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Doctors and the Back Alley Abortion
The New York Times archives bring us some tragedies we can learn from
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One of the biggest factors separating the prochoice from the prolife is how they perceive the world of illegal abortions. The prochoice see the greasy old man with a coat hanger lurking in an abandoned warehouse, plying his trade with booze on his breath and lechery in his eye. The prolife see a story substantiated by newspapers: doctors doing abortions on the sly.

A few old cases from the archive of the New York Times serve as examples of doctors entangled in abortion cases. Law enforcement was sometimes unable to tell if the doctor was indeed the guilty party who caused the woman's death, but the prevalence of physician involvement in these old abortion cases underscores the research done by Planned Parenthood and by Nancy Howell Lee: most criminal abortions were done by doctors, and most non-physicians performing illegal abortions had physician accomplices who provided support and equipment.

In May of 1934, 19-year-old actress Annette Camoratto, stage name Toni Morgan, died of abortion complications. Dr. Harry A Felice was charged with homicide in Annette's death. Felice, who was Annette's brother-in-law, was later released due to lack of evidence. (Source: New York Times 7-19-35)

On December 31, 1935, criminal abortion charges were dropped against Dr. Tobias Ginsberg, and his nurse, because of insufficient evidence. The two were suspects in the death of 24-year-old Mrs. Edith Eschrich. (Source: New York Times 1-1-36)

On December 23, 1941, Dr. Samuel Roth was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the illegal abortion death of a woman I identify as Jane Roe of 1937. Roth, whose license was suspended at the time, performed the abortion in his office on January 16, 1937. (Source: New York Times 12-24-41)

Dr. Charles I. Gordon pleaded guilty in the 1937 abortion death of a Newark woman I call Jane Roe of Newark. (Source: New York Times 7-31-42)

Eleanor Haynes, age 22, died at Hackensack Hospital in New Jersey on October 6, 1937, after indicating that Dr. P. Ralph McFeely had performed an abortion on her. Eleanor's fiancee claimed no knowledge of an abortion. McFeely, a school and police physician who was also president of the local PTA, said that although he was treating Eleanor for a "minor ailment," he had not performed an abortion. McFeely was not indicted due to lack of evidence. (Source: New York Times 10-7-37, 12-9-37)

If so many criminal abortions had doctors involved, why do so many prochoicers cling to the image of the amateur with a coat hanger? There are two reasons.

First, there is an element of reality to it. Perhaps 1 to 2 percent of criminal abortions were indeed done by rank amateurs, using grisly and dangerous methods. And these unskilled abortionists were the ones most likely to put somebody in the morgue or the emergency room. They're also going to be the most memorable. A doctor quietly admitting his patient to a hospital to be treated for a "miscarriage" isn't going to raise any eyebrows. A woman with a mangled, infected uterus, dying in the emergency room as she refuses to divulge the name of her abortionist will get everybody's attention and make a lasting impression.

But there's a second, equally understandable reason why the image of the coat hanger wielding dirty old man persists. There is a political gain to perpetuating the myth. It's hard to raise up a general alarm over the idea that the current crop of physician abortionists will have to go underground. But the image of driving all the physician abortionists out of business, leaving nobody to ream out pregnant women but the proverbial greasy old man with a coat hanger, is alarming. It raises money. It gets people to come to rallies and write letters. It's effective.

There's only one drawback. It's simply not accurate. And the minute the reticent and personally opposed prochoice folks fully realize this, the abortion advocacy industry will be dead in its tracks.

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