Sunday, December 21, 2008

Abortion deaths, 1938-1939

We need some perspective first. All surgery of any sort in the 1930s was done without the aid of modern blood transfusion and antibiotics. All surgery of any sort in this period 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 civilian practice at all. 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.

So our best guess, based on what I've been able to find, is about 1,400 deaths a year from abortions in the late 1920s and early 1930s -- a number that would combine illegal abortions, the rare "therapeutic abortion" performed as a last-ditch attempt to save a dying woman, and miscarriages.

With that established, let's look at some examples of women who died, and who did their abortions:

  • 1938: Doris Alexander died after Dr. Clinton E. May, who was also John Dillinger's doctor, performed an abortion on her.

  • May 6, 1938: Asunta La Rosa died after an abortion performed by Genevieve Horton, a practical nurse.

  • June 1, 1938: Mary Ellen Legge died after Dr. Otto Lucy performed an abortion on her, assisted by his practical nurse.

  • April 19, 1939: Jane Roe of Long Beach died after an abortion performed by two women whose professions I have been unable to determine.

  • May 5, 1939: Martha Anderson died after her lover arranged an abortion by a chiropractor-in-training, Frank Parchen.

  • October 13, 1939: Barbara Hanson died after an abortion performed in a motel room by two men whose professions I've been unable to determine.

  • October 18, 1939: Alice Corbett died after an abortion perpetrated by Dr. Allen F. Murphy.

    Here is the breakdown of who performed the fatal abortions I've identified for the 1930s:

    *Doctor: 73.68%
    *Perpetrator or perpetrator's profession unknown: 15.79%
    *Other medical professional: 7.89%
    *Self: 2.63

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

    For more abortion deaths broken down by year, see this post.

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