Investigative journalism and abortion
A look back at the ups and downs of abortion coverage in the mainstream media
Pro-life issues have always been a key aspect of WORLD’s coverage. In this excerpt of his book, Abortion at the Crossroads, Marvin Olasky reflects on the tense relationship between the media and the topic of abortion, and how historical journalists were more willing to tackle an important story about a controversial issue. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Journalists shouldn’t let 2021 enter the history books before celebrating the 150th anniversary of one of the most enterprising journalistic investigations ever, and mourning the lack of enterprise during the past half-century.
The 1871 adventure began when New York Times editor Louis Jennings, a conservative Christian, ran out of patience. In a Biblically referenced editorial entitled “The Least of These Little Ones,” he complained that the “perpetration of infant murder … is rank and smells to heaven. Why is there no hint of its punishment?” But Jennings knew a general denunciation would avail little. He assigned one of his reporters, Augustus St. Clair, to accompany “a lady friend” to abortion businesses. There, they would pose as a couple in need of professional services.
The result was a hard-hitting, three-column article on Aug. 23, “The Evil of the Age,” that showed how “thousands of human beings [are] murdered before they have seen the light of this world.” St. Clair described the back of one abortionist’s office: “Human flesh, supposed to have been the remains of infants, was found in barrels’ of lime and acids, undergoing decomposition.” He contrasted that with the affluence of an abortionist couple, Dr. and Madame H. D. Grindle: “The parlors are spacious, and contain all the decorations, upholstery, cabinetware, piano, book case, etc., that is found in a respectable home.”
St. Clair also showed why abortionists weren’t prosecuted. He quoted Madame Grindle: “Why, my dear friend, you have no idea of the class of people that come to us. We have had Senators, Congressman and all sorts of politicians, bring some of the first women in the land here.” St. Clair named leading abortionists: Mauriceau and Restell, Dr. Ascher, Dr. Selden, Dr. Franklin, Madame Van Buskirk, Madame Maxwell, Madame Worcester. St. Clair said he hoped to “arouse the general public sentiment to the necessity of taking some decided and effectual action.”
Nothing happened for four days. As the George Floyd tragedy in 2020 showed, general awareness of a problem is less of a motivator than a specific incident. On Aug. 27, the Times reported at the top of page 1 that the corpse of a woman 5-feet tall “had been crammed into a trunk two feet six inches long. Seen even in this position and rigid in death, the young girl, for she could not have been more than eighteen, had a face of singular loveliness.”
The story continued: “Her chief beauty was her great profusion of golden hair, that hung in heavy folds over her shoulders, partly shrouding the face. There was no mark of violence upon the body, although there was some discoloration and decomposition about the pelvic region. It was apparent that here was a new victim of man’s lust, and the life-destroying arts of those abortionists, whose practices have lately been exposed in the TIMES.”
The “trunk murder” detective story received full play in the Times and other newspapers during the next two days as police tried to identify the perpetrator. A boy who had helped carry the trunk into the station tried to find a man and a mysterious lady who had delivered the trunk. The Times kept reminding readers that this particular incident showed what went on “in one of the many abortion dens that disgrace New York, and which the TIMES has just exposed as ‘The Evil of the Age.’”
The Times published a dramatic follow-up in its Aug. 30 issue. St. Clair wrote that one of the abortionists he visited during his undercover research was a Dr. Rosenzweig, who had in his home and office “fine tapestry carpet,” along with an “elegant mahogany desk” and a “piano.” St. Clair also described a patient: a woman “about twenty years of age, a little more than five feet in height, of slender build, having blue eyes, and a clear, alabaster complexion. Long blonde curls, tinted with gold, drooped upon her shoulders.”
St. Clair then described his discussions with Rosenzweig, including the doctor’s demand for $200, and his explanation of what would happen to the aborted infant: “I will take care of the result. A newspaper bundle, a basket, a pail, a resort to the sewer, or the river at night.” On his way out, St. Clair glimpsed once again the beautiful young woman. His article’s conclusion drove the point home: “She was standing on the stairs, and it was the same face I saw afterward at the Morgue.”
With that identification, even bribed city authorities had no choice but to put Rosenzweig on trial. After a crowd surrounded his carriage and threatened to lynch him, he welcomed arrest. Two months later, prosecutors added to St. Clair’s report of one abortion a second one, based on testimony by a young woman who had survived a Rosenzweig surgical abortion, although her child did not. The jury found Rosenzweig guilty of causing death through medical malpractice, and sentenced him to seven years imprisonment. The judge told him he was getting off easy, for “You sent two human beings to their last account, deliberately, willfully, murderously.”
“You sent two human beings to their last account, deliberately, willfully, murderously.”
New Yorkers demonstrated in front of offices and homes of other abortionists, including Madame Van Buskirk, Thomas Evans (“the ghoul of Chatham Street”), the Grindles, and Ann Burns, all of whom were then arrested. It looked like direct action by press and populace worked. Not exactly. In January 1872, the jury deadlocked concerning the guilt of Van Buskirk: She went free. In April 1872, the court of appeals said judicial error required that Evans gain a new trial: Prosecutors said they were too busy, and witnesses were not available, so Evans went free. That month, the district attorney decided he had insufficient evidence to put the Grindles on trial: They went free. Ann Burns, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison, gained a new trial on a technicality. In May 1872, the chief witness for the prosecution disappeared. Burns went free.
Meanwhile, Rosenzweig hired some of New York’s best lawyers to appeal his conviction. They showed that the second abortion was not included in the original indictment, and argued that the defense had not had time to counter the young woman’s testimony. The state Supreme Court agreed and ordered a new trial, but prosecutors and local judges eventually decided not to try again. Rosenzweig went free after just two years in prison.
Later in the decade, though, authorities finally went after the kingpin, Madame Restell, arresting her in 1878, at age 65, for “selling drugs and articles to procure abortion.” With a good lawyer and a juror or two likely to side with her, she probably could have avoided conviction again. But after 40 years in the abortion wilderness, her strong demeanor cracked. The New York Times described how she was “driven to desperation at last by the public opinion she had so long defied.” At night, she paced her mansion halls like a latter-day Lady Macbeth, looking at her hands and moaning.
Finally, the night before her trial was scheduled to begin, a maid discovered Madame Restell in her bathtub, with her throat cut from ear to ear. The coroner ruled her death a suicide, although some wondered whether an opponent of abortion had taken direct action to its extreme. The Times was content to announce at the top of page 1: “END OF A CRIMINAL LIFE. MME RESTELL COMMITS SUICIDE.”
Other abortionists paid for legal immunity but could not escape popular disfavor. The New York Times in 1890 reported that 71-year-old Dr. Henry G. McGonegal of Harlem was “an object of intense hatred. … When he drove through the streets in his old-fashioned, ramshackle gig, [many] hooted and jeered at him in derision.” But finally, when he aborted a child, and the young mother, Annie Goodwin, died as well, two of Annie’s friends kept talking about the tragedy and telling others. Eventually, the police arrested McGonegal.
On Oct. 4, 1890, Joseph Pulitzer’s Evening World dramatically reported the climax of two weeks of jury selection and trial testimony: It was not a dark and stormy night, but “a dreary, dismal night in New York’s streets. Rain came down in torrents. Muddy water bubbled in rushing streams. … The buildings were dark and dimly outlined against the sickly flicker of the gas lights and the pale glare from the electric lamps. But one corner of the brown stone Court-House shone brilliantly through the surrounding gloom. The chamber of the Court of General Sessions was brightly illuminated. Every gas jet was lighted in the room where patient Judge Fitzgerald has sat for two long weeks an arbiter between the law and the ancient destroyer of woman’s life—and assassin of lives not yet begun.”
The jury at “a quarter of an hour past midnight” rendered the verdict convicting McGonegal of first-degree manslaughter.” When “Fitzgerald remarked to the jury ‘How you could find a different verdict I cannot see,’ many mental but fervent amens were said.” But the Evening World’s story showed the difficulty of putting away abortionists, even those despised by neighbors and caught with blood on their hands. The foreman said the jury took four ballots. The first was nine to three for conviction. After discussion, a second ballot was ten to two, and a third eleven to one. The last holdout, Bernard Heinrich, said he had no “doubt of the guilt of Dr. McGonegal … but he is such an old man.” Others finally convinced him that age was no excuse.
The social environment was very different in 1973 following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Editorial writers immediately declared victory. The Des Moines Register said goodbye to “emotion-charged hearings” on abortion. The Louisville Courier-Journal said the court’s “bold and unequivocal decision” had virtually ended the abortion war. The Milwaukee Journal declared that “politicians and policemen and judges” would no longer have to be concerned with the “distractive” issue. The New York Times applauded “a sound foundation for final and reasonable resolution” of the abortion debate.
A handful of reporters during the first five years after Roe tried to convey street-level reality rather than suite-level satisfaction. A Milwaukee Journal article, “Abortion Business Here Is Brisk and Efficient,” described first the women in crowded abortion business waiting areas, and then the men: “About 30 men stood or sat against the walls, looking worried, guilty, or just stony-eyed. … The air was hot and thick with smoke. ‘It’s like cattle,’ one girl said as she left after her abortion.”
But such accounts were rare, even when journalists had a story handed to them on a government-approved platter.
But such accounts were rare, even when journalists had a story handed to them on a government-approved platter. In 1970–1971 and again in 1973, I worked on The Boston Globe, so I’ve studied its coverage in 1974 of a sensational case involving Kenneth Edelin, accused of botching an abortion and then suffocating the just-born child.
Jurors got to see a photo of the dead baby, even though Edelin’s lawyers objected because it would be “utterly shocking and inflammatory to the mind of a lay person.” The prosecutor referred to the photo in his closing argument to the jury: “Take a look at the picture of the subject. Is this just a specimen? You tell us what it is. Look at the picture. Show it to anybody. What would they tell you it was? … Are you speaking about a blob, a big bunch of mucus, or … an independent human being that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts must protect as well as anybody else in this courtroom.”
The Globe never published that picture. The author of a book on the Edelin case, Dr. William Nolen, pointed out that the victim “looked like a baby because it was, in fact, a baby. Not legally—as long as it was in its mother’s uterus—but in every other way. It had a head, legs, arms, genitalia.” Nolen looked at the photograph and still favored abortion. Globe readers did not have the opportunity to make an informed choice. The jury found Edelin guilty, but the commonwealth’s Supreme Judicial Court overturned the conviction.
I’ve run across one exception to the lack of newspaper investigation. In 1978, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a front-page story headlined “The Abortion Profiteers.” Reporters Pamela Zekman and Pamela Warrick described how “desperate women make their way to appointments at Michigan Av. abortion mills.” They reported that the women, whether pregnant or not, “will be sold abortions.” The story was the first in a two-week-long series that represented the fruits of five months of research and undercover reporting.
For the Sun-Times, as for The New York Times a century earlier, the effort paid off. Zekman and Warrick provided specific detail about “dozens of abortion procedures performed on women who were not pregnant.” They portrayed “an abortionist whose dog, to one couple’s horror, accompanied the nurse into the operating room and lapped blood from the floor.” They described “counselors who are paid not to counsel but to sell abortion with sophisticated pitches and deceptive promises.”
The next day’s article was hard-hitting as well. Five photos of tough-looking men paraded under a headline, “Meet the Profiteers.” Three of the pictures were headshots—one was of an angry-looking man with finger pointed at the camera, and the fifth was of a man behind a half-closed door. One caption read, “He sells trucks, condos, land—and abortions.” Zekman and Warrick described how abortionists “use every trick in the book to peddle abortions to confused and frightened women,” and noted that telephone “counselors” were told not to use the word “baby,” but to talk about removing “all the liquid.”
The Sun-Times emphasized that it had not swung pro-life, but was merely reporting a story too hot to overlook. A box near the front page every day suggested that abortion seekers should not be dissuaded, but should merely seek information from two pro-abortion groups—Planned Parenthood and the Health Evaluations Referral Service (HERS). An editorial argued that “Legislation being revived in the General Assembly … worries reliable groups like Planned Parenthood,” and should be killed.
During the last week of the series, Sun-Times schizophrenia reigned. A story in one column included evocative detail: An abortion operation stops when the woman begins hemorrhaging, and afterward she gives birth “to a baby girl—apparently normal except the infant is missing a piece of scalp about the size of a 50-cent piece.” A story in the next column reminded readers that abortion is a boon to women and merely involves removing “tissue.”
Similarly, one article showed massive falsification of records at abortion businesses so that deaths and “accidents” were not reported to government agencies. The next article stated that government statistics proved legal abortion safer than pre-legalization butchery. The last two articles in the series attacked anti-abortionists as loudmouths, even though they were saying what the Sun-Times itself had begun to state.
Editors had undercut reporters’ enterprise. The Sun-Times effort ended in a whimper, and no newspapers I’ve seen since then have shown much abortion initiative.
From Abortion at the Crossroads by Marvin Olasky. Copyright © 2021. Published by Bombardier Books. All rights reserved.
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