Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Abortion deaths in the 1950's

The CDC doesn't publish abortion mortality data prior to 1972, but I made this chart from information Physicians for Life got from the National Center for Health Statistics. I've assessed elsewhere how accurate the data are, looking at an intensive study in Minnesota and another in California, and though they're not 100% complete, they're not radically off, and the trends (falling except for the 1950s) are accurate.

With that said, here's the chart. Legal abortion deaths are orange, illegal abortion deaths are purple. The top line is the total of both legal and illegal.

I've looked at the period from 1945 to 1965, to give a context to the 1950s.



I have no idea why the trends in the 1950s look the way they do. After the precipitous drop in the 1940s, due to the development of antibiotics, transfusions, and other ways of treating sick and injured patients, we see the decline slow, then slowly reverse itself, until it resumes falling in 1962. There were no changes in the laws, and rubella and thalidomide -- causing an increase in birth defects -- were yet out on the horizon, so there was no reason for the number of abortions to rise. I even considered the Baby Boom, but the surge in births began before 1940, and more than half of this surge in births coincided with the massive plunge in abortion deaths from 1940 to 1950. Any theories?

Here are the deaths I know of for the 1950s. I didn't choose these deaths because I thought they made any particular point; they were just the ones I could find information on by searching Westlaw and old newspaper archives.

  • May 6, 1950: Vivian Campbell, according to the National Organization for Women (which does not cite its sources), Vivian died from a mysterious induced abortion. However, Vivian's daughter said that she learned "the truth" about her mother's death from the words "spontaneous abortion" on Vivian's death certificate. A spontaneous abortion, however, is a miscarriage. It's possible Vivian's daughter misunderstood and all the subsequent advocacy of legal abortion that was done under the banner of Vivian's name was all for a woman who had simply died of natural causes. Lamentable, but hardly related to abortion law or abortion practice.

  • May 26, 1950: Joy Joy bled to death from an abortion performed by Annis Whitlow Brow, whose profession I have been unable to determine.

  • February 6, 1952: Elizabeth "Betty" Hellman died of complications of an abortion performed by Jane McDaniel White, a professional lay abortionist.

  • November 12, 1952: Isabell Cuda died after an abortion performed by lay abortionist Mary Murawsky.

  • November 18, 1953: Joyce Chorney died from complications of an abortion performed by Dr. Alfred Joseph.

  • March 8, 1954: Ozelia Skains was found dead on the street after an abortion blamed on chiropractor John C. Gobischel.

  • April 4, 1954: Gertrude Pinsky was found dead in a private home in the Bronx during a raid on an abortion ring that yielded several licensed doctors and one unlicensed physician.

  • October 19, 1954: Betty Ladel died after an abortion attributed to naturopath Sylvia Redman.

  • November 18, 1954: Virginia Watson, former teammate of swimming star Esther Williams, died after an abortion she'd sought because she felt pregnancy would prevent her from following in Williams' footsteps and becoming a movie star.

  • April 21, 1955: Joyce Johnson died from complications of an abortion performed on her in a motel room by prochoice icon Harvey Karman.

  • August 24, 1955: Doris Ostreicher, an heiress, died after her mother arranged for an abortion performed by a bartender and his beautician wife.

  • December 24, 1955: Jacqueline Smith died after an abortion performed by a scrub nurse, at the behest of her boyfriend -- who then cut her body up, wrapped it in Christmas paper, and disposed of it in trash cans along side streets off Broadway.

  • December 9, 1956: Mary Davies died under the care of "The Angel of Ashland" -- famed criminal abortionist Dr. Robert Spencer.

  • February 10, 1957: Alice Kimberly died from complications of an abortion performed by veterinarian Ira Ledbetter.

  • September 18, 1958: Georgia Lee Cody was found dead in her home from complications of an abortion. The perpetrator was never identified.

    Here is a breakdown of who performed these fatal abortions:



  • Non-physicians with medical training - 28.57%
  • Professional lay abortionist - 28.57%
  • Physician - 21.43%
  • Unknown (Perpetrator or perpetrator's profession not identified) - 21.43%

    If we look only at those cases in which I was able to determine the profession of the perpetrator, the breakdown looks like this:



  • Non-physicians with medical training - 36.36%
  • Professional lay abortionist - 36.36%
  • Physician - 27.27%

    I found this breakdown quite surprising, and a departure from the other pre-legalization decades, where physicians were the primary parties responsible for fatal abortions. I am theorizing that there might be some connection between this and the rise in abortion deaths during this decade.



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

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  • 2 comments:

    Michelle said...

    The change in the 1950's was due to the invention of Penicillin.

    GrannyGrump said...

    Michelle, why would MORE women die after the introduction of an antibiotic?