Joyce Johnson1950s, 20s, california, illegaluntrained, infectionSUMMARY: On April 21, 1955, 26-year-old Joyce Johnson died in Los Angeles from an abortion perpetrated in a motel room by abortion-rights activist Harvey Karman.
Abortion-rights hero Harvey Karman
Nearly two decades before the “Mothers Day Massacre” pulled off with Kermit “House of Horrors” Gosnell in Philadelphia, 30-year-old Harvey Karman was working as a teaching assistant at the Clinical School of the Psychology Department of the University of California at Los Angeles, seeking a doctorate in psychology. He was not licensed to practice medicine.
Karman, a married father of three, told the Los Angeles Times that his interests were “writing, inventing and medical experiments on rattlesnakes.” He failed to mention his passion for medical experiments on pregnant women.The Abortion
Around early February of 1955, 26-year-old Joyce Yvonne Johnson told her husband, Ben, that she was pregnant. They discussed an abortion. Somehow, the couple found out about Harvey’s passion for abortion, and arranged for him to practice his hobby on Joyce. His fee was $150.
On April 6, 1955, Karman met Joyce in a motel room and, using a speculum, inserted a nutcracker into Joyce in order to perform an abortion. On April 8, Joyce’s husband took her to St. Joseph’s Hospital. She was examined by a Dr. Moss who diagnosed her as suffering from “an infected criminal abortion.” The dead fetus was still in her uterus. She expelled it while at St. Joseph’s.
On April 13, Joyce was transferred to General Hospital for specialized treatment. She died there on April 21. An autopsy was performed, and Joyce’s death blamed on bronchial pneumonia brought on by the septic abortion.
Karman was arrested. He admitted to using instruments on Joyce and said that he had sterilized them at home but had transported them to the motel room in a paper bag.The Trial
During the trial, a photograph of the autopsy was available, but the district attorney didn’t display it. He instead told the jury, “you can look at it up in the jury room if you are so inclined–it’s an autopsy picture–I’m not going to show it to you because some people don’t like to see things like that–she was 26 years old April 6th. She was a girl in good health. She was pregnant. She wanted to do something about having an abortion for this pregnancy.”
The district attorney also told the jury, “Frankly, I don’t know how you feel about this matter of abortion–it is a matter of difference of opinion. Some people say well, people can’t afford it, it’s all right to have an abortion. Some people say if the woman’s health won’t stand it it’s all right to have an abortion. Our law says it’s all right to have an abortion if her health is of such nature she can’t have a baby. Some people think abortions are all right. Some people are absolutely against all of them. If you want to know the truth, I’m pretty much against all abortions myself, I think it’s a terrible thing for a girl to be talked into this.”
Harvey was convicted.The Sentence
At the time of the fatal abortion, Harvey Karman was on probation after a guilty plea of grand theft committed in June of 1953. He had snatched $3,700 in $100 bills from a ticket window at a race track in Hollywood Park. He had been fined a mere $500 and given 3 years of probation.
Because the illegal abortion was not only a crime in and of itself but also a violation of his probation, Karman was sentenced to ten years in prison.The Appeal
The appeals court found it “improper for the district attorney to express his personal belief as to all abortion,” but noted that since the jury was admonished to ignore the comment Karman had no grounds for appeal in the fact that the DA made the comment.
Karman’s defense called a Dr. Gilbert as an expert. He reviewed the autopsy report and medical records, an opined that Joyce did not die from a septic abortion. He was paid $150 for his testimony, ironically the same amount Joyce paid for the abortion.
The defense also appealed on the grounds that the the DA unduly prejudiced the jury by bringing out in cross-examining Karman that he’d been convicted previously of a felony. The appeals court ruled that this was proper impeachment of a witness.
Karman’s defense further argued that Joyce’s husband and friend were improperly granted immunity after they originally refused to testify.
Karman’s defense also claimed that the prosecution failed to prove that the abortion wasn’t necessary to save Joyce’s life. But the appeals court found that the testimony of Joyce’s husband and friend that Joyce had been in good health settled that matter. Of course, pure logic would prove that matter, since Joyce was seeking an illegal abortion from an amateur in a motel room. Had her life been in danger, an ob/gyn would have been able to admit her to a hospital and perform the abortion there.
An appeals court found that the district attorney’s statement that what defendant did was “absolute butchery” was fair argument on the facts, and not an unduly prejudicious statement. It came out in the case that Joyce’s husband was dating another woman and therefore had an interest in Joyce securing an abortion.The Pardon
Though Karman had finished serving his sentence before Jerry Brown was sworn in as California Governor in 1975, Brown was enamored enough of Karman’s work to issue him a pardon. Context
Joyce’s abortion was unusual in that it was performed by an amateur, rather than by a doctor, as was the case with perhaps 90% of criminal abortions. However, it also stands out because Harvey Karman was treated like a real doctor by the abortion establishment. He was invited to train abortionists, and was celebrated by abortion advocates for having invented a suction cannula designed specifically for early abortions. Despite being an amateur, and despite the death of Johce Johnson and the fiasco in Philadelphia, on his death Karman was eulogized .as a champion of safe abortions.
During the 1950s, we see an anomaly: Though maternal mortality had been falling during the first half of the 20th Century, and abortion mortality in particular had been plummeting, the downward trend slowed, then reversed itself briefly. I have yet to figure out why. For more, see Abortion Deaths in the 1950’s.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion
- District Court of Appeal, Second District Division 3, California.The People of the State of California, Plaintiff and Respondent,v.Harvey Leroy Karman, Defendant and Appellant.Cr. 5583.Nov. 13, 1956
- “Arraign Abortion Suspect in L.A. on Murder Count,” Long Beach Independent, Apr. 23, 1955
- “Jury Selection for Trial of Teacher Started,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 23, 1955
- “Man Gets Prison Term for Illegal Operation,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 14, 1955
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