I never met my grand uncle Leon, at least not that I can recall. He died when I was 9 years old and all I remember knowing about the man was that he was a doctor and had married my grandfather's twin sister, Julie.
My great grandfather was a doctor in Coney Island, New York, who, according to stories passed down through my family, treated the poor in his neighborhood, accepting what they could offer for his services, sometimes coming home with a basket of eggs or a chicken after a day's work. Once asked what he charged for a visit, he is said to have scoffed, saying, "I'm a doctor, not a butcher." His son — my grandfather — became a psychiatrist and his daughter married Leon Belous, a Russian immigrant and prominent doctor of obstetrics and gynecology in Southern California.
For reasons I don't know, Julie's family and that of my grandfather had become estranged. So, it was utterly out of the blue when two days after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade, an email appeared in my inbox from my uncle with the subject line: "Leon Belous' fight for abortion."
The email linked to a June 24, 2022, Los Angeles Times article by Brittny Mejia headlined, "How a Californian's Illegal Abortion Paved the Way for Roe." I sat transfixed as I read an unknown — at least to me — chapter of my family history, one that's a critical chapter of California and United States history and in the fight for the right to choose.
Belous, I read, had not just been a prominent doctor but a then-rare unflinching advocate for abortion rights. He wrote letters to the editor at prominent newspapers, spoke on panels and lobbied the state Legislature to change the law. He was jailed and convicted for conspiring to commit abortion, and endured a campaign of death threats and harassment as he appealed that 1967 conviction all the way to the California Supreme Court. In 1969, it overturned both my grand uncle's conviction and state laws outlawing abortion, finding the right to privacy implied under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution protected abortion as a fundamental right. According to the Times, it was the first time a high court anywhere in the country had ruled on the constitutionality of an abortion statute and set the foundation for the Texas case of "Jane Roe" that legalized abortion nationwide four years later.
According to the Times, during a 1963 forum at which he was a panelist, Belous relayed the story of his first patient, a poor, 24-year-old woman with an alcoholic husband, three children and an unwanted pregnancy, who he said, "left my office and ended in a grave." He said she paid $50 for an abortion from someone "who wasn't a doctor" and who punctured her uterus, damaging her bowels, leading to a fatal case of blood poisoning, according to the article.
Abortion rights advocacy soon became his life's work.
"At present, we have no place where a woman can come for help," Belous said at the forum, according to the Times. "She is rejected by society and the medical profession. In her hour of greatest need, she is forced to hunt for a quack abortionist on her own."
The following year in a letter to the Times, he described unwanted pregnancies as a social disease that needs to be treated as such, writing, "These women are not criminals, they are human beings entitled to protection instead of being 'thrown to the wolves.'"
It was this outspoken advocacy that landed Belous on the radar of Cheryl Bryant and Clifton Palmer, a young couple who were "poor as church mice" and still in college, studying to become a teacher and a school psychologist, respectively. They'd seen Belous advocating for abortion rights on a television show and tracked him down, looking for help procuring an abortion.
Belous initially refused, telling the couple he was trying to change the law, not break it. But after Cheryl reportedly told him they would cross the border into Mexico to get an abortion in Tijuana, he reconsidered, knowing the terrible risk that would mean. (At the time, about 36 percent of maternal deaths in Los Angeles County were due to illegal abortions, with at least 2,500 women hospitalized in their aftermath in 1966 alone, according to the Times article.)
Belous agreed to see the couple and then connected them to Karl Lairtus, a Mexican doctor living in Los Angeles whom Belous had seen perform "skilled and safe" abortions in Tijuana, according to the Times, and prescribed Cheryl a course of antibiotics to start after the procedure. When the couple arrived at Lairtus' apartment on May 10, 1966, it was already under police surveillance. Lairtus was arrested immediately following the abortion and his records led police to Belous, who was arrested at his Beverly Hills office that same afternoon. To this day, Cheryl believes Belous saved her life.
The ensuing years, when he was tried and convicted and then appealed his case to the state Supreme Court, reportedly took a tremendous toll on Belous. He received death threats and harassing phone calls incessantly, and anti-choice terrorists threw rocks with threatening messages attached to them through the front window of his family home with such regularity that Julie reportedly made a center piece of them on the dining room table. In his lowest moments, he contemplated suicide.
By the time Roe became the law of the nation, Belous had retired.
The Times story detailing my grand uncle Leon's role in the ongoing fight for abortion rights came flooding back to me in recent weeks as I worked to edit this week's cover story and sidebar, which detail the limitations to abortion access here on the North Coast and Humboldt County's grisly history of illegal abortions, respectively.
As I read Lynette Mullen's report of the unscrupulous men who butchered pregnant women for profit, I thought of people like Leon — good doctors who have taken an oath to care for their patients but must choose between sending them to the proverbial wolves or becoming criminals themselves. Sadly, it's a decision countless doctors now face anew, thanks to the votes of five Supreme Court justices and male-majority legislatures in 13 states.
I'm reminded of one of the last letters my grand uncle sent the Times, according to the report. It published in 1978, 10 years before his death, and addressed a vote of the California Legislature to prohibit the use of Medi-Cal funds on abortions.
"When I read about the cowardly and barbarous act of our Legislature again forcing poor women into the crematoria of abortion mills with all their deadly implications, I was thrown in the deepest depression," he wrote.
Leon Belous' life's work aiding the fight for women's right to control their own bodies isn't over. As William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com.