Did Jersey’s Pre-1973 Abortion Ban Really Kill Women? The Research Says Yes, Absolutely.

New Jersey deaths by the only methods afforded women before legal abortion. Gruesome detail I almost wish I didn’t read. Promoted by Rosi. Cross Posted from Dan Kurz’s Jersey Globe Blog.

The debate over abortion is one of the central issues in American politics. Actually, abortion brings on a set of questions, one often feeding off another to shape opinions and passions. Is a person created at conception? If so, what rights does a fetus have? When, during the course of a pregnancy, is “personhood” reached or achieved? What is the proper role of the state in regulating abortions? If abortions were again banned, what would be the consequences for the women who would surely seek them?

Frequently, we hear a lot of rhetoric from the pro-choice side pointing to the dangers of banning abortion. If Roe v. Wade is reversed, many say, the reemergence of the illegal abortion industry (as well as dangerous self-inflicted attempted abortions) will occur. These shady practices of the past, according to pro-choice organizations like NARAL and NOW, resulted in illegal abortion ‘mills’ that operated outside the law and accepted medical practice. Modern day abortion advocates continually remind us that women seeking abortions died atrocious deaths at the hands of untrained, corrupt, and greedy quack doctors.

As a history educator with a lot of newfound, electronic access to newspaper and magazine archives, I find myself in the unique position to research the topic. I was interested to see if there is a solid historical record concerning such abortion mills and macabre deaths. Did they exist? Did women really die in any sort of numbers at their own hands or through the botched efforts of medical imposters and frauds?

After just a short search on abortion-related deaths involving New Jersey women before 1973 (the year Roe v. Wade established a nationally based, legal right to a first trimester abortion), I can honestly say, they did. Absolutely. And the deaths, or at least press coverage of them, go back far into our state’s history. How far? Try the 1840’s.

One of the earliest records of this comes from Morris County in the Denville/Rockaway area in November of 1846. According to the National Police Gazette, a popular magazine at the time, a “young” woman by the name of Elizabeth Peer had died as a result of an abortion. The unmarried Peer had gotten pregnant due to a scandalous affair. Fearful of the devastating social consequences, the young woman had approached several local doctors for help in attaining an abortion. One doctor testified that:

“In the month of July, the deceased first visited witness and requested him to produce an abortion. Witness refused. She came again about a month afterwards on the same errand. Witness fully stated to her the dangers…of such an operation. She told him…that she would rather die than suffer the [social]

disgrace.”

Eventually, according to court papers, Elizabeth Peer found an abortionist, a woman who ran a rather large and profitable New York City-based operation who went by the name of “Madame Costello.” Costello charged Peer $30 for the abortion – a huge sum at that time.

Peer had gotten the abortion only to succumb a month later to a nightmarish infection and/or hemorrhage. One doctor testified:

“He found her bowels uncommonly swollen – pulse small…vomiting with cold sweat and diarrhea…she then stated she had gone to New York to one of those famous female physician-houses, and that the membranes were ruptured by an instrument…”

There are other reports in later years. An August 1867 newspaper article informs us of the tragic death of one Elizabeth Ball, 28, from a “respectable family” in Newark. Ball had become pregnant as a result of an extramarital affair involving a man the newspaper called her “seducer”, Jacob Wilson. As in earlier stories, Ball was frantic to stop the pregnancy early on, and had traveled to Brooklyn to get an abortion. Before her death she told one doctor that the procedure had cost her $80 – a sum several times the average worker’s monthly wage. Ball had to endure ten agonizing days between the abortion and her passing.

One June 1868 account is particularly disturbing, as it recounts the grisly death of one exceptionally desperate 38 year old, Jersey City area woman and mother by the name of Henrietta Berry. Berry was so distressed to end her first trimester pregnancy that she underwent two self-inflicted attempts. The first was some kind of orally administered concoction, but this failed. The second proved painfully fatal:

“On Thursday she resorted to the use of some kind of instrument, by which it is supposed that the was injured internally, as she immediately grew worse, and although a physician was called in, death resulted in twenty four hours…deceased was 38…and the mother of four children.”

The deaths continued, some right up to the decade before Roe v. Wade. In May of 1963 the pages of The Washington Post revealed a horrendous discovery. Angela Lach, a single 26 year old Sayreville educator, was found in a scene reminiscent of a horror movie:

“Miss Lach’s body, sprawled face up in the rain, was found last night in the driveway of a Lutherville (Maryland) estate when the owner returned home.”

Lach, in her first trimester of pregnancy, had apparently traveled from central New Jersey to a Baltimore motel to get an abortion and had not been seen by family since. Upon searching her purse, Police traced the man, a salesman, who had arranged the abortion to a local diner, where they arrested him:

“[Police] described him as a 42 year old traveling salesman who sells kitchen utensils in New York and New Jersey…the salesman said he drove Miss Lach to Baltimore from New Jersey Friday…but insisted that his last contact with her was a telephone conversation early Saturday…He was not charged.”

It was obvious that the abortion went wrong and Lach quickly died, only to be disposed of in a grisly, undignified way.

Over the course of my research I found numerous other New Jersey-based cases, but these three struck me as especially tragic. These women were from all different walks of life. In their desperation to preserve their dignity and control their own bodies they were forced to turn to the most despicable, greedy quacks that operated in places such women would have never otherwise visited, from back rooms in Brooklyn to cheap, seedy Maryland motels.

These women, their sufferings and ultimate demise are part of the historical record. Believe what you want about the central questions of abortion today, but their deaths were definitive results of a state where legal, safe abortions were impossible to get.  

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