Wisconsin’s abortion law was on the books for over a century. But it rarely led to prosecutions.


On this Wisconsin Public Radio sequence, “How We Acquired Right here: Abortion in Wisconsin since 1849,” WPR reporters discover how the state’s 1849 abortion ban got here to be and the way Wisconsinites have lived with and with out it since.

During the last 12 months, entry to abortion in Wisconsin has been virtually nonexistent. 

The U.S. Supreme Court docket’s determination to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling returned the state to a legislation that bans the process in practically all circumstances.

Wisconsin Legal professional Basic Josh Kaul has filed a lawsuit in state court docket, arguing the abortion ban that dates again to 1849 is simply too outdated to be enforceable. Till that case is heard, docs and well being care techniques have been cautious to not present care that is now thought-about unlawful. 

However some historians and authorized specialists agree that the legislation probably did not forestall abortions from going down the primary time it was in impact. 

Marquette College Regulation Faculty professor Lisa A. Mazzie advised WPR “the legislation on the books and the legislation on the bottom are generally two various things.”

“The best way that individuals function in gentle of the legislation can be very attention-grabbing,” Mazzie added. “So we all know that since 1849, there was a legislation that prohibited abortion, and we all know nonetheless, ladies had been acquiring abortions and docs had been offering them.”

A researcher on the College of Wisconsin-Madison surveyed out there county court docket information from 1849 to 1900 and located prosecutors introduced prison costs underneath the abortion legislation 17 occasions. Of these, solely 5 led to responsible verdicts. 

Mazzie mentioned a prosecutor’s views on abortion may have positively influenced whether or not they needed to carry a case to trial. However she added there was an easier clarification as to why legislation enforcement did not typically pursue them.

“That process is inherently a really non-public, private one,” Mazzie mentioned. “So as a way to discover out that it has occurred, you want folks to inform legislation enforcement, to inform someone {that a} potential crime has occurred.” 

If everybody concerned saved the process to themselves, legislation enforcement would probably by no means know that it occurred in any respect. 

The circumstances that had been introduced underneath the state’s abortion legislation had been typically ones by which a pregnant particular person died.

Lauren MacIvor Thompson, assistant professor at Kennesaw State College, research the historical past of contraception and abortion within the early twentieth century. She mentioned throughout the nation, there wasn’t a widespread effort to implement abortion bans till the mid to late Forties, after the Nice Melancholy and World Struggle II.

“You see an actual demographic shift by way of ladies working exterior the house — they return to the house to be homemakers,” MacIvor Thompson mentioned. “In order that’s once you see police forces in native jurisdictions actually beginning to crack down on unlawful abortions in a manner that they actually weren’t doing within the Nineteen Twenties and ’30s.”

A case in Milwaukee within the Forties may very well be an early instance of that effort, and one which highlights how prosecutors dealt with circumstances that MacIvor Thompson described as medical malpractice.

Medical developments, societal modifications affect some selections to finish being pregnant

In 1943, Hazel Williamson traveled to Milwaukee with a listing of three docs from her fiancé of 12 years. The 34-year-old was a farmer’s daughter, energetic within the Waunakee Girls’s membership and certainly one of many ladies working in a manufacturing unit throughout World Struggle II. Throughout her journey to Milwaukee, she was additionally between two and 5 months pregnant. She selected the primary title on her record: Dr. Edmund Timm.

Timm, who was 68 years outdated, had reportedly practiced medication on Milwaukee’s North aspect for 45 years.

After their preliminary assembly, Timm took Williamson to what was known as a “lying-in residence,” a kind of rooming home utilized by folks in search of an abortion. The one Williamson stayed at was operated by a sensible nurse who had beforehand been fined for performing an abortion. Native newspapers later reported a minimum of 5 abortion sufferers had been staying there on the time.

Two days after arriving in Milwaukee, Williamson underwent an operation by Timm at his workplace. A state Supreme Court docket determination mentioned Williamson advised one other girl that Timm was “like a horse physician,” that he had handled her roughly and the operation harm her. That night, she began working a fever.

Two days after the preliminary operation, Timm carried out a second process on Williamson. Court docket information describe her as being very sick by this level. Early the subsequent morning, Williamson died from sepsis and a uterine hemorrhage. An post-mortem discovered she had lacerations on her vagina and her cervix was punctured. 

Based on testimony from the sensible nurse, Timm arrived on the lying-in residence shortly after Williamson’s demise. However earlier than he known as the coroner, he went by Williamson’s purse to seek out the record of docs and ripped his title off the highest. 

Timm was later charged with second-degree manslaughter underneath the state’s abortion legislation. For his protection, Timm’s attorneys tried to argue that Williamson had already acquired an abortion previous to coming to him and that he was merely offering care within the aftermath. He claimed the state had no proof the fetus was alive when Williamson arrived in his workplace.

However his trial choose — and ultimately the Wisconsin Supreme Court docket — discovered that Timm was not credible and his testimony had been impeached, or discredited, many occasions all through the trial.

Whereas Williamson’s case led to tragedy, MacIvor Thompson mentioned surgical developments meant abortion procedures had been more and more protected by the twentieth century.

We do begin seeing extra surgical abortions being carried out within the early twentieth century than we did within the nineteenth century,” MacIvor Thompson mentioned. “The truth is, by the Thirties, surgical abortion is definitely fairly protected.

She mentioned that meant extra folks had been going by underground channels just like the one described on this case, as an alternative of utilizing natural concoctions or different at-home treatments.

Williamson’s case additionally highlights the affect of societal context on many individuals’s selections to finish a being pregnant, based on MacIvor Thompson.

If Williamson had been engaged for 12 years, that might have been through the top of the Nice Melancholy, a time when many individuals had been placing marriages and beginning a household on maintain due to excessive unemployment. In 1943, the U.S. was concerned in WWII and had reinstated the draft, creating extra uncertainty for these contemplating beginning or including to a household.

MacIvor Thompson mentioned societal norms round extramarital intercourse had been additionally a significant factor.

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“The Forties are functionally not very a lot completely different than the 18th or nineteenth century in relation to out-of-wedlock births,” she mentioned. “In some methods, they’re virtually worse, as a result of a minimum of within the colonial interval, folks might need been capable of look the opposite manner. However by the Forties and Nineteen Fifties, to have a toddler out of wedlock was actually a really critical social subject for girls.”

The identical social stigma probably drove many ladies in earlier many years to carry out abortions on themselves or attempt residence treatments handed on by family and friends. 

Abortion was ‘a data that was shared by ladies’

Mrs. Joseph Cordio, a 28-year-old girl from Madison, was initially arrested on a cost for performing an unlawful operation on one other girl in March 1933. Newspapers solely consult with by her husband’s title, however an obituary for her husband greater than 20 years later reveals that her first title was Lilly. 

On the time of her arrest, police claimed that Cordio had carried out an abortion on Elizabeth Ripp, 25. Ripp was the girlfriend of Cordio’s youthful brother and had been hospitalized after a miscarriage earlier that month. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that police questioned her simply hours earlier than she died, and he or she implicated Cordio within the abortion.

On the time of her arrest, Cordio admitted to telling Ripp methods to induce a miscarriage and what devices to purchase to do it. Police reported discovering the identical forms of devices in Cordio’s residence previous to her arrest. 

However MacIvor Thompson mentioned it isn’t stunning that Cordio would personal these instruments. She mentioned many ladies had dilation devices and uterine probes at residence to deal with reproductive well being issues like a prolapsed uterus.  

“You would order these from just like the Sears catalog or any drugstore,” she mentioned. “Sure, these issues can be utilized to carry out an abortion on your self, however in addition they had been used to deal with themselves at residence for vaginal and uterine issues that you just weren’t essentially going to go go to a doctor for, notably for those who lived in a rural space.”

Based on native newspapers, Cordio mentioned she advised Ripp it was harmful to induce a miscarriage and maintained that she wasn’t concerned within the process itself. She mentioned Ripp got here to her home, went into her lavatory and some minutes later, got here out and introduced she had executed it.

The newspaper reported that Cordio was initially charged with second-degree manslaughter for Ripp’s demise on high of different costs for performing an unlawful operation and advising Ripp to carry out the unlawful operation. However solely the final cost made it to trial, the place Cordio pleaded responsible and was sentenced to 6 months in county jail.

“It actually does communicate to the concept inducing one’s personal miscarriage is one thing that was a data that was shared by ladies, handed down on the kitchen desk over cups of espresso,” MacIvor Thompson mentioned. “You’ll share what strategies had labored for you up to now, and you’ll share that with feminine mates or relations.”

However Mazzie mentioned Cordio’s case additionally highlights the way in which Wisconsin’s early legal guidelines coping with abortion tried to crack down on this shared data.

A photograph of Elizabeth Ripp, a lady who died after inducing a miscarriage, from The Capital Occasions on Monday, March 20, 1933. Picture from Newspapers.com

“It serves as a warning in some methods,” Mazzie mentioned. “If my buddy involves me and asks me if I understand how to assist her out of her scenario, I might have to determine whether or not I am prepared to take the danger of giving her any solutions.”

These legal guidelines, described as “Offenses towards Chastity, Morality, and Decency,” had been created in 1858 on the similar time that state lawmakers revised the unique abortion ban. They banned folks from “producing a miscarriage,” which included administering an abortion, in addition to advising or procuring an abortion for an individual. Additionally they said that any girl who sought an abortion may very well be imprisoned for as much as six months and fined.

However the statutes allowed a minimum of one doctor to obtain a lighter sentence than he would have underneath the state’s abortion ban.

Restrictions on state abortion ban stick round lengthy after lawmakers attempt to take away them

Anna Jung is barely described within the Racine Journal-Information as “an single feminine who resides within the county exterior of town.” Court docket information present she was six to eight weeks pregnant when she underwent an abortion and was hospitalized after the process.

Jung lived, however legislation enforcement discovered about her case. Jung’s testimony is what led to the arrest of Dr. A.M. Foster of Racine in 1922.

Within the first article about his arrest, Foster claimed he didn’t carry out an abortion. However a jury discovered Foster responsible of second-degree manslaughter.

Foster then sued the state. He claimed there wasn’t sufficient proof he carried out an operation. However Foster additionally alleged that even when he had carried out the operation, he should not be convicted underneath the state’s abortion legislation and as an alternative ought to be tried underneath Wisconsin’s morality legal guidelines as a result of Jung’s being pregnant was so early on.

The state Supreme Court docket agreed with Foster. The justices’ opinion mentioned, “A two months’ embryo isn’t a human being within the eye of the legislation and subsequently its destruction constitutes an offense towards morality and never towards lives and individuals.”

Mazzie mentioned the actual fact the state Legislature had created two completely different legal guidelines associated to performing an abortion meant the court docket needed to assume the 2 statutes weren’t for a similar offense. 

The choice additionally revived the authorized doctrine that the state’s abortion ban solely utilized after what was often called the “quickening,” a degree in mid-pregnancy when fetal motion might be felt by the pregnant particular person. The unique language of the ban in 1849 said the legislation utilized to a “fast” youngster, however lawmakers eliminated the phrase in 1858. 

“The Legislature would not change the statutes (after the Foster determination), then everybody goes ahead assuming that, OK, these two statutes imply what the court docket mentioned,” she mentioned. “That is form of the way in which the legislation went till we get into the Nineteen Fifties.”

In 1955, a brand new prison code went into impact and mixed all of the statues associated to abortion underneath one statute, the place it stays right now. At the moment, lawmakers additionally clarified an “‘unborn youngster’ means a human being from the time of conception,” negating the Foster v. State determination. Penalties for a pregnant particular person in search of an abortion, which had been first created by the morality legal guidelines, remained in statute till 1985 when lawmakers prohibited their enforcement earlier than they had been repealed in 2011.

Now that Wisconsin has returned to most of the similar legal guidelines that influenced Cordio, Foster and Timm’s authorized circumstances, Mazzie mentioned the uncertainty round abortion has returned, as properly. She mentioned even with medical developments across the process, she thinks most of the similar issues with imposing the legislation are nonetheless current right now.

“Within the period of remedy abortion, having the ability to discover out who does what to finish a being pregnant in their very own residence can be troublesome with out people who find themselves going to inform on you,” Mazzie mentioned. “How are you going to implement (the legislation)? To what lengths will the state go or wish to go to get the proof it must implement it? And are all of us going to be OK with that?”

The non-public nature of abortion procedures grew to become a serious element in lawsuits across the nation by the late Nineteen Sixties that ultimately culminated within the U.S. Supreme Court docket’s Roe V.s Wade determination.

For extra from “How We Acquired Right here: Abortion in Wisconsin since 1849,” go to wpr.org/1849.