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The Bad Old Days of Abortion
Myths and Realities
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  Related Resources
• The Changing Face of Abortion
• Pre-Legalization Mortality
• Post Roe Practices
• Safe-n-Legal in the 20th Century
• Abortionists of the 20th Century
• 19th Century Abortion Cases and other cases of self-injury
• Abortion History
• PPFA Abortion Conference, 1955
• The Truth About Pre-Roe Abortion Mortality
•  What California Found
•  What Minnesota Found
• Unequal Burden on the Poor?
•  Who To Thank For Public Health Miracles
 Elsewhere on the Web
• What Kind of Doctor Does Abortions?
• The Death of Creepy Kenny
• The Amazing "Dr." Karman
• Criminal Abortion: Edith Green
• Chicago, 1928: Abortionist Sentenced to Die
• Jesse Ketchum: Back-Alley Butcher Gone Legit
• Criminal Abortion: Rose Lipner
• Hiding the Bodies in Plain Sight
• Criminal Abortion Deaths Uncovered
• Doctors and the Back Alley Abortion
• The Fruits of Roe vs. Wade
• Back Alley Butchers vs Main Street Maimers
• 19th Century Abortion Cases and Other Self-Injury
• A 19th Century Abortion Case
• Another Back Alley Butcher Gone Legit
• Abortion Advocates Get More Than Bargained For

Let's take a good hard look at the pre-legalization horror stories. First, let's visit the abortion advocacy site that tells the most gruesome tales:

Gruesome abortion stories are the mainstay of abortion advocates. But how representative are they of abortion practice in the days before legalization?

Mary Claderone (then Medical Director of Planned Parenthood) and Nancy Howell Lee (a pro choice researcher) both investigated the practice of criminal abortion in the pre-legalization era. Calderone estimated that 90% of all illegal abortions in the early 1960s were being done by physicians. Calderone further estimated that 8% were self-induced and that 2% were induced by someone other than the woman or a doctor. Lee estimated that 89% of pre-legalization abortions were done by physicians, an additional 5% by nurses or others with some medical training, and 6% were done by non-medical persons or the woman herself.

Calderone's numbers came from "43 men and women from the various disciplines of obstetrics, psychiatry, public health, sociology, forensic medicine, and law and demography." Lee interviewed women who had undergone pre-legalization abortions. The discrepancy between Lee's and Calderone's breakdowns of non-physician abortions is probably due to sampling errors.

Lee, who spoke with women who survived abortions, would of course not encounter women whose abortions killed them. Therefore she would not be exposed to the proportionate number of women who chose the most dangerous alternative. Lee's sample also included only willing survey participants, who would be more forthright and complete in divulging information, such as who really performed the abortion, than women being interviewed by health or law enforcement officials.

Calderone, on the other hand, spoke with those likely to see the botched and fatal abortions, and therefore they would be exposed to a higher percentage of the most dangerous, self-induced abortions. Also, Calderone's informants would have been investigating botched abortions that could be subject to a criminal investigation. Therefore, women speaking to them would be likely to withhold the true identity of their abortionists to protect them. Also, should the woman die, her family and friends might identify the woman herself as the abortionist, rather than admit their own roles in arranging or performing abortions, in order to close the investigation.

Anecdotal data tends to support Lee's research. Stories of abortions by midwives, orderlies, chiropractors, and assorted lay practitioners like Harvey Karman and the Jane Syndicate are far too common to represent only 2% of criminal abortions. We would probably not err too far if we relied primarily on Lee's numbers and adjusted them slightly to reflect the slight under-reporting of amateur abortions. Thus, a fair estimate of the breakdown of criminal abortions would probably look like this:

Illegal by Doctors Illegal by Paramedical Illegal by Amateurs Self Induced

Next, what these abortions looked like in practice.

1. Nancy Howell Lee, The Search for an Abortionist, University of Chicago Press, 1969
2. Alex Barno, "Criminal abortion deaths, illegitimate pregnancy deaths, and suicides in pregnancy: Minnesota, 1950-1965," American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, June 1, 1967.
3. Mary Calderone, "Illegal abortion as a public health issue," American Journal of Public Health, July 1960
4. Leon Fox, "Abortion deaths in California," American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, July 1, 1967

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