Friday, June 17, 2016

Illegal Abortions: Two Typical and One Atypical

The oldest of today's deaths are from common Chicago abortions of the early 20th century.

On June 17, 1913, 36-year-old Freda Englehard died in Chicago, at the scene of an abortion reportedly perpetrated that day by Dr. Joseph A. Meeks. Meeks was held for murder, and Mrs. Mollie Flaherty was held as an accessory, but the case never went to trial.

On June 17, 1918, 25-year-old Sophie Suida died at Chicago's St. Mary's Hospital from complications of an abortion reportedly perpetrated by Dr. L. D. Tucholska, who died at the county jail on June 28, before the case could come to trial. Physicians and midwives ran an abundance of semi-clandestine abortion practices in the Chicago of that era.

Another death, this one in the 1950s, followed a less common abortion.

"When Abortion was Illegal (and Deadly): Seattle's Maternal Death Toll," Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, citing Seattle Times articles dated June 22, July 1, and July 3, 1935, notes the following about the abortion death of Bettye Porter:

The African American mother of two flew to Seattle from her home in Anchorage evidently seeking an abortion. After friends reported her missing, her body was found in a remote area near Gig Harbor. Norman Wade Austin was charged with manslaughter and two others as accessories. Police charged that Austin, 34, a mechanic by trade, had performed the abortion in the massage parlor he had recently opened in the Savoy Hotel at 1214 2nd Ave. Austin, who also faced charges for running a stolen car ring, spent several years in prison.

I have been unable to learn anything more about Bettye or Austin. The fact that Bettye went to a lay abortionist made her choice highly unusual.

Who performed abortions before legalization?

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 illegal abortions in the early 1960s were being done by physicians. Calderone further estimated that 8% were self-induced and that 2% were induced by someone other than the woman or a doctor. Lee estimated that 89% of pre-legalization abortions were done by physicians, an additional 5% by nurses or others with some medical training, and 6% were done by non-medical persons or the woman herself.

Calderone's numbers came from "43 men and women from the various disciplines of obstetrics, psychiatry, public health, sociology, forensic medicine, and law and demography." Lee interviewed women who had undergone pre-legalization abortions. The discrepancy between Lee's and Calderone's breakdowns of non-physician abortions is probably due to sampling errors.

Lee, who spoke with women who survived abortions, would of course not encounter women whose abortions killed them. Therefore she would not be exposed to the proportionate number of women who chose the most dangerous alternative. Lee's sample also included only willing survey participants, who would be more forthright and complete in divulging information, such as who really performed the abortion, than women being interviewed by health or law enforcement officials.

Calderone, on the other hand, spoke with those likely to see the botched and fatal abortions, and therefore they would be exposed to a higher percentage of the most dangerous, self-induced abortions. Also, Calderone's informants would have been investigating botched abortions that could be subject to a criminal investigation. Therefore, women speaking to them would be likely to withhold the true identity of their abortionists to protect them. Also, should the woman die, her family and friends might identify the woman herself as the abortionist, rather than admit their own roles in arranging or performing abortions, in order to close the investigation.

Anecdotal data tends to support Lee's research. Stories of abortions by midwives, orderlies, chiropractors, and assorted lay practitioners likeHarvey Karman and the Jane Syndicate are far too common to represent only 2% of criminal abortions. We would probably not err too far if we relied primarily on Lee's numbers and adjusted them slightly to reflect the slight under-reporting of amateur abortions. Thus, a fair estimate of the breakdown of criminal abortions would probably look like this:

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