Saturday, December 27, 2008

Abortion deaths in the 1930s

We need some perspective first. All surgery of any sort in the 1930s was done without the aid of modern blood transfusion and antibiotics. All surgery of any sort in the 1930s was riskier than similar surgery today. This is the era where kitchen-table surgery was phasing out in favor of hospital-based surgery. I have an obstetrical nursing textbook from this era that describes how to set up an operating table in the woman's home to perform a c-section.

Blood banks were cutting-edge battlefield medicine just a few years before, and had not yet come into common usage. Blood type compatibility was not yet understood. It wasn't until the late 1930s and early 1940s that things like separating blood products started to come into practice. Antibiotics were not manufactured and used widely until after WWII. (See chart, below)

So keep in mind that things that may seem appalling to us in the early 21st century -- such as performing surgery in one's home -- was not appalling at the time. Things we take for granted, like antibiotics and blood banks, were still in the future.

With that said, I can't find any numbers for abortion mortality prior to 1940. It seems that before that, the information available lumps all maternal mortality together, and abortions can't be sorted out. But we can hazard a guess that the numbers were at least as high as they were in 1940. How much higher? It's hard to say.

So our best guess, based on what I've been able to find, is about 1,400 deaths a year from abortions in the late 1920s and early 1930s -- a number that would combine illegal abortions, the rare "therapeutic abortion" performed as a last-ditch attempt to save a dying woman, and miscarriages.

With that established, let's look at some examples of women who died, and who did their abortions. I did breakdowns for 1930, 1932, 1933-1936, 1937, and 1938-1939. I was unable to find any abortion deaths for 1931.

  • 1930: Genevieve Arganbright, Alberta Beard, Ethel Crowell, Evelyn Dellorto, Marie Epperson, Grace Iorio, Dorothy Jasinski, Matilda Kleinschmidt, Sonia Raggins, Jeanette Reder, "Eudora" Roe, and Mary Tulis.

  • 1932: Isobel Ferguson, Ruth Hall, Nancy Jo Lee, Lennis May Roach, Robbie Lou Thompson, and Virginia Syckoff.

  • 1933: "Nina" Roe.

  • 1934: Annette Camoratto, Marian Mills, and Loretta Wilson.

  • 1935: Edith Eschrich, Doris Jones, and Georgia McGill.

  • 1936: Rose Lipner and Katherine DiDonato.

  • 1937: Ruth Haught, Jane Roe of 1937, Jane Roe of Newark, and Eleanor Haynes.

  • 1938: Doris Alexander, Asunta LaRosa, and Mary Ellen Legge.

  • 1939: Jane Roe of Long Beach, Martha Anderson, Barbara Hanson, and Alice Corbett.

    Here is the breakdown of who performed the fatal abortions I've identified for the 1930s:

    *Doctor: 73.68%
    *Perpetrator or perpetrator's profession unknown: 15.79%
    *Other medical professional: 7.89%
    *Self: 2.63%

    If we just look at the cases in which I was able to determine the profession of the perpetrator, the breakdown looks like this:

    *Doctor: 87.50%
    *Other medical professional: 9.39%
    *Self: 3.13%

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

    For more abortion deaths broken down by year, see this post.

    To email this post to a friend, use the icon below.
  • 1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    Weren't doctors also performing a much higher volume of abortions than, say, the women themselves? It stands to reason that a higher percentage of deaths would occur with doctors who have a much higher number of patients!