Historian’s research into BC coroners’ inquests reveals chilling insight into criminalization of abortion


In October 1921, a woman named Margaret Robertson lay dying in Vancouver General Hospital from a failed abortion caused by slippery elm bark.

A police detective showed up – the second time he had come to grill her for the name of the abortion provider.

“I asked her if she realized she was in danger of dying,” the officer would later tell a coroner’s jury.

“She said she would die with this information and not tell anyone and she also said she would rather have her tongue cut out before giving it away.”

Robertson had died at noon the next day – one of many women in British Columbia who perished trying to have an abortion in the decades before the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the law criminalizing abortion in 1988.

Her story would have been lost in time but for the efforts of historians like Susanne Klausen, an expert on the reproductive rights and justice movements who wrote about Robertson’s case and others during his undergraduate studies at the University of Victoria in the late 1980s.

Lita Cenali, 36, of San Francisco, attends a protest against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in San Francisco. Activists fear that women in many parts of the United States will resort to clandestine and dangerous means to abort if the procedure is made illegal. (Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle/Associated Press)

Klausen, a Canadian, went on to study abortion battles around the world. She teaches a course on reproductive justice at Pennsylvania State University. She wrote a book on abortion in South Africa.

But she still remembers in detail the outrage she felt as a young woman reading the inquests of 34 former BC coroners into failed abortions.

And she has no doubt that history will repeat itself if women in the United States lose the right to abortion, she says – as seems likely following a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court of the land that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the decision enshrining the constitutional right to abortion.

“A lot of girls and women, again, if they’re denied access to safe abortions, they’re going to have scary experiences with unscrupulous people or very helpful abortionists who may not know what’s going on. they do,” Klausen mentioned.

“There’s a whole world that’s already been mapped out on this by historians working in many, many jurisdictions, because in a sense it’s still the same story.”

“Medical Men Can Get In Trouble”

Klausen’s research eventually evolved into a 1996 article in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, titled Physicians and Declarations of Death: The Role of the State in Abortion Regulation in British Columbia, 1917- 1937.

The 30-page paper is spine-chilling. Police have routinely sought statements from victims on their deathbeds, postponing the operation of a young single woman who aborted herself with pills, douches and ‘possibly an instrument’ so she could speak to the police.

Dr. Henry Morgentaler delivers a victory sign as he leaves the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on January 28, 1988. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in his favor and struck down anti-abortion laws.

At a 1920 inquest, a juror was asked if a woman named Agnes Mullins was “in her right mind” when she made her declaration of death.

“Yes,” replied a doctor who was present.

“She was very scared of dying and was completely reasonable, very ill, vomited and weak, but fully able to sign her statement.”

Women who died from abortions during the period studied by Klausen in British Columbia were evenly split between married and single, and were mostly from “working class” or immigrant families.

Klausen says that class and race cannot be separated from the issue of abortion – a fact that remains true across time and space: “always young women, adolescent girls or rural girls and women, or poor girls and women who have neither money nor social capital.”

During investigations, doctors were asked about their inability to obtain death declarations. In one case, a coroner warned a doctor that “medical men could get themselves into trouble” if they failed to report a criminal offence.

Police also constantly searched for the identities of single women’s lovers, and inquiries were heard from friends and family members suspected of helping the victims abort.

“Don’t you know it’s a criminal offense to help someone or advise someone to have an abortion, don’t you know that?” a coroner asked the sister of a deceased woman.

“It’s reality”

Klausen proudly recalls her time as an undergraduate student and member of the Pro-Choice Action Network, organizing a sit-in at the University of Victoria Law School when the Attorney General of the then (and later Prime Minister) Kim Campbell came to speak.

At the time, Campbell was introducing Bill C-43, legislation to replace the abortion law that the Supreme Court struck down by keeping abortion a criminal act but allowing it for general reasons.

The bill died in the Senate.

Klausen said the fight against abortion sparked a huge national debate as well as the organization she joined. She says the battle has brought many women out of the shadows to tell their own stories and those of the loved ones they have lost.

“And of course that’s part of what I was looking for as a young historian when I wrote this article – to show what women went through when abortions were illegal,” she says.

“Because, as historians around the world show, regardless of abortion law, if women are pregnant and don’t want to be pregnant, in many cases they will do whatever they can to end this abortion. unwanted pregnancy. This is the reality.”