Abortion in the 1920s

A criminal operation

In 1969, the Canadian Parliament amended the Criminal Code to authorize hospital committees to approve therapeutic abortions on a case-by-case basis. During 1970, the first reporting year, 11,200 abortions were carried out in Canada. Prior to 1969, abortion had been a serious criminal offence, punishable by life in prison.

Abortion, and the dissemination of birth control, had been made illegal in Canada’s criminal law in 1869. Despite this, women who wished to terminate pregnancies prior to full term resorted to a range of methods. Women had access to traditional methods, as well as abortifacient medicines advertised in the newspapers and sold in local drug stores.

Historical research shows that despite the image from popular fiction and the newspapers that the typical woman seeking an abortion was poor, young and single or a domestic servant, many were married and older. By the early 20th century, it was estimated that thousands of women were undergoing illegal abortions each year, and that hundreds were dying from botched procedures.

Most abortion cases never came to the attention of the authorities in New Brunswick, but when they did, community interest was intense. At the same time, public decorum limited the amount of sensitive medical and other shocking detail released to the public. Such was the case with the trial of Mrs. Bessie Parker of Saint John in 1923.

According to the police, Parker (the daughter of a policeman) had performed a 'criminal operation' on a young woman, Emily Frontin, who later died in hospital. Frontin had made a 'dying declaration' in hospital where she detailed what had allegedly happened. The statement was witnessed by Saint John’s police magistrate. Before she passed away, the victim identified Bessie Parker, who had been brought to the hospital, as the person who had performed the procedure. By the time she came to trial, the middle-aged women had spent more than one hundred days in jail.

The case of Emily Frontin contains echoes of other 'women in trouble' stories in early 20th century newspapers. How did she meet Bessie Parker? Parker ran a boarding house on Main Street in Saint John's Indiantown neighbourhood and earned extra money from sewing. Although married for two decades, she had been separated from her husband for a few years. She also provided 'maternity nursing' to expectant and new mothers, which suggests that cities such as Saint John were places where women went to give birth in a more anonymous setting.

Even in a mid-sized city such as Saint John, women who wished to end a pregnancy prematurely turned to drugs and advice from midwives, doctors and ‘baby farmers’ (women who operated nurseries for infants). Those who gave birth to unwanted babies relied on private charities, such as Roman Catholic and Protestant orphanages, or their own networks of family and friends, to find a home for infants. In Saint John the Salvation Army, which specialized in social outreach to the vulnerable, operated a maternity hospital in recognition of the social problem of young, single and poor women giving birth in the city. The Catholic church operated the Home of the Good Shepherd, an orphanage that doubled as an institution for ‘wayward’ girls.

Other cases reported in the newspaper suggested a network of informal support services for pregnant women, some of which operated on the wrong side of the law. One of these shady practices was 'baby farming' where women (often single or poor) left infants in the care of other women for short periods or indefinitely. In many cases these unfortunate babies died of unknown causes, which suggested foul play.

In other cases they were reunited with their mothers of adopted. Or they may have been abandoned to the elements, as was the case of a baby found in a dump along the shore of Courtenay Bay, Saint John, in 1909. Evidence suggested that the baby had been alive at birth and that the mother had been assisted by “a woman,” not a doctor.    

In the murder trial that began in 1923, it was alleged that Parker performed an abortion by using a knitting needle. From our modern perspective, the trial contains interesting gender perspectives as both the accused and the victim were women but women in New Brunswick, despite having acquired the right to vote, could not sit on juries. Frontin had visited Parker’s house in Saint John's North end in the summer of 1922 and informed her that she would require assistance with her expected baby in a few weeks.

At this time Mary lived with her sister and worked for the New Brunswick Telephone Company. Parker testified that Frontin had claimed that the father of the child was a married businessman, and that she planned to travel to Montreal where she would put the baby up for adoption. Parker also claimed that she assumed that the couples who came to her boarding house for help were married. According to the victim’s sister, a male friend named William Ferris had been “the cause of her trouble.” Ferris allegedly had met Mary at a dance three or four years previously. He admitted to having given the victim $40 but testified that he had no knowledge of her condition or intention.         

Emily Frontin, on the advice of Dr. McDonald, had been admitted to the hospital in September of 1922, where she was treated for typhoid fever. McDonald had suspected septicemia, blood poisoning. Unfortunately this crucial information was not conveyed to the hospital authorities. Dr. McDonald later testified that his patient had told him that she had “gone to a woman” in the North end. Three days after Frontin was admitted to the hospital, doctors became aware of her true condition and attempted surgery. The patient died on October 2, 1922, according to a post-mortem performed by the provincial pathologist, from an internal puncture.   

Parker's trial for murder was marked by heated exchanges between the Crown prosecutor and the defence lawyer, a Canadian Senator. Complicating the situation was the fact that the original copy of the victim's 'dying declaration' had disappeared from the desk of the police magistrate. At the trial, four doctors, including one of the city’s few women physicians, testified. The testimony of Mary’s sister was confusing. In one section she described how her sister had given birth in her room and had "wrapped up" the baby and placed it behind a trunk. Later she recalled how Mary had gone to Mrs. Parker, who had performed a brief procedure on her.

The defence called one witness, Parker, who disclaimed any knowledge of a knitting needle discovered by police behind a wall board in her kitchen and explained that she had only lived in the house for a few months prior to the events under the court’s scrutiny. Parker testified that the girl had been seriously ill when she arrived at her home. She claimed that she had been involved in roughly fifty maternity nursing cases and had often helped girls who had no money.

Legal history research suggests that in cases of abortion and infanticide, juries were often reluctant to convict on charges of murder. In the case of infanticide, authorities responded to low conviction rates by substituting the lesser charge of concealing the birth of a child.

As the judge explained to the jury in the Parker trial, with abortion prosecutions there were three possible outcomes: a conviction for murder, a conviction for manslaughter or an acquittal. In this case the all-male jury, after deliberating for several hours, was split. Eight members favoured a not-guilty verdict, and four a conviction for manslaughter. The case against Bessie Parker was dismissed.

This tragic case suggests that although the criminal law and society’s official morality in theory treated those who sought or assisted with abortions in a severe fashion, in practice both the justice system and society in general responded in an ambivalent manner to this social problem.  

General sources of interest

Kristen Johnson Kramer, Unwilling Mothers, Unwanted Babies: Infanticide in Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005).

Carolyn Strange, Toronto’s Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City, 1880-1930 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995).