Jul 19, 2022 - News

Prosecutions, injuries and deaths: Abortion in Virginia pre-Roe

Illustration of a collage of newspaper headlines with the silhouette of the state of Virginia above them.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

In the decades before Roe v. Wade struck down Virginia's abortion laws, the procedure was illegal in almost all cases.

  • But abortions were nonetheless common here, a review of newspaper archives shows, with news reports routinely detailing abortion-related injuries, deaths and prosecutions.

Why it matters: The Supreme Court's ruling overturning Roe last month reopened debate over abortion, and while state law remains unchanged, Republicans, including Gov. Glenn Youngkin, are pursuing new restrictions.

  • So how did restrictions of the past work and how were they enforced?

In 1962, doctors told the Richmond Times-Dispatch the procedure was easily obtainable despite the fact that the state only permitted the procedure in cases in which it was necessary to save the life of the mother.

  • "Anyone able to pay for an abortion can get it," one unnamed doctor told the paper at the time.
  • Another theorized it was especially easy for "women of good backgrounds," whose doctors would quietly perform the procedure on the grounds that she was so upset she might kill herself "when she is really no more upset than most women who carry illegitimate children."

Yes, but: Ubiquity did not mean the procedure was safe.

  • "Most of the operations are performed in the Church Hill area and are handled by former nurses or midwives rather than by licensed physicians or former doctors," the Times-Dispatch reported.
  • The paper went on to describe the "usually crude" approach to the procedure: "Sometimes, an instrument is employed to scrape the uterus (often poking holes in the stomach and intestines by mistake). A substance such as turpentine may be introduced in the hope it will cause the uterus to contract and expel the embryo."

Prosecutions against providers were common through the decades, typically reported to police after a woman died or sought out emergency treatment at a hospital.

  • In one closely watched case from 1937, a Charlottesville dentist was sentenced to 16 years in prison following testimony that he killed an 18-year-old high school junior while trying to use chloroform to anesthetize her for the procedure.
  • The 55-year-old was accused of attempting to cover up the death by dumping the body in the woods 10 miles away from his office.

In 1944, a 74-year-old Richmond physician was sentenced to three years in prison for performing an abortion on a 22-year-old woman, which cost $60 and went so poorly the woman testified in court against him.

  • The doctor locked the woman in a small room overnight after "working on her with some instruments," according to the Richmond News Leader, which reported she later became "violently ill" and was eventually taken to the emergency room by her mother.

So-called abortion rings were also common.

  • In 1954, police reported they broke up "a $1,000,000-a-year abortion ring which specialized in six-hour, pick up-and-delivery service in the nation's capital."
  • According to a wire report at the time, women paid between $400 and $450 for the procedure, which took place at a farm house in Fauquier County outfitted with an "airconditioned operating room."

The bottom line: Abortion was illegal for a long time in Virginia, but, as news coverage from the time shows, it remained accessible, albeit far more dangerous.

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