Thursday, December 25, 2008

1885: A heartbreaking Christmas discovery

On Christmas day of 1885, Dr. Sawdy of Howard City, about 40 miles north of Grand Rapids, opened the newspaper to find out that his 21-year-old daughter, Sylvia, was dead.

Sylvia had left for Grand Rapids by train on December 10, ostensibly to meet the mother of her gentleman-caller, Harry McDowell. Dr. Sawdy had heard nothing more from or about his daughter until the morning of Christmas Eve, when McDowell's father came to him, saying that he'd gotten a telegram or telephone call from his son. The senior McDowell said that Harry had told him that Sylvia was very sick and wanted her mother to go to her. Dr. Sawdy learned nothing more until opening his newspaper on Christmas morning.

It came out in the trial that in November, Sylvia had consulted with Drs. Bodle, Hake, and Bradish, indicating that she was pregnant. Evidence indicated that in spite of the consultations with there doctors, McDowell had performed an abortion on Sylvia on December 23, and that she died that day. McDowell was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years.

In deference to SoMG, who wants me to tell what I think the point is of these stories instead of allowing my readers to draw their own conclusions:

I wish I knew what the three doctors had told Sylvia, aside from presumably verifying her pregnancy. We don't know if they refused to perform an abortion, if they quoted prices that either Sylvia and her lover found prohibitive, if they advised McDowell on how to perform the abortion himself, or if they just kept making circular referrals. History doesn't tell us why Sylvia elected to allow her lover to perform the abortion, just as the documents I've found tell us nothing as to why "Daisy" Roe decided to let her lover do an abortion on her in 1990. We can speculate on what the outcome would have been if abortion had been legal -- though given the state of medical care at the time, or the kinds of quackery that persist after legalization, it might have made little if any difference. We can speculate on what might have dissuaded Sylvia from proceeding with the abortion. Frankly, I can't draw any conclusion myself other than that Sylvia's death was tragic, and that I wish we knew more about how it might have been prevented.

Then why tell Sylvia's story at all? Because I don't pick and choose, only telling women's stories if I think I can use them to score political points. I want a world in which nobody is dying from abortions -- not mothers, not babies, not anybody. And I want to pursue that world honestly, not by hiding information that doesn't support my pet theories. So. Sometimes a woman's story doesn't seem to add diddly-squat to a store of useful information. I think my refusal to pick and choose at least adds an honesty and dedication to truth -- even unpleasant or puzzling or inconvenient truth -- that can only help in the long run.

For more about deaths in specific years or eras, see this post.

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion

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