Wednesday, April 20, 2011

1955: ProChoice icon kills woman in nutcracker abortion

Joyce Johnson, Meet Harvey Karman

During April of 1955 Harvey Karman was working at the Clinical School of the Psychology Department of the University of California at Los Angeles, seeking a doctorate in psychology. He was not licensed to practice medicine.

Around early February of 1955, 26-year-old Joyce Johnson told her husband, Ben, that she was pregnant. They discussed an abortion. Joyce had a friend named Patricia who she saw shortly before she met Karman. Prior to the abortion, according to both Patricia and Joyce's husband, Joyce was in good health.

The Abortion & Its Effects

On April 6, 1955, Karman met Joyce in a motel room and, using a speculum, inserted a nutcracker into Joyce in order to perform an abortion.

On April 8, Joyce's husband took her to St. Joseph's Hospital. She was examined by a Dr. Moss who diagnosed her as suffering from "an infected criminal abortion." The dead fetus was still in her uterus. She expelled it while at St. Joseph's.

On April 13, Joyce was transferred to General Hospital for specialized treatment. She died there on April 21. An autopsy was performed, and Joyce's death blamed on bronchial pneumonia brought on by the septic abortion.

The Trial

During the trial, a photograph of the autopsy was available, but the district attorney didn't display it. He instead told the jury, "you can look at it up in the jury room if you are so inclined--it's an autopsy picture--I'm not going to show it to you because some people don't like to see things like that--she was 26 years old April 6th. She was a girl in good health. She was pregnant. She wanted to do something about having an abortion for this pregnancy."

The district attorney also told the jury, "Frankly, I don't know how you feel about this matter of abortion--it is a matter of difference of opinion. Some people say well, people can't afford it, it's all right to have an abortion. Some people say if the woman's health won't stand it it's all right to have an abortion. Our law says it's all right to have an abortion if her health is of such nature she can't have a baby. Some people think abortions are all right. Some people are absolutely against all of them. If you want to know the truth, I'm pretty much against all abortions myself, I think it's a terrible thing for a girl to be talked into this."

The appeals court found it "improper for the district attorney to express his personal belief as to all abortion," but noted that since the jury was admonished to ignore the comment Karman had no grounds for appeal in the fact that the DA made the comment.

The Defense

Karman's defense called a Dr. Gilbert as an expert. He reviewed the autopsy report and medical records, an opined that Joyce did not die from a septic abortion. He was paid $150 for his testimony, ironically the same amount Joyce paid for the abortion.

The defense also appealed on the grounds that the the DA unduly prejudiced the jury by bringing out in cross-examining Karman that he'd been conviced previously of a felony. The appeals court ruled that this was proper impeachment of a witness.
Karman's defense also argued that Joyce's husband and friend were improperly granted immunity after they originally refused to testify.

Karman's defense also claimed that the prosecution failed to prove that the abortion wasn't necessary to save Joyce's life. But the appeals court found that the testimony of Joyce's husband and friend that Joyce had been in good health, settled that matter. Of course, pure logic would prove that matter, since Joyce was seeking an illegal abortion from an amateur in a motel room. Had her life been in danger, an ob/gyn would have been able to admit her to a hospital and perform the abortion there.

The Final Say -- Sort Of

An appeals court found that the district attorney's statement that what defendant did was "absolute butchery" was fair argument on the facts, and not an unduly prejudicious statement. It came out in the case that Joyce's husband was dating another woman and therefore had an interest in Joyce securing an abortion.
Karman was convicted of the abortion by a jury. But when prochoice Governor Jerry Brown took office, he pardoned Karman and set him at large to further the cause.

Typical or Not?

Joyce's abortion was unusual in that it was performed by an amateur, rather than by a doctor, as was the case with perhaps 90% of criminal abortions. However, it stands out because Harvey Karman was treated like a real doctor by the abortion establishment. He was invited to train abortionists, and was celebrated by abortion advocates for having invented a suction cannula designed specifically for early abortions. So his amateur status is not necessarily reflective of his comparative skill.

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During the 1950s, we see an anomaly: Though maternal mortality had been falling during the first half of the 20th Century, and abortion mortality in particular had been plummeting, the downward trend slowed, then reversed itself briefly. I have yet to figure out why. For more, see Abortion Deaths in the 1950's.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion
Source: District Court of Appeal, Second District Division 3, California.The People of the State of California, Plaintiff and Respondent,v.Harvey Leroy Karman, Defendant and Appellant.Cr. 5583.Nov. 13, 1956

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