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SUFFERING, PAIN IN THE DAYS OF 'BACK ALLEY ABORTIONS

The last woman to die in Buffalo after an illegal abortion was barely a woman.

Deborah Jones was a 16-year-old student at P.S. 31 on the East Side. Her siblings say Deborah, a religious girl in a devout family, was impregnated by a teacher at her school.

On June 20, 1969, the man took her to local abortionist Georgiana Smith Goodloe, according to police. Deborah died three days later after hemorrhaging. Goodloe was later sentenced to probation.

Injury and death from so-called "back alley abortions" were not uncommon during the 100-year period the operations were illegal.

Who was performing abortions during that time, and what was it like for a woman who sought one?

Buffalo News records from the 1930s onward document the arrests of nearly 100 local people for performing abortions. Though some of the accused were doctors, there were also dentists, pharmacists, nurses, chiropractors and physical therapists. Also accused were a tavern keeper, two police officers and two attorneys. Many of the women accused of performing abortions were presumably housewives.

Arrests were made all across the region, including Buffalo, Tonawanda, Dunkirk, Lockport, Hamburg and Silver Creek.

The most common method of abortion was the introduction of an instrument into the uterus through the cervix, and items used included knitting needles, crochet hooks, nail files, hatpins, coat hangers and pieces of wire, says Elisabeth Weston, a women's historian and researcher at Niagara County Community College.

But women also drank purgative or poisonous substances, such as turpentine, quinine, herb teas of tansy or pennyroyal, laundry bluing, Epsom salts, castor oil, ammonia and opium. They also inserted soap, tar, pepper or tannin-containing substances into the vagina or uterus. Other historical records document cases of women performing strenuous exercise or throwing themselves down stairs to induce abortion.

Women with more financial resources and more social standing always had more options, Weston says.

"If you were married and middle- or upper-class, there was a greater possibility of having your doctor perform that operation in a hospital or his own office, or at least refer you to someone," she said.

Weston recalls her own experiences in a women's college in the late 1960s, when students would make donations to pay for a classmate's abortion.

"People had enough money, between the man and his friends and the woman and her friends," she says. The woman could seek a legal abortion in Puerto Rico or Mexico, or pay a local abortionist, with or without a medical degree.

Dr. Kenneth R. Kahn, a Buffalo gynecologist, was a gynecology resident in Cleveland for four years, some of that time immediately before Roe v. Wade.

He recalls seeing women in the emergency room "who had had illegal abortions, and often they were in septic shock, or bleeding heavily, and really, really sick."

Speaking out

Only decades later did women speak publicly about their experiences with illegal abortions.

Archives in the University at Buffalo library show that on March 22, 1989, more than 300 people attended a "Speak-Out" at a Buffalo church to hear the stories of a dozen men and women who had been affected by illegal abortion. The audience deposited coat hangers into a box to be mailed to the nation's attorney general.

These were among the stories told by local people:

"I never knew my grandmother. She died in 1926 after attempting an abortion. She was 37 and very poor, and it would have been her 10th child.

"Her death certificate did not state 'attempted abortion' as the cause of her death; instead the kind coroner wrote 'blood poisoning' because abortion was a crime, a great scandal and a grave sin. As a result, records don't show (so researchers can't tell) that my grandmother, and many other grandmothers, I'm sure, died from self-induced abortion."

"This is the ghastly experience undergone by a dear friend many years ago. Due to dangerously high blood pressure, an abortion was essential. Since her own gynecologist was afraid to perform the abortion himself, he gave her the name of an illegal abortionist.

"She had to stand on a street corner at night and was picked up and taken to an unknown house, where she had an abortion with no anesthesia of any kind. Bleeding and in pain, she was driven to the same street corner, where her husband picked her up."

"Memories of Oct. 26, 1951, at 1 p.m. are as vivid now as then. I came to a dingy office over a drugstore on Niagara Street to a doctor who did not know or care to know my name. I had never even had a pelvic exam. For $500 cash, this doctor performed an abortion on me with absolutely no anesthetic of any kind. . . . When I tried to call the doctor a few days later about bleeding, there was no recognition."

A universal phenomenon

Abortions were illegal in the United States from the late 1800s until the early 1970s. But in 1954, anthropologist George Devereux published a study of 350 preindustrial societies, which concluded that "abortion is an absolutely universal phenomenon."

Articles in the Buffalo Medical Journal in the autumn of 1858 by writer A. Flint were among the first to condemn abortion. Flint wrote: "Females have now come to regard the production of abortion as one of the most innocent and natural things in the world. ... We are coolly asked to assist in getting rid of an embryo, with as much sang-froid (cold blood) as we are asked to vaccinate."

Flint urged doctors to "let the profession, en masse, demand of our legislative bodies, a law to prevent this horrible destruction of human life and public morals."

The doctors' movement spread across the country. It "wasn't about fetal rights. You don't find that language at all," says Weston. "It was about midwives operating independently of doctors, and this was the final nail in that coffin."

By 1900, abortion was illegal in every state. In some states, such as New York, a therapeutic abortion could be done in a hospital if a panel of doctors agreed that the woman was physically or psychologically unable to continue her pregnancy.

Broader debates

In 1965, the National Centers for Disease Control found, almost 200 women nationally died of abortion complications.

And in 1969, complications from illegal abortions accounted for 23 percent of all pregnancy-related admissions to municipal hospitals in New York, according to the Institute of Medicine.

By the early 1960s, public opinion was beginning to shift. An epidemic of German measles, or rubella, in 1962 and 1963 resulted in the birth of mentally and physically handicapped babies whose mothers had been exposed to the virus in early pregnancy. Then thalidomide, a drug commonly prescribed in Europe for nausea in early pregnancy, was found to cause birth defects in children whose mothers had taken it.

In the spring of 1962, Sherri Finkbine, mother of four and a television personality in Phoenix, sought an abortion after learning she had taken thalidomide while pregnant. When her request for a therapeutic abortion was denied in Phoenix, she and her husband began to explore worldwide options. Newspapers reported the progress of her case daily for weeks until she had the abortion in Sweden.

Public discussion of the Finkbine case led to broader debates about abortion.

In 1966, the American Medical Women's Association urged that abortion be legalized. Doctors, the group that had pushed to make abortion illegal, were now becoming advocates for legal abortion.

The first bill to legalize abortion in New York State was introduced in January 1967, but committee meetings, cliffhanger votes and filibusters ensued despite the urging of doctors, clergymen and even Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. While New York lawmakers debated, Colorado, Hawaii and California liberalized abortion laws, and those states were flooded with women.

The New York law took effect July 1, 1970, but illegal abortion continued in other states.

Then, on Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Roe v. Wade, that the 14th Amendment's right of privacy "is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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