Friday, September 07, 2018

No more coat hangers

This blog covers a wide variety of topics.

We cannot go back to the years before Roe v. Wade. My book, Coat Hangers and Knitting Needles documents the problems. This is Chapter 5.

Chapter 5 of Coat Hangers and Knitting Needles that writes about the film Motherless. Stories of people whose mothers died from illegal abortions.

The hospital kept 32 beds on the fourth floor for patients who had botched abortions. Knitting needles, bicycle spokes, anything metal might have been used.

Clara Bell Duvall

Ruth Irene Friedl

Vivian Campbell

Mary Magee

According to Dr. Louis Gerstley, Chief at Philadelphia General Hospital from 1956 to 1976, “The legalization of abortion had almost no effect on the level of abortions. The way you can determine it is to go to any World Almanac in your library and graph the number of deliveries in the U.S. between the 50s and 80s and you will find a fairly steady line. In the early 70s after Roe v. Wade, we were doing between one and 1.24 million abortions a year. It (Roe v. Wade) didn’t affect the number of deliveries. No woman goes out to get pregnant for kicks of having an abortion which is far too expensive physically, financially and emotionally. There was a marked drop in maternal mortality (after abortion was legal).”
When he talked in the film Motherless, Dr. Gerstley’s speech was measured and calm for the horrors he described with a feeling of resigned sadness that he could not save hundreds of women who died from illegal abortions.

The hospital kept 32 beds on the fourth floor for patients who had botched abortions.
Knitting needles, bicycle spokes, anything metal might have been used, he said.

Ages of the patients varied from teenagers to women in their forties.

Woman tried potassium permanganate tablets, he said. “It was a strong oxidizing agent and it burns the tissue. We would see these women with a black hole in the front and the back of the vagina... If the woman was lucky, it didn’t burn through into the rectum or bladder.” Tissue would be so damaged it couldn’t be sutured. “It was like trying to suture butter. Awful,” he added.

Dr. Gerstley played only a small part in the 27-minute-34-second film Motherless.

As horrible as what he described, there was greater pain for other victims of botched abortions—the children left behind by the death of their mother. I want to call it unintended consequences that abortion stories never speak about.
In the Motherless film, four stories are told by the children of Clara Bell Duvall, Ruth Irene Friedl, Vivian Campbell and Mary Magee, all dead from abortions in the 20s, 50s, and 60s. A mournful sax starts Motherless.

The tune?

“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”

Linn Duvall Hartwell’s Story

A black-and-white photo of three little girls with bobbed hair in the style of the 1920s is on the screen. One of them is Linn Duvall Hartwell.
We do not know how old she was when her mother, Clara, died in 1925 of an illegal abortion. We can glean some information by simple math. The film was made in 1992. Linn took viewers on a tour of her old neighborhood. She tells the audience she hadn’t been back for fifty years, making her around 69.
Linn has huge glasses and curly gray hair. She looked like a cookie-baking grandmother with a lap ready to cuddle any child.
The director used Linn’s voice over movies of Pittsburgh in the 1920s. A few Model-T type cars and street cars move back and forth down city streets. Pedestrians walk at a slightly faster pace than normal.
The camera switches to Linn riding down Princess Avenue, where she grew up. Her childhood home was a modest yellow-brick, two-story house. All the homes on the street were either wooden or brick houses with porches. They almost touch. It would be easy to imagine parents sitting on those porches after dinner as children played ball in the small yards or on the street during a summer evening.

Linn was one of five children living there with her parents and grandparents.
A photo of her father shows a balding man dressed in a suit and tie. She described her father as a “wordsmith,” saying he’d been Editor for the Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Gazette.
A profile photo of Clara shows a beautiful woman, her long hair piled on her head. She had what they call a button nose.
Her mother was a singer and sang on the radio, the first woman to do so, Linn said. The song? “If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I’d fly.” Ironic.
Linn doesn’t know whose idea the abortion was. Did her grandmother say you can’t have another child? There isn’t room. With five children and four adults in the house, that possibility is realistic.

Linn believed her mother must have been desperate to run the risk of losing her life.

The children were at Clara’s deathbed. “You’re the mother now,” Clara said to her ten-year old daughter Eleanor, Linn’s older sister.

Linn was an adult before her grandmother said that her mother had died from an abortion.
The camera follows Linn walking through the cemetery where her mother is buried until they come to a small, simple stone with the name, date of birth and date of Clara’s death carved. “If you hadn’t been there I would have lain down on the ground and wept,” she tells the camera.

A lifetime later there is still pain. “Very unnecessary and even though it was this long ago, it just shouldn’t happen to women,” she said.

Sharon Magee’s Story

The last time Sharon Magee saw her mother, she thought she might have been going out on a date. Sharon is the youngest of the four speakers in the film, an attractive, articulate woman with children of her own.

Her mother died in 1960.

She remembers her mother’s last words to her: “And you be good.” Mary Magee always gave Sharon a hug and a kiss when she left. 

Sharon was four when her mother died. Photos shows her in a puff-sleeved dress playing with her toys. Despite her young age, she remembers them going shopping and eating pizza together: fleeting, but good memories. Memories of being cared for and loved.

When she was older a friend told her that her mother was murdered. Sharon said she felt ashamed.
Sharon reads from the news clipping describing Mary’s death. “A young woman who apparently died in an abortion attempt was identified by her parents at the City Morgue shortly before dawn today.” Sharon’s voice breaks as the article describes how the woman was left by two men who said they needed help than sped away.

A 56-year-old woman was charged with the abortion, the third attempt on Mary, who worked as a secretary for a cement company. What killed her was an injection of pine oil.

“It is too much to know because I often wonder did she think of me before she died? Did she think of me before she did this?” Sharon asked. She compares it to a child being left alone in a department store, although people would come up to help, they wouldn’t be the right person— the mother.
Sharon said that one of her sons was very attached to her. It was hard for her to watch how much he wanted her like she had wanted her own mother.

She hopes her mother will not been seen as a “pig” and added. “This stuff happens…It shouldn’t happen, but it did.

Gwen Campbell Elliott’s Story

Abortions cross all racial lines. Gwen Campbell Elliot was called to the hospital where her mother lay dying. Like Sharon’s mom, Vivian’s last words to her children were to be good, also adding to be good in school.
Gwen was told that her mother died in childbirth. Only when she was in college and she saw the death certificate did she learn her mother died of an illegal abortion. Her father, she said, spent a lot of time trying to find out who performed the abortion.

His hope for justice went unfulfilled.
Gwen showed the viewers the Jerusalem Baptist Church, a light-yellow brick building. She said the church was the foundation of the family.
In the 1950s, it was still the custom to lay the body out at home. Vivian Campbell was laid out at Gwen’s aunt’s. Gwen knows she was at the cemetery. She remembers thinking she could go to the cemetery and wake her sleeping mom.
Her parents were separated when her mother became pregnant and she’s not sure who the father was.
Not having a mother brought other traumas. She was raised by her grandmother, who was determined her granddaughter would not be sexually active. Gwen’s periods were irregular. To make sure she wasn’t pregnant, the grandmother took her to a doctor, who did an “internal.” He also asked her if she had had sex. Gwen wasn’t sure what sex was, but she’s convinced that if her mother was alive, she would not have to be humiliated and hurt in the doctor’s office. She didn’t communicate with anyone for weeks after that. “I was a scared kid.”
“There have to be more people like me out there. If we don’t speak out the abortion will go the wrong way,” she concludes.

James Friedl’s Story

A photo taken of James Friedl about the time his mother, Ruth Irene, died of an abortion, shows a skinny little boy wearing a sailor hat and almost dwarfed by a toy sail boat.
He was told his mother died from food poisoning. The shock of losing her made him “unlovable,” he said.
He hid.

He hid in closets, hiding from the pain.

When he wasn’t hiding he followed his father everywhere, never even letting the man go to the bathroom alone.
Only as an adult, as a Marine waiting to be shipped out from San Diego, did James learn the truth from his Aunt Alice. She happened to be in the city at the same time and she told him what really occurred.
After James’s sister had been born, his mother was told she shouldn’t have any more children. This was in Denver in 1929, but she found herself pregnant. She kept the secret from her husband and instead turned to Alice, a pharmacist married to a doctor. It is not clear whether Alice and Ruth were sisters or sisters-in-law but there’s a photo of the two women arm-in-arm.
Alice told Ruth that an abortion by her husband was out of the question. He could lose his license. Their whole community in Idaho would be hurt if they lost their doctor.
James isn’t sure whether Alice provided the ergot that killed his mother on 21 August 1929. Ergot is a fungus that can be used for migraines and for bringing on uterine contractions. Ruth overdosed.

Decades later James said, “Mad? Damned right I am mad, and I am madder than hell. Why do we have to go through this? Look what I lost…Totally unnecessary. Same as if they shot her on the street.” 

Motherless can be seen online at

About the Film

Motherless was produced and directed by Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater and Diane Pontius. It was their first film. It  won four awards:
        Cine Golden Eagle, 1993
        Silver Apple, National Educational Film and Video Festival, 1993
        Honors, International Health and Medical Film Festival, 1994
        Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights, Sarah W. Boote Founders Award, 1994

 Motherless presents the human face of coercive reproductive health policies. An important reminder about why we cannot return to the days of the back alleys, this film is a ‘must see’ for everyone, especially current and future lawyers, medical professionals, and public policy makers.” Kathryn Kolbert, Constance Hess Williams Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College.

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