What could Kentucky abortions look like without Roe v. Wade? History paints grim picture
Leaked SCOTUS ruling raises fears of return to days of 'back-alley abortions' for poor people and teens
Editor’s note: This story is based on the accounts of illegal abortions in Kentucky from 1866 through 1973 — when Roe v. Wade legalized a woman's right to an abortion. It is based on 20 cases decided by Kentucky's highest court and more than 60 stories from The Courier Journal’s archives over that period.
Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions that may upset some readers.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — One woman was beheaded after her boyfriend tried unsuccessfully to give her an abortion, then dumped her body in a field.
The remains of other women who died in botched abortions were tossed in a well, left by the side of a highway, ditched in a Louisville parking lot and abandoned in a La Grange motel room.
A couple of months before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade The Courier Journal examined what life was like for women in Kentucky in the 100 years before abortion was recognized as a constitutional right.
The newspaper found the procedure was widespread, even routine — despite penalties of up to 20 years in prison for those who provided "criminal abortions."
It also found that Kentucky women were maimed, rendered infertile or killed in illegal abortions performed by drunken doctors or others with no medical training, including a clairvoyant, a lawyer, a schoolteacher, two pastors and even an unemployed service station operator.
A few women tried to end their pregnancies with pencils, while amateur abortionists resorted to strychnine, turpentine, spoons and sharp objects. Some women lingered for months before dying of infections, abscesses and hemorrhages.
Will history repeat itself if the U.S. Supreme Court does strike down Roe v. Wade and lets states such as Kentucky decide whether it can be banned?
Roe v. Wade in Kentucky:What happens to abortion in Kentucky if the US Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade?
Before Friday's decision reversing Roe v. Wade, groups opposing and favoring abortion rights were split on that question.
Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, said modern medicine, including antibiotics, will reduce deaths and injuries from illegal abortions.
She also said that despite recently enacted bans on abortion pills in states like Kentucky, the "pro-abortion industry" will get them into the marketplace, so people can obtain them.
Schu Montgomery, a former board member of Right to Life of Louisville, notes the mortality rate for abortions declined significantly in the years immediately before the Roe decision because of penicillin and other advances.
In 1972, only 71 maternal deaths related to abortions were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nationwide, including 52 from illegal abortions.
'Every day we would see women with infections from back-alley abortions'
But historians of abortion and abortion-rights advocates say the prevalence of illegal abortions in Kentucky before Roe vs. Wade suggests history could indeed repeat itself, potentially making women victims again.
Jackie McGranahan, a policy strategist for the ACLU of Kentucky, says the state's checkered history with illegal abortions and their sometimes tragic outcomes shows why they should remain legal and safe.
And Kim Greene, an attorney and board member of a multi-state Planned Parenthood agency that includes Kentucky, predicts a "surge in dangerous or so-called back-alley abortions if the Supreme Court does what many believe it will do."
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Retired Louisville obstetrician Dr. Ronald Levine, 93, who began practicing 13 years before Roe v. Wade and continued to practice after, said when abortion was illegal in Kentucky, "Every day we would see women with infections from back-alley abortions and girls who tried to do abortions themselves with wire hangers or by douching themselves with lye."
If abortion becomes illegal again, he predicts: “It won’t be as bad, but it will still be bad. Not everyone will be able to get on a plane and fly to Illinois or New York. Teenagers will still try self-abortions.
"We will always have abortions," said Levine, who was chairman of U of L's OB/GYN department. "The only question is whether we do them safely or dangerously."
States work to restrict abortions
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide by the end of its term in June whether to uphold a Mississippi law that bans nearly all abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy. The court could ban abortion entirely in that or other cases.
The momentous decision comes as access to abortion already has been restricted in many states, including Kentucky.
The number of abortion clinics in Kentucky has dropped from 11 in 1982 to 2 today.
So, too, has the number of abortions, which has fallen in recent years to 4,104 in Kentucky in 2020, according to the Cabinet for Families and Health Services.
On top of that, the Republican-controlled General Assembly this year approved a sweeping bill that would prohibit abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy; end at-home, pill-by-mail abortions; and eliminate an exemption for abortions in cases of rape or incest.
Every-day Kentuckians also are split on whether an abortion ban would trigger illegal and unsafe abortions.
Abortion foe Vince Heuser, an attorney who lives near Seneca High School, argued the likelihood that people will "engage in illegal conduct" if abortions are outlawed "is no reason not to make it illegal."
But Marion Van Ingen, a travel agent who lives in Crescent Hill, said the end of legal abortions in Kentucky fills her with dread.
"It is just going to be awful, especially for women who are poor," she said. "It is a scary thing for this country."
Where abortion would likely remain legal if Roe v. Wade is overturned
If the Supreme Court should strike down Roe v. Wade, abortions likely would remain legal as a matter of law in 24 states.
But 26 states across the Midwest and South, including Kentucky, are expected to outlaw abortion. Those states include about 58 percent of American women of childbearing age, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights research group founded in 1968.
Although people with the money and means are likely to travel for abortions to states where it remains legal — or end pregnancies through medication — Carole Joffe, a University of California-San Francisco professor who has studied the history of abortion in America, said others will resort to extreme methods to end their pregnancies.
"We are going to see some women will still do dangerous things like having their boyfriend hit them in the belly or throwing themselves down stairs," she said.
Abortion is increasingly concentrated among poor people, according to Guttmacher Institute. From 1987 to 2014, the percentage of indivuals getting abortions who were below the federal poverty line rose from 30% to 49%.
"Underground" abortions will occur in states where the procedure is illegal, and there will be deaths and injuries, she and other scholars said, though not as many as before Roe because of the availability of pharmaceutical abortions.
Lauren MacIvor Thompson, who teaches at Kennesaw State University, predicts that the ban on mail delivery of abortion pills in Kentucky and other states will result in abortion pills being sold on the black market, without prescriptions or advice of physicians, creating new dangers for women.
Abortions widespread even when they were illegal
In the 17th and 18th centuries, abortion was legal in Kentucky and other states under common law before “quickening” — when the pregnant woman could feel the fetus move, beginning around 16 weeks.
But towards the close of the 1800s, Kentucky’s high court — and the General Assembly in 1910 — made abortion illegal at any juncture, other than to save the mother’s life.
The Courier Journal's research showed that despite severe penalties, abortions in the 19th and early 20th centuries remained commonplace across Kentucky.
When Dr. J.S. Williams of Louisville was arrested in August 1876 for performing an abortion, he asked police, "Which one?"
By the 1890s, The Courier Journal wrote, the practice of abortion was “routine among our fallen women, and a number of our physicians are patronized by them.”
In 1907, the secretary of the state Board of Health bemoaned abortion was common "even with married women in higher walks of life — often church members and the otherwise respectable."
By the 1930s, a Louisville obstetrician estimated that for every three babies born in Louisville, one abortion was performed. Nationally, as many as 1 million illegal abortions were being performed a year, it was estimated, and 15,000 women a year died from the procedure.
In 1939, Louisville’s City Hospital treated 244 patients suffering from the effects of illegal abortions, three of whom died, then-Superintendent John Buschemeyer told The Courier Journal.
According to an undercover investigation that year by a man and woman who pretended to be pregnant, finding an abortion in Louisville was easy: They located several within a few blocks of the main post office, The Courier Journal reported.
A receptionist at one said it performed abortions on girls as young as 14 without any problems, but an assistant at another said sometimes patients had to return "two or three times before it works."
Arrested in 1950 after the death of one his patients, Dr. William Turpin, a Louisville physician, told police he had performed as many as 65 abortions over the previous five years.
Four years later, police charged another doctor, Edward Faust, with performing seven in that year alone, and he was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary for one of them.
When police in 1960 arrested Eloise Robinson, a Cincinnati cook, after one of her patients was admitted to a hospital in critical condition, she said she’d done more than 100 abortions in the previous two years using only a rubber hose and a coat hanger.
In 1965, The Courier Journal reported, interns, residents and staff doctors at what was then called General Hospital were treating “an increasing number of girls and women who suffered, often desperately,” from the effects of illegal abortions, said Dr. Douglas Haynes, chief of obstetrics at gynecology at University of Louisville.
“Hardly a week goes by,“ he said, “that a woman isn’t brought in for treatment of an infection from an abortion, either completed or uncompleted.”
A trail of tragedy follows abortion attempts
The Courier Journal found when abortion was illegal in Kentucky, it generated tragedies for both girls and women and their families.
- Teenager Jane Smith of Georgetown died in 1883 of gangrene after her mother gave her a potion that included copperas — used to blacken leather — to try to end her pregnancy.
- When Flora Elliott of Paoli, Indiana, was impregnated by her high school sweetheart in 1898, she was “horribly butchered” during an illegal abortion in Louisville, the newspaper reported. She died of sepsis.
- When Cora Waller, 28, a "bright, intelligent and attractive woman from a highly respected family” died in 1900 during an abortion on the table of a Union County drugstore — her fiance, Thomas Holt, a former deputy sheriff, was so inconsolable he pulled out a pistol and fatally shot himself.
- When Zelma Clemons, a 14-year-old schoolgirl from Kenton County, was impregnated in 1922 by her teacher, Thomas Sebree Jr., he drove her to Covington for an abortion and she remained in bed sick until her death a few weeks later.
- When Bessie Koons of Ashland tried unsuccessfully to end her pregnancy with a pencil in the late 1920s, she went to Dr. H.C. Dorroh for an abortion. Later, as she lay dying after the procedure, she said he was drunk and had dropped an instrument on the floor before using it on her. His conviction for criminal abortion was later reversed because the trial judge had improperly barred testimony about her attempt to induce her own abortion.
Despite advances in medicine, death and injuries to women continued into the 1960s.
In a 1963 opinion, the Court of Appeals told how Thelma Mattia’s boyfriend brought her from Cincinnati to a trailer in Northern Kentucky for an abortion at her request. There, a doctor operated on her three times over the course of a week but was unable to end her pregnancy.
The boyfriend finally took her to a hospital, the court said, where she died several days later without regaining consciousness.
Abortions stretched to each end of Kentucky
The Courier Journal’s review found criminal abortions performed in Kentucky from Ashland to Paducah and Hawesville to Smith’s Grove. The people who sought them were both Black and white, urban and rural, rich and poor.
Jane Tucker was sent to a workhouse for 10 days in 1888 for failure to pay a $5 fine, then died after a few days into her sentence from the effects of an abortion.
Pregnancy was dangerous and people had good reason to end them, historians and health experts say: In 1900, roughly nine women died for every 1,000 births — 50 times the rate today.
Ending a pregnancy often was seen as a social necessity because women who gave birth without marrying first were seen as fornicators and fallen women. If an unmarried woman gave birth, she risked being cast out of her family and society.
Since women were discouraged from working and were unable to own property, being thrown out without family support was a virtual guarantee of poverty.
Women seldom punished for abortions
Despite abortion being a crime, women weren't punished for getting one, even if they sought it and consented to it, wrote scholar Samuel Buell, author of “Criminal Abortion Revisited.”
Abortion by women was considered a moral failure rather than a crime.
The Courier Journal headlined an 1882 story about the death of Josi Veszolles after an abortion “The Price of Her Sin” and said she rests in Cave Hill Cemetery “while busy tongues keep prattling of her untimely end.”
Women were considered victims of male “seducers” and greedy abortionists. The courts and The Courier Journal almost never alluded to the death of the fetus, and the term "unborn child" never was cited.
US warms to abortion rights in 1960s
On the eve of the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, Kentucky was one of 41 states that allowed abortion only to save the mother’s life. But the tide was turning.
By 1966, an overwhelming majority of Protestants, and even a majority of Roman Catholics, favored allowing people to end their pregnancies if there was a risk it would impair their physical or mental health, according to a Gallup Poll.
By the time the Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 1973, issued its 7-2 decision in favor of Norma McCorvey — Jane Roe — holding that women in the United States had a fundamental right to abortion, 20 states already were allowing them in some circumstances.
Kentucky wasn’t one of them, however.
In 1971, the state Court of Appeals, then Kentucky’s highest court, affirmed the conviction and $1,000 fine for Alger Bowen, a University of Kentucky lab tech, for performing an illegal abortion on a fellow student.
And in the last such conviction in Kentucky, about 100 days before Roe, on Oct. 6, 1972, the same court affirmed the conviction and 21-month prison sentence of Dr. Yasuo Sasaki, a poet, writer and Covington physician, for illegally ending a pregnancy of a divorced woman with two children.
On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court struck down laws in Kentucky and other states making abortion a crime.
“The law never put a stop to abortions,” The Courier Journal said in an editorial. “It just made them more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous.”
Andrew Wolfson: 502-582-7189; email@example.com; Twitter: @adwolfson.
Abortion at a glance
- Abortions in the U.S. (2019): 629,898
- Abortions in Kentucky (2020): 4,014
- Abortions in Kentucky (2014): 4,923
- Projected decline in U.S. abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned: 14%
- States likely or certain to make abortion illegal: 26 (Including Kentucky)
- Abortion clinics in Kentucky: 2
- Nearest states to Kentucky likely to keep abortion legal: Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia
- Average one-way driving distance for Kentucky women to obtain an abortion: 70 miles
- Average one-way driving distance if Kentucky outlaws abortion: 245 miles
- Abortion figures for 2019 are from the CDC. Kentucky 2020 abortion numbers from the state Office of Vital Statistics.
- Projected decline in legal abortions based on research by a team of economists at Middlebury College; the University of California, San Francisco; and the Guttmacher Institute
- Other data is from the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization founded in 1968 that says it is dedicated to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide.