It is often said that Roe wasn’t a beginning to abortion, but an end to women dying from abortion. Indeed, the largest tragedy of life before Roe is that not all women survived to tell their stories, or to fulfill their dreams and destinies. Dozens of women each day became infected or injured from illegal or self-induced abortion, sometimes leading to death and in other cases leading to sterility or other permanent harm to their bodies. Others were left for dead by back-alley providers. Others still feared seeking medical attention for botched abortions, reluctant to tell the truth even as they bled to death.
Kate Daloz’s grandmother was one of those women.
In May of last year, the author of We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America told the devastating story of her death from a self-induced abortion for The New Yorker. As an impending Supreme Court vacancy leaves the fate of Roe hanging in the balance, it seems more relevant than ever.
Win left no record of what she was thinking or feeling that weekend as the others tilled the garden while the children napped in a hammock. But when I imagine her these are the things I think about: of how provisional and precarious early pregnancy feels, even when welcomed with more joy than fear; of how everything during that time narrows in toward the dark knot at your center, the turning point of your whole future; and of desperation, the kind that manifests not in panic but in a calm practicality. Of how plain the way forward can feel in those moments when other options have evaporated.
That Tuesday, April 18, 1944, Eddie went to work as usual. At noon, Win gave the children lunch and put them down for their naps. Then, as though it were any other task that needed to be completed during her few hours of solitude, she went into the bathroom. The sharp object she took with her—a knitting needle?—is another detail that has been lost. That evening, Katrina was coming home from the Washington Nationals’ opening day. “As I walked across the porch into the house from the game… the phone was ringing,” she wrote to her husband. “It was about 6:45. I let the phone ring while I went and let the dogs out who had been shut in our bedroom all afternoon. As I picked up the phone Eddie Mayer’s voice came to me saying, ‘Katrina—can you come right over. I think Winnie is dead.'” Eddie had arrived home from work to find his wife crumpled in the bathroom. Nine-month-old Judy was still in her crib, crying, but two-year-old Peter had been out of bed and wandering around the apartment for hours.
“The true cause as stated by the autopsy is ‘death due to shock as a result of an attempt to force a miscarriage by mechanical methods,’” Katrina wrote to her husband. “But the party line which we are following and telling every one is death caused by an embolism.” My mother would not learn what really happened for more than two decades. In lieu of an explanation, adults offered confusing half-truths that conveyed no clear message apart from their own guilt and shame.
It was in the feminist movement of the nineteen-seventies that Mom found, for the first time, other women who were determined to talk about abortion—not in hushed tones but as a matter of health care and family planning. Three years after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, when I was a few months old, she finally sent away for her mother’s death record. Under “cause of death,” the coroner had written in a sloped hand: “Attempt at criminal abortion, self-inflicted.” The word “criminal” refused to sink in. “That night, for the first time in many years, I vomited several times,” she told me. “Somehow I knew I wasn’t sick, but was having a life purge.”