Claude Avarne

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Claude Avarne

Claude Hamilton Blair Avarne was a surgeon who entered politics in Jersey after the Occupation when he successfully stood for Senator in the first elections following the reorganisation of the States in 1948.

Born in 1891 in Blaenavon, Wales, he served in the Royal Navy during the Great War and afterwards moved to Jersey, where he became a highly respected surgeon, although he also became involved in a highly controversial abortion case in the 1930s. He died at his home at Bonne Nuit in 1978.

Avarne's St John gravestone

Abortion trial

In October 1933 Dr Claude Avarne was charged with carrying out an illegal abortion and faced trial before the Criminal Assize the following month.

Dr Avarne was a friend of a hotel proprietor whose 28-year-old mistress became pregnant for the second time. He advised her to consult the doctor, which she did.

On 21 July 1933 she was admitted to a Jersey nursing home run by Sister Le Feuvre, complaining of pain and loss of blood. Dr Avarne saw her and attempted to induce abortion. When this failed he carried out a second operation to remove the foetus, but failed again. On 27 July the baby was born dead and unable to contact Dr Avarne, Sister Le Feuvre asked Dr Graeme Bentlif, who was visiting another of her patients, to attend to the mother.

When she recovered consciousness she told him that she had neither pain nor bleeding when admitted to the nursing home but had been told to say that by Dr Avarne, who would then perform an abortion. Dr Bentlif immediately called the police.

The dead baby was retained together with the placenta for examination by experts and with no apparent sign that the baby had died in the womb, Dr Avarne was arrested and charged.

UK pathologists

He consulted an eminent Scottish pathologist Sir Sydney Smith and another senior UK expert, Home Office Pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, was called in to advise on the prosecution. Sir Bernard supported the Jersey doctors who were of the view that there was no softening of the tissues and the foetus had not died, but Sir Sydney and an Edinburgh colleague made microscopic sections of the foetus and placenta and concluded that the child had been dead when Dr Avarne operated.

The trial was presided over by the Bailiff, Charles Malet de Carteret, with Attorney-General Alexander Coutanche prosecuting.

Sir Bernard Spilsbury was highly critical of Dr Avarne in his evidence but other Jersey doctors, despite appearing as prosecution witnesses, praised Dr Avarne’s abilities as a surgeon and cast no doubt on his past professional conduct.

Defence witness spoke highly of Avarne, one declaring that hundreds of people in Jersey has cause to thank him for his medical skills. But the key witnesses were Sir Sydney Smith and gynaecologist Dr Aleck Bourne. They concluded that the child was dead before Dr Avarne operated on the mother and that he had acted properly and implemented the correct treatment.

Dr Bourne said that it was ‘asking one to believe an almost impossible thing that Dr Avarne would have attempted to perform a criminal abortion at the period he had’. He was strongly critical of the evidence of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, saying:’I have the greatest respect and admiration for Sir Bernard when he speaks as a pathologist but when he dares to give an opinion about the treatment of a living woman I would regard it with contempt.’

The jury found Dr Avarne not guilty, and their verdict was greeted with cheers from the public gallery and a crowd of several thousand in the Royal Square outside the courthouse.

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