Victims and Villains in Murder by Abortion Cases from Turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century Chicago

By Frazier, Carolyn; Roberts, Dorothy | TriQuarterly, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Victims and Villains in Murder by Abortion Cases from Turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century Chicago


Frazier, Carolyn, Roberts, Dorothy, TriQuarterly


In The Jungle, published in 1906, Upton Sinclair renders one of literature's most disturbing portrayals of urban poverty by recounting the experiences of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who labors in the foul Chicago stockyards. Jurgis beats up the boss of the factory where his young wife, Ona, works when he discovers the boss has compelled Ona to have sex with him by threatening to fire her. Upon his release from jail, Jurgis finds a malnourished Ona screaming in pain from the throes of premature childbirth. He has no money to pay a doctor, so Jurgis desperately seeks out a midwife in a flat over a saloon at the top of a dingy flight of stairs.

Sinclair's description of the midwife reflects the stereotypical image prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century. Madame Haupt "was a Dutch woman, enormously fat--when she walked she rolled like a small boat on the ocean, and the dishes in the cupboard jostled each other. She wore a filthy blue wrapper, and her teeth were black." (Sinclair 181) She cruelly haggles over the price for her services, finally accepting the meager amount Jurgis brought with him on the promise that he will pay more within a month. When Madame Haupt approaches Jurgis after tending to Ona, "Jurgis gave one glance at her, and then turned white and reeled. She had her jacket off, like one of the workers in the killing beds. Her hands and arms were smeared with blood, and blood was splashed upon her clothing and her face." (Sinclair 187) The midwife callously disclaims any responsibility for Ona's fate and asks for some brandy for herself. Jurgis rushes to Ona's bedside in time to see her take her last breath: "Her life had hardly begun--and here she lay murdered--mangled, tortured to death!" (Sinclair 189)

In turn-of-the-twentieth-century Chicago, the leading professional organization of physicians skillfully deployed this image of the midwife--as greedy, incompetent, and unscrupulous--to pursue a campaign against midwives who performed abortions that ended in the pregnant woman's death. By investigating midwife abortionists and providing evidence against them at trial, members of the Chicago Medical Society significantly contributed to the enforcement of the criminal abortion law against midwives. More importantly, Chicago doctors performed a remarkable rhetorical feat to condemn midwives and save themselves. The medical establishment portrayed midwives who performed illegal abortions as villains and pregnant women as their victims, but cast doctors charged with the same crime as victims of villainous women who pressured them into performing the operation. The Society made effective use of female stereotypes, depicting women as at once vulnerable and domineering, irrational and scheming, to accomplish this rhetorical magic act. By both enforcing the law against abortion and driving mid-wives out of business, the medical profession eventually succeeded in securing its dominance over women's reproductive health. (See Reagan; Schoen; Siegel)

Murder by Abortion in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago

As a result of a national effort by the American Medical Association, most states had passed statutes criminalizing abortion at all stages of pregnancy by the turn of the twentieth century. (Reagan; Schoen; Siegel) Abortion was outlawed in Illinois in 1867. Under the Illinois law criminalizing abortion, anyone who "produced" an abortion unnecessary to preserve the pregnant woman's life was guilty of a high misdemeanor and could be imprisoned in the penitentiary for one to ten years. A woman seeking an abortion was not guilty of a crime. "Despite women's participation in abortion, however, the law did not allow for the indictment of the woman who received an abortion," notes historian Johanna Schoen. "By definition, her role was that of the object upon which others acted." (Schoen, 148) If the abortion caused the woman's death, the abortionist could be charged with murder. The defendant need not have intended to kill the pregnant woman; the mere intent to produce the abortion was sufficient to sustain a murder conviction. …

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