Friday, 9 May 2014

‘Poisons or other Noxious Things’: Women’s Illegal Abortion Strategies in Twentieth-Century Ireland by Cara Delay

In this month's post, Professor Cara Delay, Associate Professor at the College of Charleston, writes on women's illegal abortion strategies in twentieth-century Ireland. 

Abortion trials in Ireland

From the murder trial of infamous midwife and abortionist Mamie Cadden in 1956 to the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, no issue has caused as much scandal, debate, and controversy in Ireland as abortion. Given the difficulty of accessing historical abortion cases, it is not surprising that scholarly analyses of abortion in Irish history remain incomplete. Illegal abortion is still at times perceived by historians as gambles that women took at the spur of the moment. Some researchers have assumed that the very real threat of illness or death would make only the most desperate of women seek to end their pregnancies. Records at the National Archives of Ireland and the PRONI, however, which provide details on over 100 illegal abortion trials that took place in Ireland and Northern Ireland from 1900 to 1970, demonstrate a different reality: for Irish women, abortion was not something that they took lightly but part of a carefully thought out plan. Abortion trial records tell complex and complicated stories, and, when read closely, shed light on women’s reproductive experiences and their decision-making processes.
Liquid ergot. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library.
Attempting to construct a picture of the ‘typical’ Irish woman who hoped to end her pregnancy is nearly impossible: the reality is that women from all different walks of life attempted abortion. Helen O, who died in 1956 after receiving an abortion from Mamie Cadden, was a thirty-four-year old married mother of six. Twenty-year-old Irene A, in contrast, was an unmarried student. Margaret M, a twenty-five-year-old single woman who lived in Dublin but received a surgical abortion in London, was having an affair with her married employer. In 1948, a woman who pled guilty to giving abortions to at least eight women in County Laois had amongst her clients a teenage girl still living with her parents and a married mother of two. The variety that these examples reveal suggests that abortion was widespread and practiced by women of different marital status, age, and region.
It is impossible to know how many Irish women with unwanted pregnancies sought abortion as a solution. Criminal court case transcripts do, however, reveal how some of those women who did choose a termination proceeded. In almost all of the cases that ended up in the criminal courts, a woman with an unwanted pregnancy first attempted a self-induced miscarriage. These women acted to induce abortion through what are often called ‘folk methods’, including physical harm and hot baths. Women, then, attempted to take care of what they referred to as their ‘trouble’ themselves in private, or sometimes with the help of friends and family. As late as 1950, a Dublin woman named Sheila told the court that before she purchased abortion drugs, she tried gin and hot baths, and when that did not work, her lover told her to ‘try high jumps’.

If these physical harm methods didn’t work, women sought help from drugs and poisons, including both readily available items such as Epsom salts, Jeyes’ Fluid, and laxatives and traditional abortifacients, including quinine, pennyroyal, and ergot of rye. Helen O, who died at the hands of Mamie Cadden, tried quinine tablets before she sought a surgical abortion. Similarly, in a 1937 case, a woman unsuccessfully tried miscarriage by quinine pills before visiting abortionist William Coleman. In 1932, a Donegal woman was brought up on charges after she attempted miscarriage by taking ‘six pills, the nature of which is unknown, two Beecham’s pills, and a bottle of castor oil’.

Source: Leitrim Observer, 1 December 1917
The poisoning deaths of women who consumed too many abortifacients remind us that self-induced abortion was hardly a science. Although Irish women were aware of the dangers of consuming too much of a particular drug, they persisted in attempting self-abortions, and they were given hints about drug-induced miscarriages through advertisements. Despite the fact that Ireland’s 1927 Report of the Committee on Evil Literature sought to prohibit any advertisements for drugs that may be used to prevent conception or induce miscarriage, Irish newspapers and medical publications contained dozens of such ads. In the early twentieth centuries, newspapers such as the Irish Times and the Leitrim Observer featured advertisements of Widow Welch’s Pills and Towle’s Pills, which eventually would become evidence in several abortion trials. Dr. Hooper’s Female Pills, created in Britain 1743, were advertised nearly every month in the Irish Chemist and Druggist in the late 1920s and 1930s. Another example is Beecham’s Pills, a British product available in Ireland that featured in several abortion trial cases. Beecham’s Pills were billed as a cure-all for lots of things, including restoring normal menstruation. Female pills contained a variety of substances, some potentially effective and some not. Dr. Hooper’s Pills were made of myrrh, which was rumoured to be an abortifacient. Some emmenagogues, including Towle’s Pills, did contain pennyroyal, which may have effectively induced miscarriage.


One of the most striking realities of abortion in twentieth-century Ireland is how many women attempted abortion multiple times. One woman received abortions from Laois’s Kathleen G twice, once for an advanced pregnancy of eight months and once for an early pregnancy of two months. Others admitted in court that they had previously attempted abortion, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. These repeated attempts to cause abortion reveal that determination defined the attitudes of some women. Women for whom abortifacients were unsuccessful or who initially were turned away by doctors or others did not stop looking for someone to help them. In one case, a couple traveled to London for an abortion after an Irish doctor refused to perform one. Other women traveled from the countryside to Dublin, where it was apparently easy to find an abortion practitioner. The Irish Times, reporting on a 1944 abortion case, recorded the remark of the defense lawyer in the case as follows: ‘Dublin was always humming and buzzing with stories about abortion’. Some of the most notorious Dublin abortionists, including not only Mamie Cadden but also William Coleman, faced multiple prosecutions over the years, demonstrating the continued need for and popularity of their services.

Illegal abortion on Irish soil declined rapidly with the 1967 legalization of abortion in the UK (outside of Northern Ireland), combined with relatively easy and inexpensive travel methods that allowed Irish women to seek assistance in Britain. Recently, however, the availability of herbs and pills on the internet has resulted in a return to more traditional abortion practices: more and more women are, once more, turning to abortifacients and home-based, self-induced abortions. In 2009, the Irish Medicines Board confiscated over 1,200 abortion pills that were bought online and imported into Ireland. Abortion rights organization Choice Ireland has argued that there is now an abortion pill black market in Ireland that is thriving during the economic crisis, when it is more feasible for women to purchase pills than travel to Britain for a surgical abortion.

Even a cursory glance at available evidence proves that Ireland is a country with a deep and varied historical record of backstreet abortion. The secret journeys of women who travel abroad for a legal termination every day or who purchase drugs illegally on the internet are legacies of the past in a country that still has a long way to go to recognize the reality of abortion.

Professor Cara Delay is Associate Professor at the College of Charleston. She was a Fulbright Fellow at the Humanities Institute, University College Dublin (2012-2013) where she conducted research on her new project entitled 'Desolate Journeys: Reproduction and Motherhood in Ireland, 1950-2000'. A podcast of her recent paper at the CHOMI Seminar Series on illegal abortion cases in twentieth-century Ireland may be accessed here


Podcast of a lecture 'Noxious Things’: Illegal Abortion Cases in Twentieth-Century Ireland by Professor Cara Delay, given as part of the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland’s seminar series.