1932 “Methods”

Early Abortions from 1930 to about 1950

Please know that this is very disturbing.

Though some of these notes are after the 1932 abortion, methods did not really improve because abortions were illegal. Most doctors wouldn’t do them, because it put them at risk by the law, but entire “wards” in a hospital, often called septic wards (because the resulting infection from these botchy abortions was very similar to the septic infections that a woman could get after pregnancy) were filled with women suffering after bad abortions; however, the infection a woman could get after an abortion were often worse because the pregnancy material was still inside the uterus. The only way to try to prevent this infection was different forms of antibiotics, which were scarce and did not always work. Penicillin was the best one, but sometimes couldn’t be found. More about the infections can be read on the source website, listed below. An infection could make a woman weak and sick for days eventually resulting in blood poisoning and renal (kidney) failure.

Many women would bleed to death after the abortion because their bodies were trying to pass the tissue from the pregnancy, but before the material would pass, they would die from too much blood loss. Here is a story below:

“My mother was born in 1899 and passed away in 1932, just a few days before her thirty-third birthday. She bled to death after an illegal abortion, leaving six motherless children who needed her desperately. I was the oldest, twelve, and the youngest was only two…. My mother had had several abortions before the one that ended her life. My aunt, her sister, told me about this man in our town who did abortions. I remember the 1932 abortion like it was yesterday. That evening I had gone to babysit for a family who lived two blocks from our house. My mother had gone to bed early, saying she didn’t feel well. The next morning my dad came to the neighbors’ to get me. He was cold sober and looked scared. When we got home – as I said, I was only two blocks away – an ambulance was there and they were carrying my mother out on a stretcher. But it was too late. She was gone. My aunts on my dad’s side came over and stayed with us that first night. I slept in the middle of my parents’ double bed, between my two aunts. When I got up in the morning I could see there was a lot of blood on the bed. It was her blood!”

The device they used for an abortion which was inserted into the vagina was most likely a catheter (definition: A thin flexible tube inserted into the body to permit introduction or withdrawal of fluids or to keep the passageway open) with a wire (which probably made the initial puncture to start the abortion).  It would make sense that this is what Violet had used because you could buy them from a pharmacy (illegally) and they could be done by a doctor or nurse (illegally) or by yourself. They were relatively inexpensive ($25 in the 1940’s) but the procedure if done by someone was expensive depending on what they wanted to charge. Also note that one of these devices “caused an abortion” but did not remove the fetal material, so it had to pass from the body on its own- much of the blood and problems came from this. Here is a description of the device by a woman who had one used on her:

“No one knows how many women needlessly died from illegal abortions, but we do know of the desperate remedies they subjected their bodies. The abortion techniques used during the American [abortion] underground period of 1900 to 1973, and earlier, can essentially be grouped into three categories:

1. Noninvasive “activity” such as hot baths or strenuous exercise.
2. Ingestion of a chemical or herbal substance believed to have abortifacient properties.
3. Invasive mechanical or surgical techniques. The physician-abortionist was more likely to do a curettage, or surgical scraping, while the lay abortionist and the self-abortionist were more likely to introduce a foreign object or substance into the uterus or to use an oral medication or chemical.

[The catheter:]

The most commonly used foreign body was the catheter, readily available in drusgstores without a prescription. Sometimes a metal stylet was threaded through the catheter so that the tip would be rigid enough to insert through the cervix. Often a coat hanger served the same purpose. Underground abortionists used two main catheter techniques. Sometimes they inserted the catheter and then removed it almost immediately. With this method, the foreign substance the uterus tries to expel is not the catheter but the infection it leaves behind, though in some cases the uterus contracts simply in response to the irritation cause by the introduction of the catheter.”

“Since I was very early, she could do the abortion. She told me to buy a catheter and penicillin pills. She told me what drugstore to go to and who to ask for. I don’t remember his name. He wasn’t a pharmacist. I called him and told him what I wanted. He told me to bring twenty-five dollars in cash and to ask for him. When I got home I looked in the bag, and there were twelve penicillin tablets and a catheter. The catheter was about twelve inches long. It was red and looked like it had a wire or something inside of it. Mary came to my house the next day. I paid her fifty dollars. She spread newspaper on my bed and put those pads they put under you in hospitals on top of the newspaper. Then she had me lie down on the pads. She told me I could just feel a little pinch, and that was exactly what it felt like. She inserted the catheter in me and pulled out the wire. When she was finished, she told me to start taking the penicillin pills right away, even though it would be several hours before anything happened…”

About the unsanitary, expensive methods of abortion and a woman’s bad experience, seemingly used a catheter as well (This was in 1932):

“As soon as I realized I was pregnant, I started looking for a solution to my problem. I knew I wanted an abortion. First I went to my own doctor. He confirmed that I was pregnant but told me he had no help to offer. My sources of information were usually men, not women. They gave me names and telephone numbers. I was getting really panicky as time was going by and I was going nowhere. Eventually I got to a nurse in East Liberty. I went to her house. She didn’t have an office or anything like that. I know she told me that the cost would be four hundred dollars and that I had to have the money in cash. Now, that was a lot of money in 1946. I went to my bank and cashed in my savings bonds, my savings account, and everything else I had. The day of my abortion, I went by myself. I remember a very small room with a couch. I was told to lie on the couch. That is where the abortion was done. Nothing was sterile. I lay down on the couch, and she put something up my vagina. I never saw what it was. It sort of hurt. Then she put some sort of packing in and gave me some medicine in a small container. They were dark brown pills. She never told me what the medicine was; she just said that I should take it when I got home. I left the same way I had come – alone and on foot. At that point, I didn’t have a feeling of fear. It was more like disgust: “This is an awful thing to have to go through.” But my over whelming emotion was one of relief. I went home and took the medicine. I thought I might be okay, but I got terribly sick. I don’t know if it was the abortion or the medicine. In the middle of the night I went to the bathroom and suddenly began hemorrhaging. I start screaming. My mother rushes in. She called a doctor, and it was the same doctor I had originally gone to. As soon as she told him I was bleeding, he knew immediately what was going on and sent an ambulance.”

Another catheter story:
“Finally someone told me about a nurse in Turtle Creek. All I knew was a phone number and a first name: Barbara. I called her and said I needed to come and see her because I had this “problem”. I had absolutely no knowledge of this woman’s medical competence, but I sure wasn’t going to ask. I didn’t care. That isn’t exactly true. I cared a lot. I had two small children at home. I didn’t want to die and leave them alone with a brutal father. But I didn’t have a choice. Barbara was all there was. The abortion was actually done in Barbara’s kitchen. She had me remove my underpants and lie down on the table. Then she inserted something in me. I didn’t see it, but it felt like some sort of rubber tubing. In about ten or fifteen minutes I began to feel cramps, and she took the tubing, or whatever it was, out. She told me to lie there for a few minutes, and then she moved me to a little room that had a cot in it. That was where I was going to spend the night. I was having intermittent cramping, but I wasn’t bleeding. Now I was really scared, because in the morning, even though I hadn’t aborted, she told me to go home, saying there was nothing more she could do for me. She told me something might happen in a few days. With that assurance I went home, but I was a wreck. You know, I can’t remember what I told my husband about where I had been all night. He had no idea I was pregnant, because if he had known, he would never have let me get an abortion. He didn’t want a divorce, and this would have given him enough control to keep me where he wanted me forever. I went about my daily chores, taking care of the kids, cooking meals and trying to act normal. But I was really frightened. Finally, a full two weeks after my trip to Barbara, I miscarried. I went to the bathroom one day and just passed it in the toilet. There was no bleeding or cramping. I fished it out of the toilet and looked at it. It was a glob of tissue. I felt bad. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t regret it. I didn’t regret then, and I never have. I just felt bad about the circumstances.”

Catheter and post-abortion bleeding:

“George came about three days later – it took me a few days to scrape up that much money.
He sort of poked around with a catheter. I think it took about twenty minutes, maybe not that long. He told me to go to bed and the next day I would have some bleeding and I would abort. He also told me that if I passed any clots or pieces of tissue, to save them in my freezer so he would be able to tell if he got everything. He didn’t give me antibiotics or anything like that.
The next morning, when I woke up, I knew something was different. Although no bleeding or cramping had started, for the first time in sixty or seventy days I wasn’t nauseated. Feeling good for the first time in weeks, I jumped out of bed, go Jeff and myself dressed, and went out in the backyard to rake leaves. Suddenly I felt this wet sensation on my legs. I looked down. The leaves and I were covered with blood. Remembering George’s instructions about any tissue, I dropped the rake, grabbed Jeff, and ran into the house to take off my blood soaked clothes. I picked through the clothes for tissue.”

This is a very complete source that comes from a book. I would normally not use such a source, but it is more complete and thorough than any of the articles, etc. I searched through.

Website: http://www.geocities.com/realitywithbite/illegalabortion.htm 9/21/2008

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