Saturday, October 11, 2014

Two Doctors' Fatal Work Before Legalization

The mantra among abortion-rights organizations is that before legalization, the world of abortion was a world of rusty coathangers and untrained quacks. Frankly, it's an insult to the abortion-minded women of yesteryear to assume that they were all so mentally unhinged or utterly mindless. The vast majority sought out professionals of the same caliber they'd go to for any other cause.

Here are two typical Chicago cases from the early 20th century:

On October 11, 1913, 28-year-old Frances Odochowski, a married woman, died in Chicago at the scene of an abortion perpetrated that day by Dr. Arthur L. Blunt. Bunt was arrested and held by the Coroner on November 7, and brought before a Grand Jury, but the case never went to trial.

On October 11, 1926, Jeanette Jarrett, a 28-year-old Black woman, died from complications of a criminal abortion performed on her that day. A Black doctor, Roy Shell, was held by the coroner on October 29. On November 1, he was indicted for felony murder.

Portrait of abortionist Gertrude Pitkanen
Gertrude Pitkanen
Later in the century,  on October 11, 1936, 18-year-old Margie Fraser died in a hospital in her hometown of Helena, Montana from complications of a botched abortion she had sought from Gertrude Pitkanen (pictured), who had completed nurse's training at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and became one of the first surgical nurses at St. James Community Hospital, Butte, Montana. There, she assisted her husband, Dr. Gustavus Pitkanen. Dr. Pitkanen was an abortionist until he was jailed for sedition in 1917, whereupon Gertrude, trained by him and well-versed in surgical procedures, took over the locally-tolerated abortion business.

Abortion-rights groups dismiss post-legalization deaths with a flippant assertion that "all surgery has risks," but do not accept that the same was true prior to legalization. Surgery was riskier then, so abortion was riskier as well. 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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