Diarmaid Ferriter: Abortionist Mamie Cadden was no Vera Drake

Cruel backstreet operator was product of decades of denial and legal ambiguity

Prison photograph of backstreet abortionist Mamie Cadden.

Prison photograph of backstreet abortionist Mamie Cadden.

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It was reported last week that the Arts Council is providing funding for a play about Mamie Cadden to be staged later this year. Cadden was sentenced to death in 1956 for the murder of Helen O’Reilly, who died after a botched abortion performed by Cadden.

There is little doubt that Cadden’s life, trial and conviction are the stuff of powerful drama. After her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment she ended her days the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum having been declared “insane” even though she was not; she was so defiant and regarded as so amoral that it was easier to incarcerate her as a mad woman than to face the reasons she ran an abortion business and refused to apologise for it.

There is also, however, a danger of reading history backwards and being selective in the telling of the Cadden story.

In the Sunday Times last week one of the play’s producers, Yvonne Ussher, active in the Repeal the Eighth campaign, pointed out that there was an obvious contemporary resonance to the Cadden story and that, depending on the perspective of the audience member, Cadden might be seen as “incredibly cruel” or an “amazing woman” finding solutions to problems others refused to acknowledge. Michael Barker-Caven, artistic director of the Civic Theatre, where the play will be staged, suggested Cadden was a “trailblazer” in offering abortion services and ended up “being hounded”.

Incompetent abortionist

Cadden, however, was no feminist icon; nor was she a trailblazer. Other abortionists had come before the courts prior to her, especially in the 1930s and 1940s; William Coleman, for example, ran an extensive abortion practice in Merrion Square and was convicted and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment in 1944. Cadden was an incompetent abortionist whose botched operations led to the death of at least two pregnant women and caused physical pain for many others.

No charges were ever brought against doctors or midwives for performing abortions for medical reasons, so the application of the legislation in such cases was never tested by the Irish courts

She had already served a prison sentence after her conviction in 1945 for performing an abortion. Subsequently, in 1951, Brigid Breslin, aged 33, died on Cadden’s kitchen table after another disastrous operation, but as there was no evidence to link Cadden with the body, she got away with it.

Cadden did not set out to deliberately kill. The botched operations – the pumping of a mixture of water and disinfectant into wombs created air embolisms which killed her patients – were accidental. But she was cruel, judgmental and callous and had no empathy whatsoever with distressed pregnant women.

She labelled the women who sought her services “whores” and suggested in her statement to gardaí after O’Reilly’s death that O’Reilly had “the mouth of a prostitute”. O’Reilly was a 33-year-old mother of six whose husband had deserted her and who was forced to put her children in care in various convents. She had already tried and failed to induce a miscarriage through the use of abortifacient drugs.

After her death O’Reilly’s body was dumped on Hume Street, where Cadden lived. As archivist Catriona Crowe has pointed out, “The fact that she was providing a much-needed service to desperate women who were denied access to contraception does not of itself make Cadden a feminist heroine. She was well paid for her work and insisted on money up front. Vera Drake she was not.” Drake was the central character in Mike Leigh’s 2004 film in which a working-class woman in London in 1950 wanting to help young women in distress performs backroom abortions and does not accept payment.

Death sentence

Cadden was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging despite the flimsiness of the evidence against her. Under section 58 of the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act, a person who “unlawfully” procured the miscarriage of a woman was considered to have committed a felony. A patient dying as a result of such a procedure was not considered to have died during a medical operation, so a murder charge could be brought against the person who carried out the operation.

But this was ambiguous. The act referred to those “unlawfully” using instruments or administering drugs to procure abortion, but did this imply that there were circumstances in which abortion might be lawful? As the historian Sandra McAvoy has pointed out, it was not clear what the implication of this legislation was for the medical profession.

No charges were ever brought against doctors or midwives for performing abortions for medical reasons, so the application of the legislation in such cases was never tested by the Irish courts. Perhaps this was one of the reasons the anti-abortion lobby pushed for the insertion of a constitutional amendment in 1983.

It is appropriate that we are aware of the story of Cadden and her victims in this year of all years, not least because it is a reminder of the decades of callousness, denial, legal ambiguity, and unsafe, secret abortions with dire consequences that go to the heart of the history of the Irish abortion question.

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