We need some perspective first. All surgery of any sort in 1926 was done without the aid of modern blood transfusion and antibiotics. All surgery of any sort in 1926 was riskier than similar surgery today. This is the era where kitchen-table surgery was phasing out in favor of hospital-based surgery. I have an obstetrical nursing textbook from this era that describes how to set up an operating table in the woman's home to perform a c-section.
Blood banks were cutting-edge battlefield medicine just a few years before, and had not yet come into common usage. Blood type compatibility was not yet understood. It wasn't until the late 1930s and early 1940s that things like separating blood products started to come into practice. Antibiotics were not manufactured and used widely until after WWII. (See chart, below)
So keep in mind that things that may seem appalling to us in the early 21st century -- such as performing surgery in one's home -- was not appalling at the time. Things we take for granted, like antibiotics and blood banks, were still in the future.
With that said, I can't find any numbers for abortion mortality prior to 1940. It seems that before that, the information available lumps all maternal mortality together, and abortions can't be sorted out. But we can hazard a guess that the numbers were at least as high as they were in 1940. How much higher? It's hard to say.
Maternal mortality rates for the 20th century, according to the CDC, looked like this:
There was a very precipitous drop in all maternal mortality rates from 1920 to 1950. The steepest drop started in the late 1930s. Since this drop was due to overall improvements in health and sanitation, they were probably more pronounced in childbirth. If anybody's interested I can explain that a bit more. But still, abortion mortality probably was falling during this period as well, since a healthier woman is more likely to survive an abortion than an unhealthy woman. We can guess, then, somewhat more than 1,400 maternal deaths from abortion (illegal, "therapeutic", and miscarriages) in the 1920s.
With that established, let's look at some examples of women who died, and who did their abortions:
- Alice Annalora, Dr. Wilford Vine
- Mary Bailek, Rozalia Ossowska, whose profession was unidentified
- Edith Green, Dr. Thomas E. Walsh
- Alberta Handy, unknown perpetrator
- Ethel Hoer, Dr. Albert Peacock
- Jeanette Jarrett, Dr. Roy Shell
- Louise Maday, Midwife Amelia Becker
- Lillian McCullough, Dr. James P. A. Nolan
- Mary Morehead, Dr. Lucy Hagenow
- Emily Mueller, Midwife Magdelane Stegeman
- Margaret Muscia, Minnie Miller, profession not listed
- Mary Paradowski, midwife Josephine Petrova
- Sophie Peterson, Dr. Frederick Springe
- VIctoria Smith; Peter Krakowski, profession not listed
- Fern Strecker, Elizabeth Schade, professional abortionist, qualifications not given
- Willie Walker, Dr. Thomas J. New
- Anna Welger, Theresa Struhala, profession not given
Here is a breakdown of who performed the fatal abortions I've uncovered for the 1920s:
*Perpetrator, or perpetrator's profession, unknown: 29.71%
*Other medical person: 20.29%
*Professional lay abortionist: 0.72%
If we figure that the least likely to die are those who get a doctor to do their abortions, and the most likely to die those who take things into their own hands, this small sample is in keeping with the estimates of Mary Calderone and Nancy Howell Lee, that about 90% of criminal abortions were done by doctors.
For more abortion deaths, visit the Cemetery of Choice:
For more abortion deaths broken down by year, see this post.
To email this post to a friend, use the icon below.