Harriette Glasner's grit: How her diamond-studded bracelet could keep abortion rights alive

Jane Musgrave
Palm Beach Post
Harriette Glasner

Years before abortion was legalized nearly 50 years ago, Harriette Glasner took a simple — but unusual — step to make sure no woman would be denied an abortion just because she couldn’t afford it.

Realizing many women were in precarious situations and no one was helping them, the wealthy Palm Beach woman sold a platinum diamond-studded bracelet.

Today, 20 years after Glasner’s death, the fund she established from the sale of her expensive trinket is key to efforts to make sure women continue to have access to abortions.

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruling Friday throws the question of abortion rights back to the states. 

With a Florida law that would ban abortion after 15 weeks set to take effect July 1, the decades-old tactics Glasner used before the high court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision are being dusted off to help another generation of women.

Harriette Glasner in 2001

Just as Glasner did in the early 1970s in pre-Roe years when abortion was illegal in Florida but not in New York, the fund she created will be used to send desperate women from Palm Beach County to cities in the Northeast so they can terminate their pregnancies. 

In what abortion-rights activists describe as a once-unthinkable back-to-the-future moment, those who inherited the fund will follow Glasner’s path. They will schedule appointments and pay for airfare, hotel rooms, food and child care for women who can’t legally get abortions in Florida because they missed the 15-week deadline.

The price of assistance will increase from about $128 to at least $1,000

The logistics are enormous, said Fran Sachs, who for a decade has been overseeing Glasner’s Emergency Medical Assistance fund, known as EMA. So is the pricetag.

Instead of spending an average of $128 to help each woman defray the costs of having an abortion locally, as the organization does now, each woman will need at least $1,000 to make the trip to the Northeast, Sachs said. She expects between 10 to 20 women will need assistance each month. 

While the state law is being challenged in the courts, she said preparations have to be made in case those efforts fail.

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"It's the women EMA funds — the unemployed, the underemployed — these are the people who pass the 15-week time period because of the complications of life," she said. "They’re going to get hurt the worst.”

But even as Sachs and other volunteers mobilize to raise money and figure out how to arrange appointments at overwhelmed clinics in other states, there is a confounding sense of frustration. 

Sachs doesn’t have to wonder what Glasner would think about the latest assault on abortion rights.

“If she knew it was going back to what it was, her head would explode,” she said.

Former Presdient Dwight Eisenhower, Harriette Glasner and Harriette's daughter Elisabeth when she was 6.

Glasner also helped found 10 major organizations in the U.S.

Glasner, who transformed not just abortion access but the social fabric of the county, is revered by civil rights activists. 

A champion of the underdog, she founded or helped found 10 major racial justice, humanitarian, religious or civil rights organizations in the county. Her foresight and tenacity helped create the League of Women Voters, American Civil Liberties Union, Urban League, Planned Parenthood, the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palm Beaches and myriad other groups. 

But, Mona Reis, founder of abortion-provider Presidential Women’s Center in West Palm Beach, said Harriette Glasner’s proudest achievement was the work she did for women. “Out of all the nonprofits she started, this was really her heart,” said Reis, who first met Glasner in 1974 while working at Planned Parenthood.

She fought to integrate schools, hotels and restaurants, filed suit to block West Palm Beach leaders from closing city parks to keep youth from gathering and pushed for better pay for police and firefighters. 

But, Mona Reis, founder of abortion-provider Presidential Women’s Center in West Palm Beach, said Glasner’s proudest achievement was the work she did for women.

“Out of all the nonprofits she started, this was really her heart,” said Reis, who first met Glasner in 1974 while working at Planned Parenthood.

Glasner shared her story of having an abortion after a tragic turn of events

Glasner’s interest in abortion access was personal. And, she didn’t hesitate to share her story with others.

Living in Chicago, she was 20 years old, happily married with a young son when she learned her husband was wanted by police for financial crimes. He pleaded with her to flee with him, but she refused.

Shortly after she moved back into her parents’ house, her father died unexpectedly. Her mother was paralyzed by the loss.

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Harriette Glasner at age 19, circa 1925.

That’s when she discovered she was three months pregnant. Knowing she couldn’t afford to raise two children on her own, she begged a doctor to perform an abortion. When he refused, she paid $75 to an abortionist, who did the procedure without anesthesia. 

It nearly killed her, she said. For years, she believed an infection she developed would make it impossible for her to have another child.

"I'm not thrilled to tell this story," she told a Palm Beach Post reporter in 1989. "But it's the truth, and I'm passionately in favor of women having the right to make these decisions. I want to show there are situations in which women really must have abortions."

The stories she heard from women were far worse than her own

Running the fund out of her home, she discovered that the reasons some women needed abortions were often far more horrific than her own.

"One story's worse than the next," she said in a 1991 interview.  "Husbands beating wives – one was beating a retarded child as well – a 7-year-old who was raped, a pregnant 15-year-old with lupus, a pregnant 13-year-old raped by her father, and none of the families had any money."

Harriette Glasner in 2001

Reis said Glasner never hesitated to help women in need. When asked for assistance, she would begin with her trademark, “Dear, dear, dear,” Reis said.

Then, without asking questions, Glasner would assure Reis not to worry. “The last thing this woman needs to stress about is money when she can’t afford to have a child,” Glasner concluded.

The Supreme Court’s 1973 decision left one inescapable reality unchanged, Glasner said.

"If you had money, you could have a safe abortion,"  she said. “If you didn't, you couldn't."

Harriette Glasner in 1972

Granddaughter recalls a woman always helping the less fortunate

Dr. Judith Crossett, a psychiatrist who lives in Iowa City, Iowa, said she remembers visiting her revered grandmother for vacations and holidays.

In between entertaining her, her brother and Glasner’s “miracle child,” whom she had when she was 41, Glasner would be answering the phone and making calls, Crossett recalled.

There was a steady drumbeat of requests for help from the ACLU, the Funeral Society she established so poor people could afford to bury their loved ones and, of course, EMA.

Harriette Glasner with daughter, Elisabeth Ann, then 1 year old, in October 1947.

Crossett remembers one visit to a West Palm Beach children’s museum when her grandmother spent most of the afternoon on a pay phone, trying to find an obstetrician in Miami who would operate on a “very young, very broke woman with acute pain” from an ectopic pregnancy.

Doctors wanted money upfront to remove the fertilized egg that had attached itself outside the young woman’s womb, a condition that is fatal for the fetus and can be for the woman as well, Crossett remembered.

Glasner wasn’t the type of woman to take no for an answer. After spending much of the afternoon pumping dimes into the pay phone, Glasner finally joined her grandchildren at the museum. “She succeeded,” Crossett said.

The 75-year-old Crossett said she doesn’t know exactly what drove her grandmother to embrace such a wide variety of social causes.

Her motivation? She lived in poverty and learned life wasn't always fair

Her parents instilled in her a deep sense of the importance of giving back, she said. Glasner's mother was involved in efforts to secure women the right to vote. She encouraged her young daughter to volunteer for the Red Cross during World War II.

But, Crossett said, Glasner also learned from her own experience that life isn’t always fair.

After her husband left her, she lived in poverty. She worked as a model, a dental assistant and a secretary to support her son and her widowed mother.

Harriette Glasner in her Red Cross uniform about 1944 in Chicago.

She would augment her meager wages by pocketing money a suitor would give her for cab fare home, Crossett said. Instead of taking a taxi ride, she would use the money to buy food for her son, who grew up to be Crossett’s father.

“For a time she was very, very poor and she knew how hard it was and knew how lucky she was to get out of it,” Crossett said.

Glasner escaped poverty by marrying Rudolph Glasner, a Vienese-born, self-taught engineer who made a fortune operating a metals and machinery manufacturing company in Chicago. 

In 1952, the couple, along with their infant daughter and Glasner’s son, moved to Palm Beach, where Rudolph planned to build houses.

After he died in 1964, at age 77, Glasner threw herself into charitable work and social justice causes.

When Richard Greene arrived in West Palm Beach as a young lawyer in 1978 and wanted to become involved in progressive causes, he said all points led to Glasner. 

“She was such a presence in this community,” said Greene, a retired public defender.

Greene remembered Glasner as fearless. “There was no issue that was too controversial for her,” said Greene, who served with Glasner on the board of the ACLU. “She believed in certain core principles and never wavered.” 

While others might spend time in debate, Glasner flew into action. “She clearly believed that actions spoke louder than words,” he said. “She wasn’t the kind of person who talked a lot about a problem. She was the kind of person who saw a problem and wanted to do something about it.”

“It may be partially why she was willing to take actions that were so controversial,” Greene continued. “If you sit around and talk about it, you might talk yourself out of it.”

EMA was ground-breaking, Reis said. Similar funds now exist in cities across the nation. But, when Glasner launched the fund, it was only the second of its kind in the country. The only other one was in California.

Glasner ran EMA largely alone but others stepped up when she aged

Glasner ran EMA for years, largely as a one-woman operation. When health and age forced her to step down, Reis said many worried the fund would disappear.

But, she said, others stepped up and got churches, foundations and other groups to continue to provide money so poor women could get abortions. 

Sachs took over in 2007. The Jupiter woman said she feels the weight of continuing Glasner’s legacy.

Harriette Glasner at 15 years old.

“We’ve never turned a patient away,” she said. “I don’t want that to happen on my watch. Whatever we have to do to meet the needs of women we’ll do it.”

Crossett said she often thinks of the contributions her grandmother made before she died in 2002 at age 96.

While Crossett embarked on a long career as a physician after getting a doctoral degree in English, she looks at her grandmother's long shadow and wonders if she's done enough. 

“My grandmother makes me look like a piker – like someone who has done nothing,” she said with a laugh.

Like others in her family, she said she learned from Glasner’s example. She is active in her community and a deacon in the Episcopal Church.

'What are we here for if not to help each other?'

“It struck me that that’s what you were supposed to do – to use your God-given energy and intelligence and be of some use in the world,” she said. “What are we here for if not to help each other?”

Crossett said she didn’t always share her grandmother’s stance on abortion. But, she said, over the years, her views have changed.

“I still can’t really think abortion is right,” she said. “I just think it’s not my right to make the decision for other people.”

She recently wrote a check and sent it to Sachs so the work her grandmother started so long ago could continue.

"We will need the work of the fund, and others like it, all over the country, I fear,” she said. “And perhaps an underground railroad.”

jmusgrave@pbpost.com

Jane Musgrave covers federal and civil courts and occasionally ventures into criminal trials in state court. Contact her at jmusgrave@pbpost.com.