Why a Christmas Eve 1955 Death Still Matters

Jacqueline Smith's abortion was performed illegally in an apartment
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 24, 2015 9:07 AM CST
Why a Christmas Eve 1955 Death Still Matters
In this Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 file photo, abortion rights activists hold candles and display pictures in memory of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist who died of blood poisoning after being denied an abortion in a Dublin hospital.   (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik, file)

In the 1950s, when abortions were rarely sanctioned and only when a committee of doctors approved them, somewhere between 200,000 and 1.2 million illegal abortions were performed every year. One such case in particular grabbed grim headlines across the country: A young woman by the name of Jacqueline Smith—who wanted to keep her baby—was given a messy illegal abortion in her boyfriend's apartment on Dec. 24, 1955. Sixty years later, there are still lessons to learn from her gruesome death, writes Gillian Frank on Slate. The details captured the attention of many: A hospital attendant gave Smith, who was positioned on a couch covered in blankets and newspaper, 50 times too much anesthesia via an IV drip made from a broomstick and a bottle.

When she died, he and Smith's boyfriend cut her body up into small pieces, covered them in Christmas wrapping paper, and placed the packets in Upper West Side trash bins. In her death, the Lebanon, Pennsylvania-born Smith was vilified as an easy woman by some and painted as a lamb in a rough town by others. Lost in the headlines was the larger plight of unwed mothers, the laws impeding access to contraception for both sexes, and the dearth of good sex education, notes Frank: "On Christmas Eve 1955, Jacqueline Smith was 20 years old and had her whole life ahead of her. The men who killed her went to jail, but there was no indictment of a society and policies that were also culpable. For too many Americans, Jacqueline Smith’s past is still all too present." Read Frank's full piece, which relies on old newspaper accounts and court records, here. (More abortion stories.)

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