Daring to Remember: Religion, Rumors and Roe

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.

My story doesn’t involve rusty coat hangers, filthy mattresses or serious medical consequences—but what happened to me on my fifteenth birthday, nearly 65 years ago, set off a series of events that upset a religious community, dramatically changed the course of my parents’ lives and left me with emotional scars that have never fully healed.

On October 7, 1953, I woke to find myself lying in a bedroom somewhere in suburban St. Louis, recovering from an abortion. Being from Illinois and having been brought to the house after dark, I had no idea where I was and no way to contact anyone on the outside, including my parents. Today I wonder what might have happened if I had died or developed serious complications, but I will never know because things worked out as planned.

The night before, as I entered the doctor’s house from the attached garage, his wife had greeted me warmly and led me to a pleasant bedroom with high windows, safe from prying eyes. Handing me a hospital gown, she pointed to a button beside the bed.

“Ring this bell to let me know when you have changed, and I’ll come get you,” she told me. “While you’re here, always ring the bell if you need anything or have to go to the bathroom. We wouldn’t want you to run into anyone else in the hallway.”

After I changed, she led me to an operating room down the hall where the doctor filled me with some kind of packing, and then she accompanied me back to my room. Later, she gave me a shot of Vitamin K and brought me a lightly seasoned hamburger on Wonder Bread and a glass of milk. They wanted to be sure my blood was clotting properly, she said, and that my stomach would not be upset during the procedure. Sometime later—I don’t remember how long—she wheeled me to the operating room, where she placed a cone over my face and put me slightly under while her husband finished the job. I could hear the water running as he washed his hands afterward.

The night before my birthday, my dad had brought me to the Famous-Barr department store in Clayton, Missouri, and, according to instructions, left me alone on the curb to wait for a certain color Cadillac with initials on the passenger-side door. Late the next day, on my birthday, the doctor dropped me back where he had picked me up, and I waited for my dad to arrive.

The two men never saw each other face-to-face. The whole activity was well planned and professionally executed. What came afterward, though, was another story.

The problem was that my parents were both ministers, pastors of a tiny Assemblies of God church in East St. Louis, Illinois, in which both fornication and abortion were considered sins. Another problem was that abortion was illegal in both Missouri and Illinois. What led to the other problems, which had repercussion for many years, was that, while I had been forbidden to ever communicate with my 21-year-old boyfriend again, I eventually began meeting him in secret and told him the whole story.

That’s when the shit began to hit the fan.

Activists with the F Collective hung pro-choice signs on a church fence in 2012. (Kate Ausburn / Creative Commons)

When I first realized I was pregnant, I didn’t want to face the truth—and I was too afraid to tell my parents. But the thought of abortion never entered my mind. I was 14 years old and in love with a handsome “older man,” a high-school dropout from my parents’ congregation whom I had actively pursued while still in eighth grade. Although I was a good student and had always assumed I would go to college and become an architect or dress designer or maybe even a famous writer, the only option I could see when I began missing periods was to put aside those ambitions, marry the boy I loved and have his baby.

“Shotgun marriages” were common in those days, and to preserve their respectability, most parents of daughters who found themselves “in trouble” before marriage adapted to the situation, but I knew my mother would definitely not be among them.

A career woman by nature, she had much higher ambitions for her only daughter. A few months before, when she had found me necking on the couch in the living room with Ronnie, she had sent him packing and beat me with a belt, declaring: “I’ll make a lady out of you or kill you!” Afterwards, I climbed out my bedroom window in the middle of the night and walked a couple of miles downhill to his house in East St. Louis, throwing rocks at his window until he came down and, not knowing what else to do, drove me back home.

Things had not been going well between my mother and me for several years. Her unplanned pregnancy with my little brother when she was 36 and I was almost nine years old had led to a prolonged bout of post-partum depression that had turned her into a monster in my eyes. I knew in my heart that part of the reason I became sexually active at such an early age was to spite my mother. The other reason was to find someone to love me.

So I didn’t confide in my mother when I could no longer deny that I was pregnant. Instead, Ronnie and I ran off to Piggott, Arkansas, in his second-hand Pontiac to get married.

It was a school day, so we were hoping we could be married before my parents even realized I was missing. From his wages for loading boxcars at the stockyards, Ronnie had bought me a wedding ring with a tiny diamond. We had heard that underage marriages in Arkansas were easy and cheap, so we thought if we could present my parents with a fait accompli, they would have to accept it. But when we got to Arkansas, we discovered that the laws had changed.

We would have to present my birth certificate, submit to blood tests and wait three days for results. We had neither my birth certificate nor the money to stay in Arkansas for three days, and I knew my parents would have the police looking for me within 24 hours—so we had no choice but to turn around and drive back home. Late that night, when we finally got home, my boyfriend was immediately sent packing.

Alone in my room, I lay awake, terrified of what might happen next. “Let me see your breasts,” my mother demanded as soon as she entered. The sight of my brown, swollen nipples was all the evidence she needed. Within a couple of days, she took me to a local doctor, recommended by one of her five brothers, who confirmed that I was, indeed, pregnant. Somehow—I am not privy to the particulars—he arranged for me to have an abortion with a doctor in St. Louis and come back to his office for a check-up afterwards. My mother’s brother, who had put her in touch with the doctor, also loaned her the necessary $400—approximately a month’s worth of income from the church. Never salaried, my parents had always just taken what came in the offering plate on Sunday mornings.

Numb with guilt, longing for my lost lover and filled with anxiety, I simply went along with the plan. While I loved my boyfriend as only a teenager can, while I had sometimes longed to have his baby and while I ached to be with him again, I also knew that not becoming a mother at 15 might give me a second chance to pursue my dream of college and a career. I was suffering from an inner conflict and guilty feelings that I desperately tried to ignore.

My parents kept me out of high school for two weeks after the abortion, a period during which there was no doubt a good bit of gossip, especially since some of my classmates were also members of our congregation. And there had to have been some whispering among the members of our church, as well, for I had told at least two of my girlfriends there about my intimacy with Ronnie. I have blocked out most of the memories of those first few weeks back at school because of my feelings of guilt and isolation.

Not long after the abortion, I began sneaking around to see my boyfriend, and soon I told him about it. He was upset, but I guess he assumed that when I got a little older, we could marry without my parents’ consent. As the months wore on, however, I began to long for a more normal high school life. My parents were dropping hints that Ronnie had been seen with other girls. I’m sure they were trying to help me let go of the past and move on, but what they actually did was cause me to doubt that I could ever trust anyone to truly love me, an insecurity that has stuck with me to this day.

Those doubts about our relationship and my longing for a “normal” life caused me to start gradually pulling away—and when that happened, Ronnie became resentful. He told some members of the congregation about the abortion, and the whispering began in earnest.

Before long, people began to take sides—with Ronnie and his allies on one side and my parents and more loyal members on the other. There were several tense services in which Dad preached about the evils of gossip, and people began giving one another knowing looks.

Once, after I had lingered long at the altar, praying for God to forgive me and get me and my family out of this mess, I saw Ronnie hanging around at the front entrance, surrounded by young friends and wearing a threatening look. Frightened of a potential confrontation, I asked an older woman who was a friend to sneak me out the back door to her car, and we embarked on a wild ride to the home of another uncle whom I trusted to defend me.

Throughout the whole seven miles, Ronnie and his friends were in hot pursuit. Luckily, my uncle was able to defuse that particular situation. But more emotionally shattering were the times when I saw the anguish and anxiety on my parents’ faces about what might lie in store for our family.

I will never forget the night I walked alongside my mother as she cried uncontrollably over the situation at church. Always meticulous about her appearance before, she was now pacing the sidewalk in her housecoat. I knew her misery was all my fault. I had been angry with her, I had committed a sin—and now, my parents were suffering. Before, they had been all-powerful in my eyes, able to cope with whatever life threw at them. But now I saw them as human beings, almost as lost and helpless as I felt myself. That feeling of being responsible for my loved ones’ unhappiness is another thing that has stuck with me for life.

As if that weren’t enough, things soon got unimaginably worse.

My parents and I were called to a special meeting of Assemblies of God district presbyters, an all-male group that held the power to take away my parents’ ordination as ministers, thereby expelling them from the church and their life’s work.

I don’t remember anyone speaking a word on the long drive to the district headquarters, but I believe we were all praying silently that somehow God would save us from disaster. When we arrived, I was the first to be interviewed while my parents were told to wait in the car.

My parents had not told me what to say, but I knew their future lay in my hands. “You know that God is watching you,” said the head presbyter, “and you understand that he knows whether you are telling the truth, don’t you?” When I acknowledged that I did, the presbyters launched into a series of questions: Had I ever had sex with Ronnie? If so, for how long? Had I become pregnant? Had I undergone an abortion? Had my parents conspired to obtain one for me?

I knew abortion was illegal—and I knew that if I implicated my parents, they would be in big trouble. At the very least, they would lose their church, their source of income, many of their friends and their way of life, and they perhaps would even go to jail. So I lied. Even when the presbyters presented me with letters I had written to Ronnie suggesting an intimate relationship, I lied. When they asked me how I thought Ronnie had come up with such a story, I told them he had said his older brother’s wife had undergone an operation like that, which was true, so maybe that’s how he got the idea.

No matter how they came at me, I stood my ground, but I was quaking inside. Finally, they gave up and asked me to send my dad in to talk to them. As I sat in the car with Mom, waiting for Dad to return, she didn’t ask me any questions and I didn’t tell her what I had done. It was a long, silent, fearful time in which, I’m sure, we both held our breath, awaiting our family’s fate.

When Dad finally came back to the car, the look on his face was of utter relief, as if a great weight had been lifted. “She denied everything!” he declared. In the face of my firm denials and lacking substantial evidence, the presbyters had no choice but to drop the charges. But some members of our congregation did not give up so easily. They continued to take sides, and the atmosphere became so toxic that Dad called for a vote of confidence.

On the day of the vote, extra chairs had to be brought in for all the people on the membership rolls who had not attended in years. The mood was tense, and when the final vote was tallied, my parents won by a tiny margin. In anger, the people who had voted against us withdrew their membership and joined other congregations. For years afterward, I assumed that my parents’ share of the tithes and offerings had been cut in half, but Dad told me some of the more loyal members had increased their contributions, so the economic impact on our family was not as catastrophic as it might have been—but it was not good, and I knew that was my fault, too.

After a few months, Dad decided that the church needed new leadership in order to heal, so he and Mom gave up their pastorate and Dad went on the road as a fundraiser for what was then Evangel College in Springfield, Missouri, while Mom stayed with her daytime job as a teacher in the East St. Louis Public Schools. Lots of changes ensued over the years, and a number of surprises occurred that are revealed in the memoir I self-published in 2015, Don’t Get Yourself Talked About—advice my mother had often given me when I was growing up that I had failed miserably to follow.

One of those revelations occurred when, in my late 40s, my mother confessed that she had undergone an abortion herself at the age of 17. “I almost died,” she said. Another surprise came almost 20 years later when an uncle on my dad’s side told me my grandmother had undergone some abortions before marrying an Assemblies of God preacher at the age of 28 and bearing him 11 children in the next 15 years. Grandpa did not believe in birth control, Grandma had told me years earlier, so she had tried everything she knew to avoid getting pregnant—to no avail.

In pictures from her youth, my grandmother was a beautiful woman, but by the time I knew her, she was broken down by years of poverty and childbearing. Early in my childhood, my grandparents divorced and Grandpa got a new, younger girlfriend.

After my memoir was published, I began making regular visits to a friend who was approaching 90 years of age. Because she was losing her eyesight, she asked me to read to her from my book. She had grown up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, and as I read to her about my early childhood as the daughter of Pentecostal evangelists, we marveled at how different our lives had been, but we also discovered that some things were the same. Her mother had died when she was eight years old, she said, and she was a grown woman before she learned that her mother’s death had been the result of gangrene from a botched abortion. It was during the Great Depression, and the family could not afford another child. Another friend who read my book told me she discovered late in life that her mother had undergone an abortion during the Depression as well, but she had been luckier. She had survived.

Since my own abortion in 1953, I have met more women than I can count who have had them. They come from all religions, races, political parties and economic backgrounds—and their reasons for choosing abortion vary widely, as do their attitudes about their experiences.

Like me, most of them are mothers. (I have three grown daughters—a law professor, a philosophy professor and a partner in a law firm.) I know at least two mothers, initially opposed to abortion, who procured them for their teenage daughters. The main thing most of these women have in common is a tendency to keep their experience a secret from all but their most intimate friends because of the social stigma that is still, hypocritically, I believe, attached to abortion. If the world could know how common and widespread it actually is, I believe the public debate about it would be forced to change.

I do not take abortion lightly. I do not know of any woman who does. I wish no woman ever had to make that decision, and I am thankful that today’s women have access to effective birth control, as well as safe and legal abortion—at least for now. I’m also glad many of today’s children get appropriate sex education—at least for now. I’m very glad that babies born out of wedlock are no longer branded as bastards, and that girls and women who get pregnant out of wedlock no longer suffer from the kind of stigma that those of my generation experienced.

I also respect the right of women who do not believe in abortion to have their babies if that is their choice. I just hope they are prepared to give those children a good life. But I believe with all my heart that the decision to have an abortion is an intensely private one in which the government should have no voice other than to assure that the procedures are safe and legal.

As I read somewhere lately: “There is no such thing as banning abortion. There is only banning safe and legal abortion.”

Patricia Piety is a retired writer, editor and educator who lives in Oklahoma.

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