In remembrance: Women who died from illegal and unsafe abortions

Jan. 23 was the 33rd anniversary of the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision, which “recognized and guaranteed women’s constitutional right to control their own bodies,” as Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, put it. We invite our readers to reflect on what’s at stake in the current battle to preserve that right.

The seven women below are just a small representation of the countless women who have died because they did not have access to safe and legal abortions. Most of these women died before Roe v. Wade offered them a safe alternative. However, women continue to die and suffer injury due to current restrictions that particularly affect young women and poor women. Our government is now controlled by conservative leaders who are extremely hostile to women’s reproductive rights. If more restrictions on abortion are enacted, and especially if Roe v. Wade is overturned, this list of lives cut short could grow to include our daughters, sisters, mothers, best friends, wives, partners, granddaughters and other special women and girls.

Clara Bell Duvall Dec. 23, 1896 – March 27, 1929 Clara Duvall, her husband and five children (ages 6 months to 12 years) were living in Pittsburgh, Pa., with her parents due to limited financial resources when she learned she was pregnant again. Clara attempted a self-abortion with a knitting needle. Her doctor, knowing she was seriously ill and in severe pain, delayed sending her to a hospital for several weeks. The Catholic hospital where she died chose to list the cause of death as “pneumonia.”

Ruth Irene Friedl Aug. 24, 1901 – Aug. 21, 1929 Denied a legal abortion though her pregnancy was diagnosed as life-threatening, Ruth Friedl attempted to self-abort by drinking a plant poison, ergot apiol. That night at the dinner table of their home in Denver, Colo., with her husband and two small children present, she collapsed and died.

Pauline Roberson Shirley June 22, 1910 – Aug. 22, 1940 Pauline Shirley and her six children were living with her mother in Arizona while her husband sought work in California. After an illegal abortion, she began to hemorrhage and was hospitalized. She needed massive transfusions. While Pauline’s mother searched the community for donors, Pauline bled to death.

Vivian Campbell Dec. 12, 1925 – May 6, 1950 Vivian Campbell was the mother of two children ages 5 and 3. She was newly separated from her husband when she realized she was pregnant. Sending her children to stay with her parents, she sought and obtained an illegal abortion. She sent for her husband, but by the time he arrived at the hospital it was too late. She died in agony of peritonitis.

Geraldine Santoro Aug. 16, 1935 - June 8, 1964 The photo of Geraldine Santoro dead on a hotel room floor has become a symbol for the horror of illegal abortion. Gerri, as she was known, lived on her family farm in Coventry, Conn., with her two daughters. At the age of 28, separated from her abusive husband, she became pregnant by another man, Clyde Dixon. Afraid that her husband would kill her if he found out, she and Dixon looked for ways to terminate her pregnancy. With no other options, they attempted to perform the procedure themselves. When the operation went awry, Dixon fled, leaving Santoro behind where she bled to death. A chambermaid found her body the next morning.

Rosie Jimenez 1950 – Oct. 3, 1977 A single mother with a 5-year-old daughter, Rosie Jimenez of McAllen, Texas, was a scholarship student six months away from her teaching credential. She was the first known victim of the Hyde Amendment, which cut off Medicaid funding for abortion to women on public assistance — women who by the government’s own definition cannot afford health care. Too poor to pay for the procedure at a private clinic, she died in agony from a botched illegal abortion.

Becky Bell Aug. 24, 1971 – Sept. 16, 1988 At 17, Becky became a victim of an Indiana state law requiring parental consent for a minor to obtain an abortion. Unable to bring herself to disappoint her parents by telling them she was pregnant — or go before a judge to bypass the law — Becky sought an illegal abortion. When she became seriously ill, her parents rushed her to the hospital. In severe pain from a massive infection, Becky still could not tell them, and despite the efforts of the doctors, she died.

This remembrance is reprinted from the National Organization for Women web site, www.now.org.