19th Century Abortion Cases and Other Self-Injury
A 19th century medical book describes several abortion attempts. These self-induced abortions, however, are described in the context of unusual pelvic injuries in both sexes, and this context provides a fresh perspective. Horrible as the self-induced abortion attempts are, they are no more horrible than injuries and deaths people have suffered from putting foreign objects into their bodies for other reasons. In this context, self-induced abortion becomes less of a political issue, and more a psychological and psychiatric issue.
The authors, George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle, start their chapter describing unusual injuries caused by accidents, fights, and other non-self-inflicted causes. But later they begin an investigation of things people inserted into their own bodies:
Foreign bodies in the bladder... generally gain entrance through one of the natural passages, as a rule being introduced, either in curiosity or for perverted satisfaction, through the urethra. ... At the University Hospital, Philadelphia, White has extracted... a long wax taper which had been used in masturbation. ... Gross found three caudal vertebrae of a squirrel in the center of a vesical calculus taken from the bladder of a man of thirty-five. It was afterward elicited that the patient had practiced urethral masturbation with the tail of this animal.... Wheeler reports the case of a man of twenty-one who passed a button-hook into his anus, from whence it escaped into his bladder. The hook, which was subsequently spontaneously passed, measured 2 1/2 inches in length and 1/2 inch in diameter.
The authors then move on to cases involving female patients:
Among females, whose urethrae are short and dilatable, foreign bodies are often found in the bladder, and it is quite common for smaller articles of the toilet, such as hair-pins, to be introduced into the bladder, and there form calculi. ....Bigelow reports the case of a woman who habitually introduced hair-pins and common pins into her bladder. She acquired this mania after an attempt at dilatation of the urethra in the relief of an obstinate case of strangury. Rode reports the case of a woman who had introduced a hog's penis into her urethra. It was removed by an incision into this canal, but the patient died in five days of septicemia.
Patients were also described with a variety of objects they had inserted into their vaginas for reasons other than attempting abortion:
Believe it or Not
The elasticity of the vagina allows the presence in this passage of the most voluminous foreign bodies. ... Goblets, hair-pins, needles, bottles, beer glasses, compasses, bobbins, pessaries, and many other articles have been found in the vagina. .... There is an account of a young girl addicted to onanism who died from the presence of a pewter cup in her vagina; it had been there fourteen months. Shame had led her to conceal her condition for all the period during which she suffered pain in the hypogastrium, and diarrhea. .... Pearse mentions a woman of thirty-six who had suffered menorrhagia for ten days, and was in a state of great prostration and suffering from strong colicky pains. On examination he found a silk-bobbin about an inch from the entrance, which the patient had introduced fourteen years before.
The authors close the chapter with a look at some abortion injuries:
Foreign bodies are generally introduced in the uterus either accidentally in vaginal applications, or for the purpose of producing abortion. Zuhmeister describes a case of a woman who shortly after the first manifestations of pregnancy used a twig of a tree to penetrate the matrix. She thrust it so strongly into the uterus that the wall was perforated, and the twig became planted in the region of the kidneys. Although six inches long and of the volume of a goose feather, this branch remained five months in the pelvis without causing any particular inconvenience, and was finally discharged by the rectum.
Brignatelli mentions the case of a woman who, in culpable practices, introduced the stalk of a reed into her uterus. She suffered no inconvenience until the next menstrual epoch which was accompanied by violent pains. She presented the appearance of one in the pains of labor. The matrix had augmented in volume, and the orifice of the uterine cervix was closed, but there was hypertrophy as if in the second or third month of pregnancy. After examination a piece of reed three cm. long was extracted from the uterus, its external face being incrusted with hard calcareous material.
Crouzit was called to see a young girl who had attempted criminal abortion by a darning-needle. When he arrived a fetus of about three months had already been expelled, and had been wounded by the instrument. It was impossible to remove the needle, and the placenta was not expelled for two days. Eleven days afterward the girl commenced to have pains in the inguinal region, and by the thirty-fifth day an elevation was formed, and the pains increased in violence. On the seventy-ninth day a needle six inches long was expelled from the swelling in the groin, and the patient recovered.
Looked at in the context of self-injury in general, these attempts at self-induced abortion should lead us to look at the overall issue of what leads people to put things into their bodies. Such efforts could help to prevent the continuing problem of self-induced abortion attempts, which still claim the lives of women despite ready access to legal abortion.
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