The Twilight Zone of Illegal Abortion

Let’s take a trip back in time to the Twilight Zone, if you will. Only this was no television show, this was real life, real people and real events. Let’s start with Gerri Santoro. You probably don’t know who she is, but she played a pivotal role in the passing of Roe v Wade. Santoro was a 28-year-old American woman who died when she tried to give herself an abortion. This photograph of her corpse was published in Ms. Magazine in April, 1973 and it became a pro-choice symbol of the carnage being inflicted on American women from lack of choice to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Next scene…at Los Angeles County General Hospital, but really the scene was repeated at other major metropolitan hospitals during the late 1950s and early 1960s. There are fifty to one hundred patients at all times on any given afternoon in the emergency room separated into what the doctors called the “Infected OB” or septic abortion. All of these women are septic from infected abortions. “It looked like a set of intensive care units, all full of abortion patients,” said the head physician of the hospital. These women were hooked up to tubes and I.V’s with foul-smelling stuff coming from their uteruses; some in shock and others in congestive heart failure. Many patients died of congestive heart failure, foaming at the mouth. Most Septic Abortion Wards were open wards, but with at least two private rooms for dying patients so their families could have some privacy. All the beds stayed full all year long.

Another doctor remembers in the 1960s that it was called the “Monday Morning Abortion Line Up.” He said “What would happen is that the women would get their paychecks on Friday, Friday night they would go to their abortionist and spend their money on the abortion. Saturday they would start being sick and they would drift in on Sunday or Sunday evening, either hemorrhaging or septic, and they would be lined up outside the operating room to be cleaned out Monday morning. There was a lineup of women on stretchers outside the operating room, so you knew if you were an intern or resident, when you came in on Monday morning, that was the first thing you were going to do.”

In the Midwest, in 1942, women would bleed to death quickly from incomplete abortions, but with infection, it usually took the woman several days to die. Septicemia or blood poisoning caused severe pain and renal failure and those who didn’t die became sterile or what was called “gynecological cripples,” sterile with other chronic GYN problems. In 1942, this doctor found that the ward was “pretty representative of the population in terms of white or black or rich or poor.” They were as he described, “just average women – wives, mothers, young girls, mature women.”

In the years before Roe v Wade, illegal abortionists couldn’t do a D & C or a hysterectomy, so the standard procedure was to insert a catheter into the uterus to actually induce infection, because the body’s way of dealing with infection, or with any foreign material in the uterus is to expel the contents. Often the abortionist would puncture the uterus itself, which could lead to a fatal hemorrhage.

I would hope that you get the picture by now.

It was a dangerous time for women. Women were so desperate to end a pregnancy that any option seemed viable, no matter the risks. The typical experience was a woman would be given a phone number and be told to be at a certain place at a certain time. There she would be met by someone who would load her into a car and blindfold her and she would be driven around in circles so that she wouldn’t know where she was going before then being driven to an abortionist. Does this sound like the Twilight Zone yet?

Women without money or resources would try to self abort by penetrating themselves with knitting needles, coat hangers, bicycle spokes, ballpoint pens and swallowing chemicals like turpentine, laundry bleach and acid.

Another doctor came upon a horrific scene in an ER that he remembered for the rest of his life. Blood on the walls, blood on the floor, blood on the gurney, blood all over the ER crew, more blood than he thought possible. The woman, lifeless, lie on a table and he saw that someone had pushed inside her vagina with a sharp instrument and aimed it toward her cervix and thrust straight up. She was dead on arrival. She and her husband had five children already.

Gerri Santoro was a statistic, but She didn’t have to be.

Before 1973, it is estimated that between 200,000 to 1.2 million U.S. women resorted to illegal abortion each year and between 700 to 1,000 women died annually from back alley abortions before Roe v Wade, and thousands more were permanently maimed or sterilized not to mention the emotional trauma. Anti-abortionists will deny this every step of the way citing birth certificate information, but many deaths were not categorized as abortion deaths because of the shame and fear or lack of experience from autopsy surgeons.

Gerri Santoro’s daughter, Joannie Santoro-Griffin is now a pro-choice activist who says, “I once saw it (the photo) with a caption, “Never Forget.” But honestly, all I ever wanted to do was forget. But now finally I can separate my beautiful mom from the image that symbolizes every woman who died without choice. But she was just one of countless women who died in this lonely and desperate way prior to Roe v Wade. They were all someone’s sister, daughter, mother or friend…”

Roe v. Wade didn’t just fall out of the ether. Women advocated for it because we were suffering and dying. When the laws began to change after Roe, almost overnight, deaths from septic abortion disappeared making it an “astounding public health success” in one expert’s opinion.

Unfortunately, access to a safe abortion is becoming harder and harder for women, especially poor women.

Since 2010, Republicans have passed 231 state laws to restrict access to abortion. In their continuing War on Women, Republicans passed a whopping 1,100 pieces of legislation in 2014 alone, not only to restrict a woman’s reproductive rights, but to make sure several pieces of legislation were not passed, including the Violence Against Women Act, paid family leave, minimum wage bills, equal pay bills, health insurance and who can forget the Hobby Lobby decision to allow certain companies to not pay for contraceptives for their employees while still paying for Viagra! All of these bills disproportionately affect women.

In the last 15 years, 81 percent of all abortion clinics have closed due to new harsh mandates such as “mandated hallway size” and admitting privileges for abortion doctors to community hospitals even though the complications from a colonoscopy are higher than that of an abortion. Just a few days ago, the Oklahoma legislature passed two anti-abortion bills, one that would throw doctors in jail who perform abortions. In my home state of Kentucky, the two abortion clinics in the state were recently sued (and closed) by the new Tea Bagger governor, Matt Bevin.

Another law, a sonogram 24-hours before the procedure was also passed. These prominently all male legislators are inventing bogus health concerns, half truths and outright lies about abortion and its aftereffects. These happen to be their personal religious beliefs, but saving souls is more important to the religious zealots like Bevin than saving lives. The current juggernaut of laws and lawsuits are designed to drive women back into the back alley. We must fight. We must make sure that there is never another Gerri Santoro, another Septic Abortion Ward, or another back alley abortionist in the U.S.

For all the women who were murdered in the era before Roe v Wade, we must fight back! Because We Will Not Go Back!

For more personal stories of abortion click on this link Amberdragonfly

Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed our Nation, David A. Grimes, M.D. with Linda G. Brandon
Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, Cynthia Gorney, 1998
Speech at the March for Women’s Lives, Washington, D.C, 25 April 2004. Joannie Santoro-Griffin
The Worst of Times: Illegal Abortion – Survivors, Practitioners, Coroners, Cops, and Children of Women who Died Talk About Its Horrors, Patricia G. Miller, 1993, HarperCollins, NY
Guttmacher Institute


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