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Friday, March 9, 2001

Sister: Story of photo that galvanized a movement needs telling


Norwich Bulletin


Leona Gordon took one look at the picture in the magazine and knew.

Though it had been nearly a decade, she instantly recognized the stark, grainy image of the lifeless woman on the floor, face pressed against the carpet, legs bunched up under her chest, a blood-soaked towel beneath her naked body.

"I knew, without even thinking about it, that it was my sister," Gordon, 71, said. "I was devastated. It is still very difficult to talk about and I still lose a lot of sleep over it. This is a thing that never should have happened."

But it did happen. And it happened in Norwich.

On June 9, 1964, 28-year-old wife and mother Geraldine Santoro of Coventry was found dead on the floor of the Norwich Motel (now Rosemont Suites).

Three days later, Santoro's lover, Clyde Dixon, 43, of Mansfield, and another man, were arrested and charged with manslaughter and "conspiracy to commit abortion."

Though the case made local headlines at the time, it would take on national significance nine years later, when the police photo of Santoro's body turned up in Ms. Magazine accompanying an article applauding the recent Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

In the years since, the image of the dead woman on the motel floor has become a symbol for abortion rights advocates, a reminder of the horrific results of the unsafe "back-alley abortions" the magazine said many women were forced to seek before Roe vs. Wade in 1973.

Waved about on placards at pro-choice rallies as a counterpoint to the gruesome images of aborted fetuses carried by abortion opponents, the haunting picture remains a powerful weapon in a heated battle that rages on to this day.

'A terrible thing'

Yet until recently, the story behind the photo, the story of Gerri Santoro, was known to very few.

That changed in 1995 when independent Boston filmmaker Jane Gillooly convinced Santoro's sister, Leona Gordon, to open up about the case.

"It took me a long time before I could speak about it, because it was my sister and it was such a terrible thing that happened," said Gordon, who is in her 70s and living in New Hampshire. "But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was something that should be brought out. It should be told. I wanted people to know there was no point in this woman losing her life because she couldn't have a legal abortion."

Gillooly chronicled Santoro's story in his documentary "Leona's Sister, Gerri," which first aired on PBS in 1995, before making the film festival circuit to wide acclaim.

The movie is the inspiration for a new novel by Bridgeport native John Searles called "Boy Still Missing," which has generated appreciative pre-publication hype and hits bookstores this week.

Though Gillooly first heard the Santoro story in the late 1980s through her friendship with Leona Gordon's daughter, Toni Elka, she encountered the photo of Elka's aunt long before that.

"I'm in my early 40s and when I was in college, I had first seen the photo on a flier at school, then again in a book," Gillooly said. "What struck me was that even though I had seen the photo many times and been horrified by it, it didn't mean nearly as much to me until I knew the story behind it. That was much more powerful than just the picture as an icon ever could have been."

Extreme measures

Gerri Santoro, a free-spirited, fun-loving girl, was raised on a farm in Coventry with 14 brothers and sisters.

Her life took a tragic turn at age 18 when she impulsively married a man she met at a bus stop and -- according to the documentary -- spent the next 10 years a victim of his verbal and physical abuse.

In 1963, she left her husband and moved back to the family farm with her two young daughters.

She got a job at the Mansfield State Training School and fell into an affair with a sweet-talking married man named Clyde Dixon, and she became pregnant.

Terrified her husband would kill her, and possibly her daughters, if he found out, she and Dixon secretly looked for ways to terminate the pregnancy.

When all else failed, Dixon attempted to perform the procedure himself on a hot spring night in the Norwich Motel, using tools and instructions obtained from a co-worker at the Mansfield school.

When the operation went awry, Dixon fled, leaving Santoro behind to bleed to death.

Her body was discovered by a chambermaid the next morning. Dixon was arrested days later and sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Though Santoro's desperate act seems unimaginable 28 years after Roe vs. Wade, the climate toward abortion in the 1950s and 1960s drove other women to similar extremes, said Susan Porter Benson, associate professor of women's history at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

"The fact is that the more anti-abortion laws were enforced, the more women were forced to use unsafe back-alley providers ... and many, many women died from illegal back-alley abortions," Porter Benson said. "(And) that would have been just about the worst time because there was a real crackdown after World War II. They had hospital committees to determine whether you could have an abortion in a hospital and they would say things like you could have one if you agreed to surgical sterilization.

"All these terrorizing kinds of things. It wasn't the illegality of abortion, but the terrorizing enforcement of abortion laws that made women unsafe."

While abortion foes concede the tragedy of cases like Gerri Santoro's, they say the number of deaths that actually occurred prior to 1973 has been exaggerated by the pro-choice faction.

The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League contends that between 5,000 and 10,000 women routinely died each year from illegal abortion attempts.

Those figures are disputed by abortion opponents, some of whom say abortion actually kills more women today than before the procedure was legal.

"Abortion since Roe vs. Wade is much more dangerous than it was before. The number of women who die from legal abortions is much higher," said Joseph Collison, pro-life director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich, citing statistics gathered by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a pro-choice pioneer who has since become a pro-life advocate.

Though impartial figures on abortion related-deaths before or after Roe vs. Wade are hard to come by, the Center for Disease Control estimates that, between 1972 and 1990, a total of 365 women died from abortion complications, or 1.3 percent of all women who underwent the procedure.

Pro-lifers further argue that even if the NARRAL figures on illegal abortion deaths are accurate, they pale in comparison to the 1.5 million unborn "babies" killed each year through legal abortions.

Sounding that message, abortion opponents rally nearly daily at the Norwich office of Planned Parenthood on Case Street, a stone's throw from the hotel where Gerri Santoro died.

An important symbol

Though the fundamental philosophical debate at the core of the abortion issue is likely never to be resolved, the image of Gerri Santoro's lifeless body remains an important symbol for one camp in the ongoing argument.

In fact, it's on view daily online (http://www.sapphireblue.com/25years/) part of an extensive pro-choice Web ring run by Michele Kinsey-Clinton of Washington, D.C.

"Even though I was born three years after Roe vs. Wade and can't remember a time when abortion wasn't legal, I've always felt very strongly about this issue," said Kinsey-Clinton, 25. "I first read about the picture online without seeing it and was determined to find a copy. The impact is undeniable."

Though disturbing, the image of Gerri Santoro on the floor of the Norwich Motel should remain in the public eye as long as the debate over abortion rights continues, said Elaine Werner, executive director of the Connecticut National Abortion Rights Action League.

"Certainly for a younger generation, the discovery of this photo might be a rude awakening, and a very timely thing given President Bush's position on abortion," Werner said. "Could we ever go back to that? Yes, we could."

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