The Criminal Abortion Trial That Happened in Kentucky in 1978 and Why It Matters

Forty-four years ago, a student lying semi-conscious in a hospital bed confessed to police: “After being told that my pregnancy at 22-24 weeks was too far for a safe abortion, I tried to perform the abortion myself. I put a knitting needle in my uterus … I had no way out. I felt like dying.”

Marla Pitchford was indicted by a grand jury in 1978 for manslaughter and performing an illegal abortion. Under the Kentucky law (KRS 311.750) still in effect, performing an abortion by a physician other than a licensed physician is a felony punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison.

Marla was only 22 years old and would leave the courthouse as a free woman. But the road there would not be easy.

Her lawyer, my sister, Flora Templeton Stuart, recalls the case: “One day a young woman came to me for representation. When I heard about Marla’s situation, I felt a kinship with this young woman. Marla’s business became my business.”

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for the process

Stuart and her co-counsel, Kelly Thompson, decided to dismiss the charge of manslaughter, which contradicted Roe v. Wade that the fetus was not a person. I remember Morris Lowe yelling, “This woman killed her baby!” In Roe’s view, “Miss Flora,” as addressed by Warren Circuit Court Judge J. David Francis, dismissed the manslaughter charge and dropped the charge of performing an abortion without a licensed physician.

Defense attorneys announced they would be pleading temporary insanity at the time the crime was committed. This was not well received in some feminist circles, as it was alleged that it did not advance the cause of women’s rights.

After I contacted the editor of Ms. Magazine, calls came in from the National Organization for Women and the Kentucky Abortion Freedom League. While the first was very helpful, the pro-choice group from Kentucky wanted Marla to be convicted in order to improve their case with a test case. Stuart was only interested in an acquittal.

Opening arguments

First, the prosecutor laid out the facts, focusing on Marla’s confession.

Stuart describes the tragedy of a young woman who dreamed of wearing a white wedding dress rejected by her boyfriend. “You will hear this tragedy unfold in this courtroom. I only ask you to put your heart in the heart of Marla Pitchford.”

“I remind you that never in the history of this country has a woman been tried for abortion – quacks, yes! But not the woman. Bowling Green is a compassionate community and we will extend our mercy to Marla Pitchford.”

The courtroom was packed with major TV channels reporting the trial. Reporters from Time magazine and Newsweek were in attendance.

The persecution

While the defendant wiped his tears, the prosecutor read the confession Marla had made in the hospital. In a dramatic moment, Morris Lowe called her boyfriend, Dwight Mundy, to the booth.

Stuart: “Is it true you dumped her? You drove her to the abortion clinic and it was all your idea?’

Mundy: “Yes. It was my idea, and yes, I drove her. I couldn’t afford a child…’

When asked if Lowe had anything to do with the abortion, his witness replied, “I had nothing to do with it.” During a cross-examination, Flora asked, “You mean you had nothing to do with getting her pregnant?”

Mundy: “That’s not what I meant.”

Later I read in a news report that as Mundy went to his car, a group of female reporters surrounded his car and yelled at him as he drove away.

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Press conference with Marla Pitchford and Flora Stuart after the conviction

Press conference with Marla Pitchford and Flora Stuart after the conviction

The defense

To establish Pitchford’s state of mind, the testimony of psychiatrist Lawrence Green was crucial to the defense of temporary insanity. The loss of cognitive functions, as Dr. Green explained, does not mean that a person is mentally ill, just that in a moment of extreme panic, the individual might be tempted to take drastic measures.

It was decided not to have Marla testify, as such a testimony would have been extremely painful for her, while cross-examination would have been difficult to bear. Marla’s only testimony was her sobs heard during the trial.

Close arguments

The courtroom was filled when Assistant Prosecutor Tom Lewis argued that Marla Pitchford had confessed to the charges. “She put a needle in her body; why not her heart?” he asked.

Speaking for the defense, Stuart summed up the tragic events in Marla’s life, her hopes of getting married and having a child: “In a moment of panic, Marla grabbed the knitting needle and stuck it in her body. We heard from the psychiatrist about her state of mind. She wanted to tell the world she deserved to be punished.”

‘This young woman,’ she continued, ‘has seen her dreams of a white veil and wedding dress and love disappear in a sea of ​​despair. Judas sold himself for silver. Dwight Mundy sold himself for convenience. It was not convenient for him to have a child.”

Stuart then looked from Marla to the jury.

“Who was the victim here?” After a break, she compared Marla Pitchford to Hester Prynne in the book The Scarlet Letter. Time magazine characterized this moment in their article, Nation: The Scarlet A “It looked like a morality game, not a criminal trial. The sobbing 22-year-old defendant resembled Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, who, as attorney Flora Stuart reminded the jury, “had to bear the letter A and bear the shame and humiliation.”

Finally, Stuart asked, “Can the jurors find a greater sentence for Marla than Hester received in the 17th century?”

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Marla Pitchford and Flora Stuart laughing after the verdict

Marla Pitchford and Flora Stuart laughing after the verdict

The verdict

Judge Francis ordered the jurors to return a not-guilty verdict if they discover that Marla Pitchford was not in good spirits at the time of the incident. When the jury found Marla not guilty of temporary insanity, the onlookers clapped. There was joy in Bowling Green that afternoon, and even the prosecutors had smiles on their faces. “I am not unhappy with the verdict,” the assistant prosecutor said. He hoped the law would be changed, as it was only intended to refer to fraudulent doctors.

There were headlines of the acquittal worldwide, as Time magazine placed a photo of Marla next to an almost similar-looking drawing of Hester Prynne from the 19th-century Hawthorne text.

Lessons for today

Without the appeal of a student the judges could identify with, community support and a dedicated defense team, and most importantly, without Roe vs. Wade, Marla Pitchford would have been convicted of a crime. The focus of her prosecution would not have been on the tragic situation of a young woman, but on the personality of the fetus.

In the absence of federal protections for abortion rights, the way has been paved for a complete ban on legal abortion in some states and for limiting legal abortion to just 15 weeks in others. The effect of this loss on women’s rights is enormous. The new laws affect women’s reproductive rights in general and will shape politics for decades to come. The prosecution of Marla Pitchford marked the first time in the US that a woman had been tried for performing an abortion on herself. But it won’t be the last.

More discussion of the case can be found at

Katherine Van Wormer

Katherine Van Wormer

This article originally appeared in Louisville Courier Journal: Roe v. Wade Decision: KY’s 1978 Criminal Abortion Case, What It Means

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