Firebrand for Reproductive Freedom: Nancy Stearns ’61 launched her career fighting for abortion rights—and she’s still in the fight

Nancy Stearns ’61 on the steps of the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in New York City, holding a Ruth Bader Ginsburg tote bag
Author  Catherine O’Neill Grace
Published on 

After Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, “I basically just didn’t sleep,” says Nancy Stearns ’61. She vividly remembers what she has called “the bad old days” before Roe, when she was on the front lines of the fight to make abortion legal.

In 1969, Stearns was part of an all-women team representing some 350 women in a class-action suit challenging New York state’s restrictive abortion laws. Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz focused on women’s experiences with illegal abortion and unwanted pregnancy to argue that banning abortion except to save the mother’s life violated women’s constitutional rights. (Lefkowitz was the New York attorney general; Abramowicz was the surname of the first woman on the list of 350 willing to tell her story to the court.)

Previously, most challenges had been responses to criminal prosecutions of doctors who performed abortions. But Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz didn’t involve people defending themselves against prosecution; rather, for the first time, it raised challenges brought by the people directly affected—women who had been denied abortions by the existing law.

The case was rendered moot when the New York legislature changed the state law. But Stearns continued fighting abortion laws in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island; the Connecticut and Rhode Island cases ended up being cited in Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, in 1971, Stearns represented Shirley Wheeler on appeal in a high-profile case that received national attention after the state of Florida prosecuted Wheeler for obtaining an illegal abortion.

Stearns had set out to be a political scientist. In 1960, she went to Washington, D.C., as part of the Wellesley-Vassar Internship Program, where she worked for the Democratic National Committee in the period leading up to the convention that nominated John F. Kennedy for president. Those were heady days in politics. After graduate school at Berkeley, she and a friend traveled to the South to briefly volunteer for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, supporting the Civil Rights movement. Stearns ended up staying a year, turning away from an academic career, and learning lessons about political action that would shape her life.

After law school at NYU, her first job involved challenges to the constitutionality of House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenas. She went to work for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City and was soon involved with Health PAC, the Health Policy Advisory Committee. “That’s really, I think, what led me to being involved in the women’s movement,” Stearns told the New York Times in July 2022. “Women needed a movement just like the Civil Rights movement.”

This spring, we spoke with Stearns about the roots of her activism and how she sees the future of reproductive rights. We caught up with her on one of her two weekdays off; now in her 80s, she works as principal court attorney in the Law Department of the New York State Supreme Court.

(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Catherine Grace: How did you get involved with SNCC in the 1960s and with activism overall?

Nancy Stearns: My family were liberal Democrats. We basically talked politics over the dinner table every night. We got a TV set when I was in junior high so my mother could watch the Army-McCarthy hearings. After Wellesley, I went to graduate school at Berkeley and was getting a master’s in political science. The then-chairman of SNCC came to do fundraising. I heard him talk and was very moved. I had gotten friendly with this guy who was very political, and he decided he would drive to the South for the summer to learn more about what was going on, volunteer to help, and just be down there. And I said I would go with him. Basically, I got hooked and stayed for a year, through the Mississippi Freedom Summer. I kind of knew by then I wasn’t an academic, that I really wasn’t Ph.D. material. I just wanted to keep working, because of the people, because of the cause. Joining a movement is an extraordinary feeling of being part of something larger than yourself that you really believe in.

Grace: How did that decision change your trajectory?

Stearns: Being in the South made me realize that if I really wanted to make any kind of serious contribution, I needed a skill. So, I applied to law school. My first full-time job out of law school was working on two cases challenging the constitutionality of subpoenas issued by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

This is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Catherine O'Neill Grace that appears in the spring edition of “Wellesley” magazine. Read the full story on the magazine website.