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Jesse Ketchum: Back-Alley Butcher Gone Legit

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Legalizing abortion was supposed to make it safer for women by taking it out of the hands of "back-alley butchers" and opening the trade to legitimate physicians. Of course, this theory failed to take into account the fact that most pre-legalization abortions were done by doctors.

Legalization could not be expected to change whether these characters would do abortions. Of course they still would. What legalization would change was how they did abortions. And one shining example, Jesse Ketchum, shows clearly what legalization did to abortion practice.

Ketchum operated his abortion practice alongside a legitimate (if somewhat lawsuit-prone) medical practice. Although Ketchum's criminal abortion practice wasn't the best in the world, he evidently maintained some standards and protocols for screening patients. No patient deaths have been attributed to Ketchum's criminal practice.

When New York legalized abortion on demand in 1970, Ketchum set up shop in a Buffalo motel suite. For Ketchum, New York must have seemed like the Promised Land. Abortionists were flaunting safety standards with impunity. Practices such as injecting patients with saline then sending them home to abort raised eyebrows, to be sure, but they didn't get anybody thrown in jail.

On May 28, 1971, Ketchum did a D&C abortion under general anesthesia on Ellen K. Lawler of New Baltimore, MI, in his Buffalo office. Only later, at an undisclosed time, did Mrs. Lawler discover that Ketchum had lacerated her uterus, anterior cul-de-sac, right broad ligament, and peritoneum. He had told her the abortion had been uncomplicated. Such severe injuries in a criminal abortion patient would have brought the heat down on our boy Jesse. But this was New York, abortion was legal, and although Mrs. Lawler suffered ill effects from Ketchum's foul-up, Ketchum himself was able to carry on. (New York Supreme Court, County of Erie, Index No. 62821)

Ketchum decided to do hysterotomy abortions in his office. It didn't take long for this practice to turn deadly. In the second half of 1971, Ketchum caught the eyes of the authorities by allowing two hysterotomy patients -- Margaret Smith and Carole Schaner -- to bleed to death. (Journal of ACOG March 1974; New York State Journal of Medicine October 1975)

The amazing thing is that after allowing Margaret Smith to die, Ketchum remained at large, able to perform the fatal abortion on Carol Schaner. There is no evidence that Margaret's death in any way prompted Ketchum to improve his practice or institute safety measures. Why should he? After all, he'd already apparently gotten away with the sloppy practices that had killed Margaret.

Ketchum was verily astounded when he was charged with homicide in Margaret Smith's death. Abortion, after all, was legal. How could one be prosecuted for doing something legal? Ketchum tried various legal moves to stay out of prison. When Roe v. Wade was handed down and assorted criminal abortionists started getting their old convictions thrown out, Ketchum tried Roe for leverage. He got nowhere. Eventually, he was sentenced to prison. (W.D. New York District Court No. Civ-75-79)

Prison did to Ketchum what lawsuits could not do -- it got him to give up his abortion practice.

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