Friday, October 17, 2014

A mysterious 19th century abortion death, and a doctor implicated in 1927

Minnie Darage, age 20, went to Dr. J.C. Berry in Chicago around the 12th of October, 1882. He confirmed her fear that she was pregnant. "She went away and was taken sick soon afterward." Berry attended to her until her death on October 17, which he attributed to septic peritonitis due to an abortion. Her family hadn't know she was pregnant and had no clue as to who the father of Minnie's baby might be. The police did not believe that Dr. Berry had perpetrated the fatal abortion.

On October 5, 1927, 31-year-old Auna Arola underwent a criminal abortion in Chicago. She died on October 17. On October 29, Dr. Vincent Tonavena was arrested. He was indicted for felony murder on November 1. Auna's abortion was typical of illegal abortions in that it was performed by a physician.

Abortion rights groups will blame the deaths of Minnie and Auna on the legal status of abortion at the time. These activists forget that all surgery, including induced abortion, was riskier in the pre-legalization days. As the 20th century progressed, all maternal mortality, including abortion mortality, fell as medical care improved. Antibiotics and blood transfusions -- along with overall better health due to increasing prosperity -- deserve the credit for falling mortality, which was hardly caused retroactively by the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling striking down all the nation's abortion laws.

Chart of US maternal mortality rates in the 20th century. The rate plumets from over 800 per 100,000 live births in 1900 to fewer than 100 in 1960 -- 13 years before the Roe vs Wade abortion decision that abortion-rights groups credit with reducing maternal mortality in general, and abortion mortality in particular.
US maternal mortality rates, with Roe vs. Wade marked with vertical line.
No doubt there was quackery prior to legalization -- but such quackery persists today. Removing the threat of jail for any but the most egregious behavior does not provide motivation to run a tight ship. Three erstwhile criminal abortionists that I know of -- Benjamin Munson, Milan Vuitch, and Jesse Ketchum -- didn't lose a single abortion patient until after legalization made them less fearful of repercussions and thus far more careless. Each went on to kill two legal abortion patients, not out of simple surgical complications, but due to appalling quackery.

If abortion-rights groups were as concerned with women's lives as they are about the Holy Grail of "access," women could only benefit. If only half of the effort put into investigating and trying to shut down prolife pregnancy help centers were put into investigating and trying to shut down seedy abortion mills, only abortionists would suffer. Women would benefit. Whose side are they really on?

It's time we got real about how little is different between illegal and legal abortion practice: the main difference is how much risk of being shut down or sent to prison the safe-and-legal abortionist faces.

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