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Vermont Conversation: The “courageous doctor” who helped legalize abortion in Vermont

  • July 5, 2022
Jackson Beeham. Photo courtesy of Jackson Beecham

The Vermont Conversation with David Goodman is a VTDigger podcast that features in-depth interviews on local and national issues with politicians, activists, artists, changemakers and citizens who are making a difference. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify to hear more.

When the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade on June 24, it left each state to decide its own abortion laws. Many Republican-led states are reverting to the anti-abortion laws that were on the books before 1973 when Roe legalized abortion.

Vermont legalized abortion a year before Roe. In 1972, the Vermont Supreme Court overturned a 122 year-old law that made it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion, though it was not against the law for someone to have one. In practice, this meant that someone could legally self-abort at their own peril, but a doctor who performed an abortion could be arrested and imprisoned for up to 20 years.

The case that legalized abortion in Vermont featured “Jacqueline R.,” an unmarried server who wanted to end her pregnancy, and an OB/GYN resident at the University of Vermont named Jackson Beecham.

After New York legalized abortion in 1970, Beecham, a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, joined a small group of women’s health advocates in Burlington who were exploring ways to legalize abortion in the Green Mountain State. Attorney Willis “Woody” Higgins, a lawyer for IBM who volunteered to argue the case, advised the group that they needed two plaintiffs: a pregnant person who wanted an abortion and “a courageous doctor.”

The prosecutor they faced was a young state’s attorney, Patrick Leahy, and the landmark case that legalized abortion in Vermont was known as Beecham vs. Leahy.

“I didn’t even think about

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