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Ram: Jacqueline R. For Women's History Month

Phoebe Rotter
Planned Parenthood Vermont
Dr. Jack Beecham received a Lifetime Achievement award for his reproductive rights work, October 9, 2018.

One of the most important women in Vermont history is not known by her full name. A year before the national Roe v. Wade decision, “Jacqueline R,” was part of a landmark court case in Vermont that provided abortion access here. I’m a board member of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, but even I’d never heard of Jacqueline R until the doctor named in the case, Dr. Jack Beecham, invoked her memory as he received an award last fall for his reproductive rights work.

Whatever we may think of that movement as individuals, most of us agree that it’s an important intellectual and moral debate to have collectively. But it’s easy to forget that for that to happen some very real person must first be willing to take a stand. And while Vermont’s abortion law at the time implicated the doctor, a patient was still needed to make the case.

Other women had agreed to serve in that role, but some had already given birth, or their pregnancies had been terminated in neighboring New York State where it was newly legal, so their circumstances were moot. Jacqueline was six weeks pregnant, so the longer the trial lasted, the more difficult the emotional and physical decisions ahead. But Dr. Beecham recalls being struck by her determination to see the case through and “do this unprecedented thing”.

The lower court judge knew the defense could appeal immediately if he ruled against them, so that’s what he did. In less than six weeks, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled 5-2 in favor of Dr. Beecham, deeming it unconstitutional to deny doctors the ability to care for a patient in the best interest of their safety. And the rest is history.

Like her full name, what happened to Jacqueline R after the decision is not a matter of public record. And as he would with any woman’s reproductive choices, Dr. Beecham respects her right to privacy. But he’d like to give her the “fullest possible credit” for her courage, commitment, and role in women’s health in Vermont.

Her legacy will not soon be forgotten, even if her full name will never be known.

Kesha Ram is a former state legislator and the interim director of the Center for Whole Communities in Burlington. She will study in the Master of Public Administration program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government this fall.
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