Daring to Remember: The Stories of Women Who Died Because They Had No Choice

This post is part of Daring to Remember, an ongoing series of stories about life in the years before Roe v. Wade and in the face of contemporary attacks on the right to abortionIn these uncertain times, we are fighting for Roe and safe, legal abortion access with our own testimonies about life without choice. We are daring to remember what a nation without safe, legal abortion access looks like. Submit a story here.

“This is the story of my grandmother, Lillian Robinson Johnson, who died of an abortion in 1922 in Alabama. I learned about this from my father, Grady Johnson, who was 18 months old when she died. He grew up believing she died from food poisoning. This was the story invented by his father to cover up the truth. My father was in his forties when he learned what really happened to his mother. We were in California—I was 12—visiting his mother’s sisters in Los Angeles, and they told him what really happened. What a shock this was for my father. It changed the whole trajectory of his life. He had believed one story about his dead mother. Now he saw her with new eyes. She was a married woman with two children. She was also an educator—she came from a family of teachers—in the Jim Crow South. Her death was a loss to her community as well as to her family. The shame perpetuated by her death was covered up with a lie. But the shame remained in the air. How many other women also died in 1922 for the same reason?” — Lisa Page, Maryland

“A family member of mine died of a botched abortion, and her death certificate said influenza. We wonder why—keeping records provided statistical evidence to fight against or for legalization in courts, I suppose. She was the elder daughter in a family with 12 children and helped raise her siblings; they were Catholic and poor and white. She married at 18, most likely to get away from home. When she found herself pregnant all too soon—as there were no family planning agencies at that time—she chose a back-alley doctor to perform an abortion. She came down with an infection and died. Her siblings, my father among them, felt like they lost a mother. — Anonymous

“Growing up, I knew my Ukrainian grandfather had 3 wives all of whom he outlived. I don’t recall how the first one died—she came from Ukraine, like him, and gave birth to one child, and my grandfather returned to Ukraine to bring another woman back to marry her. The next one I always wanted to know the most about, but no one had much to say about her except she loved to do needlework—which I also love to do. She had two children. She would have been my grandmother. I was always told she died from consumption, aka tuberculosis. I’m currently 53, and learned from my aunt about 10 years ago that is not the way my grandmother died. I was told she gave birth to my aunt and then my father fairly close together. It was the Depression, and obviously life was hard already having three children in the home. Months after giving birth to my father, my grandmother found herself pregnant again. She must not have been able to bear the thought of giving birth again, yet alone having three children under two as well as a young boy. She went to the local woman who ‘took care of these things.’ The result? She bled to death. I’m not sure whether it was at the woman’s home or in her own home, but I cannot imagine what she went through. The decision. Being alone in that decision. Going to someone with no medical knowledge. The pain. Then finally dying slowly, most likely holding a secret that no one else knew. I am brought to tears as I write this story. I know women who had to make perhaps the hardest decision they ever have to make in seeking an abortion, but they have a legal right to a medical doctor discussing the procedure with them before they go through an abortion. They may or may not have support outside of that office. I think of the women who still don’t have this option, or even the right to use birth control. I think of my anti-choice aunt who told me this story, her thought being my grandmother never would have died had she had the baby, as God intended—a thought that disgusts me. We can’t let women lose their right to choose. The choice is never an easy one, but it must remain ours to make.” — Annmarie, Indiana

“During The Depression, when my family was starving, my father’s mother found herself pregnant with her eighth child. She went to a back-alley abortionist, and she died. My father was three years old. My grandfather quickly remarried a woman with three children of her own; she took care of her kids, but threw my father and his siblings out in the cold every day without warm clothing. This was old New York—my father got run over by a horse and wagon wheels. What this did was make him hate women and become a sadist—as sick people find each other, he married my mother, a masochist, and I lasted with them 19 years and then had a complete, utter nervous breakdown, complete with hallucinations. Through some miracle, I recovered. We need a world of wanted children, not accidental children, as I was.” — Nina, New York

In November 1989, feminist activists—including Eleanor Smeal and Kathy Spillar of the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms.—erected a memorial to women who died from illegal, unsafe abortions at a rally in Washington, D.C. (Carolmooredc / Wikimedia)

“My mother told me about her best friend Mary, in Connecticut, in the late 1950’s. Abortion and birth control were legal for married women only, with the consent of their husbands. Mary had a heart problem, and her heart had been significantly weakened with the pregnancy and delivery of her daughter. Her doctors told her that a second pregnancy would kill her. However, her husband wanted a son, so he declined consent for birth control. Not long after her second daughter was born, Mary died of heart failure. I do not believe her daughters know the role their father had in her death.” — Mary Prewitt, Connecticut

“When I was nine years old, my next-door neighbor bled out on her kitchen floor after a back alley abortion. She was poor and abortion was illegal. I watched her die right there on her kitchen floor. I was nine years old. That was how I learned the necessity of a legal, safe medical procedure. Rich women have always had access to safe medical abortions. Poor women have not.” — Zann, California

“I never met my paternal grandmother. She died as a result of a botched back-alley abortion. She was extremely poor. My dad was her fourth child and was only three years old when she died. Her youngest was just 18 months. My dad can still recall one of his sisters picking him up to peer into her casket and say his final goodbye to their mother. Her parents raised my dad, but the other four children became wards of the state because my grandfather, who was Native American, was too poor to care for them.” — Tamara, Florida

“I grew up in the sixties in a very affluent town in Fairfield County, CT. We were in a rush to grow up, and experimenting with alcohol and sex was commonplace. Some of us were lucky, some weren’t. When I was 16, my best friend got pregnant and she was afraid to tell her parents. Her boyfriend found a woman in New York City who would terminate the pregnancy for $200, and he was more than happy to give her the money. None of us had any idea what the risk would be. We told our parents that we were going shopping in the city and Mag and I took the train in. We found the address and were brought into a dingy apartment with blankets on the windows. I was instructed to wait in the hallway and Mag was taken into a room by a young girl and an older woman. I heard some crying and some lie voices but that was all. About 30 minutes later, I was called in to help her dress. Mag was on a table, covered with a bloody blanket. She looked awful! They had left us a washcloth, a towel and a pile of Kotex pads. We were instructed to leave by the back door. Mag could barely walk, she was in a lot of pain, and I was afraid she was going to pass out. We took a cab to the twin and headed back to Connecticut. By the time we got to Darien, Mag was burning up. I called my mom and confessed everything; she in turn called Mag’s mother and we got her to the hospital. She had lost a lot of blood, and the procedure was so badly botched that she was never able to have children. We gave the police the address in New York, but the apartment was empty when they went to arrest the provider.” — Victoria, Florida

“All I know is my grandmother had an abortion by the local lady during the depression. She had one stepchild from my grandfather’s first marriage. Then she had a baby—and one month later was pregnant again. She bled out and died.” — Annie

“Lost a life long friend in 1959 to a homemade abortion. It was horrible and the obituary called it an accident. Everyday story back in my day: 16 and pregnant and abandoned by her older boyfriend and her parents. Knitting needle. Both died. Turned me into a pro-choice feminist on the spot—I swore to her dead body I would not stop fighting for women’s rights. I never have quit.” — Kathryn 

“My mother had a cousin back in the 1960’s. She was in her early forties, had a husband that was worthless—didn’t help around the house, typical for the time period. She had an adult daughter with cerebral palsy; my mother’s cousin, we’ll call her Lenore, was her sole caregiver. Lenore discovered she was pregnant, and knew there was no way she could take care of her living daughter and be pregnant and have a small baby at the same time. She made the tough decision to have an abortion, as it was really her only option. She had an illegal abortion, then died weeks later from septicemia. No one knows what kind of life someone is living.  You can’t know why a woman comes to the decision to end her pregnancy.  And it isn’t anyone’s business but hers.” — Dee, Wyoming

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