Sunday, December 21, 2008

Abortion deaths in 1901

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.

  • January 7, 1901: Julia Pettinger died in her Chicago home from an abortion performed there that day by Dr. Maggie Becker.

  • January 16, 1901: Jennie Mallard died at a hospital in Chicago from an abortion performed there that day by Margaret Simmons, who is identified as a midwife.

  • May 9, 1901: Mrs. Matteson died from complications of an abortion performed by Dr. J.B. Butts.

  • July, 1901: Mrs. Swope died from complications of an abortion she was being treated for by Dr. F.D. Smith. Smith insisted that he'd merely been providing aftercare for an abortion actually perpetrated by Dr. D. W. Bottorf.

  • August 18, 1901: Mrs. Robinson died in her Chicago home from an abortion performed there by Dr. Muenster.

  • November 15, 1901: Irma Brown died in a Chicago hospital, from an abortion performed that day, evidently by Dr. Robert E. Gray.

  • December 2, 1901: Rose Lefebre was found dead of an apparent abortion in the office of Dr. Volbending.

    I analyzed who performed these fatal abortions, as well as those performed 1902-1909 and 1900, and got this picture of who performed the fatal abortions:


  • Doctors - 60%
  • Midwives - 24%
  • Unknown or undetermined - 8%
  • Self - 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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    Joe said...

    Why are so many of your stories from Chicago?

    Christina Dunigan said...

    The Homicide in Chicago Interactive Database includes cases of homicide by abortion, so I searched it.

    Anonymous said...

    Then obviously the way to make abortion safer in Chicago is to get rid of the Interactive Database.

    Christina Dunigan said...

    Why not? It's pretty similar to how the CDC reduced legal abortion deaths. Just stop looking for them!

    Anonymous said...

    That again? Yawn. You're just wrong, that's all. You're peddling a conspiracy theory--trying to trick readers into thinking abortion is more dangerous than it is. Abortion oversight is very good in North America and your own examples show this when pressed, like the Tabb case.

    Do you live near any universities? See if you can audit either Epidemiology 101 or Rhetoric 101. You blog as if you had learned from, well, a car salesman.