Sunday, March 06, 2011

1937: Woman take mother-in-law and young daughter on fateful abortion trip

Beatrice Fern Fisher, age 36, operated a gas station and grocery store with her husband, Lyle, in Snohomish county, about seventeen miles north of Seattle. The couple had three children, aged 14, 13, and 4. Around 1937, Beatrice had successfully sought an abortion, performed by the same Seattle doctor who had delivered her oldest child. Around March 4 of 1945, Beatrice informed her husband that she was pregnant, and that she intended to return to Seattle for an abortion to be performed by the woman who'd done the first abortion. Her husband wasn't happy with the plan, but left the matter to his wife.

On March 5, Beatrice took her four-year-old daughter and $100 in cash and drove to Seattle to seek her former physician. On the way to Seattle, Beatrice stopped at the home of her mother-in-law, Ethel Howard. Mrs. Howard was a practical nurse. While at her mother-in-law's house, Beatrice called a "Dr. T" and spoke to him about having an abortion done. This was the first Mrs. Howard learned of the pregnancy.

At some point that morning, Beatrice called her husband and said that she'd not been able to talk to her doctor, but that the nurse at the doctor's office had referred her to "Dr. T" in Seattle.

Beatrice, her mother-in-law, and the little girl went to Seattle, to Dr. T's office. They arrived at around noon. Dr. T was not available, but his nurse gave Beatrice a business card from Dr. T. On the back, she wrote the name of Dr. Frank C. Hart, along with the address of his office in the Joshua Green building in Seattle.
Beatrice and her companions went to Hart's office, where they found a waiting room full of women but no nurse. Later, Hard came into the waiting room and announced, "Five of you women that came in just now leave and those that were here yesterday remain." Mrs. Howard left with the little girl, but Beatrice stayed.
On the drive home, at about 5:00, Beatrice stopped at her mother-in-law's home. She said she had a severe headache. She was perspiring heavily. Mrs. Howard, following Dr. Hart's instructions, gave her daughter-in-law black tea and put a hot water bottle under her back. That was when she noticed that Beatrice's genitals were bandaged.

Beatrice stayed in bed for about 45 minutes, then got up for dinner with her in-laws. She left for home at about 8:30, stopping at the gas station to pick up her husband.

The following morning, Beatrice told her husband that she was returning to Dr. Hart to have "blood clots" removed. She looked tired. She took her daughter with her again, stopping again at her mother-in-law's house. The three went into Seattle, ate lunch, then went to Hart's office. During the trip, Beatrice reported chest and arm pain, and her face was flushed deep red.

At Hart's office, the women again found a waiting room full of women, but no nurse. Again, Hart made the announcement that those who were there for the first time were to leave, and the rest were to remain. He told Beatrice to proceed into the office. Mrs. Howard told Hart that she was very concerned about Beatrice. Fisher told her, "This is no place for relations and children. Meet her downstairs in the lobby."

Expecting her daughter-in-law to be ready to leave in about 20 minutes, Mrs. Howard went to do some shopping. On returning to the building, she found a crowd of people gathered in the lobby near the flower shop. Mrs. Howard approached the group and found Beatrice lying dead.

The autopsy determined that Beatrice had been about two months pregnant. There were clear signs that somebody had performed a curettage. The uterine wall had been gouged in several places. Clots had formed over these gouges. The coroner concluded that one of these clots had formed an embolism that had lodged in Beatrice's lung, causing her death.

On March 7, Hart was arrested. He showed authorities through his premises and gave instruments into evidence, including sponge-forceps and irrigating curettes. When questioned, Hart said that he kept no patient records and didn't give receipts.

Hart was convicted of abortion and manslaughter in Beatrice's death.

Beatrice's abortion was typical of illegal abortions in that it was performed by a physician.
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During the 1940s, while abortion was still illegal, there was a massive drop in maternal mortality from abortion. The death toll fell from 1,407 in 1940, to 744 in 1945, to 263 in 1950. Most researches attribute this plunge to the development of blood transfusion techniques and the introduction of antibiotics. Learn more here.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion
Source: 178 Wash. 290, 34 P.2d 914; Supreme Court of Washington. State v Martin No. 25153.July 23, 1934.

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