When I was a teenager in about 1940, I baby-sat the two children of a lovely young divorced woman named Helen. She had few employable skills, an exhausting, poorly paid job and her ex-husband only occasionally made child-support payments. Suddenly she died…
The children came to live with me and my family for a few weeks while custody was sorted out. The six-year-old curled up in my arms and talking about their mother’s death, he said, “Momma just bled and bled and we couldn’t help her.”
I was too young to guess what that might mean. Several years later my mother told me that Helen had died of a botched abortion attempt. She impressed upon me what a sorrowful and serious choice an abortion would be, but that it should be safe and legal because sometimes it was the best alternative.
The children were raised by their father, a sweet but irresponsible alcoholic, and a series of stepmothers. The girl had a terrible, tumultuous adolescence, but after several children and a broken marriage, is a stable wonderful middle-aged woman. The boy was killed in a gambling accident.
I think society would have been much better served if Helen could have had a safe, legal abortion and raised her two children herself.
(from In Our Own Words…Collected recollections in honor of Roe v. Wade, Elizabeth Lake, ed.)
Excerpt from The Worst of Times: Illegal Abortion-Survivors, Practitioners, Coroners, Cops, and Children of Women Who Died Talk About Its Horrors, ed. Patricia G. Miller, 1993.
During my medical training, I saw women being treated for septic abortion, and as a resident I took care of lots of them. There was a special ward in the hospital. It had four to eight beds filled with women who had either pelvic inflammatory disease, usually from gonorrhea, or septlc abortion complications. The septic abortion patients were usually looked down upon as having done something illegal, probably because just about everyone grows up with the idea that bad people do illegal things and good people don’t….
I do recall two women who died from the complications of illegal abortions. One happened in 1 9S5. A young woman-she was only seventeen or eighteen-died of a ruptured uterus and an absolutely overwhelming infection…. She died of septic shock. Afterward there were spirited discussions among the doctors about whether we might have been able to save her if we had done some-thing differently-maybe different antibiotics, things like that. But no one talked about or even seemed to notice the really obvious solution: making legal abortions available.
The second woman I remember probably died in 1957 or 1958. She was a young woman too, but not a teenager. She had an abortion, and when she was brought to the hospital, she had gas gangrene. She was in shock by the time she arrived, and nothing we did made any difference. She died quickly-in less than twenty-four hours.
The patient was in a private room. I even remember the room number, 724. That was one of the gold coast rooms. The woman, in her early or mid-thirties, was married to someone really important, with a lot of connections. She came in with severe pelvic sepsis and she died. I remember her so vividly because she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. She was also one of the sickest. She was ashen. When I first saw her, she was still conscious and lucid. I think she suspected she might die. She had kidney failure. Then all her other systems failed as well. She got ecchymosis-red blotches all over her skin. Her blood vessels were just breaking underneath her skin, sort of like what happens when you bruise yourself, but this was happening all over her body without anyone even touching her. It was due to a disturbance of her coagulating mechanism as a result of the overwhelming sepsis. She died two or three days after she was admitted.
I remember thinking, “My God! How could anyone do that to this beautiful woman?” But I completely misunderstood what I was looking at. In those days (1948) the tendency was to treat the woman as the helpless victim of this monster called the abortionist. I completely missed the fact that she had obviously sought it out, and with her connections, it would have been one of the better ones that money could buy. I was so shocked by what had happened to her and the way she died that I actually was physically ill.
My political ideas in those days were pretty primitive. Like most medical students, I was just trying to survive it all. However, primitive though I was, she did touch something at some level in me. I was angry that she had died, and I was angry at the system that let her die. As I said, in those days I thought the solution was to jail the abortionist. It took me another twenty years to fully understand that it was the system and not the abortionist who killed her. The system forced her away from the medical community and into the shadowy world of the illegal abortionist.
By the time she got to a doctor, it was too late. The system, and especially the lawmakers who left her with no choice, killed her just as surely as if they had held the catheter or coat hanger or whatever. I’m still angry. It was all so unnecessary. -Dr. Bert
As for the attitudes of the medical community toward these women who got coat hanger abortions, it’s not that the doctors were judgmental or hostile as much as they were kind of contemptuous. The attitude was “How could these women do anything so stupid as to get a dangerous abortion?” or “Why would any smart person take such a stupid chance?” I don’t recall any discussion about the need to provide women with safer options.
I have no idea how many years it covered, but the pathology department at that municipal hospital had a rather large collection of jars of preserved organs that had been removed for one reason or another. Many of the Organs were uteruses with the abortion instrument still in place. Some of the instruments were knitting needles, and some were coat hangers, and there they were, neatly labeled and lined up, each floating in its jar of formaldehyde.
….I wonder if those bottles are still there. If they are, I wonder if today’s medical students understand what they mean. Coat hangers and knitting needles probably seem very strange to them. They must wonder even more tan we did twenty five years ago, “why would any women take such a chance?” I don’t know why, but I know a lot of them did.
Dr Harvey Lothringer is a doctor who served four years in prison for performing an illegal abortion on a 19-year-old woman who died during the procedure. He dismembered her body and flushed it down the toilet.
Imagine being 18, pregnant scared to death-it was very different In those days. I had abusive parents and no one to turn to. Another doctor referred me to Lothringer after confirming my pregnancy.
A lot of people In those days did abortions. Most were greedy people who didn’t know what they were doing, but some were concerned people with good reputations. Lothringer was there for the money and was totally unconcerned with what happened to his patients.
He charged me $400, which he made me pay up front. We went there in the evening. He wouldn’t let my boyfriend stay.
Lothringer and I proceeded to the operating room. He gave me a shot to put me out. As I was fading, I saw him come into the room, stripped to the waist, with his German shepherd. I always assumed it was to dispose of the evidence, but I have tried not to think about it.
When the anesthetic wore off, I was crying and yelling and he was telling me to shut up. He couldn’t give me any more anesthetic, because I had to be out of there as soon as he was finished. I got up and was not really feeling too terrific and he said, “You have to leave.” My boyfriend had not come back yet, but he showed me the back door and said to go.
He had scraped so much of the lining of my uterus that I didn’t have a period for a year. Very soon afterwards, I read about Lothringer murdering a girl. Knowing how he operated, I Iways assumed he was responsible. He was very strange. Cutting her up and flushing her down the sewer! I remember acing about it and thanking God I got out of there alive.
It scares me when I read about saving the unborn babies cause the rest of the equation is the desperate young girls. I as in no position to have a child. I had nowhere to go. I want no one else to ever have to go through this.
Thanks to Marilyn Cole-Greene for sending the article “Immigrant Women and Family Planning: Historical Perspectives for Genealogical Research” by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, DBRS, from which this excerpt was taken. It appeared in the June 1996 “National Genealogical Society Quarterly. “
Women uneducated in modern scientific methods of birth control had few alternatives. New mothers prolonged the lactation period. Abstinence. coitus interruptus, and delayed marriage were the common pre-pregnancy options for limiting family size. For husband and wife, “sleeping the American way” meant separate beds, if not separate bedrooms. If living quarters were cramped, as was often the case in urban, ethnic tenements, the girls might sleep with their mother and the boys with their father to further encourage an abstinent relationship. The dilemma for the immigrant woman was clear. As one historian concluded, “The way to keep your husband, then, was to avoid pregnancy, and the way to avoid pregnancy was to avoid your husband – which was also likely to drive him out.”
Historians also have concluded that abortion was simply a form of contraception for many, if not most, immigrant wives of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries . . . Margaret Sanger the pioneer of the birth control movement, recalled from the beginning of her career the formative impression she had as she “watched groups of 50 women [in New York’s Lower East Side], shawls over their heads, line up outside the office of a $5.00 abortionist.” . . New York City coroner’s records for the early 1900s show an average of three deaths a month from abortion, while other officials estimated “about 100,000 abortions performed there every year.”
Emma Goldman described the desperation she observed among the female patients: “Most of them lived in continual dread of conception; the great mass of the married women submitted helplessly, and when they found themselves pregnant, their alarm and worry would result in the determination to get rid of their expected offspring. It was incredible what fantastic methods despair could invent: jumping off tables, rolling on the floor, massaging the stomach, drinking nauseating concoctions and using blunt instruments”
“Like her urban sisters. the frontier woman (from 1880 to 1920) frequently used folk remedies to bring about a delayed menstrual period, regardless of the cause. Due to laws against distributing contraceptive products and information, menstrual “regulators” were advertised in rural newspapers like the “Nebraska Farmer,” making abortifacients easily obtainable through the mail. Women also exchanged advice with friends and neighbors about home birth control and abortion “remedies.” For example:
To prevent conception, (a woman should) eat the dried lining of a chicken’s gizzard (or) take gunpowder in small doses for three mornings . . . A woman who wants to put an end to her childbearing must throw the afterbirth of her last baby down an old well or walk directly over the spot where the afterbirth was buried. (She should) drink a tea made from rusty nail water, or rub (her) navel with quinine and turpentine morning and night for several days: each of these remedies can induce abortion.
Doctors prescribed heavy does of purgatives to cleanse the system and induce menstruation. “American Folk Medicine” lists three pages of remedies for “obstructed menses,” recommended by physicians and midwives practicing from about 1830 to the 1930s; some of these concoctions proved to be deadly to the mother herself . . .
From: “Immigrant Women and Family Planning” in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, June 1996
Once anonymous, this woman found dead from an illegal abortion on a motel room floor in June, 1964, has been identified by her sister. She was Gerri Santoro of Connecticut, a mother of two facing her third pregnancy. Santoro and her two daughters had been victims of an abusive husband/father. Santoro’s sister, Leona Gordon, revealed Santoro’s story in the Jane Gillooly documentary, “Leona’s Sister Gerri,” presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in March, 1995. WCLA was given a copy of the photo, which came from the NYC Medical Examiner, in 1972.
In Connecticut, where I grew up, birth control was illegal. Feminists had lobbied to repeal the law for decades, but lawmakers refused. I wondered how women-in-the-know avoided pregnancy. Some men used condoms (where did they get them?), but many women had shotgun weddings or hid out in homes for unwed mothers. Some got illegal abortions (pregnancy tests took two weeks – after you had missed two periods). One who graduated from high school with me in 1954, her belly-of-shame to big to hide and no ring on her finger, was scorned. I still feel for her.
In 1958, fresh out of college and unworldly, I moved to Cambridge to get a job and share an apartment with my friend X.
Birth control was illegal in Massachusetts, too. X announced that she was pregnant and that neither her psychiatrist nor her gynecologist would arrange a therapeutic abortion (essential for mental or physical health).
Barely able to utter “abortion,” we said, “get rid of it,” and saw no alternative. X called acquaintances for “a name,” any name; qualifications were low priority. One referred us to Dr. Robert Spencer in Ashland, Penn, instructing X to complain of a vaginal discharge. We missed the humor of going from Cambridge to coal country for a vaginal discharge. Dr. Spencer told us the procedure would take two visits, what motel to call, and where to park.
Dr. Spencer’s office was weird – walls and ceilings brimming with souvenir plaques from the gift shops in places like Lake George. One was a drawing of a vase that became the silhouette of two people when you stared at it. We avoided eye contact with the others in the waiting room, all of us too scared, unwilling to swap how-I-got-here stories, seek or give solace, or make small talk. X and I whispered to each other.
Dr. Spencer was white-haired and kindly, but couldn’t ease our fear. He packed X’s vagina with something to dilate her cervix and told us to come back in the morning. I have no memory of the evening. In the morning, I was fearful when Dr. Spencer installed me in a tiny room to wait it out and took X with him. The room had a chair, cot, afghan, and a black paperback, Crimes of Passion. I fantasized telling X’s parents where we were, and why, and that she was dead. Eventually, Dr. Spencer came in with X over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, out cold. He gently unloaded her on the cot, her eyes rolled back so the whites showed. After she came to and had rested, he checked her and gave her post-op instructions and antibiotics. The entire charge was $50.
Dr. Spencer was the beloved town doctor, protected by the police, and a hero to women around the nation. He’s in all the books about illegal abortions, and is the subject of a new documentary, “Dear Dr. Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town.” His file of requests from desperate women and thanks from women he helped (some still put flowers on his grave) is an education in itself. We realized how lucky we were when we heard horror stories: the difficulties amassing the huge fees the butchers charged, being driven around blindfolded so as not to know where the deed was done, forced sex with the abortionist before he’d get to work, the tied hands and the mouth stuffed to muffle the cries of pain from abortions without anesthesia, the soiled equipment, the hemorrhaging, the lies to the hospital emergency room, and the newspaper reports of women who died trying not to become a mother.
I was married in NY in 1959. Though illegal, birth control was available in NYC, where I had a traumatic visit to Planned Parenthood, which required a doctor’s note affirming I was getting married. Feeling like a loose woman and a liar, I also brought my newspaper engagement notice. If you’re stunned at that, a friend’s story tops it. After being fit for a diaphragm, she watched the doctor poke a hole in it so she could use it only for insertion practice, and return for a new one a day before her wedding.
My question about Connecticut women was answered in 1965 when I volunteered at the Port Chester Planned Parenthood, which had been established so they could beat the system. They took the train to Port Chester, walked to the clinic for an exam and “supplies,” and boarded the train home with the bootleg diaphragm in a plain brown bag.
Also in 1965, the Supreme Court threw out Connecticut’s contraceptive ban, interpreting the Constitution to give married women the right to privacy in such matters. (yes, 1965 and married women only.) In 1972, the Court let single women in on it, and a year later, January 22 1973, ruled in Roe v. Wade that the privacy right included abortion.
Are you surprised at the stories, and how recent reproductive rights are? Do you know that the anti-abortion religions and their legislative accomplices have already limited women’s control over their pregnancies? Do you know you can save our rights by electing pro-choice candidates?