Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Typical and Atypical, and Why One Must Be Ignored

On March 27, 1940, 20-year-old homemaker Mary Ann Page of Alton, Illinois, died from a botched criminal abortion. The coroner's jury identified the perpetrator as 69-year-old Dr. C.E. Trovillion, also of Alton, former managing officer of Illinois state hospitals.

Mary Ann's abortion, perpetrated by a physician, was typical of criminal abortions. Mary Claderone (then Medical Director of Planned Parenthood) and Nancy Howell Lee (a pro choice researcher) both investigated the practice of criminal abortion in the pre-legalization era. Calderone estimated that 90% of all abortions were being done by physicians, 8% were self-induced and 2% were induced by someone else. Lee estimated that 89% of illegal abortions were done by physicians, an additional 5% by nurses or others with some medical training, and 6% by non-medical persons or the woman herself.

However, "A woman went to a doctor for an abortion, then died from complications" isn't going to rally the troops. Something more dramatic is called for. And in the days before penicillin and blood transfusions, there were enough deaths that sooner or later some woman's tragedy would produce a useful and comely corpse for public display.

Whoever Clara Jane Bell Duvall was in life -- elegant society matron or desperate slum mother -- in death she has become a sort of patron saint of the abortion lobby. external image claraBellDuvall.gifClara was a 32-year-old married mother of five, aged 6 months to 12 years. According to the National Organization for Women web site, 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 in severe pain, NOW says, Clara's doctor delayed hospitalizing her for several weeks. Her death, at a Pittsburgh's Mercy Hospital on March 27, 1929, was attributed to pneumonia. There are discrepancies between NOW's story and the story Clara's daughter (using the name "Marilyn") relayed to prochoice writer Patricia Miller. Furthermore, the entire knitting-needle abortion story is third-hand, something the dying Clara reportedly confessed to her 10-year-old daughter who later in life relayed it to a sister who relayed it to Miller. We have no real evidence -- and no matter what the truth is, Clara was beautiful and young, her death was a devastating tragedy, and the narrative is politically useful. The story will stand.

The tale of Clara Duvall's abortion death, one that nobody can do anything to verify, is a useful one to the abortion lobby, and thus it's her death, and not the far more common deaths of women like Mary Ann Page, that will be put forth to the public as typical criminal abortion deaths. It's narrative, not facts, that matters.

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