Dishonesty and the abortion debate

In 1956, two American physicians, J. A. Presley and W. E. Brown, colleagues at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, decided four recent admissions to their hospital were significant enough to warrant a published report.

“Lysol-Induced Criminal Abortion” appeared in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

It describes four women who were admitted to the hospital in extreme distress, all of them having had “criminal abortions” with what the doctors believed to be an unusual agent: Lysol.

The powerful cleaner had been pumped into their wombs.

Three women survived and one died.

The first woman arrived at the hospital in a “hysterical state.”She was 32 years old, her husband was with her, and she was in the midst of an obvious medical crisis: Her temperature was 104 degrees, and her urine was “port-wine” colored and contained extremely high levels of albumin, indicating that her kidneys were shutting down.

Her husband eventually confessed that they had gone to a doctor for an abortion two days earlier.

Four hours after admission, the woman became agitated; she was put in restraints and sedated.

Two hours after that, she began to breathe in the deep and ragged manner of the dying. An autopsy revealed massive necrosis of her kidneys and liver.

The second woman was 28 years old and bleeding profusely from her vagina.“After considerable questioning,” she admitted that two days earlier, a substance had been injected into her womb by the same doctor who had treated the first patient.She was given a blood transfusion and antibiotics.

Doctors performed a dilation and curettage, removing necrotic tissue that had a strong smell of phenol, then a main ingredient in Lysol.

She survived.

The third woman was 35 and had been bleeding abnormally for two weeks. She told the physicians that her doctor had given her “a prescription for medicine,” but she denied having had an abortion. She was given a blood transfusion and antibiotics but did not improve. Her pelvic discharge smelled strongly of phenol.

She was given a dilation and curettage procedure and a placenta was removed.

She recovered.

The fourth patient was 18 years old and had come to the hospital because of unusual bleeding, cramping, and “a loss of water through the vagina”—probably the beginning of labour, brought on by an abortion.

Shortly after being admitted, she spontaneously aborted a four-and-a-half month fetus. Phenol was found in both the fetal and placental tissue.

The girl recovered.

The argument for abortion requires many words. The argument against it doesn’t take even a single word.

I have read many accounts of complications and deaths from the years when abortion was illegal in this country.

The subject has always compelled me, because my mother told me many times that when she was a young nurse at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, she had twice sat beside girls as they died from botched abortions.

Both girls were interviewed by detectives, who demanded to know the abortionists’ names, but both refused to reveal them.

“They were too terrified,” my mother always said.

The Arkansas cases contain strikingly consistent aspects of such reports: The women seem to have waited a long time before getting help, and they tried not to admit they’d had abortions, hoping they could be treated without telling the truth.

Abortionists—to use the term of that era—typically extracted three promises from the women who sought them out: They must keep the procedure a secret; they must never reveal the abortionist’s name; and no matter what happened to them afterward, they must never contact him or her again.

What surprised me about the Arkansas doctors’ account was their confidence that while “the methods and drugs used in performing criminal abortions are legion,” Lysol was “one of the more rare abortifacients.”

On the contrary, Lysol was commonly used in abortions.

This was a fact that millions of women knew via the oldest whisper network in the country, but that physicians—almost all of them male—would discover slowly, leaving behind a bread-crumb trail of reports like this one: based on recent admissions, and available only to other doctors who happened to pick up a particular issue of a particular journal. Continue reading

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.