Nation: The Scarlet A

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"I felt like dying "

It looked like a morality play, not a criminal trial. The sobbing 22-year-old defendant resembled Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, who, as Defense Attorney Flora Stuart reminded the jury, "had to wear the letter A and bear the shame and humiliation." This trial, however, took place last week in Bowling Green, Ky., and the A stood not for adultery but for abortion. Under an obscure state statute that allows only licensed physicians to perform abortions after the first trimester, Maria Pitchford was prosecuted for performing an abortion on herself during the 24th week of pregnancy. The penalty: ten to 20 years in jail.

It was the first trial that anyone could remember in which a woman had been prosecuted for self-abortion. And the case was symptomatic of the confusion that has developed over the widely differing abortion laws that have been enacted by states and localities in the past few years. Kentucky law is particularly tricky: the state permits abortions to be performed during the second trimester but after 18 weeks it is virtually impossible to get anyone to perform the operation.

Pitchford's story is sad and scarcely unfamiliar. She and her boyfriend, Dwight Mundy, 26, both students at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, were talking about getting married. But Pitchford was afraid to tell Mundy she was pregnant. When she did he told her he did not want the child. On June 8 they traveled to Louisville to find a clinic that would perform an abortion. None would handle a pregnancy beyond 18 weeks. In the bathroom of their hotel room, Pitchford inserted a six-inch knitting needle into her uterus. "I just wasn't thinking rationally," she recalled later. "I felt like dying."

Back in Bowling Green, she developed a 101° fever and had to enter a hospital. After her doctor gave her a labor-inducing drug, Pitchford delivered a stillborn fetus—and the knitting needle. The nurse called the coroner, the coroner called the police, and the police called the commonwealth attorney, Morris Lowe.

Lowe felt dutybound to bring charges, even though the 1974 statute mandating care by physicians had been passed primarily to protect women from quacks. Obstetrician Nicholas Kafoglis, who served as a state representative when the general assembly passed the law, testified at Pitchford's trial, "I think this was no crime; it was very poor judgment."

The jury of eight men and four women agreed. On the first ballot, it voted acquittal by reason of insanity. Even the prosecutor seemed relieved.