Thursday, January 28, 2016

Typical and Atypical Abortion Deaths Around the Country

Early 20th Century Chicago

Chicago at this time was a hospitable environment for illegal abortionists, and women readily availed themselves of the many physicians and midwives who took up the trade. Two examples from this date, one year apart, were found in online records.

On January 28, 1911, 18-year-old homemaker Lillie Hirst died in Chicago from septicemia caused by an abortion that had been perpetrated less than a week prior. Dr. Aldrich and Mrs. Treshelling were held by the Coroner's Jury and indicted, but the case never went to trial.

On January 28, 1912, 28-year-old homemaker Mary Balogh, an immigrant from Hungary, died at the practice of midwife Anna Klickner from an abortion perpetrated the previous day. Klickner was arrested at the scene but escaped. She was captured on November 26 and indicted on December 15. The case never went to trial for reasons I have been unable to determine.

Mid 20th Century Chicago

There are fewer readily available records for Chicago abortion deaths in the middle of the 20th century. Odds are that practice in Chicago would be at least similar to the nationwide pattern of the vast majority of illegal abortions being perpetrated by physicians.

Lavern Perez, age 22, died at her home in Chicago on January 28, 1943. Dr. Henry Gross, age 58, was found guilty of manslaughter by abortion. The prosecution presented Gross as having a dual personality. Gross had a respectable medical practice. However, after a Dr. Ira Willits died, Gross set up shop in Willits's old office as an abortionist under Willit's name. It was at this office, Lavern's mother-in-law, Olga Perez, testified, that Lavern's fatal abortion was perpetrated. Mrs. Perez said that Lavern had paid an office attendant $60 for the abortion. The day after Lavern died, Mrs. Perez said, Dr. Gross appeared at her home with a gun, which he used to threaten both her and her son. They wrestled the gun away from him, whereupon he begged for the weapon back so he could kill himself. Gross had insisted that he'd only been treating Lavern for a cold. However, he was also investigated for the February 20, 1943 abortion death of Dorothy Webber, age 20.

Pittsburgh, PA, Early 20th Century

My primary information about abortion deaths for this time and place are through coroner records. Interestingly, the Pittsburgh area's abortion culture seemed to lean toward self-induced abortions despite the presence of physician-abortionists.

On January 28, 1918, 27-year-old Annabella Lewis, a homemaker, died in at West Penn Hospital in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The autopsy concluded that she had performed a self-induced abortion using slippery elm bark. She had told her husband, Albert, about the abortion, but had denied even being ill to anybody else until her admission to the hospital

Possible Lay Abortionist, Virginia, 1947

Though the overwhelming majority of illegal abortions were done by doctors, and a large percent of the rest done by people with either formal or informal medical training, there were a small number of lay abortionists. This case, I believe, is an example, since the guilty party's profession is never mentioned in any documents I've found about the case.

Sometime in early January, 1947, Iva Rodeffer Davis Coffman performed an abortion on Kerneda Bennett, resulting in her death on January 28. Kerneda, though living with her husband in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was pregnant as a result of an extramarital affair. She asked her friend, Irene Davis, to help her arrange an abortion. The two of them visited Coffman at her home at Mt. Crawford, near Harrisonburg. Coffman took Kerneda into a bedroom. "When they came out," according to legal records, "Mrs. Coffman told Mrs. Bennett to come back if nothing had happened in fourteen days, and if anything was said about why they were there to say they came to have a dress made."

About two weeks later, on January 27, Kerneda "had not had the result expected," asked Irene to contact Coffman again. The two of them took a taxi back to Coffman's home about 7:30 on the evening of January 28. While the taxi was waiting, Coffman took Kerneda back into the bedroom. About fifteen or twenty minutes later Irene thought she heard something fall. A few minutes later, Coffman told her that Kerneda had fainted and asked her to come back to the bedroom. Irene found Kerneda lying, groaning, face-down on the floor beside the bed, dressed except for her shoes and coat. 

Coffman seemed very nervous and said that they needed to get Kerneda to a hospital. Irene summoned the taxi driver, who carried Kerneda out to the cab. Kerneda, who had been nearly lifeless when loaded into the taxi, was dead on arrival at the hospital.

That night Coffman's home was searched, but nothing of evidential value was found. Coffman told the sheriff that Kerneda had asked to use the bathroom, and was shown to the bedroom, and asked for a glass of water. Coffman said she'd brought Kerneda the water, which she had used to wash down two pills from her purse, joking that they were poison. A few minutes later, Coffman said, Kerneda fell onto the floor.

The Harrisonburg/Rockingham County coroner, Dr. Byers, performed the autopsy assisted by Dr. Hill. They found no evidence of external injuries except for a small genital scratch. A piece of tissue from the placenta was in the cervix, a small blood clot was in the vagina, and the uterus was in place, appearing at first to be a normal pregnant uterus with no signs of injury. Upon removing the uterus, the doctors noted a sensation as if the organ contained air. They opened the uterus and found an intact pregnancy with a fetus of about three to four months of gestation. Byers concluded that an abortion had been attempted, which had caused a fatal air embolism. After the embolism killed Kerneda, the baby died as well. He based the embolism diagnosis on the crepitation (feeling as if air was present) of the uterus. Coffman was convicted of performing the fatal abortion and incarcerated to serve a five year sentence. 
1974 Los Angeles: Another Black Victim of Abortion

Evangeline McKenna, a Louisiana native, was 38 years old when she checked into Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles for an abortion and tubal ligation. Two days after the procedure, she had a seizure. She stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest. Doctors told the family that Evanegline was brain dead, but they held out hope and asked that she be put on life support. On January 28, 1974, after twelve days on life support, Evangeline was pronounced dead. She left behind five children.

Evangeline's death, in addition to being a tragedy for her family and loved ones, also highlights the disproportionate damage that legal abortion causes among Blacks in the United States. Though black women are only 13% of the female population in the US, and though they are more likely than white women to oppose abortion, they account for a full 35% of legal abortions reported. Black women, like Evangeline, also account for fully 50% of reported legal abortion deaths.

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