Death & Illegal Abortion at Cook County Ward 41

Horror, Death, and Illegal Abortion: The Cook County Septic Obstetrics Ward

The old Cook County hospital building was a huge, grim, limestone institution on the poverty-filled west side of Chicago with a noble mission to serve the poor and vulnerable in the region.

It was never a pleasant place, but perhaps its grimmest area was Ward 41. This section was dedicated to what was called septic obstetrics, a clinical term that masked deep pain, misogynistic policies, and the desperation of women forced to make terrible choices that often ended their lives.

Ward 41 treated women who had undergone illegal abortions, whether with a caring midwife or with a rushed and frightened doctor, or by a careless conman in a back-alley, or by themselves in a lonely hotel room, and something had gone wrong.

As Dr. Quentin Young, who did his required rotation in the ward, told Neil Steinberg in 2001:

They douched with bleach or peroxide. They used paintbrushes and cocktail stirrers and pencils and knitting needles. And yes, they did use wire coat hangers. “Of course they did,” says Young. “They hurt themselves, perforated their uteruses, they came in bleeding, with difficult-to-treat infections.”

It’s difficult to imagine a hospital needing an entire Ward committed to treating the impact of self-induced abortion, but that was the terrible reality in the days before Roe v. Wade. There has never been a time in human history where women didn’t seek to take control of their bodies. In societies where it was criminalized and prosecuted, it became difficult, dangerous and even deadly.

The Facts About Criminal Abortion

Criminal abortion impacted people from every walk of life. Facts bear this out.

Until Roe v. Wade, criminal abortions were the leading cause of maternal death in the United States, by as much as a 7-1 margin.

It wasn’t just death, of course. Many women were left infertile, with damaged reproductive and digestive systems. They were left in permanent pain, traumatized, and often outcast. They underwent layers of cruelty and pain, with real lasting physical and emotional damage.

And now, we’re facing a return to those dark and deadly days.

  • In the 1930s, women who had an abortion by a doctor or a midwife had complications 9-14% of the time.
  • In the 1930s, women who performed an abortion outside those channels had infections or hemorrhages 91% of the time.
  • Controlled for class, there was no difference in abortion rates in Cook County across white and African-American women.
  • In the 1950s, Los Angeles County Hospital admitted 2000 women a year into their septic obstetrics department.
  • It is estimated that 350,000 women per year in the US were injured by criminal abortions.
  • In New York’s Bellevue Hospital from 1950-1955, 77 therapeutic abortions were performed.
  • In New York’s Bellevue Hospital from 1950-1955, 3,488 women were admitted for septic abortions.
  • Cook County reported more than 1 death per month from abortion complications.

Keep Abortion Safe and Legal

From the second Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, opponents of choice in Illinois and America have made it their mission to bring us back to the days of back-alley brutes, blood-soaked hotel rooms and an appointment with the septic abortion ward. They’ve wanted to replace safe and legal abortion with haunted, fearful, dangerous, and deadly abortions.

We can’t go back there. We can’t allow ourselves to bring back the days of Ward 41. We have to continue to fight to elect leaders who will protect choice and defeat those who want to remove the rights and endanger the health of women from every race, class, ethnicity, orientation, and religion.

With your help, we can do that. With your help, we can make sure that Ward 41 remains a piece of history, a terrible reminder of what happens when misogyny and reaction go unchallenged. Together, we can keep make sure the lights of Ward 41 never flicker back on.

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Neil Steinberg, “Back-alley tragedies looming again”, Chicago Sun-Times, Jan 25th, 2001

Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion was a Crime

Mark Graber. Rethinking Abortion

Help Us Keep Illinois Safe Haven For Choice in the Midwest

For every step forward we take, the forces of reaction try to drag us three steps back. We won’t let the misogynists win. With your support, and your help, we’ll keep fighting against the relentless assault on women’s reproductive rights. Let’s keep making history, together.

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