I recently changed jobs and now work at a medical library. We are currently going through our collection and I discovered a copy of “Abortion and its Treatment” from 1890. Most of it deals with miscarriage, but one section specifically deals with what the author terms “Criminal Abortion.”
In this connection, let me give you a remarkable case which occurred in my own experience. On one occasion, a few years ago, I was sitting at breakfast, when the servant announced that there was a gentleman down-stairs asking to see me…. I accordingly went down, and found a fine-looking man about thirty-five years of age who was walking the floor and appeared to be in a perfect agony of anxiety and excitement. He told me that he was a physician from a western town, and that he had come on with his wife who had injured herself in an attempt to produce an abortion. He stated that his wife, believing herself to be pregnant, had become so alarmed, from the fact that at her last confinement she had suffered severely from puerperal fever, and that she had insisted on getting rid of the product of conception by artificial means herself. Accordingly, … he had procured and prepared for her an iron umbrella-rib, telling her that if she would introduce it into the uterus her purpose would be accomplished. In his absence she had attempted this procedure, and found that the rib, having once been pushed in, kept going on and on, until at last it was suddenly grasped by something and pulled up entirely out of her reach, disappearing within the uterus. In answer to my inquiry how long his wife had been pregnant, he replied “two months.”
Though this story seemed utterly improbable, I at once went to see his wife at her hotel, and found a very handsome woman lying in bed apparently in a perfectly healthy condition. … Under the circumstances I thought it best to make an examination of her chest, and asked her to sit up in bed for this purpose. As soon as she did this she gave a sudden gasp, as though she were in great agony, and she suffered so greatly from difficulty of breathing that it was five minutes before I could go on with the examination.
I then believed that the history told by her husband was true, and, fearing that the most serious consequences might ensue, I determined to perform laparotomy at once. Every preparation was accordingly made for the operation, but just as the ether cone was about to be applied to her face an uncle of hers, who was present, remarked to me that if I proceeded it must be on my own responsibility, and that if anything untoward happened he would invoke the law to punish me for my temerity. This announcement somewhat startled me, and, […] I asked the patient if she would take the risk of the operation, and she said “no.” I then asked her if it was really true that she had used the umbrella-rib and it had disappeared, as stated, and she replied that “she didn’t know.” […] I accordingly ordered that the instruments which had been made ready should be put up. In a week after this the woman died.
The doctor was curious, and over the objections of the woman’s husband, got a post-mortem on the case by a friendly coroner.
The result of the examination was as follows: I found a non-pregnant uterus of normal size, and just to the right of the cervix uteri there was a puncture of the vaginal wall, evidently made by the umbrella-rib mentioned. Through this orifice the rib had gone, and as it passed upward through the abdominal cavity it had scraped the surface of the liver. After transfixing the diaphragm, it penetrated the right lung to the extent of two or three inches, and in this position it was found at the autopsy. It was no doubt a spasm of the diaphragm, resulting from the irritation of the rib piercing it, which had caused the sudden snatching upward of the latter, as described by the husband in his narrative.
The rib was thirteen inches in length, with its point somewhat sharpened […]. I mention this case not only on account of its peculiar interest, but to show you to what lengths women will go under these circumstances. In this instance it was the dread of another attack of puerperal fever which rendered the patient morbidly anxious about the matter. (Abortion and its treatments, 1890, pages 36-40)
Here was a woman who’s last birth caused her to
essentially go septic* (she was lucky to survive), and wanted to perform an abortion. Her husband wouldn’t help her, the doctor doesn’t completely believe her, and she died in agony, probably due to infection and the fact that she punctured her own lung.
Trust women, because no matter which way you look at it, dying because no one wanted to help you perform a medical procedure is one horrible way to go.
* She went septic from giving birth. I should recheck this stuff before posting.