Did a doctor order her left ‘dead or alive’? Revisiting an abortion tale

No, a doctor did not order her left ‘dead or alive’. This is a misconception of the story of the infamous abortion case of Arthenia Clark, a black woman in Mississippi.


In January 1961, Mrs. Clark was pregnant and desperately wanted an abortion. Refusing to comply with Mississippi law that prohibited abortion, she consulted a doctor in New Orleans. Although the doctor agreed to perform the abortion, he could not do so legally.

Rather, the doctor agreed to provide Mrs. Clark with means to terminate the pregnancy, including instructions on how to induce a miscarriage and use of a caustic solution. The doctor’s instructions were aloud to remain “dead or alive.” Although this phrase has been misinterpreted as a command for the unborn child to remain “dead or alive”, Mrs. Clark took it as a description of how she should proceed if she were to survive.

Mrs. Clark was ultimately arrested and sentenced to one year in prison. She served ten months of her sentence before winning her appeal. It was ruled that the state could not punish an individual for the attempt to procuring an abortion since Mississippi law did not specifically prohibit it.

Thus, although a doctor provided Mrs. Clark with means to terminate her pregnancy, he did not actually order her left ‘dead or alive’.

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