I’ve been reading “The Hemingses of Monticello,” the story of Thomas Jefferson’s long time affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.  I recently came across an interesting item that compels me to opine.

At one point, in one of his many “notes,” Jefferson discusses the fertility rates among Native Americans and he says that “it is said that they have learned the practice of procuring abortion by the use of some vegetable.” They used “some vegetable” to induce an abortion?   Think about that one, folks.  Think about what it was like in this country in the days before abortion was legalized in 1973.

We now know that many, many women who were desperate to terminate their pregnancy simply tried to perform the abortion themselves, often with horrible consequences.  Most of the methods of self-induced abortion included the taking of an abortificient – herbal remedies or poisons intended to induce a miscarriage. Some women were actually so desperate that they resorted to inflicting physical abuse.  They would purposely fall down the stairs, they would repeatedly punch their pregnant belly or they would jump from heights – all with the intention of ending the unwanted pregnancy.


Then there were the women who ingested, douched with or inserted into themselves a chilling variety of chemicals and toxins–from bleach to potassium permanganate to turpentine to gunpowder.  Some women actually used whiskey. Then there were those who resorted to knitting needles, crochet hooks, scissors and coat hangers.  Ponder that for a second.  They thrust these devices into their uterus in the hopes of hitting the fetus and “killing” it.   Indeed, years later the coat hanger (with a red “X” through it) became the symbol of the pro-choice movement until it was dropped by some who just didn’t have the stomach to remind the public of these horrible stories.

Thousands and thousands of women died from self induced abortions.  Thousands of others lived, but with the pain of permanent injuries and disfigurement.

Probably one of the most famous cases of a self induced abortion occurred in 1929, Clara Duvall, her husband and five children (ages 6 months to 12 years) were living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her parents due to limited financial resources when she learned she was pregnant again. Desperate to not have another child, Duvall attempted a self-abortion with a knitting needle. When she became ill, she went to her regular doctor who delayed sending her to a hospital for several weeks. Ultimately, she went to a local Catholic hospital and she died.  The hospital listed the cause of her death as “pneumonia.”  Today, the Clara Duvall Fund helps poor women procure abortions.

In a subsequent post, I will talk about the other method that women obtained abortions when they were illegal – “back alley abortions.”   But, for now, keep in mind that there are a number of underdeveloped nations around the world that continue to outlaw abortion.  And the World Health Organization estimates that unsafe abortions in those countries cause the deaths of at least 200 women each DAY and between two million and seven million women each year sustain long-term damage or disease.

Then, remember that the anti-abortion forces want us to go back to the days of illegal abortion.

We must never go back.