Decreasing abortion demand
Roe v. Wade | 1973-2022: Rudolph Holmes and the problems of enforcement
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IN A SPEECH TO the Chicago Medical Society in 1904, Dr. Rudolph Holmes insisted that killing an unborn child was no different from infanticide. But he was frustrated: He saw typical Chicago residents ignoring anti-abortion books or articles and resolutions by medical societies.
Holmes had to decide whether to ignore the problem. Another Chicago doctor, Charles Bacon, had learned that few physicians put up with “the many disagreeable annoyances attendant upon fighting abortion: the loss of time … attacks to be expected from the defendant’s attorney … the enmity of the friends of the accused midwife or physician.” Bacon said fighting abortion “promises no return except loss of time and money, and worry and annoyance.”
Many pro-lifers today face a similar problem: How much time will Christians who are pro-life at suite level spend in street-level volunteering at pregnancy resource centers, praying in front of abortion businesses, and helping young women facing crises?
And if Roe v. Wade is overturned, what comes next? Some states will keep abortion legal, but other states will have significant restrictions. Abortionists will fight back with an emphasis on abortion-by-mail and subsidized travel to blue states for late-term abortions, but some abortionists in urban areas of red states will defy the laws and count on hung juries to keep them in business.
THE SUCCESS AND FAILURE of Dr. Holmes is instructive. He was respectable and on his way to affluence: He would buy a house in Chicago’s “Gold Coast” neighborhood next door to William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate who became the principal owner of the Chicago Cubs. Holmes knew his concern with abortion would alienate some neighbors. Nevertheless, he became chairman of the medical society’s Committee on Criminal Abortion and pushed his colleagues to try “influencing the daily press to discontinue criminal advertisements.”
Some doctors agreed to try. In 1905 the Chicago Tribune, visited by Holmes’ committee, agreed to ban ads for abortion, which were then against the law. Holmes and other doctors visited eight other newspaper editors and demanded they give up abortion advertising in any form, or face public attack and eventual prosecution. Four agreed. Four disagreed.
To rope in the recalcitrants, the Chicago Medical Society hired a detective agency to gain proof that ads in those four newspapers were for abortion. Female detectives visited advertisers and requested an abortion: Almost all agreed. Holmes confronted the newspapers with that evidence and also informed postal authorities, who issued a stop order against mail delivery of the publications that contained abortion ads.
Holmes’ strategy worked. The Tribune in March 1905 had 17 abortion ads promising to take care of “all difficult female complaints” or “all diseases and complications peculiar to women.” By the end of the year, the Tribune had zero. Other newspapers acted similarly. Holmes offered congratulations all around and said his committee must be vigilant “to see that they are kept out; in the course of time they undoubtedly will reappear in a new guise.”
IN 1908 HOLMES was still a whistleblower. He described three kinds of abortionists: the young doctor who needs money, the established physician who is largely ethical but “systematically relieves his patients in order that he may hold his families,” and the full-time abortionist recruited by established doctors to handle their “dirty work.” Holmes said doctors in good standing in medical societies performed abortions but their colleagues were “too weak-kneed to take aggressive action for their expulsion.” He also complained of complicit politicians taking donations from abortionists.
Holmes and other doctors successfully sent Chicago’s most notorious abortionist to Joliet Penitentiary with a 20-year sentence. Lucy Hagenow (aka Dr. Sucy or Ida Von Schultz) had sloppily aborted Annie Horvatich, killing both her patients. A quick burial seemed to dispose of the evidence, but the Criminal Abortion Committee had put a watch on Hagenow, the way dentists put a watch on a threatening tooth. Chicago Coroner Peter Hoffman ordered the body disinterred, and Holmes did a postmortem examination. He then testified against Hagenow, and a Medical Society’s detective gained from her a confession that, yes, she performed abortions.
Despite those victories, in 1910 Holmes was despairing. He noted in a medical journal that abortionists, denied newspaper advertising space, were printing more business cards and distributing them through brothels and rooming-house landlords. He said Chicago abortionists had their own legal department, with witnesses on tap and ready to swear that “the young woman had an operation elsewhere and the doctor was merely performing a life-saving operation.”
Holmes described the working methods of abortionists who manage to stay out of jail year after year: “The cardinal principle of their actions is never to perform an operation with a witness present; her companion is rarely if ever allowed in the room. If discovery is made it is her word against his; if she dies he stands alone.” Holmes told how “two or more operators to work in harmony; one will make all the arrangements for the procedure, and then when all is ready another will slip in to do the work.”
EARLY IN THE 20TH CENTURY, a sense of being almost all alone pushed Holmes toward giving up. He concluded “that the public does not want, the profession does not want, the women in particular do not want, any aggressive campaign against the crime of abortion. I have secured evidence.” He spoke of doctors who knew of crimes not showing up for trials, while some “so-called reputable members of our Chicago Medical Society regularly appear in court to support the testimony of some notorious abortionist.”
Holmes said juries were also a problem: “It is not possible to get twelve men together without at least one of them being personally responsible for the down fall of a girl, or at least interested in getting her out of her difficulty.” Holmes concluded that new “legislation is not needed, at least, in Illinois. We have as good a law as perhaps can be made. It is the enforcement of law that is needed.”
The statistics over the long run bore out Holmes’ pessimism. Yes, a short-lived rise in arrests followed a 1888-1889 investigative series in The Chicago Times. Yes, another brief surge came after the Chicago Medical Society’s efforts in 1905, and another peak followed U.S. Post Office raids on illegal mailings in 1912—but no permanent improvements. Chicago during the first third of the century averaged 60 investigations per year and 25 arrests, but only a handful of criminal prosecutions and only one or two convictions each year. The level of legal action against abortion increased decade by decade but the number of convictions did not.
Doctors in other cities shared Holmes’ pessimism about enforcement. They often wrote in academic prose, but one doctor, M.S. Iseman, offered in 1912 an acidic city-by city tour of how laws were not working at street level. During five years in Washington, D.C., thousands of abortions led to “only nine indictments for abortion and three convictions—not enough to do more than to slow down slightly the traffic to abort.” In New York City abortion was rampant, but “in some years not a single indictment follows. … It is difficult to say which is the stronger attraction for the lady visitors to the metropolis—the horseshow, the opera, or the gynecologist.” In Atlanta, “after years of suspended animation, the police made a solitary arrest for the crime of abortion.”
THOSE ARE BIG CITY generalizations, so let’s look at some individual cases in smaller communities. On Jan. 12, 1902, Ella Stehman of Manheim, Penn., (north of Lancaster) died after having an abortion. Her last action was to write out a notarized statement, in the presence of a doctor and family members, that Dr. J.H. Seiling performed it. At the trial jurors saw the statement and heard evidence, but Ella’s boyfriend, Monroe Todd, said Ella told him she had done it herself. The jurors took 10 minutes to agree on a verdict of not guilty.
What was going on? Poor Ella credibly described Seiling’s instruments and quoted Seiling’s description to her of what an abortion involves. Why would the testimony of an impregnating young man outweigh credible deathbed testimony? A look at local newspapers suggests why Seiling went free. A reporter dubbed him “a physician of high standing and an historian of more than local note. … A highly-esteemed physician of Manheim [known for] the active interest he manifested in the annual ‘Festival of Roses,’ an event that attracts widespread attention.” Seiling was the president of choral unions involving 700 vocalists. If one of those 700 vocalists was serving on a jury, how likely would he or she be to find Seiling guilty?
Seiling had much more going for him. Here’s one local newspaper account: “Wesley J. Fink, aged four years, residing on Company Street, fell down the front steps yesterday knocking out his upper front teeth, cutting his upper lip badly. He was taken to Dr. Seiling’s office, who rendered professional aid.” Other stories: “Dr J.H. Seiling was called upon yesterday to dress wounds for three persons who received severe injuries.” A 13-year-old gets his left hand caught in a corn sheller “and was fearfully lacerated.” Seiling gave him 30 stitches. A 15-year-old working at the York Card and Paper company got his hand entangled in the cog wheels of a machine. Seiling doctored his badly mangled fingers.
Here are three more incidents: An adult walking down Market Street and carrying a knife turned to look at a car, stumbled over a porch, and fell. The knife slashed his left wrist: “The blade severed a number of nerves, tendons, and an artery.” Seiling patched him up. Mrs. Franklin W. Strausbaugh, “a paralytic, fell down a long flight of steps at her home yesterday and was seriously injured.” Dr. Seiling rushed to her aid. George Buck got his left hand stuck in the gears of an elevator and was pulled up two stories high “until the ends of the fingers gave way.” Buck lost the end of every finger, including the nails, but who was there to dress the wound? Dr. Seiling.
Why would the jurors want their beloved doctor to spend years in prison, when he otherwise could be helping everyone from 4-year-olds to old, paralyzed women and the men in between who got their hands caught in gears or lacerated by knives when they trip over porches?
ANOTHER BIG PROBLEM for enforcement was that much of the press had a short attention span. In 1905 Boston police raided the offices of more than 15 “alleged malpractitioners,” many of them downtown on Tremont and Boylston streets. The Boston Globe gave the raid large initial coverage, for the places were “known to the police and the prosecuting authorities for a long time.”
The Globe reported “public interest … aroused to such a high pitch.” A photo showed “throngs attracted by raids.” Yet the Boston police themselves downplayed the importance of the raids: They said their goal was not to arrest abortionists but to “harass the operators into putting an end to the illegal traffic themselves.” That might work, except the police raid became a one-hit wonder and Boston newspapers didn’t push for more.
Back to Dr. Rudolph Holmes. Although frustrated on abortion enforcement, he kept trying. Addressing a conference of the American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality, he said the coroner’s office investigated not more than 1 percent of abortion deaths in Chicago: “The persons who perform the operations find it easy to cover up their tracks, and it is difficult to get witnesses to testify in cases of this kind.” But the only proposal Holmes made in 1918 was vague: “It is important that societies should take up this question and see that something is done to remedy the conditions.”
Holmes went on to other battles. He introduced to U.S. obstetrics a drug, scopolamine, which combined with morphine sent moms during the birth process into a “twilight” sleep with amnesia, which meant the woman could not push during delivery and usually would not remember anything about it afterward. Obstetricians without the active help of the mother often used forceps to deliver babies. Holmes, seeing forceps as overused, said about his introduction of scopolamine, “I wish to God I hadn’t done it.”
Holmes retired in 1943 and died 10 years later. His wife was already deceased and they had no children: He bequeathed his entire estate to a trust for the reduction of maternal mortality. But Holmes during his lifetime had been unable to do much to reduce the mortality of tiny people: Effective for a few years in curtailing supply, pro-lifers needed to do more to decrease demand.
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