Interviewee: Judith Rooks
Interviewer: Janet Paulk
Date of Interview: April 26, 2004
Extent: 3 audio cassettes; 3 compact discs; 79 page transcript
Judith Rooks was born in Spokane, Washington in 1941. Her father was a surgeon in the army reserves during WWII, and her mother was a nurse. She attended the University of Washington where she received a B.S. in nursing in 1963. Rooks married after graduation and then moved to Washington, D.C. where, in 1964, she began working as a nurse at the Clinical Center (part of the National Institute of Health). While in D.C. her husband was sent to Vietnam and during his absence Rooks pursued her graduate degree in nursing at the Catholic University of America. During the late 1960s, after moving back to the west coast, Rooks worked on the weekends at San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury Free Medical Center. The couple moved to Atlanta when Rook’s husband took a job at Emory University Hospital. Once in Atlanta, Rooks became head of a Georgia Citizens for Hospital abortions, an organization which fought to get the Georgia abortion laws changed. In addition to her activism, Rooks also worked for the CDC (Center for Disease Control) as an epidemiologist in the Family Planning Evaluation Division where she uncovered revealing statistics regarding the disparity between black and white women who were allowed to have “legal abortions” prior to the change in the state laws. This research was used in the Doe v Bolton case which challenged Georgia’s abortion laws. She has continued to work as an epidemiologist for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and as the Principal Investigator for the National Birth Center Study at Columbia University. Rooks authored numerous publications about family planning, and women’s health, as well as being an expert in the field of midwifery. She has also been the recipient of numerous honorary awards including the Martha May Eliot Award for exceptional service to mothers and children, in 1993; the Hattie Hemschemeyer Award for continuous contributions to nurse-midwifery and maternal and child healthcare, in 1998; and the National Perinatal Associations’ National Award for Outstanding Contribution to Maternal and Child Health in 1999.
Rooks describes her childhood during WWII. The daughter of a doctor and a nurse, she believed that aside from teaching, nursing was the only occupation a woman could pursue. Graduating from the University of Washington in 1963, Rooks married in 1964, and went on to earn a graduate degree in nursing at Catholic University of America. She describes her early professional experiences, and says that her interest in reproductive rights began when, teaching at San Jose State University, she assigned students to research the effects of illegal abortions on Mexican agricultural workers. Rooks says that she became politically involved with reproductive rights through the Georgia Citizens for Hospital Abortion. She discusses the abortion laws and their realities in Georgia, especially for poor women, who made up the majority of those seeking illegal abortions, and goes on to describe her experiences in getting support for legislation that would change the existing laws. She describes her committee’s failed attempts to get the new legislation passed, after which, she says, she held a press conference on the steps of the Capitol and declared, “because the Georgia legislature has turned its back on the health needs of Georgia women, my committee will establish a counseling center to provide information and arrange legal abortions in Washington, D.C. or New York for Georgia women who could not access necessary health services in Georgia.” Rooks goes on to describe the committee’s efforts to assist women in getting safe abortions. She believes that it was her pro-choice activism that resulted in her being turned down for a job in the school of nursing at Georgia State University, and she recounts her aborted contract signing to illustrate this. Rooks went on to work at the CDC where, in her research into the epidemiology of family planning, she began gathering statistics on legal and illegal abortions. She talks about the Georgia Citizens for Hospital Abortion committee’s decision to bring a suit to challenge the abortion law on the books as unconstitutional, and describes in detail the work that went in to the Doe v Bolton case, and the people involved, including Margie Pitts Hames who argued the case in the Supreme Court. Rooks talks about her book, Midwifery and Childbirth in America, and goes on to discuss the history of midwifery in the United States. She talks about her move to the Pacific Northwest with her second husband, and about the work she has undertaken since then, both nationally and internationally. She finishes by describing what she considers the most important accomplishments of the Women’s Movement: "My life would be totally different without it. The freedom of contraception, the freedom of abortion, the ability to have informed education and consent for your health care…The whole world is changing because of the strengths of women."