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Desperation, Horror, and Illegal Abortion: The Cook County Septic Obstetrics Ward 41

By Kate D’Avignon | Editor, WSJ

COOK COUNTY (June 24, 2022) | The old Cook County hospital building was a huge, grim, limestone institution on the poverty-filled west side of Chicago with a noble mission to serve the poor and vulnerable in the underserved region.

It was never a pleasant place, but perhaps its grimmest area was Ward 41. This section was dedicated to what was called septic obstetrics, a clinical term that masked deep pain, misogynistic policies, and the desperation of women forced to make terrible choices that often ended their lives.

Today’s Supreme Court decision to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, expected to lead to abortion bans in 26 states, is a dangerous departure from 50 years of precedent that helped women in Cook County and across the US to receive safe reproductive medical services.

“This is a very sad day in American history when constitutional rights are being taken away from the American people by extremist judges,” attorney Richard Boykin, former commissioner and candidate for Cook County Board President in the June 28 primary said.

“The decision undermines the rights of women to control their own bodies and their health care. It will subject survivors of abuse, rape and incest to additional trauma by preventing them from accessing abortions. And, as usual, overturning has the most harmful and lasting impact on women of color and on poor women.”

“Abortion bans are historically designed to deny women people their right to liberty, freedom, and to make decisions about their bodies and futures. These bans disproportionately affect disenfranchised people with low incomes who cannot afford access to safe and fundamental health care or travel to get it. Abortion bans are the perpetuation of oppression, racism, sexism, and economic injustice in a country that has a long sordid history of stripping women of their personal autonomy,” Boykin said.

Ward 41 treated women who had undergone illegal abortions, whether with a caring midwife or with a rushed and frightened doctor, or by a careless conman in a back-alley, or by themselves in a lonely hotel room, and something had gone wrong. as dr Quentin Young, who did his required rotation in the ward, told Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun Time, in 2001.

They douched with bleach or peroxide. They used paintbrushes and cocktail stirrers and pencils and knitting needles. And yes, they did use wire coat hangers. “Of course they did,” says Young. “They hurt themselves, perforated their uteruses, they came in bleeding, with difficult-to-treat infections.”

It’s difficult to imagine a hospital needing an entire Ward committed to treating the impact of self-induced abortion, but that was the terrible reality in the days before Roe v. Calf. There has never been a time in human history where women didn’t seek to take control of their bodies. In societies where it was criminalized and prosecuted, it became difficult, dangerous and even deadly.

Boykin said the dark days of back alley abortions and coat hanger procedures will not return under his leadership.

The Democratic candidate vows as board president to ensure that Cook County hospitals continue to provide safe, secure, and private abortion procedures, and provide access to medical and surgical reproductive health services, for all women,” he added, “under my leadership the lights of Ward 41 will never flicker back on.”

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