The Death of Gerri Santoro and the History (And Reality) of Unsafe Abortion

by thethreepennyguignol

Unsafe abortions remain one of the leading causes of preventable maternal mortality, accounting for somewhere between 5-13% of all maternal deaths. And, with the recent ruling by the American Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade, a landmark case which pushed to allow for legal abortions across the country, more than 36 million women as well as many other people who can fall pregnant have lost their access to guaranteed safe abortion care.

Laws restricting or banning abortion do not stop people getting them; they just make it harder for people to access safe, medically-supervised ways to end their pregnancies. They don’t reduce the rates of abortion, but they do reduce the safety, survivability, and sanctity of what should be a basic human right.

Trying to trace back the history of unsafe abortions and their medical and social impact is difficult, because so many people who carried them out either didn’t live to report them, or, for the same reasons that they chose an unsafe abortion in the first place, were too ashamed or scared of what might happen if they did. In 1930 in America, when abortions were illegal outside of a direct impact on the carrying person’s physical health, unsafe abortion killed a recorded 2,700 women; a decade later, around 1,000 people were dying every year from unsafe abortion practices, with many thousands more ending up in hospital or seeking treatment for the unwanted side effects of their attempt to end their pregnancy. Through the 1960s, a study conducted in New York revealed hundreds more every year attempting to perform abortions with only 2% having any involvement with a physician in the process (and of those who did have access to a medical professional, expertise in providing abortion and post-abortion care was limited). Across this period, most hospitals in America had a so-called “septic abortion ward”, where people would be treated for the aftermath of their unsafe abortion; in the 1940s, such complications were the single leading cause for Ob-Gyn admissions.

You’ve probably heard a lot of people talking about unsafe abortions, but the actual specifics are often glossed over – and with reason, because they’re really, really horrible. Some pregnant people tried to induce a chemical abortion by consuming certain substances believed to trigger a miscarriage, such as like turpentine, Chlorox or massive doses of quinine, which could lead to poisoning and other side effects, rarely working to cause a miscarriage. Often, the pregnant person would try to insert a sharp object – such as with knitting needles, coat hangers, bicycle spokes, or ballpoint pens – up their vagina, past their cervix, and into their womb. As well as the possibility of perforating the uterus or intestines, which could lead to severe hemorrhage or death from sepsis from using a non-sterile item, this could also damage the cervix and uterus, causing issues in future pregnancy and childbirth. In comparison, first-trimester abortions provided by a qualified medical professional in a legal setting were are estimated to be about ten times less risky than carrying a pregnancy to term. Abortions, outside of the law, were often practiced by the person carrying the foetus, or their friends and family, outside of any medical aid.

It’s this form of abortion – one without medical supervision or intervention – that Gerri Santoro (1935-1964) used before her death. Santoro, who grew up in Connecticut along with her fourteen siblings, had in 1963, left a decade-long physically abusive marriage to her husband to move home with her daughters. There, she met Clyde Dixon, a married man with whom she began an affair. She soon fell pregnant by him. But, when she discovered that her abusive husband intended to visit her and their daughters, she became fearful that he would murder her upon discovering her pregnancy by another man. She and Dixon resolved to perform an abortion.

On the night of June 8th, 1964, Santoro and Dixon checked in to a motel, along with a collection of medical tools and a textbook they intended to use as guidance for their attempt to induce an abortion. During the process, Santoro began to bleed heavily and Dixon fled the scene, leaving her to die in their motel room, naked and alone. A maid discovered her the next day, and her daughters were told their mother had died in a car accident.

Gerri Santoro’s story is representative of so many – so many people who lost their lives to abortion, because their ability to access a safe, medically-supervised path to end their pregnancy was denied them. What made Gerri’s story stick in the public consciousness, however, was a police photograph of her corpse as it was discovered on the day she died (please note this image is graphic): slumped forward, feet and backside covered in blood, a bloody towel stuffed between her legs. It became a firebrand photograph for abortion rights activists in the 1970s, a stark and grim reminder of what people faced when they didn’t have access to safe abortion.

Gerri Santoro, in her tragic death, represents so much about the urgent importance of providing free, accessible, and safe abortion options for all. She was left to die in a hotel room alone, because the legal blockades, as well as the societal shame and stigma, refused her the opportunity to access the care she needed. She left behind two daughters, and an entire life unlived, and she’s not the only one. Estimates suggest about five million years of potential life are lost to unsafe abortion every year in women of child-bearing age, due to complications and disability following the procedure.

Even post-Roe, significant boundaries were still in place to make getting an abortion difficult for certain groups – the need for parental consent in minors in some states, for example, is believed to have led to the death of seventeen-year-old Becky Bell in 1988, who attempted to induce an abortion herself rather than ask for her parents’ permission to do so, scared of their judgement or anger (her parents, since her death, became involved in repealing parental consent laws around abortion). Shame, stigma, and fear also pushed people away from having much-needed abortions, allowing anti-abortion groups to spread misinformation and stoke more controversy around abortion.

Leona Gordon, Santoro’s sister, recognised the by-then iconic photo of her sister when it was published in Ms magazine in the early 1970s. Joannie Santoro-Griffin, one of Santoro’s daughters, was initially unhappy with the use of her mother’s image as part of a political movement, but later, became involved in abortion rights activism. In 2006, she spoke of a conversation with her own then-teenage daughter on the subject of abortion, as the contemporary political backdrop in America threatened the sanctity of legal and safe abortion again:

My younger daughter told me how to self abort yesterday. Just a “FYI, Mom”. A girl at school had told her about it in detail. It was like getting kicked in the stomach… She knows how her grandmother died. She’s known it all her life. But have I told her enough about it? How it happened? Why it happened? Should I show her the film now? Should I show her the photograph?”

In the decades since Santoro’s death, even in the decades since Roe vs Wade and the apparent legalization of safe abortion, women were still passing around the secrets they’d heard from precious generations – still reminded, even then, of how close they could come to losing it all again.

And now, more than 36 million women have. Yesterday, abortion clinics were forced to turn away patients literally sitting in waiting rooms to safely end their pregnancies after the ruling was made. Healthcare providers described the horror – “people cried. They screamed. They begged for help”.

Taking away people’s access to safe, legal abortion is going to cost lives. It cost Gerri Santoro’s, as well as the literal thousands of other women who were killed trying to end their pregnancies before they had access to legal and safe abortion. To deny people access to this care is to look at this picture of Gerri Santoro, dead in a motel room, and agree to let it happen again, and again, and again. It is morally repugnant and genuinely horrific. My heart and my support are with all the people who do not have access to safe abortion, and below are some organisations you can support to help fight for the certainty of safe abortion care for all:

Planned Parenthood Action Fund

Nation Black Women’s Reproductive Agenda

International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion

International Partners for Reproductive Justice

Abortion Support Network

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(header image via Vanity Fair)