Jesse Ketchum

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Jesse Ketchum was a former criminal abortionists who opened a legal practice in New York state in 1970, when abortion was legalized there.


Ketchum was a washout as a physician, practicing in Michigan during the late 1960s. He was sued for malpractice at least 12 times in Oakland County alone, and at least three times in neighboring Wayne County. After a $3 million suit alleging that his negligent handling of a birth caused the infant to suffer mental retardation, Ketchum lost his privileges at Beaumont Hospital.

It is not clear when Ketchum began performing illegal abortions. His legal practice was getting him in trouble on a fairly regular basis, but he seemed able to maintain high enough standards of care on his abortion patients to keep from drawing too much attention to himself. At least, he didn't dismiss patients that were injured or dying or otherwise likely to draw attention to him.

Word got out that Ketchum was willing to slip a few patients in through the back alley, and he was recruited by Clergy Consultation Services (CCS), an international abortion network. CCS provided him with a steady stream of abortion cases, mostly women from Ohio and Illinois.

By whatever means, the authorities became alerted to Ketchum's back alley practice, and became alarmed. The Michigan State Police busted the abortion ring on January 3, 1970, by running a policewoman through it. Ketchum was arraigned and released on $25,000 bail. Ketchum's attorney persuaded a judge not to prosecute on the grounds that Michigan's law limiting abortions to those "necessary to preserve the life of the woman " was unconstitutionally vague. This was a popular and frequently successful approach at the time. Milan Vuitch had used this defense to have the Washington, DC abortion law rendered moot when he had challenged it by openly performing elective abortions.

Ketchum grew bold, and began to get careless. He continued to operate his abortion business until January 30, when he inadvertently hired an off-duty police officer to work as a driver. Police arrested Ketchum as he was preparing to perform an abortion on a 17-year-old girl. They seized Ketchum's rusty, pitted, blood-stained instruments, which were found in a plastic bag along with the girl's $500 fee. Ketchum was arraigned and released on $1,000 bail.

Ketchum's medical practice continued to deteriorate, as evidenced by the allegations of Jane Capling of Oakland County, who said that Ketchum botched a hysterectomy he performed on her in March.

Abortion was not having nearly the intensity of legal repercussions for Ketchum that one would expect. The sympathetic judicial system, and the support of abortion advocacy groups like CCS, allowed Ketchum to keep his license and continue to practice despite his repeated disregard for the law. In May, he was arrested yet again for abortion, this time performing one on a 25-year-old Ohio woman in his hospital. Again he was freed on bail. But change was in the air.

New York

The legislature of New York had voted to permit any abortionist with a medical license to ply his trade legally. Ketchum closed down his Michigan hospital, packed up his pitted and blood stained instruments, and moved on to New York. When the New York law, allowing abortion on demand up to 24 weeks, went into effect on July 1, 1970, Ketchum was ready. He opened his legal abortion practice in a hotel suite in Buffalo.

There, Ketchum would have felt free to relax his standards. Abortionists were flaunting safety standards with impunity. Practices such as injecting patients with saline then sending them home to abort were noted by officials, but no arrests were resulting.

Little is known about the first year of Ketchum's New York practice, but by May 1971 his luck was running out. On May 28, Ketchum did a D&C abortion under general anesthesia on Ellen K. Lawler of New Baltimore, Michigan, in his Buffalo office. Only later, at an undisclosed time, did Mrs. Lawler discover that Ketchum had lacerated her uterus, anterior cul-de-sac, right broad ligament, and peritoneum. He had told her the abortion had been uncomplicated. Such severe injuries in a criminal abortion patient would have resulted in an arrest. But this was New York, abortion was legal, and although Mrs. Lawler suffered ill effects from Ketchum's foul-up, Ketchum himself was able to carry on.[1]

Ketchum decided to do hysterotomy abortions in his office. A hysterotomy abortion is simply a c-section intending to deliver a baby too premature to survive, then let the child die.

Then Margaret Louise Smith, who had been exposed to rubella when pregnant with her third child, traveled from Michigan to Buffalo for an outpatient abortion. Ketchum, aided by his 23-year-old wife Judith, performed a vaginal hysterotomy abortion on 25-year-old Margaret at about 10:00 a.m. on June 16, 1971, then left her virtually unattended until her friend Billy Ray Ellenberg returned to the office at about 2:00 p.m. Ellenberg found Margaret pale and breathing with difficulty. He pleaded with Ketchum to take some action. Ketchum attempted to treat Margaret in his office before summoning paramedics, who were unable to revive her. Margaret was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital across the street at around 4PM. Although Margaret's vagina had been sutured, removal of those sutures revealed a vast laceration involving the entire cervix, lower uterus, and broad ligament. Margaret had been slashed internally and left to bleed to death.[2]

Still no action was taken to shut Ketchum's practice down. He wasn't even arraigned until January 1972 - six months after Margaret's death—and then was freed on $10,000 bond. There is no evidence that Margaret's death in any way prompted Ketchum to improve his practice or institute safety measures. He went about his business while his attorney handled the matter. He still had the criminal abortion charges pending in Michigan, but after two and a half years of trying to get uncooperative and elusive witnesses to show up, prosecutors dropped one of the charges. Two others were pending. New York health authorities continued to have their hands full with abortion deaths caused by other legal practitioners.

And in the mean time Ketchum had brought his total reported abortions to 862. One of those abortions was performed on Carol Schaner on October 24, slightly more than four months after Margaret Smith's death.

Carol, age 37, had traveled from Ohio for her abortion. After Ketchum released her, she went into shock, and died in a New York hospital. At autopsy, it was discovered that the case eerily echoed Margaret's injuries. Ketchum had sutured Carol's cervix shut, hiding a laceration through the cervix and uterus and into a uterine artery. Like Margaret Smith, Carol Schaner had simply been allowed to bleed to death.

Legal Repercussions

Across the nation, abortionists were getting old criminal abortion cases dropped—after all, the laws were unconstitutional.

Even convictions for criminal abortion deaths were being thrown out -- Richard Mucie, for example, was able to have his conviction for the February 1968 abortion death of Nancy Ward in Missouri overturned on the grounds that Nancy's abortion, although not "necessary to preserve the life" of the patient, "was performed by a licensed physician in a medically accepted manner under medically accepted conditions," and therefore Michigan could not validly have prohibited it "in terms of its interest in maternal health." Nancy's case was similar to Margaret Smith's case. Each woman had been approximately 18 weeks pregnant, each had traveled to another state to undergo an abortion in an outpatient medical facility at the hands of a licensed physician, each had undergone a procedure to extract the fetus vaginally, and each had bled to death at the facility as a result of lacerations of internal organs. But Margaret's abortion had been legal, and Ketchum no doubt calculated that if criminal abortion death convictions could be thrown out, a legal abortion death was no cause for concern. He petitioned the courts for his case to be dismissed and continued to perform abortions.

Eventually, however, Ketchum was charged with homicide in Margaret Smith's death. When Roe v. Wade was handed down and assorted criminal abortionists started getting their old convictions thrown out, Ketchum tried to use Roe to get the charge against him dropped, and then to gain an acquittal. He got nowhere. Despite his claims that Margaret Smith had died from amniotic fluid embolism and disseminated intravascular coagulopathy, and despite the fact that famed abortionist Milan Vuitch testified on his behalf, he was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to prison on October 4, 1973.[3]

But even a conviction was not enough to close Ketchum's practice. Still using Roe as leverage, Ketchum was able to free himself on $10,000 bond, pending appeal. He returned to Michigan and resumed his abortion practice there, this time legally. He remained heedless of the welfare of his patients, however. On April 18, 1974, Sandra Walker of Ohio was driven to Ketchum's practice by Thomas Pimbly, who had referred Sandra for the abortion. Pimbly assisted Ketchum in performing the outpatient saline instillation, done without so much as a rudimentary physical examination. Sandra was hospitalized, losing a lot of blood, her uterus, and very nearly losing her life. Pimbly admitted that he'd known about Ketchum's background and that he referred women to him anyway. He said that 2 deaths in over 800 abortions was "a damn good batting average for a doctor, any doctor, and it's a batting average to be proud of." He continued to defend Ketchum, saying, "I'm not saying he's flawless. In fact, he's very controversial. If you've done any study, you know that his background is quite, quite good -- so good that other doctors refer problem patients to him for abortions."

Michigan prosecutors did not think so highly of Ketchum, and one filed suit alleging "gross negligence tantamount to criminal care of patients," and stating that Ketchum performed abortions "at times and in manners and places contrary to law," and in violation of state health guidelines, with inadequately qualified staff, lack of medical histories, and failure to maintain proper records. On April 30, a judge granted a court order banning Ketchum from practicing in Michigan. However, within a week another judge lifted the injunction, holding that the medical board, not the courts, should address the problem.

The deaths of two women and the near-deaths of at least two others were not sufficient to close down Jesse Ketchum's abortion practice. However, in 1974, his recklessness finally led him to behaviors that the medical board frowned upon. On May 12, Ketchum was found guilty of disorderly conduct for "indecent and obscene conduct in a public place," in this case a porn theater. Then, on May 23, Ketchum performed an abortion on a woman who then discovered that her pregnancy test had been negative. And on June 3, Ketchum was caught in a sting set up by a housewife who had heard he'd been doing abortions on women who only thought that they were pregnant. Last but not least, he was discovered to have been prescribing amphetamines after his state license to dispense these drugs had expired. These events, not the deaths and near-deaths, spurred the medical board to action. They suspended Ketchum's license for "unprofessional conduct, immoral conduct and departure from and failure to conform to minimal standards." His license was revoked in Michigan on October 30, 1974.

In May 1975, Ketchum's appeals ran out, and he was sent to Attica for three years for the death of Margaret Smith. And in October of that year, the Centers for Disease control finally published an article with the New York Health Department suggesting that second trimester abortions should be done in hospitals.

After his release, Ketchum got his license reinstated. It is unknown whether he is still in practice.


  1. New York Supreme Court, County of Erie, Index No. 62821
  2. Journal of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, March 1974; New York State Journal of Medicine October 1975
  3. W.D. New York District Court No. Civ-75-79