Sunday, February 15, 2009

1920: Death will lead to different conclusions

Mrs. Margaret Ann Marts died in her home on February 15, 1920, two or three days after her discharge from the hospital. Dr. J.S. Snider performed an autopsy that day, and concluded that she'd died of sepsis. She still had retained placenta in her uterus which could not have still been from her recent term pregnancy. He also indicated that she couldn't have become pregnant again after the birth if she had retained the placenta. Dr. Snider verified that some instrument larger than a catheter had been used to cause an abortion. On May 28, 1920, Dr. E. Anderson was convicted of manslaughter in the death.

The events that led to her death had begun shortly after Mrs. Marts had given birth on August 19, 1919. She recovered well, bottle-fed the baby, and began menstruating again about four weeks after the birth.

On January 19, 1920, the family physician, Dr. Davis, was called to examine Mrs. Marts. She'd stopped menstruating about six weeks earlier, had concluded that she was pregnant, and had attmepted to perform an abortion on herself with a catheter. She said that if Dr. Davis didn't do an abortion, she'd find somebody else who would because she'd rather die than give birth again.

Upon examining Mrs. Marts, Dr. Davis found some irritation caused by the catheter, and an enlarged uterus which he attributed to pregnancy. However, in order to divert Mrs. Marts away from the idea of trying to abort, he told her that she wasn't pregnant. He administered a douche and noted that his patient was in good health.

Dr. Davis then told Mr. Marts that his wife was pregnant, and explained his efforts to turn her mind away from the idea of aborting.

That afternoon, Mrs. Marts turned to a Dr. Anderson, who she'd previously never seen. He did not examine her, but made arrangements to go to her home around noon the following day, January 20, to perform "an operation." According to Anderson, Mrs. Marts had given her name as "Mrs. Crooks," and said that she was about two months pregnant and that she had bought an instrument in a drug store, which she'd then used to try to induce an abortion.

On January 20, Mrs. Marts placed a call to the home of her friend, Mrs. Stella Blythe. Mrs. Blythe's sister, Mrs. Mattie Wallace, was visiting and took the call. Mrs. Marts asked Mrs. Wallace to send Mrs. Blythe to her house, because she was going to be chloroformed. Both sisters went to Mrs. Marts' home. Dr. Anderson was there, along with a Black woman named Ida Bush. Mrs. Marts was in bed, and Dr. Anderson was in the kitchen preparing his instruments.

Dr. Anderson sent Ida Bush to get some chloroform. Mrs. Blythe remained in the bedroom, but her sister, due to her "delicate condition," left the room. One of the women helped with administering the chloroform. Mrs. Blythe did not see all the details of what Dr. Anderson did, but noticed that he used two instruments. She took one to be a speculum, and described the other as about a foot long and similar to scissors. Dr. Anderson used water and cotton during the procedure, which took about fifteen minutes. Mrs. Blythe testified that she didn't know what Dr. Anderson was doing with the instruments.

Mrs. Blythe reported that some time between noon and 1:00, Mrs. Wallace asked Dr. Anderson, "Now what time will this pass?" And Dr. Anderson responded, "That will be all right about 4 or 5 o'clock." Neither party said specifically what would pass. Mrs. Marts also asked Mrs. Blythe to call Mr. Marts and tell him that she'd been operated on and was doing well.

Four days later, Dr. Davis, the family physician, was called in to examine Mrs. Marts, who had taken to her bed and was in serious condition. She was expelling a foul-smelling mix of blood and pus. Dr. Davis found damage to her uterus, clearly from an abortion, and treated her for her infection.

Mrs. Marts spoke to her husband of what had happened. The conversation took place shortly before she was taken to the hospital on January 24 or 25. She told him she was sure she was dying, and that she blamed Dr. Anderson. She said that Dr. Anderson had lied to her, telling her that the operation wouldn't be "very severe," and that she'd only be sick three or four days. She said she was sorry she'd gone to Anderson. She also gave her husband instructions regarding the care of their children.

Mrs. Martz was discharged from the hospital for reasons that aren't clear in Westlaw documents. She again conversed with her husband about what had happened, asserting that she knew she was dying, that it was Dr. Anderson's fault, and that she was sorry she'd ever gone to him. She gave her husband the details of the operation, but these details were not revealed in Westlaw documents.

Anderson admitted that he had chloroformed and operated upon Mrs. Marts on the 20th of January, but insisted that he'd only been treating her for the infection and damage she'd done to herself with the catheter. He also said that Mr. Marts had assaulted him, choked him, and tried to shake him down for $500.

Ida Bush, who had been present at the home on the 20th, described the instruments, said that she'd boiled water for sterilizing them, but that she was sent out of the room and did not witness what Dr. Anderson did with them. She said she was told that she was too young and would not understand such things.

The jury found Dr. Anderson guilty, and he was fined $500.

Margaret's abortion was typical of pre-legalization abortions in that it was performed by a physician.

Both sides of the abortion struggle will no doubt find fault with Dr. Davis. The prochoice will hold that he should have either performed a nice safe abortion on Margaret or have referred her to a reputable professional abortionist. The prolife will hold that he should have made it clear to her why abortion was unacceptable, perhaps adding anecdotes of patients who had initially requested abortions only to change their minds. But we can agree he ought not to have simply lied to her.

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

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