Killed by Illegal Abortion: May Burns, My Great Grandmother.

Before Roe v. Wade, untold numbers of America women died from illegal abortions. One of them was May Burns of Middleboro, Massachusetts, shown here in her only surviving photograph.

She was my great grandmother.

May, an Irish immigrant, was married to William H. Archibald, the son of a Scotsman who crossed the Atlantic to Nova Scotia before taking his family south to find work in Massachusetts in the late 1800s.

When William grew to manhood, he got a job as a steam shovel operator on road projects. He and May had four children together.  John, the oldest, was my maternal grandfather.

After May’s youngest, Anna, was born, she didn’t want more children. Raising four in Middleboro, MA, was difficult enough on her husband’s meager pay. Unable to find anyone to help her, she performed an abortion on herself. John was seven years old when she died in the last year of the 19th century.

Because what she did was considered shameful, it was a closely-held secret on my mother’s side of the family. My grandfather would say only that she died in childbirth. But when abortion laws became a topic of national debate in the early 1970s, Aunt Lois, my mother’s younger sister, haltingly told me the truth.  My Aunt Anna, May’s youngest, also grudgingly acknowledged it. Only then did I get a lip-quivering confirmation from my mother.

There is a widely-held misapprehension that abortion was illegal in America until Roe V. Wade, but the truth is quite different. Abortions before “the quickening,” when the fetus begins to move in the uterus, were legal in colonial America and then in the United States until the mid-1800s.

The first state to ban abortions in nearly all instances was Massachusetts, and the others soon followed. But in the 1960s, some states loosened their strict anti-abortion laws. By the time Roe v. Wade was decided, abortions were already legal (under varying circumstances) in 17 states.

The number of women who died from illegal abortions during the century of strict, nationwide anti-abortion laws is widely disputed, and the true number can never be known

What is known is that abortion was listed as the official cause of death for nearly 2,700 American women in 1930, However, because the procedure was both illegal and considered shameful, many such deaths were almost certainly attributed to other causes. The official total dropped to 1,700 in 1940 and declined sharply after that as antibiotics became widely available for post-procedure infections.

Various studies put number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s at 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. Many were performed by physicians (who did so at the risk of their licenses and their freedom), so only a small percentage were fatal. But deaths were more common among poor women who could not afford physicians—or find one willing to break the law for them.

Of course, deaths don’t tell the whole story of the suffering. In 1962 alone, nearly 1,600 women were admitted to Harlem Hospital Center in New York City to be treated for botched abortions. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that in 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade was decided, 130,000 American women had illegal abortions. At least 39 of them died.

Soon, those days may no longer be a relic of the past.

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About Bruce DeSilva

Crime Novelist
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