In the age of illegal abortion, many women faced tragedy, and the individual tales are heart-wrenching. Any public sentiment in favor of legalizing abortion finds this the most compelling argument, by far. A lot of people who are extremely uncomfortable with abortion will nevertheless oppose its ban on the idea that only medically qualified persons should be performing it. This includes not only a large portion of the general public, but even a few abortion providers themselves. It has a powerful lure on the psychology of modern abortion practice.
I call it a legend because there is a lot of truth to it, but there's a lot of exaggeration to it as well. Most people who lived in that period didn't know anyone who had suffered from the back-alley butchers.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson was one of the founders of that National Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (NARAL), and he took a very active role in the "revolution" to legalize abortion. He later said, "How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In NARAL we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always '5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.' I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the 'morality' of our revolution, it was a 'useful' figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? . . . In 1967, with moderate A.L.I.-type [American Law Institute] laws in three states, the federal government listed only 160 deaths from illegal abortion. In the last year before the Blackmun era began, 1972, the total was only 39 deaths. Christopher Tietze estimated 1,000 maternal deaths as the outside possibility in an average year before legalization; the actual total was probably closer to 500."
Of course, a total of 500 is also unacceptable. Many more suffered who did not die. One case of a woman being needlessly injured is one too many.
However, magnifying the problem amounts to propaganda. When you're using the most effective argument you have, overstating your case is a strong temptation.
The idea that abortion is necessary because unintended pregnancy is so widespread, for example, has led to some remarkable statements. Time magazine claimed in its February 26, 1990 issue that, "about six million unwanted pregnancies occur in the US each year." That's certainly a lot of unwanted pregnancies. How on earth could the country cope with so huge a problem? Without abortion, so many millions of children would be growing up in pain at their unwantedness. Surely, that fact alone should show the great necessity of abortion.
One problem with this is that there were only about four million live births each year. Add that to roughly 1.6 million abortions per year at the time of the article, excluding miscarriages, and that means that you have to have each and every pregnancy be unwanted and another 400,000 imaginary pregnancies that are also unwanted in order to reach the total of six million.
The unthinking nature of the statistic is further shown by questioning where the figure comes from. There is no census for unwanted pregnancies. People who experience a surprise pregnancy rarely report its unintendedness to the proper authorities. There aren't any proper authorities to report it to. Furthermore, a pregnancy that's unwanted when it's first discovered isn't necessarily still unwanted a month later.
If they have a good case, why aren't proponents satisfied with clearly accurate statistics? This isn't intended as a remark of criticism, but as a real question.
Similar problems come with the numbers of deaths from illegal abortions. World-wide numbers of startling proportions are often given. For example, on the "CNN World Report" broadcast June 18, 1989, it was reported that 400,000 women die in Brazil each year of illegal abortions. The United Nations and World Health Organization report about 40,000 deaths total for all causes for Brazilian women of child-bearing age (15-44 years). Any method used to come up with a death figure ten times greater for just one cause must have been flawed.
That same report asserted that three million abortions are performed on Brazilian teens, and that 21 of each 100 will die. Twenty-one percent of three million is 630,000. That's roughly one and a half times as many teenage abortion deaths than the number of total abortion deaths they were claiming.
That the death figure was accepted without checking UN or WHO figures is understandable enough. But how did a figure that so clearly contradicted another portion of the same report get past all the calculators of the writer, producer, and narrator, prior to broadcast?
WHAT CHANGED WITH LEGALITY?
In 1993, Patricia Miller published a book about illegal abortions, with a clear view to establishing how nightmarish they were. The title of the book was The Worst of Times. Even clearer is the description on the cover -- "Illegal Abortion -- Survivors, practitioners, coroners, cops, and children of women who died talk about its horrors."
No points about what legal abortion is like are made, except to point out that abortions done under medical circumstances are better than those done on kitchen tables. That is the primary theme of the book, and it's an obvious point that anyone can agree with.
That does not mean, however, that the worth of legal abortion has been settled. The author of this book manages to find some of the complexities of abortion practice. There are some repugnant parts that don't have much to do with whether it's legal or not. In her fervor to show how nasty it was, she lets through some ideas that show that it is abortion itself, whatever its legal status, that is nightmarish.
My father was an illegal abortionist . . . He was a doctor. He was also a womanizer and a woman hater. I don't know quite how all those things fit together, but I think they did. . . .
The one he told me about happened in 1928. He was a ship's doctor, and the patient was one of the women on the cruise. Now we think of a cruise lasting five days, but in those days they might have lasted two months. He told me that this woman asked him to do an abortion on her and that he agreed, provided she would have sex with him first. . . My father really had very little use for women. He had nothing good to say about them, and he used derogatory language.
This section is attributed to "Helene." In this case, an example is given of a man being attracted to the abortion field whose attitude toward women is reprehensible. While that was not the case with all of the illegal abortionists, and is not the case with all legal ones now, it is still easy enough to find cases of it. While sex may more rarely be extracted as a price for abortion, any man with that kind of attitude will act in ways that are not in women's best interest. Legalization didn't change this.
That late-night car trip to Ohio happened many years ago, but I can see it as vividly as if it was yesterday. I sat in the front seat of this shiny new big black Chrysler Imperial with Ray in a black cashmere coat on one side of me and Lloyd, the murderer- turned-bookie, sporting an elegant camel's hair coat on the other. Lloyd drove. All the way to Ohio, the two men talked exclusively to each other, mostly about sports or gambling. I sat silent between them, feeling like I was no bigger than a candle flame in the dark. I felt almost nonexistent, like I was in some other world. The trip had a strange quality of unreality about it. . . . One of the worst things about it was that I had no control over my life. I had taken such pride in never being as stupid as my mother or my sisters, who had quite literally given control of their lives over to men, and now I was speeding west with two men, both of whom thought boxing and gambling were so important that by comparison I wasn't worth talking to. No wonder I felt like a flickering candle flame about to go out. To them, that's all I was."
This is attributed to "Marie." In this second case, the view of the woman as something to get "taken care of," without serious consideration of her feelings or needs, is hardly something that has changed at all.
This final case comes from "Dr. Edith."
Later in my career, the Baltimore hospitals began to establish abortion committees and to permit a doctor to do the abortion if the committee thought it was necessary to save the life of the woman. Her mental functioning could also affect her life, so sometimes psychiatrists were involved in the committee. Because I was the chief of ob-gyn, I was on the abortion committee at my hospital.This case is really the most shocking. Is Dr. Edith proposing the current system for this young woman? She could get her abortion right away now. She could be run through the assembly line with ease. And she could have gotten her post-abortion suicide over with much more quickly, without having bothered everybody so badly in the mean time.
Well, all these women would come and say, "If I don't end this pregnancy, I'll kill myself." As a result, that statement very quickly became one to be ignored by the committee in deciding who was entitled to an abortion. So here came this pregnant teenager. Thank goodness she wasn't my patient, but she did come before the committee. She said that she was going to kill herself. Of course that wasn't good enough, so the committee turned her down. When she discovered that she couldn't get an abortion, she tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of pills. She was in a coma for three days. When she came out of the coma and discovered that she wasn't dead, she was more determined than ever to have an abortion, so she began acting 'crazy.' She would scream and carry on, talk to herself, say irrational things.
The committee considered her case again. The committee's decision was that because she had tried to kill herself, she might do it again if she got the opportunity. Therefore, the committee reasoned, the best way to "save her life" was to keep her confined to a psychiatric hospital until her pregnancy was over so that she could be prevented from killing herself. And that is what they did! So if you were a fake suicide threat, you didn't get an abortion, and if you were a real suicide threat, you didn't get an abortion. Something wrong with that thinking, I'd say! Actually, this teenager did beat the committee and get her abortion, as it turned out. She spent every waking minute in the psychiatric hospital trying to jump out windows, cut her wrists, bang her head against the wall, hit herself -- anything and everything. When she wasn't doing that, she was screaming and yelling. She just made it impossible for the hospital to function! After she had screamed and carried on for a week or two, making everyone else really crazy, the committee considered her case for the third time. This time the committee approved her abortion. Guess what. As soon as she had the abortion, her mental condition improved dramatically. Then, about two weeks later, she shot herself. I guess some of her "crazy stuff" was real. What happened to this young girl was tragic, and the committee didn't help any.
People who are deeply disturbed need tender loving care. It worked out badly in this case, but how could the current system be an improvement? Mental problems require a lot of energy from professionals. It was not when she was in the hospital, but it was the point at which the professionals abandoned this young woman that the tragedy of suicide occurred.
FRONT ALLEY SOBRIETY LEVELS
The image of alcohol and drug use rampant among the abortionists of the illegal period is prominent in the horror stories that keep a strong hold on our imaginations. The Worst of Times had several people comment on this. "Bruce" said, "The first abortion I did was in 1961. I really don't remember much about it because I was drunk when I did it. I got drunk because I was scared. I thought it was odd that the woman didn't seem scared."
"Sandra" said, "Leslie went with me to the abortionist. She called him a doctor, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't a real doctor. He didn't even wash his hands! He was filthy. I mean, he even looked dirty. He stunk of booze."
When asked about alcohol and drugs, Joy Davis confirmed that Dr. Tucker had an alcohol problem. "I'm using Dr. Tucker as a basis here, because I worked more with him than any other doctor. I can't say alcohol and drugs started once he got into the abortion industry, but I can say it got really bad once he got into the abortion industry. It would be so bad that I would come into the office some time in the morning and open up the office, and find him lying on the floor, totally nude, lying in a pool of vomit, where he had been on drugs all night, which is actually what got me started in practicing medicine without a license in the state of Alabama, because he was incapable of doing it."
When asked if this was a prevalent problem among abortion doctors as a whole, compared to other medical people, she replied, "I used to work at a hospital. I can't tell you ever once seeing a doctor come in there just bombed out of his mind, or smelling alcohol on his breath. I can't remember ever seeing that happen, and I worked with hundreds of doctors there. And it was a daily thing in the abortion industry."
The reporting of this problem goes back to the early days of legalization. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, pioneering in abortion clinic technique, after noting the doctor who had bad dreams, said, "Another time, the wife of a second doctor, who had done at least 2,000 abortions at the place, phoned to report that her husband had developed a serious drinking problem over the past year that, in her view, was precipitated by the clinic work."
Substance Use Disorders can develop from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. It also doesn't need to be as extreme as that. It's common knowledge that substance abuse normally comes from excessive stress of some kind. On the other hand, excessive use in large numbers among any given group certainly suggests an abnormal amount of stress.
Are these problems caused by the work? In some cases, it may well be the other way around. Those who have alcohol problems find that abortion clinics are much more tolerant of their behavior than other employers. In one case cited by Joy Davis, a nurse had lost a job as an instructor due to her alcohol problem, and that's why she was available to be hired by the abortion clinic. The alcohol problem didn't matter. They were grateful to get her.
As it turned out, though, they ended up not using her after all, as Davis reports. "When we first opened that office, [we had] hired some nurse anesthetist to come in and do our general anesthesia. We hired one lady that didn't like to show up to work a lot. One particular day, she didn't show up for work, and we had a really heavy patient load that day. So Dr. Tucker called her, and she was inebriated and was unable to work. So he said, 'Look, I have all these patients to do. I have no idea how to put them to sleep. You tell me how to put them to sleep.' In her inebriated condition, she wasn't able to come to work, yet she could tell him over the telephone how to use general anesthesia. So she told him to use so much apertene, so much sublimaze, and so much brevital and that will work. Just keep giving them the brevital as long as you want them to sleep, and that will work. Dr. Tucker says, 'Well, that's simple enough.' I was in the room when he was talking to her, and he said, 'You think you can do that?' and I said, 'Sure.' And we did it. And we fired our anesthetist after that. We didn't need one anymore, because I was then the anesthetist."
We were able to find some people who've left the abortion business to say that they saw this as a widespread problem. Actually, several said so, but they won't all be listed here. After all, every field has people in it with substance abuse problems. Maybe people who ran across that were more likely to leave the field than those who didn't.
The fact is, there are no studies on how prevalent it is. Unlike some of the other emotional reactions to abortion work, where people are relieved to be able to talk about it, this is one symptom of stress that people are inclined to leave unspoken.
Many examples are found in Kansas alone. Tiller has publicly admitted to having an alcohol problem and gone to rehabilitation services for several years. M.K. has a felony conviction for lying about his previous felony conviction for drug possession. G.H. for several years was the only doctor doing the abortions at Kansas University Medical Center. On August 9, 1981, the police evacuated his neighborhood because he was "intoxicated and combative" in a house full of guns and one frightened wife and stepchild.
That's only three doctors -- but there are less than a dozen doctors who work at abortion clinics in Kansas. Actually, M.K. is not one of those any more. His medical license is suspended. Nor are we saying those remaining doctors are free from the problem, since it's the kind of thing people normally don't bring to public attention.
There are plenty of horror stories from pre-Roe days on illegal abortionists who were stoned out of their minds or were prone to sexual assault or harassment. If those horror stories have not stopped, then perhaps it's not the legal nature of abortion that's the problem. Maybe it's the nature of abortion, period.
DID WE GET RID OF THE BACK ALLEY BUTCHERS?
We did, for the most part, get rid of the garage mechanics and beauticians that dabbled in giving abortions. But according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, they were in the minority. They made better stories than the doctors who did it on the side, but the great majority of abortions were, in fact, done by doctors. It's not because I think their figures are strictly reliable that I cite the Institute. We cite them because their bias would be toward making the illegal period look as bad as possible, so they are admitting that in fact most abortionists were medical professionals.
One such doctor was Dr. Richard Mucie, D.O. He was one of the three main doctors in Kansas City, Missouri, that were known to do abortions. In 1968, a woman died from his procedure. In her corpse, her hands were shaped into claws, caked with blood. The jury gave Dr. Mucie the maximum sentence for manslaughter in the death of the woman. He got out on parole after 14 months, but he lost his medical license and set up an antique shop.
In 1973, Roe v. Wade came down. Because of it, Mucie went back to court and got his license back. He then literally set up shop on Main Street and heaved a sigh of relief that the police wouldn't bother him any more. But his medical skills were such that family planning clinics were never willing to refer patients to him.
Legalization did bring more doctors into the field. It did not, however, take any doctors out. In fact, it put doctors that had been taken out for good reason back in. The very same people who were called "back alley butchers" before were now advertising in the Yellow Pages.
Carol Everett expressed how relieved she was to find out what the aftermath was after an incident in which a woman had died in her abortion clinic. "I couldn't believe my ears! He said what I wanted -- with all my heart -- to hear. Was it possible that we could kill a woman, then go on as if nothing ever happened? Was the industry that unregulated? Could H.J. get other doctors to cover for him even in the case of a woman's death? Maybe my life wasn't over."
The fact that the phenomenon of less-than-competent abortionists has not stopped has been noted in publications who hold strong views in favor of abortion availability. The Village Voice ran "Today's Back-Alley Abortions" and "Covering up Destructive Abortions" by Nat Hentoff. Ms. magazine ran an article called "Back-Alley Abortions Still Here For the Poorest Among Us". In the 60 Minutes piece on Hillview in Maryland, the sister of a woman that died from a botched abortion there said, "The outcome was just like a back-alley abortion."
WHAT DID WOMEN'S RIGHTS ADVOCATES SAY BEFORE?
Back in 1870, Sarah Norton noticed the prevalence of abortion in her day and was horrified that women would die or be badly injured. She was outraged that men would be usually instigating abortions, and yet seemed to escape without criticism while the women were roundly condemned.
The single fact that child murderers practice their profession without let or hindrance, and open infant butcheries unquestioned, establishing themselves with an impunity that is not allowed to the slaughterers of cattle, is, of itself, sufficient to prove that society makes a demand which they alone can supply.This comes from Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. Victoria Woodhull, editor, ran for United States president in 1872, even though women were not allowed to vote yet, and was what in those days was called a "free love advocate." In other words, these views were not the result of the prudish views of the Victorian age.
Scores of persons advertise their willingness to commit this form of murder, and with unblushing effrontery announce their names and residences in the daily papers. . . . The subject is discussed almost without restraint; circulars are distributed, recommending certain pills and potions for the very purpose, and by these means the names of these slayers of infants, and the methods by which they practice their life-destroying trade, have become familiar . . .
Is there no remedy for all this ante-natal child murder?. . . Perhaps there will come a time when the man who wantonly kills a woman and her babe will be loathed and scorned as deeply as the woman is now loathed and scorned who becomes his dupe; when the sympathy of society will be with the victim rather than the victimizer; when an unmarried mother will not be despised because of her motherhood; when unchastity in men will be placed on an equality with unchastity in women, and when the right of the unborn to be born will not be denied or interfered with."
This attitude was typical of feminists in the 19th century, at the time the more stringent laws against abortion were being passed. The prevalence of abortion was viewed as a scathing indictment of the male-dominated nature of society. The conclusion of the women's rights advocates of that day were that abortion was best seen as an abuse of women.
What was the experience of the first women doctors with abortion? The Revolution, which was the newspaper of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, reports: "Dr. Charlotte Lozier was applied to last week by a man pretending to be from South Carolina, Moran by name, as he also pretended, to procure an abortion on a very pretty young girl apparently about eighteen years old. The Dr. assured him that he had come to the wrong place for any such shameful, revolting, unnatural and unlawful purpose. She proffered to the young woman any assistance in her power to render, at the proper time, and cautioned and counseled her against the fearful act which she and her attendant proposed. The man becoming quite abusive, instead of appreciating and accepting the counsel in the spirit in which it was proffered, Dr. Lozier caused his arrest under the laws of New York for his inhuman proposition, and he was held to bail in a thousand dollars for appearance in court.
"It is certainly very gratifying, and must be particularly so to Dr. Lozier, to know that her conduct in the affair is so generally approved by the press and the better portion of the public sentiment, so far expressed. [T]he Springfield Republican says: 'May we not hope that the action of Mrs. Lozier in this case is an earnest of what may be the more general practice of physicians if called upon to commit this crime, when women have got a firmer foothold and influence in the medical profession?...[W]e are sure most women physicians would lend their influence and their aid to shield their sex from the foulest wrong committed against it.'"
WHY DID WOMEN PUT UP WITH BACK-ALLEY BUTCHERS?
In The Worst of Times, "Detective Jack" explained something that puzzled him. "These women were having abortions done with coat hangers, under horrible conditions, and the women I would see in hospitals were in terrible shape. Hell, alot of them were sick enough to die! But they wouldn't talk. They simply wouldn't tell who did it or where it was done. I'd plead with a woman to tell me, and she would just look away or turn her head to the wall. Even when they thought they might die, they wouldn't tell. That just made no sense to me. If one of these people who did the abortion had robbed her on the street or done any other criminal act, she would have told, real quick. But there sure was something different about this. No one talked about it, especially the women. In those days, a lot of women were losing their lives or their health as a result of abortions, but still they wouldn't talk. Why?"
This detective has a point that must have occurred to a lot of people. One perspective to answer his question is to point out that, in that era, cases of rape and what was called "wife-beating" were also poorly prosecuted. Women were also not inclined to take those cases to court. The defense in all those cases tended to attack the victim savagely, and it was often difficult to get prosecutors interested. In fact, beating a wife was not even a crime at the time that Susan B. Anthony was active. She got a lot of criticism for shielding a woman who had left her husband for that reason.
If rapists and wife-beaters get a wink and are ignored, then the pattern is certainly set for abortion abuses as well. In all three cases, a vigorous prosecution might follow if the woman actually died. Failing that, the amount of abuse of women that was tolerated was appalling.
Accommodating injustices against women by looking the other way when abortions are performed goes right along with looking the other way in cases of sexual and domestic abuse. Detective Jack is being logical. He's unfamiliar with the sexist pressures women were under at the time.
One doctor whose involvement in abortion predates legalization stated the case. "A pregnant woman is in a bind. She's already in a tough spot because she's a woman in a society that is going to pay her less, value her less and generally make things harder for her than for a man. She's probably young and immature, and now she has to turn to the medical establishment, which is overwhelmingly male and full of itself. She is often embarrassed and ashamed of what she has done -- as if she got pregnant all by herself. She's 'made a mistake,' 'got into trouble,' 'messed up,' 'got caught' or any of those other cliches that young women use to describe their plight. What is the result? She will seek out whatever help she can get, and often that help is not safe. . . It seems that women will accept a low standard for abortion -- shame and embarrassment get in the way of their good sense. Women all too often look on an unwanted pregnancy as 'dumb,' 'stupid' or 'How could I have let this happen?' . . . Thus women will tolerate and accept lesser standards of care for abortion, as if they didn't deserve better. They look for ways to blame themselves."
This also helps explain why merely legalizing didn't get rid of the horror stories. Women who wouldn't put up with being treated certain ways by any other doctor have been known to put up with shocking behavior from abortion doctors.
Under modern circumstances, there are still a lot of women who won't put up with it, and will use the legal system to sue for malpractice. This method is cumbersome and time-consuming, but under legalization, it's the only one left to them.
A woman doesn't "choose" an abortion the way she chooses an ice cream cone, or a Porsche. She wants an abortion like an animal, caught in a trap, chooses to gnaw its leg off to get out of the trap.
Many abortion defenders have used this statement. Ellen Goodman used it in her column, and many grassroots activists picked it up. To their minds, it showed how utterly necessary it was that abortion be available. It showed that the horror stories of yesteryear were inevitable if abortion is not safely provided.
The statement, however, is pro-life in origin. Its author is Frederica Mathewes-Green, at that time Vice President for Communications for Feminists for Life of America. The fact that it wound its way into abortion advocacy shows that the disagreement is not about facts, but about interpretation.
If an animal wishes to gnaw off its leg to get out of a trap, is it a kindness to the animal to offer a surgical amputation instead? Anesthetic and medical instruments certainly have advantages over gnawing. But surely there's a better alternative.
The option of gently removing the trap would leave the woman much more whole. Not having a trap set for pregnant women in the first place is even better. Pregnant women and new mothers should have to settle for no less. Abortion should not be used as an excuse for leaving traps in place.
When women were being subjected to outrages from abortionists in the illegal period, the argument was put forward that legalizing the procedure would remove the scandals. This is now and always has been the most effective argument that abortion defenders have. But how long can that argument remain effective if we have tried legalization for over twenty-five years, and we find that the outrages not only don't diminish, but because more women are involved, increase?
"These are the nightmarish abortion mills where black and Hispanic women are dying at a rate 2 1/2 times that of white women; where doctors stop mid-way through a procedure to shake down patients for more cash and turn them out into the street bleeding if they can't pay up; where staff members seldom change the bloody sheets on the beds; where patients scream through their abortions with no anesthesia because administering painkillers is costly and risky. In an assembly line that performs as many as 90 abortions a day, there simply isn't time to take care of these problems.
"Most abortion providers, one assumes, are reasonably competent, as they were even before 1973, when Planned Parenthood estimated that nine out of 10 illegal abortions were being performed by qualified physicians. But prior to Roe v. Wade, the fact that these doctors were often breaking the law also kept the numbers of abortions low -- as few as 200,000 per year by some estimates -- and effectively discouraged most doctors from taking unnecessary risks with their patients. Legalization removed these constraints. An unscrupulous abortion doctor could simply hang out his shingle, confident that he would be shielded by abortion-rights rhetoric that uniformly proclaims him a hero, even if his motive is not compassion but greed."
Candace C. Crandall, "Legal but Not Safe," The Wall Street Journal, July 31, 1996