Sunday, December 21, 2008

Abortion deaths, 1902-1909

This is the picture the CDC paints in Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies of maternal mortality at the beginning of the 20th century:

Maternal mortality rates were highest in this century during 1900-1930. Poor obstetric education and delivery practices were mainly responsible for the high numbers of maternal deaths, most of which were preventable. Obstetrics as a speciality was shunned by many physicians, and obstetric care was provided by poorly trained or untrained medical practitioners. Most births occurred at home with the assistance of midwives or general practitioners. Inappropriate and excessive surgical and obstetric interventions (e.g., induction of labor, use of forceps, episiotomy, and cesarean deliveries) were common and increased during the 1920s. Deliveries, including some surgical interventions, were performed without following the principles of asepsis. As a result, 40% of maternal deaths were caused by sepsis (half following delivery and half associated with illegally induced abortion) with the remaining deaths primarily attributed to hemorrhage and toxemia.

Note, please, that with issues such as doctors not using proper aseptic techniques, lack of access to blood transfusions and antibiotics, and overall poor health to begin with, there was likely little difference between the performance of a legal abortion and illegal practice, and the aftercare for either type of abortion was probably equally unlikely to do the woman much, if any, good.

Maternal mortality rates for the 20th century, according to the CDC, looked like this:

This is all maternal deaths, from abortion, miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, complications of childbirth, and so forth. You can see that the 20th Century got off to a good start, improving maternal health, but that trend would later level off, and then reverse itself temporarily, before taking the downward trend that would continue for the rest of the century.

Note also the total lack of even the faintest blip on the trends with the legalization of abortion in the beginning of the 1970s.

With that established, let's look at the sample of cases I've been unable to uncover during this period. Please note that these cases are chosen purely because I could find information about them, and not because I thought a particular woman's story made a particular political point.

  • April 25, 1902: Harriet Larocque died after her lover reneged on his offer of marriage, and instead arranged an abortion by an unnamed perpetrator.

  • June 12, 1902: Irene Wengel died after her cousin arranged for an abortion to be done by Dr. Frederick N. Weightnovel.

  • 1903: Sophie Herman died from an abortion performed by Harla Faustman, identified as a midwife.

  • September 3, 1903: Florence Gaiewski died after an abortion performed at a Chicago hospital by Dr. Ladislaw Slominski.

  • May 17, 1904: Mary McCarthy died from an abortion performed by Gertrude Plenz, whose profession was listed as "unskilled".

  • July 11, 1904: Mrs. Swanson died after an illegal abortion performed by midwife Constance Marie Anderson.

  • 1905: Alice Bloom died after an abortion performed by Dr. Julius N. Goltz.

  • March 14, 1905: Mary Putnam is one of many victims of Dr. Lucy Hagenow.

  • March 2, 1906: Lola Madson is another victim of Dr. Lucy Hagenow.

  • March 20, 1906: Anna Gosch died after she allowed her lover to perform an abortion on her with a catheter.

  • May 6, 1907: Annie Horvatich died after an abortion by Dr. Lucy Hagenow.

  • 1908: Mrs. Gies died after an abortion performed by Dr. William H. Wilson.

    I analyzed who performed these fatal abortions, as well as those performed in 1901 and 1900, and got this picture of who performed the fatal abortions:


  • Doctors - 60%
  • Midwives - 24%
  • Unknown or undetermined - 8%
  • Amateur - 8%

    This is in keeping with estimates that roughly 90% of pre-legalization abortions were being done by doctors when Planned Parenthood held a conference in 1955. As people turned to doctors for more care, rather than to midwives or to friends and relatives, they'd turn to doctors more for abortions as well. Also, doctors would likely be underrepresented among those performing fatal abortions, if only because they're more likely to be able to come up with a likely alternative explanation for a death.

    For more about abortion deaths in specific years, see this post.

    For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion

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