Sunday, January 31, 2016

Would a Law Have Saved Margaret? What About Gwendolyn?

Many criminal abortion deaths leave behind the mystery: Who was the perpetrator? On January 25, 1915, Dr. E. M. Ullrich of Brooklyn, was called in to attend to 20-year-old Margaret Bereis of Ridgewood, New York. He found her with a high fever. The next day he consulted with Dr. Jensen concerning Margaret's high fever. They concurred that she was suffering from septicemia. Ullrich continued to care for her until her death on January 31, filling out her death certificate attributing her death to peritonitis and blood poisoning brought on by an abortion.

We can speculate about whether Margaret would have found a more skilled practitioner had abortion been legal, but in any event, infection is a known abortion complication. It is also a complication that was extremely difficult to treat in 1915, with the development of penicillin more than a decade in the future and widespread use of antibiotics still two world wars away.

After legalization, according to theory, unskilled or careless abortion practitioners would be replaced by reputable doctors, and women would no longer needlessly die. However, even before the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision struck down all US abortion laws in 1973, women were already starting to die needlessly from the purportedly safe legal abortions.

Fifteen-year-old Gwendolyn Drummer was a student at Harry Ellis High in Richmond, California, when she was admitted to Doctor's Hospital of Pinole for a safe and legal abortion, to be performed January 28, 1972. Her doctor chose the saline abortion methodThese abortions are performed by replacing amniotic fluid with a strong salt solution. 

In the decades after WWII, as the antibiotics that likely could have saved Margaret Bereis became available, the saline abortion method was being abandoned in countries where abortion was legal.  A British study published in 1966 found that the saline could enter the mother's bloodstream and cause brain damage. Swedish researchers noticed an unacceptably high rate of complications and deaths. Sweden and the Soviet Union followed Japan in abandoning saline abortion as too dangerous by the late 1960s.

But as laws loosened up in the US, American doctors adopted the saline abortion method. So in 1972, with over a decade of warning not to do so, Gwendolyn's doctor injected saline into her uterus. It got into her blood stream, just as British, Japanese, Soviet, and Swedish doctors had repeatedly warned it could do. Gwendolyn suffered organ damage. She subsequently developed pneumonia, and died on January 31.

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