Jean Pakter, Who Made New York a Model for Safe Abortions, Dies at 101

Posted on May 22, 2012

New York Times, May 22, 2012 by PAUL VITELLO

Dr. Jean Pakter, a former health official who made New York City a national model for providing safe, legal abortions and led an innovative effort to educate women about the benefits of birth control, prenatal nutrition and breast-feeding, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 101.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Dr. Ellen B. Mendelson.

Dr. Pakter, who headed the bureau of maternity services and family planning in the city’s health department from 1960 to 1982, was also recognized for landmark research in the 1960s on women’s reproductive health that influenced several defining political events of her time, including the War on Poverty in the 1960s and the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.

Abortion was still illegal during Dr. Pakter’s early years in public health, and she had the task of compiling reports about the commerce in abortion. These reports provided some of the few reliable estimates in the country about the number of women injured or killed by illegal practitioners. (There were dozens each year in the city.) She worked actively to support a state law, passed in 1970, that gave women in New York the right to abortion, three years before it was legalized nationally.

The enactment of the state law created a flood of patients to New York and a sudden outcropping of abortion clinics.

Dr. Pakter, who saw her job in essence as being New York’s chief pediatrician and family doctor, was instrumental in establishing rules for the new facilities, including guidelines for what equipment had to be in doctors’ offices and a requirement that abortions after 12 weeks be done in hospitals. These rules were later adopted in many states.

The law also provided data for a series of annual reports showing that large numbers of abortions — 163,000 in New York City the first year — could be performed safely if monitored by the local authorities.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun, writing the majority decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, cited the June 1971 edition of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the government’s public health journal, to support one contention in his argument for legalizing abortion. “Mortality rates for women undergoing early abortions, where the procedure is legal, appear to be as low as, or lower than, the rates for normal childbirth,” he wrote. “Consequently, any interest of the state has largely disappeared.” The report he cited was by Dr. Pakter and her colleagues.

One of Dr. Pakter’s earliest studies, “Out of Wedlock Births in the City of New York, 1961,” became the data lodestar for several national initiatives on poverty and children in the early 1960s.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, cited it prominently in his 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which proposed intensive job training and education for blacks and was considered a forerunner of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty.

Her bureau’s work in compiling childbirth statistics in the city also led Dr. Pakter to start an innovative protocol for the treatment of premature babies, which quickly became the norm nationwide. The process, which identified premature infants born in small community hospitals and urged their doctors to transfer them quickly to large, better-equipped teaching hospitals, increased survival rates markedly in the 1960s, said Dr. Wendy Chavkin, a professor of public health at Columbia University and Dr. Pakter’s immediate successor as head of the city’s bureau of maternity services.

The relationships that Dr. Pakter established with the city’s obstetricians in that effort also helped her promote her ideas about doctoring, Dr. Chavkin said. She urged physicians to be more assertive in educating pregnant women about the benefits of good nutrition and in explaining why breast feeding was better than formula feeding for both mother and child.

Jean Pakter was born on Jan. 1, 1911, in Manhattan, the youngest of four children of David and Lillian Pakter. Her father worked as a tailor. She was one of only four women accepted to the class of 1934 at the New York University medical school at Bellevue Hospital, then known as University and Bellevue Hospital Medical College. She entered private practice as a pediatrician and began working for the city’s maternity services bureau in the 1950s.

Besides her daughter, she is survived by a son, Dr. Donald M. Bachman, and six grandchildren. Her husband, Dr. Arnold L. Bachman, a radiologist, died in 1992

Most of Dr. Pakter’s work dealt with issues of life and death, but she occasionally crunched numbers in search of answers to less critical questions. In 1969, for instance, she issued a report on the most popular months for getting pregnant in New York City.

She was surprised to learn that it was not spring “when a young man’s fancy turns to love,” she said, but September and October, followed in popularity by November and December. Of the 1,387,851 conceptions reported during the period, the fewest happened in spring.

The finding that “the gleam in a young man’s eye is in the fall,” she said, was “astonishing.”



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