. Times reported in a recent story, “Belous said there was nothing he could do. In that case, Cliff told him, Cheryl would go to Tijuana for an abortion.”

That did the trick. In the doctor’s mind, Tijuana abortions had a horrific reputation, although he’d seen one doctor – a man named Karl Lairtus – perform safe abortions there.

Belous referred the couple to Lairtus, who’d relocated to Chula Vista and later to Hollywood. Despite not being licensed to practice in the U.S., Lairtus agreed to a $500 fee. Cops raided the doctor’s apartment moments after he performed the abortion on Bryant. Both physicians – Lairtus and Belous – were charged.

“The bulk of Belous’ defense rested on his belief that Cheryl and Cliff would do anything to terminate the pregnancy, which could involve butchery in Tijuana or self-mutilation and put Cheryl’s life in danger,” reported the L.A Times. The newspaper found the couple, now in their late 70s, living in Montana and interviewed them for an article that appeared after last month’s mammoth Supreme Court ruling.

Both doctors were convicted of abortion-related charges, but Belous appealed. In 1969, the California Supreme Court issued a complicated ruling the struck down the state’s 1850 law prohibiting abortion, based in part on a pregnant woman’s “rights to life and to choose whether to bear children.”

The ruling didn’t change anything since the legislature had already thrown out the old law, but it ended up being hugely influential. For the first and not the last time, a top court had linked abortion rights to privacy rights. Four years later, in 1973, Roe vs. Wade would make the same connection.  

In Santee, Church Plotters Aim to Bomb an Abortion Clinic

By the early 1980s, anti-abortion activists had put one of their own in the White House. But some began to wonder if that was enough. “They felt like they hadn’t had almost any success in stopping legal abortion,” said Jennifer Holland, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma who’s written about the anti-abortion movement. “The movement had been saying for 15 years that abortion was a human rights issue, a civil rights issue, but also a genocide. They said, ‘Why are they trying to pass incremental restrictions? If we’re calling this a genocide, let’s treat it like one.’”

Anti-abortion activists began to commit acts of vandalism and violence against abortion clinics and those who worked at them. And plots developed at a fundamentalist church in Santee, where a minister preached against abortion, homosexuality, Roman Catholicism and the Unitarian Church.

According to the L.A. Times, “the Rev. Dorman Owens once donned the uniform of a Mexican federal officer to threaten Hispanic women who sought abortions. In 1986, a church member used an electric dart gun on a man escorting his girlfriend into an abortion clinic … In March, 1985, Owens and his followers picketed a newsstand run by a blind woman because the stand sold Playboy in the downtown County Courthouse.”

Then, early one morning in 1987, church members tried to bomb an abortion clinic called the Family Planning Associates Medical Group. The pipe bomb failed to go off, and police were on scene thanks to a tip from an informant. Ultimately, eight church members, including Owens, were convicted and sentenced on charges related to the plot.

One of them, a woman named Cheryl Sullenger, told the judge at her sentencing that she knew “what we did was wrong,” but her religious beliefs “put a lot of emotional pressure on us to do this. I believe it says in the Bible that abortion is murder, and when you see that, you are compelled to do something about that.”

For her part, Sullenger would feel compelled to fight abortion for another 35 years. After her prison term, she joined the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue, and retired last month as senior vice president.

The press release about her departure – which came out just weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion – doesn’t mention her time behind bars.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at

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