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The Bad Old Days of Abortion
Myths and Realities
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Dateline: 8/10/01

What did pre-legalization abortions look like in practice? There were physicians who ran abortion mills, physicians who did selected abortions on their own patients, physicians who worked patients in through loopholes in the law. In addition to physician abortionists, there were the professional non-physicians, often operating with training, equipment, medications, and back-up provided by physicians. Here are more representative stories of pre-legalization abortions:

This is the rough profile of who was performing abortions, and how women arranged them. Where, then, does the image of the coat hanger come in?

Lee's interviews with women who had self-aborted found a different picture from the women who had sought professional (however illegal) abortions. These self-aborting women tended to be less rational, and more self-destructive, than the women seeking competent abortionists. Lee also found that the women attempting self-abortion were likely to have had a death wish at the time of the abortion.

This finding is in keeping with psychiatric literature of the time, which treats self-induced abortion as a peculiar manifestation of the self-mutilating behavior common in patients with certain psychiatric disorders. Self-mutilation in patients with these disorders can range from superficial cuts and cigarette burns to self-trepanning (drilling holes in the skull), enoculation (gouging the eyes out), and amputation of limbs.

Mutilation of the genitals is not rare in these patients, and self-induced abortion was often regarded as an extreme form of genital mutilation aimed at attacking the patient's own femininity. It was in the political context, not the psychiatric or psychological context, that self-induced abortions were considered to be the expected behavior of normal women. This politicized view of self-aborting women eclipsed the reality.

This is not to say that all women who self-induce abortions are mentally ill. Investigators of post-Roe self-induced abortion injuries and deaths found other factors, such as distrust of the medical profession, a perception of home herbal abortion as more "natural," cultural preferences, and "ideosyncratic" factors nobody could readily explain. These women, however, carefully research abortion methods and use common sense and intelligence to select a method likely to be efficacious and comparatively safe. Let's take some time to look at methods preferred by the woman who is thinking out her abortion plan:

Please, don't try these methods at home! I merely wish to illustrate the difference between a woman planning to perform her own abortion and the woman whose abortion is clearly self-destructive.

What of the women turning up in emergency rooms and morgues? The things they put into their bodies illustrate that there is something more going on than just an attempt to dislodge an unwanted fetus: pine oil, drain cleaner, curtain rods, ice picks, coat hangers, bicycle pumps, turpentine... Every year or so a self-induced or rank-amateur abortion death will be reported to the Centers for Disease Control, showing that the problem has not just gone away with legalization. But the problem is now swept under the rug because admitting that it exists poses a threat to the abortion agenda.

The self-induced and amateur abortions that showed up in the emergency room and the morgue gave some people a distorted view of criminal abortion. Abortion proponents capitalized on and magnified that distorted view. But the truth is that most women who were making a self-interested decision to abort found a competent person to do the abortion. All that's changed with legalization is that abortionists have been given a new clientele -- women who would never have sought abortions had they been illegal. While that's a boon to abortionists, it's hard to argue that more abortions for ambivalent women is a real gain to society, or to the women themselves.


Sources:
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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