Monday, March 07, 2016

Over 100 Years of Fatal Abortions

1875: Abortionist Seen as Villain

News coverage of the coroner's inquest into the March 7, 1875 death of 20-year-old Antoinette Fennor (Click on her name to learn more.) gives us an interesting glimpse into how abortion was practiced, investigated, and prosecuted in Brooklyn in the late 19th century, and how the public responded to abortion deaths. They certainly didn't take the bored, "You pays your money and you takes your chances" attitude I see people taking toward modern abortion deaths.  The verdict was that Antoinette died of peritonitis March 7, 1875, from an abortion performed about February 26 by Mrs. Maxwell, whose first name I have yet to determine. During the trial, which took place in a packed courtroom, unlike the empty courtroom for the Kermit Gosnell trial, spectators glared at -- practically hissed at -- the defendant. 

1908: Elderly Midwife-Abortionist Sentenced to Joilet

On March 7, 1908, unmarried seamstress Nellie Shuff, age 26, of New Berlin, Illinois, died at Wesley Hospital in Chicago. Nellie had lived as a boarder in the home of widow Martha Scott. The coroner's jury determined that she died from complications of an abortion that had been perpetrated at a home on Forest Avenue. Seventy-one-year-old midwife Johanna White was arrested, tried, and sentenced to one to ten years at Joliet for the death. White was so old and feeble that she had to be carried in and out of the courtroom, and was not expected to survive the length of her sentence. Nellie's fatal abortion was typical of Chicago abortions of the time, most of which were perpetrated by doctors or midwives.

1913: Tangential Murder Diverts Media Attention

The March 7, 1913 death of 16-year-old Edna Frederickson was tangled up in a tale of murder and intrigue. Edna was employed at a Chicago candy shop for $2 per week, and turned her wages over to her mother. Wanting to have some money for herself, and unhappy at home, Edna turned to a co-worker at the candy company, a married woman who went by the names of Lillie Dearborn and Kitty Young, who helped to arrange the abortion that took Edna's life. However, a tangentially-involved murder tended up gaining all the media attention.

1919: Doctor Has Woman's Body Dumped in Ravine

Inez Reed, age 28, died in San Mateo, California on March 7, 1919 after an abortion perpetrated by Dr. Eprhaim Northcott, a relative of the notorious serial murderer Gordon Northcott. I've recently found so much additional information on Inez's death that I have to completely rewrite her story.

1975: Deliberately Doing Incomplete Abortions

On March 4, 1975, Robert Julius Sherman performed a safe and legal abortion on 16-year-old Rita McDowell, who was in the second trimester of her pregnancy. Rather than admit her to the hospital for the then-standard saline abortion, Sherman performed a vacuum aspiration abortion usually used for first trimester abortions. When Rita was discharged, her mother was informed that she would probably expel the fetus that night. As they left the office, Rita told her mother, "Oh, Mama, I feel like I had one hundred needles in me."

Rita did not expel the fetus. Instead, she developed a fever. Her mother called Sherman's facility on March 5 to seek care for her daughter. She said that Sherman would not speak to her, and that the receptionist told her to bring Rita in two days later. In the early morning hours of March 7, Rita awoke screaming, then collapsed in her mother's arms. Doctors at the hospital where Rita was taken removed the macerated fetus, but she died from massive infection just after midnight on March 8.

An investigation into Rita's death revealed evidence that Sherman deliberately performed incomplete abortions so that he could charge more for follow-up care. Sherman was charged with murder in Rita's death, and prosecutors presented witnesses and evidence that Sherman re-used disposable medical equipment, failed to perform tests to verify pregnancy, failed to do pathology examinations of abortion tissues, allowed a nurse's aide to perform surgery, and falsified medical records.

Sherman plea-bargained, getting the murder charge dropped in exchange for a guilty plea on the perjury charges. The prosecutor defended the plea bargain on the grounds that the felony convictions would block Sherman from ever practicing medicine again. Sherman served two years in a federal prison, then set up a legal abortion practice in Boston.

1978: Astonishing Fallout for Fatal Abortion

Gloria Small, a 43-year-old mother of six, went to Ronald Tauber for a safe ane legal abortion. Despite Gloria's obesity, asthma, chronic lung disease, and family history of high blood pressure, Tauber elected to perform the 15-week abortion at his Orlando Birthing Center on March 7, 1978.

Gloria's uterus was punctured in the abortion. Tauber packed Gloria's uterus with medical gauze, which appeared to have controlled the bleeding. However, the next day he removed the packing and the hemorrhage resumed. She was not transferred to a hospital until 30 hours after she had been injured, and died despite an emergency hysterectomy. The medical examiner said that Gloria's medical history should have precluded performing an abortion in an outpatient setting. The medical board faulted him with failing to transfer to a hospital as soon as he'd had the bleeding stabilized with packing, and with trying to remove the packing in a setting where there was no blood available for a transfusion. A court-appointed panel found Tauber negligent in Gloria's death.

The repercussions for the 31-year-old Tauber were astonishing, given the legality of Gloria's abortion. He was dismissed from the staff of two hospitals, had his medical license suspended, and was charged with manslaughter. However, I have found no record that the case ever went to trial.

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