My mother underwent two illegal, “kitchen table” abortions in New York City during World War II.
She was in her early 20’s, working as a secretary. The abortions were performed with no anesthesia—and she told me that, when she cried out in pain during one of them, the male abortionist threw down his instruments in a rage and threatened her: “If you do that again, I’m going to walk out of here and leave you like this.” Afterwards, she developed a very serious pelvic infection.
Her story is complicated by the fact that she was married and her husband was away in the Navy. He was a Southerner and they met on a blind date in New York, when he was on shore leave. They saw each other a few times—and then, just before he shipped out, he proposed to her.
For better or worse, she said yes to a man she just met and barely knew. A decision that might appear rash during peacetime was just part of the heady landscape of wartime New York; soldiers on leave were proposing like there was no tomorrow, and women were obliging. They all could sort it out later—if there was a later.
My father sailed off, and his new bride returned to her life in New York, which still included dating.
My mother carried enormous shame over her two pregnancies, as well as the trauma of the two dangerous abortions. When my father returned in 1945 to claim his bride and carry her down to his home state of Virginia, she was too afraid to tell him. At that time, a Yankee bride had a tough time entering society in the South, and her marginalized status only magnified her shame.
For 10 years, my mother was unable to conceive. She was convinced that a non-sterile abortion and subsequent infection had destroyed her capacity to become pregnant—this was her punishment, the judgment on her youthful perfidy. Finally, in her mid-thirties, she found the courage to schedule an appointment with an out-of-state OB/GYN, far enough away to protect her anonymity. Finally, she shared her story with someone. After the examination, he told her that she was perfectly healthy and there was no reason why she couldn’t have a baby. She went home and promptly conceived.
My mother’s marriage was a miserable one. Her sailor-on-leave turned out to be physically, emotionally and sexually abusive. (Did she stay with him as part of her “punishment?” )Her shame spread over the years like blood on a sheet, staining everything in her life. Unable to bond with a female child, she pushed me into an unwanted marriage at 19, and I only saw her a few times after that.
In the final days of her life, my mother talked obliquely about the “terrible things” she had done in her life, forgetting that she had told me told me about the abortions three decades earlier. I reminded her that abortions are legal today and that she didn’t need to feel frightened or ashamed anymore.
There was a long pause before she said: “Well, I will think about that.”