Saturday, December 27, 2008

Abortion Deaths 1900-1909

This is the picture the CDC paints in Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies of maternal mortality at the beginning of the 20th century:

Maternal mortality rates were highest in this century during 1900-1930. Poor obstetric education and delivery practices were mainly responsible for the high numbers of maternal deaths, most of which were preventable. Obstetrics as a speciality was shunned by many physicians, and obstetric care was provided by poorly trained or untrained medical practitioners. Most births occurred at home with the assistance of midwives or general practitioners. Inappropriate and excessive surgical and obstetric interventions (e.g., induction of labor, use of forceps, episiotomy, and cesarean deliveries) were common and increased during the 1920s. Deliveries, including some surgical interventions, were performed without following the principles of asepsis. As a result, 40% of maternal deaths were caused by sepsis (half following delivery and half associated with illegally induced abortion) with the remaining deaths primarily attributed to hemorrhage and toxemia.

Note, please, that with issues such as doctors not using proper aseptic techniques, lack of access to blood transfusions and antibiotics, and overall poor health to begin with, there was likely little difference between the performance of a legal abortion and illegal practice, and the aftercare for either type of abortion was probably equally unlikely to do the woman much, if any, good.

Maternal mortality rates for the 20th century, according to the CDC, looked like this:

This is all maternal deaths, from abortion, miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, complications of childbirth, and so forth. You can see that the 20th Century got off to a good start, improving maternal health, but that trend would later level off, and then reverse itself temporarily, before taking the downward trend that would continue for the rest of the century.

Note also the total lack of even the faintest blip on the trends with the legalization of abortion in the beginning of the 1970s.

With that established, let's look at the sample of cases I've been unable to uncover during the first decade of the 20th Century. I've done a more detailed breakdown of abortion deaths in 1900, 1901, and 1902-1909. Please note that these cases are chosen purely because I could find information about them, and not because I thought a particular woman's story made a particular political point. Here I will just give the woman's name, and the profession of the person responsible for the fatal abortion.

  1. Ida Henry: midwife

  2. Barbara Shelgren: physician

  3. Alice Koester: unknown

  4. Mrs. Jorgenson: nurse or midwife

  5. Sarah Bonda: midwife

  6. Mary Borglun: nurse or midwife

  7. Julia Pettinger: physician

  8. Jennie Mallard: midwife

  9. Mrs. Matteson: physician

  10. Mrs. Swope: physician

  11. Mrs. Robinson: physician

  12. Irma Brown: physician

  13. Rose Lefebre: physician

  14. Harriet Larocque: unknown

  15. Irene Wengel: physician

  16. Sophie Herman: midwife

  17. Florence Gaiewski: physician

  18. Mary McCarthy: amateur

  19. Mrs. Swanson: midwife

  20. Alice Bloom: physician

  21. Mary Putnam: physician

  22. Lola Madson: physician

  23. Anna Gosch: amateur

  24. Annie Horvatich: physician

  25. Mrs. Gies: physician

I analyzed who performed these fatal abortions, and got this picture of who performed them:


  • Doctors - 60%
  • Midwives - 24%
  • Unknown or undetermined - 8%
  • Amateur - 8%

    If we only count those for whom I was able to determine the profession of the perpetrator, the breakdown looks like this:

  • Doctors - 65.22%
  • Midwives - 26.09%
  • Amateur - 8.70%

    This is in keeping with estimates that roughly 90% of pre-legalization abortions were being done by doctors when Planned Parenthood held a conference in 1955. As people turned to doctors for more care, rather than to midwives or to friends and relatives, they'd turn to doctors more for abortions as well. Also, doctors would likely be underrepresented among those performing fatal abortions, if only because they're more likely to be able to come up with a likely alternative explanation for a death.

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

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

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