Sunday, February 10, 2013

An Unusual Case from 1957: Veterinarian Perpetrates Fatal Abortion

On February 10, 1957, veterinarian Ira Ledbetter performed an abortion on 38-year-old Alice Kimberly. Ledbetter used a veterinary instrument called a milk tube on Alice, causing lacerations and an embolism. A milk tube is a cannula with a bulb syringe attached, which sounds very much like the early abortion device popularized by Harvey Karman. Alice quickly died of her injuries, leaving her husband with five minor children to raise alone.

Ledbetter had picked Alice up at her home about 1:00 p.m. on February 10, and drove around with her for about two hours, "making intermittent stops," before driving up to a mortuary in Coldwater and announcing that he'd found a dead woman lying by the side of the road and had her body in his car. Agnes Swarmer, the mortuary attendant, contacted the Dr. McCoy, the county coroner, who summoned the sheriff.

Alice's body was slumped over in the front seat of Ledbetter's car. Upon taking her temperature, McCoy estimated that Alice had been dead for about an hour.There appeared to be fresh blood on the front seat and on the right front and back doors and windows. Lying on Ledbetter's coat on the back seat was the milk tube, which he said he'd used on a cow several days earlier. Just in front of the rear seat was a broken jug of ice.

Upon autopsy, McCoy found a lot of frothy blood in the pulmonary arteries, clear evidence of a massive air embolism. Death, he concluded, would have been almost instantaneous. Alice had been about ten to twelve weeks pregnant, with the placenta torn lose. McCoy concluded that somebody with enough skill not to have injured Alice's cervix -- and thus not Alice herself -- had used the milk tube to put air between the placenta and the uterine wall, causing the fatal embolism.

Laboratory tests found that the blood was Alice's blood type, A, and was on the inside tip of the milk tube, on Alice's slip, on Ledbetter's trousers, and on the interior of the car.

Ledbetter, age 65, appealed his conviction. He was offered release on $10,000 bond pending appeal after being convicted of first-degree manslaughter in Alice's death, but the court upheld his conviction.

Alice's abortion was unusual in that it was not preformed by a physician, as was by far the most typical scenario. Still, it was performed by somebody with medical training, which was unusual but still more common than amateur or self-induced abortions.

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

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