Monday, February 08, 2016

From Self-Induced to Retroactively Legal: Fatal Abortions, 1919 - 1967

Self-Induced in Pittsburgh, 1919

On February 8, 1919, Ruth Fragale, a 20-year-old clerk, died at her home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her mother and her sister said that Ruth had taken ill on Sunday, February 2, but had insisted that she was not sick enough to need a doctor. Because Ruth had gotten much sicker, her mother sent for Dr. Thomas C. VanHorne on February 4. He was caring for her, with her mother and her sister by her side, when she told him that she'd used instruments on herself to try to cause an abortion on February 1 and 2 after an attempt about two weeks earlier had failed. VanHorne continued to attend to Ruth daily until peritonitis finally killed her, leaving her husband, Frank, widowed. 

Strangely enough, self-induced abortion attempts like Ruth's were far more common in Pittsburgh records than in Chicago, where the majority of fatal abortions were perpetrated by doctors or midwives, as we shall see from the next case.

A Typical Chicago Abortion, 1934

Dr, Lou E. Davis
Dr. Lou E. Davis was tried three times for the February 8, 1934 abortion death of 27-year-old Gertrude GaesswitzThe first trial resulted in a hung jury, the second in an overturned conviction. Davis was acquitted in the third trial. Davis was implicated in five other Chicago abortion deaths:

An Abortion-Rights Group Cites its Sources

Raisa Trytiak
Unlike most abortion-rights sources, the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History project cites sources for its assertions and thus wins my admiration.  In the case of Raisa Trytiak, they cite the Seattle Times (February 8 & 9, 1967, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (February 9 & 10, 1967), and the Everett Herald (May 23, 1967). They even include a clipping from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's February 10, 1967 issue, which noted that Black was held after failing to post $10,000 bail on charges of manslaughter for both Raisa and her unborn child. Raisa was a key punch operator in Seattle First National Bank. For some reason she turned to a neighbor and family friend, 61-year-old Jack Blight, when she wanted to arrange an abortion. Blight was a construction worker. He attempted to abort Raisa's six-month unborn baby, causing a fatal bubble of air in Raisa's blood stream. There were mysterious marks on Raisa's neck indicating strangulation as well, but the news coverage, the web site says, never explained them. Blight entered a guilty plea to manslaughter in Raisa's death and admitted to dumping her body, but for some reason was sentenced only to probation rather than to prison. 

Raisa's decision to turn to a lay abortionist was unusual. Two independent sources -- Nancy Howell Lee and Planned Parenthood -- concluded that prior to legalization, 90% of women found doctors to do their abortions. Lee further found that even when women resorted to non-physicians, they more often than not went to a nurse, midwife, or other person with medical training. More typical of criminal abortions is the one that took the life of 19-year-old Nancy Ward in Kansas City the very same day Raisa Trytiak died.

A Typical Pre-Roe Abortion

Nancy Ward
In November of 1967, Nancy, a student at the University of Oklahoma, told her boyfriend, Fred Landreth, that she was pregnant and wanted an abortion. Fred contacted his father for help. On January 30, 1968, Fred's father contacted osteopath Dr. Richard Mucie at his ear, nose, and throat clinic in Kansas City and made arrangements for the abortion.

On February 7, Nancy and Fred flew from Oklahoma to Kansas City and visited Mucie at his clinic. Mucie examined Nancy while Fred waited, then told the couple that he would contact them at their hotel. The two had dinner and went to a show, then went to the hotel. At 11 p.m., Mucie called and arranged to pick Nancy and Fred up and drive them to his clinic. He took Nancy back for the back room while Fred waited in the outer office. About 20 to 30 minutes later, Mucie, dressed in a surgeon's gown, returned to the front office and asked Fred for money, $400, before starting the procedure. At about 7:30 on the morning of February 8, Mucie came out and asked Fred if he wanted to come back and see Nancy.

Dr. Richard Mucie
Fred went with Mucie into the office and saw Nancy lying on a couch with a cover over her. Fred said, "Hello," to her. She smiled and moved her hand. Mucie told Fred that Nancy was still sedated. Fred went back to the waiting room to nap. He was awakened at about 11:30 that morning by Mucie's porter. Mucie told Fred that Nancy had suffered a heart attack and was in shock and had been taken to the hospital. He told Fred that he would come back for him, then went back into his office. Fred went looking for him and followed the sound of his voice to a back room, where Mucie was lying on a cot, talking on the phone and saying something to the effect of needing to call the coroner and filling out a death certificate.

Stunned, Fred went back to the waiting area. Mucie came out a few minutes later, told him that Nancy had died, and that they needed to stick to the story that the couple had been traveling through Kansas City and had called him because Nancy had started to have chest pains. It was around that time that the ambulance arrived. The driver and attendant found Nancy on a cot. Mucie told them that she still had a pulse, and instructed them to take her to Osteopathic Hospital and administer oxygen en route. The ambulance driver and attendant lifted Nancy and found that she was already stiff. The doctor at the hospital concluded that Nancy been dead about four hours. He called Mucie, who told him that he'd been treating Nancy for about two weeks for a heart condition. Nancy's body was taken to the morgue, where a detective observed the autopsy, noting needle marks on her arms, buttocks, and left breast and taking custody of the uterus and the skull and upper spine of a fetus of roughly 4 1/2 to 5 months gestation still in the uterus. Most of the remainder of the fetus, consisting of a shoulder blade, upper arm and shoulder joint, and part of a collar bone, was found in the trash at Mucie's clinic.

The autopsy found abundant evidence of the abortion, including stains from antiseptic on Nancy's upper thighs and genital area, a 1/2 inch tear in Nancy's uterus. The condition of her uterus, heart, and other organs indicated that she had gone into shock and died at the clinic at about 9 a.m. February 8, in spite of Mucie's attempts to resuscitate her. She had bled to death.

Mucie was convicted on June 8, 1968, of performing an abortion "not necessary to preserve the life" of the mother. Illegal abortion at that time carried a penalty of 3-5 years, with the sentence to be increased in cases where the mother died. Mucie served 14 months then was released on parole. Parole was set to expire on July 27, 1977. His medical license was revoked on May 4, 1971. After Roe v. Wade overturned Missouri's abortion law, Mucie successfully appealed his conviction and got his license restored under a ruling that made Roe retroactive in Missouri. He was released from probation and his record expunged of the manslaughter-abortion conviction.

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