Girl, 17, Dies of Abortion;
Where Does the Guilt Really Lie?
by Judy Mage
[First printed in The Young Socialist, Vol.1 #5, February 1958]
“Girl, 17, Found Dead: Victim of Bungled Abortion.” So read the headlines in the New York papers one chilly evening this past December. Reading further we could learn more of the grim, typical story: the unwanted pregnancy, the helpful boyfriend, the "surgeon"—in this case a hat-check girl—the operation on the floor of a hotel room, death within the half hour, a secret burial in a trash-filled grave; and then, discovery, and the charges of manslaughter.
Yes, another tragedy, another victim—of what? Of a "bungled abortion," of a hat-check girl operating on a dirty floor with crude instruments? Or rather, another victim of that law which illegalizes this operation, transforming what could be relatively safe and minor surgery if performed under strict antiseptic conditions by a trained physician, into a dangerous, often crippling, and sometimes fatal affair.
HOW MANY VICTIMS?
How dangerous? Experts estimate that from 100 to 150 women and girls die each week in the United States as a direct result of "criminal" abortions. Estimates of the total number of illegal abortions which occur in this country each year vary from the conservative approximation of 330,000—about 1,000 daily—to as high as two million.
It is of course the poorer women and girls who are the chief victims of the "kitchen" abortion, also known medically as the "suicide abortion." Those with more money to spend are much more apt to find a "real" doctor who can supplement his income considerably in return for undergoing a certain risk. Going prices, according to a study made two years ago, ranged from $250, a low average for physicians, up to $400, $600, and well over $1,000.
Particularly shocking to anyone who does any research in this subject, is the discovery that between eighty and ninety per cent of the illegal abortions are performed, not on wild-eyed, delinquent teenagers (or even on nice, naive teenagers, as the 17-year-old described above), but on married women, most of whom are already mothers. In addition, some researchers estimate that half the criminal abortions are performed on women who aren't even pregnant.
What is the solution? There are some countries which have advanced to the point of permitting abortions on other than "therapeutic" grounds. In Denmark, Austria, Cuba, Switzerland, the Soviet Union (after a throwback of 20 years), Sweden, Japan, and a few other countries, legal grounds include economic, psychiatric, eugenic and other social factors.
In the United States, opponents of any "softening" of the abortion laws summon up a number of arguments ,but there are two which stand out above the rest. The first is maintained in particular by the Catholic Church, which argues that since an embryo is a "living person" it would be a sin to take its life. One might question the consistency of this pure-minded organization which stood by quietly while unbaptized embryos were destroyed at great quantities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and which has justified and continues to justify the murder, in big and little wars, of hundreds and thousands of "living persons" who happen to be outside the womb.
GUARDIANS OF MORALITY
The other argument, also advanced by the Church but by many others as well, concerns the torrent of promiscuity, especially among youth, which would presumably result if the fear of pregnancy were removed as a deterrent. But by what right do these people declare themselves the arbiters of what is right and wrong? Who elected them? Why not let young people decide for themselves what their standards of sexual morality should be, rather than impose someone else's standards upon them?
It is true that legalizing abortion is not the complete answer. Even more important is the encouragement of a form of "preventive medicine'; i.e., birth control. Although disseminating birth control information is not illegal in most of the U. S., the major agency in this field, Planned Parenthood, finds its greatest organized barrier, again, in the Catholic Church.
However there is another important factor hampering the success of widespread birth control, and that is the absence of any really simple, cheap, and effective contraceptive.
The search still goes on for what is popularly called "The Pill;" a substance taken by mouth that would be both safe and reliable in preventing conception. Planned Parenthood maintains a research program, but the amount devoted to it is extremely small. As one woman involved in this research put it: "We could have the answer within ten years. What we need is a Manhattan Project—a crash program!"
But there is no crash program —and in the absence of adequate birth control information and guidance, in the absence of humane and realistic abortion laws, 17-year-old girls and 35-year-old mothers will continue to fall victim to the "bunglers" knife.