Coroner Cyril Wecht reflects on life, and death, before Roe v. Wade
He performed autopsies on three women who died from botched abortions in the early 1970s.
Cyril Wecht remembers a time when elective abortions were illegal in Pennsylvania. As chief forensic pathologist, then coroner for Allegheny County in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wecht witnessed the devastating effects that the criminalization of the procedure could have on women who, seeking to terminate a pregnancy, took matters into their own hands.
His experience performing autopsies on those women informed his position on abortion rights.
“I recall we had three cases during that period of time, death cases, women who had attempted various things to end their pregnancy,” Wecht told the Chronicle in a recent interview. “One was quite dramatic. A woman had used a clothes hanger — that was kind of a common mechanical device utilized in those days because by bending the top of a hanger, you could get it in through the vaginal canal and up into the uterus. Because of the curvature you could scrape off the uterine content. So, she had perforated the uterus and that led to peritonitis, inflammation of the abdominal cavity, and then septicemia — overall infection — and she died.”
Another death Wecht recalled from that period “was a woman who had taken some strong stuff — I forget what it was, something absurd like turpentine. She died from the chemical effects of that compound or compounds.”
A third case was the death of a woman who had sought to end her pregnancy using the services of “a quasi-physician doing abortions,” Wecht said. “He had perforated the woman’s uterus during the procedure.”
Illegal abortions accounted for 17 percent of all deaths officially reported as related to pregnancy and childbirth in 1965, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that advances sexual and reproductive health rights.
The criminal status of abortion affected poor women disproportionately, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which reports that “a study of low-income women in New York City in the 1960s found that almost one in 10 (8%) had ever attempted to terminate a pregnancy by illegal abortion; almost four in 10 (38%) said that a friend, relative or acquaintance had attempted to obtain an abortion.
“Of the low-income women in that study who said they had had an abortion, eight in 10 (77%) said that they had attempted a self-induced procedure, with only 2% saying that a physician had been involved in any way.”
Wecht, who served as president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and who has colleagues around the country for whom he has provided forensic consultations, noted that prior to 1973, many woman throughout the United States were physically harmed or died from botched, illegal abortions.
“I can tell you that it was not rare,” said the Jewish octogenarian. “I’m not suggesting that it was a significant epidemic, but any death is important, especially of a young woman. And having death occur under such horrible circumstances — it was a real problem.”
The coroner has “strong feelings” about the legality of abortion. His opinion is influenced by seeing woman harmed because they did not have laws protecting their right to end a pregnancy in a safe way.
From a “medical perspective,” he said, “I was very pleased with the Roe v. Wade decision. I personally believe that it was sensible, and I still do. I think, for medical reasons, a woman should have a right to have an abortion.”
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that a woman’s “fundamental right” to privacy permits her to terminate a pregnancy up until “approximately the end of the first trimester.”
Wecht believes “the three-month period in Roe v. Wade is reasonable.”
“One can argue back and forth. And there are people at the other extreme who argue that if a woman wants to have an abortion the day before she is due to deliver it is her right, it’s her body. I would disagree with that” if the fetus is independently viable, he said. Even if the fetus were viable, Wecht added, he would make an exception if the mother’s life were at risk, or if her health were seriously threatened.
Americans are equally divided on the issue of abortion. A 2018 Gallup poll shows that 48 percent of American consider themselves “pro-life,” while 48 percent consider themselves “pro-choice.”
The abortion debate — now making headlines again as several states, including Pennsylvania, attempt to enact laws restricting or banning the procedure — continues to be nuanced. Should abortions ever be permitted? Should they be permitted in cases of rape and incest, or only in cases where the mother’s life or health is at risk? What about her mental health?
With the addition of Trump-appointed Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, political pundits expect that challenges to newly enacted, restrictive state laws will find their way to the highest court in an attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade. If Roe were to be overturned, the decision to outlaw abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy would be left to the legislatures of individual states.
Since Roe v. Wade, “deaths from abortion have plummeted, and are now a rarity,” according to statistics culled by the Guttmacher Institute. Moreover, since 1973, women have been able to obtain abortions earlier in pregnancy, when the procedure is safer.
Currently in Pennsylvania, a woman may obtain an abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, and also after that time frame if her health or life is at risk.
Restrictions on abortion in the commonwealth include: mandatory, state-directed counseling and a 24-hour wait period prior to the procedure; parental consent for an abortion sought by a minor; state health plans under the Affordable Care Act may cover abortions only in the case of a threat to a woman’s life, rape or incest, unless a rider is purchased at an additional cost; abortion is not covered in insurance policies for public employees except in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment; and public funding is limited for abortions to cases of life endangerment, rape or incest.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill in April that would ban abortions sought for the purpose of terminating a pregnancy in which the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome. The bill will be heading to the Senate for a vote. If it passes, it is likely to be vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf, who said last month that he would reject “any anti-choice bill that lands on my desk. I won’t let our commonwealth go backward on reproductive rights.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at