Kerneda Bennett1940sSUMMARY: Kerneda Bennett, around 30 years of age, died January 28, 1947 after an abortion perpetrated in Richmond, VA by Iva Coffman, whose profession I have been unable to determine.
Sometime in early January, 1947, Iva Rodeffer Davis Coffman performed an abortion on Kerneda C. Bennett, resulting in her death on January 28 and leaving her husband, J. Raymond Bennett, a widower.
Kerneda, though living with her husband in Harrisonburg, was pregnant as a result of an extramarital affair. She asked her friend, Irene Davis, to help her arrange an abortion. The two of them visited Coffman at her home at Mt. Crawford, near Harrisonburg. Coffman took Kerneda into a bedroom. “When they came out,” according to legal records, “Mrs. Coffman told Mrs. Bennett to come back if nothing had happened in foruteen days, and if anything was said about why they were there to say they came to have a dress made.”
About two weeks later, on January 27, Kerneda “had not had the result expected,” asked Irene to contact Coffman again. The two of them took a taxi back to Coffman’s home about 7:30 on the evening of January 28.
While the taxi was waiting, Coffman took Kerneda back into the bedroom. About fifteen or twenty minutes later Irene thought she heard something fall. A few minutes later, Coffman told her that Kerneda had fainted and asked her to come back to the bedroom. Irene found Kerneda lying, groaning, face-down on the floor beside the bed, dressed except for her shoes and coat.
Coffman seemed very nervous and said that they needed to get Kerneda to a hospital. Irene summoned the taxi driver, who carried Kerneda out to the cab, with instructions from Coffman to say they had been to Mt. Sidney, not Mt. Crawford.” Kerneda, who had been nearly lifeless when loaded into the taxi, was dead on arrival at the hospital.
That night Coffman’s home was searched, but nothing of evidential value was found. Coffman told the sheriff that Kerneda had asked to use the bathroom, and was shown to the bedroom, and asked for a glass of water. Coffman said she’d brought Kerneda the water, which she had used to wash down two pills from her purse, joking that they were poison. A few minutes later, Coffman said, Kerneda fell onto the floor.
At first Coffman denied ever having seen Kerneda before, but later admitted that she’d been there about two weeks earlier.
The police checked Kerneda’s purse and found a small box containing pills prescribed for taking three times a day after meals.
About a week after Kerneda died, Coffman went to Irene’s home in the evening, asking if she’d made a statement yet, and offering to pay Irene’s legal fees if she would “stick with her.”
The Harrisonburg/Rockingham County coroner, Dr. Byers, performed the autopsy assisted by Dr. Hill. They found no evidence of external injuries except for a small genital scratch. A piece of tissue from the placenta was in the cervix, a small blood clot was in the vagina, and the uterus was in place, appearing at first to be a normal pregnant uterus with no signs of injury.
Upon removing the uterus, the doctors noted a sensation as if the organ contained air. They opened the uterus and found an intact pregnancy with a fetus of about three to four months of gestation.
Kerneda’s heart, lungs, stomach, and uterus were sent to the pathology department of the University of Virginia for microscopic study, but no cause of death was determined from that examination. Dr. James R. Cash, a professor of pathology at the university, became a defense witness at trial, stating that he’d seen no evidence of an attempted abortion in the organs that had been sent for his examination, though the fact that the stomach had been preserved in formaldehyde presented a reliable result.
Byers concluded that an abortion had been attempted, which had caused a fatal air embolism. After the embolism killed Kerneda, the baby died as well. He based the embolism diagnosis on the crepitation (feeling as if air was present) of the uterus.
The jury evidently found the testimony by the involved parties more convincing than that of the defense witness, because Coffman was convicted of performing the fatal abortion and incarcerated to serve a five year sentence. Coffman appealed, with much argument centering around the cause of death to the unborn baby. Since the abortion attempt itself had failed to kill the fetus, Coffman’s attorney argued, Kerneda’s death was not a result of an abortion. The state argued that the attempted abortion had killed Kerneda, whose death then caused the fetal death, and thus the abortion did in fact cause the death of the fetus.
Kerneda’s estate sued to recover $15,000 damages. The jury returned with a verdict of $8,000. However, Coffman’s executor challenged the decision and won, on the grounds that Kerneda’s death was brought about by her own “moral turpitude” and thus her survivors were not entitled to compensation.
During the 1940s, while abortion was still illegal, there was a massive drop in maternal mortality from abortion. The death toll fell from 1,407 in 1940, to 744 in 1945, to 263 in 1950. Most researches attribute this plunge to the development of blood transfusion techniques and the introduction of antibiotics. Learn more here.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion
- 190 Va. 162, 56 S.E.2d 217, 21 A.L.R.2d 364; Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia Francis S. Miller, Committee of Estate of Iva Rodeffer Davis Coffman v. Raymond J. Bennett, Administrator of Kerneda C. Bennett Record No. 3527. Nov. 21, 1949;
- Coffman v. Commonwealth, Nov. 22, 1948;
- “Decision Reversed in Abortion Case,” Free Lance Star, Nov. 22, 1949
- “High Court to Review Abortion Conviction,” Richmond Times Dispatch, Jul. 30, 1948
- “Supreme Court Grants Writ,” Kingsport News, Jul. 30, 1948
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