Sunday, March 27, 2011

1929: The death of a poster child

According to the National Organization for Women web site, Clara Bell Duvall was a 32-year-old married mother of five, aged 6 months to 12 years. She and her family were living with her parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania due to financial problems. NOW says that Clara attempted a self-induced abortion with a knitting needle. Though she was seriously ill and severe pain, NOW says, Clara's doctor delayed hospitalizing her for several weeks. Her death, at a Catholic hospital on March 27, 1929, was attributed to pneumonia.

I'd welcome any verifying information on Mrs. Duvall's death. After all, NOW also claims that Becky Bell died from complications of an illegal abortion, when in fact she died of pneumonia concurrent with a miscarriage. (There was no evidence that Becky's pregnancy had been tampered with in any way.) But if people who think abortion is a good idea want to blame Clara's death on abortion, I'll let them claim her as somebody their ideology killed.

Clara Duvall seems to be the woman described in the chapter, "Marilyn," in The Worst of Times by Patricia G. Miller. Marilyn was Clara's daughter. There are differences in Marilyn's story and in the story NOW relates, but so many other details match that it is unlikely that they're describing different women.

Marilyn gives her mother's name as Claudia, and her age as 34. The difference in ages may be attributed to people taking the years of the woman's birth and death and calculating her age without taking the months into account. Marilyn also said that her mother sang with the Pittsburgh light opera company, so it is possible that Marilyn might be using a false name for her mother to preserve the family's privacy.

Clara/Claudia's association with the opera company may also explain the elegant portrait on NOW's site -- a portrait that a poverty-stricken and desperate woman would have been unlikely to afford.

The following facts match:
  • Five children, from an infant to a 12-year-old
  • Living in Pittsburgh
  • Died in March of 1929
  • Death originally attributed to pneumonia
  • The woman used a knitting needle
  • Was at home for several days before being hospitalized
  • Died in a hospital
  • Cared for until her death by her usual doctor who seemed at a loss as to how to care for his moribund patient

Marilyn said that her brother Gerald was the oldest, twelve years old when Clara died. Eileen was ten. Rose was eight, Marilyn was six, and Constance was 18 months. Marilyn describes poignantly the difference between her life before her mother's death and her life after losing her mother. The loss was truly shattering for the entire family.

Marilyn said that her mother had gotten help from a friend for a successful abortion between the births of Marilyn and Constance. Marilyn didn't have any details of the first abortion, and got what she knew about the fatal abortion from her sister Eileen, who had spoken at length with their mother when she was hospitalized -- though it seems odd that a dying woman would be explaining to a 10-year-old girl how she performed a knitting-needle abortion on herself.

NOW's story differs from Marilyn's in many aspects, however. Aside from the different age and name, the following aspects do not match:
  • NOW has the family living with the woman's parents; Marilyn said that they were living in a large house owned by her mother's parents.
  • NOW indicates that the family were too poor to afford a home of their own. Marilyn said that they lived in a large house, and that her father was an editor of one of Pittsburgh's daily newspapers, and that he did freelance public relations for sports events. Marilyn also said that one of her mother's friends was the wife of a well-known Pittsburgh industrialist. This is not a likely friendship for a destitute woman forced to move her family of seven into her parents' home. Marilyn also said that her mother was laid to rest in a magnificent mahogany casket with a satin lining, hardly the sort of burial a poverty-crushed widower could afford for his dead wife. Marilyn also said that the casket lay in the parlor, not a room that poor people were likely to have. In fact, Marilyn describes how shocking it was, after her mother's death, to go live with poor relatives. Poverty was a new experience for the child. In fact, Marilyn describes a riverboat outing the family took before her mother's death. She described how the girls were dressed in matching navy blue coats with red satin linings, and her brother had a jacket and tie.

So there are two possibilities:
  1. Clara Bell Duvall and Claudia are two different women, both with five children, both of whom lived in homes owned by their parents, who both performed knitting-needle abortions in the same city in the same month, and who both died in hospitals and both had their deaths wrongly attributed to pneumonia.
  2. Clara and Claudia are the same woman, and but NOW turned her from a prosperous matron and opera singer into a wretched slum mother in order to make her situation seem more desperate.

All I could find of Clara's story in Pittsburgh papers is a death notice verifying that she died at Mercy Hospital on March 27, 1929. Her husband was Grafton Duvall, her parents Joseph H. and Sadie E. Bell, nee Cain. It also verifies that services were held at the family home.

If what NOW and Marilyn describe is accurate, then Clara/Claudia's abortion was unusual in that it was self-induced, rather than performed by a doctor, as was the case with perhaps 90% of criminal abortions.

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

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