Thursday, October 26, 2023

October 26, 1929: When Killing Your Patient was Still a Big Deal

Agnes Johnson

On a mid-October day, October 12, to be specific, 33-year-old homemaker Agnes Johnson went to the Chicago office of Dr. Joseph Stern for an abortion.

After leaving Stern's office at 435 West 19th Street, Agnes took ill. She died on October 26 at Jackson Park Hospital.

Had the year been 2022, Stern could have expected prolifers to take to the internet with pictures from Agnes's Facebook page and to pester the Illinois medical board to investigate the circumstances of Agnes' death. And unless the board found something Gosnellesque -- say, a high school student administering massive amounts of powerful drugs or rows of severed fetal feet in specimen containers or a room full of soiled recliners upon which women writhed and moaned while waiting for their abortions to be completed -- that would probably be the end of it. The board would declare that Stern had done no wrong and as long as Stern didn't Google his dead patient's name, he'd probably never have to give Agnes another thought.
The absolute worst case scenario for Stern had the year been 2019, 2009, or 1999 or 1989 or even 1979, would have been that Agnes' survivors would have sued him. Again, unless there was some Gosnellesque behavior, the insurance company would take care of all that and it would all blow over. Stern could go about his business unimpeded. 

But the year was 1929, and an abortion patient's death wasn't something that could be shrugged off as one of those things that just happen and only weirdo right-to-lifers could possibly get their knickers into a twist over. This was 1929, and a woman's abortion death was homicide. Stern was arrested that day, and on November 1, he was indicted for felony murder by a grand jury.

I've been unable to find out what repercussions there were for Stern beyond the indictment. One thing is safe to say, though: His life would have been a lot easier had abortion been legal.

Whether Agnes would have benefitted is another matter.


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