Thursday, February 07, 2013

Historic death from 1871. How Have Things Changed?

On February 11, 1871, Dr. C. C. O'Donnell was arrested for murder in the death of 20-year-old mother and homemaker. Addie Hand of Clemtina Street, San Francisco. Addie had died at her home on February 7.

"She was buried on a certificate that she had died of a congestive chill. The publicity given to startling rumors concerning her death led to the body being exhumed, when an examination disclosed the fact that an abortion had been preformed."

An inquest found that she had visited O'Donnell twice before her death. Addie's friend Jennie West testified that Addie had told her that O'Donnell had made two attempts to perform an abortion on her. Her sister-in-law also said that Addie had named O'Donnell as the abortionist. O'Donnell was arrested. However, there was insufficient evidence to hold him, and O'Donnell was released.

Addie's death follows a fairly typical pattern for pre-legalization abortion deaths: The woman went to a doctor based on a referral from a friend or relative. After her death, the doctor falsified a death certificate and arranged burial. Through the rumor mill or somebody's specific knowledge or suspicions the police would be notified, the body exhumed, and the real cause of death uncovered.

How does this differ from the current safe-and-legal scenario?

Before legalization, there were times and places where abortionists ran very thinly veiled advertisements. In other times and places, women relied on word of mouth. Now, the internet and yellow pages are awash with open advertisements for abortion.

The reliance on doctors has not changed.

The death certificates are still fudged, both to avoid bringing on an investigation of shoddy practices, and to avoid having the death counted and thus become a political problem.

There is no longer a police investigation or court ordered exhumation and autopsy, since abortion deaths are now a civil matter rather than a criminal one.

And that is the final, biggest difference. An abortionist in the safe-and-legal era has more leeway for quackery because the stakes are lower. Getting caught botching abortions might be bad for business -- but not for long. And unless there was egregious behavior, criminal charges are virtually unheard of.

So it's the doctors, rather than the patients, that benefited the most from legalization.

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