Saturday, October 12, 2013

1936: Fatal Abortion by Surgical Nurse

As you read Margie Frasier's story, here is food for though.

1. California has recently passed a law allowing nurses, in other words, professionals with Gertrude Pitkanen's expertise, to perform abortions.  Do you think nurses are qualified to perform abortions? Do you think the legal status of abortion has an impact on whether or not nurses are qualified to perform abortions?

2. Pitkanen had married a former Butte police detective several years before Margie's death. This former detective, William VanOrden, arranged for a sanity hearing for his wife shortly after the case was dropped. Pitkanen was held for several days before being declared sane and released. Do you think that this connection with the police force had any impact on how the authorities handled situations in which Pitkanen's patients died?is an interesting tidbit of information relating to the case.

On October 11, 1936, 18-year-old Margie Fraser died in a hospital in her hometown of Helena, Montana from complications of a botched abortion.

Abortionist Gertrude Pitkanen
Abortionist Gertrude Pitkanen

An inquest was held, with eight witnesses, including four physicians. The inquest determined that Margie had undergone the abortion on October 1 in Butte. A surgical nurse, Gertrude Pitkanen (pictured), was charged with manslaughter on October 15.

Pitkanen, born in 1878 in Lincoln, Nebraska, had completed her nurse's training at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. She moved to Butte in 1907, and was one of the first surgical nurses at St. James Community Hospital, assisting her husband, Dr. Gustavus Pitkanen. Dr. Pitkanen was an abortionist until he was jailed for sedition in 1917, whereupon his wife took up the curette.

Nurse Pitkanen pleaded innocent in Margie's death and posted $5,000 bond. Due to insufficient evidence, and difficulty in finding witnesses, the charges were dropped on April 29, 1937.

Pitkanen was also charged with the abortion deaths of Violet Morse and Hilja Johnson. A woman who was a student nurse at St. James Hospital in Butte remembered Pitkanen's victims. "They died horrible deaths from infection," she told a reporter from the Montana Standard.

Margie's abortion was unusual in that it was performed by a nurse, rather than by a doctor, as was the case with perhaps 90% of criminal abortions.
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