Daring to Remember: Telling My Family Secret

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 family has a dark secret that I was told we are not supposed to talk about. Even what I know is bits and pieces told to me a very long time ago. I shared it with others before my son was born, so over 13 years ago—and I have reason to believe a family member found out about it and was very hurt that I did so. We were raised that we are not supposed to speak of such things. Family secrets are secrets for a reason.

But there is no more time for secrets.

B.C. Lorio / Creative Commons

My grandmother was forced to have a back-alley abortion. My grandparents had planned a wedding, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they got married quickly. As I understand it, my grandfather was sent to be trained in another state and my grandmother followed and lived nearby. At some point, she became pregnant prior to my grandfather being sent to Europe. My great-grandmothers told my grandmother that should my grandfather die in the war, she would be left with a child to raise alone, and they thought it would be best to terminate the pregnancy. They went to the family doctor who told them that, of course, he could not help them—but he wrote down information that provided information of someone who could, placed the note on his desk and silently walked out of the room.

Together, my great-grandmothers drove her to her appointment. My grandmother told me that “the doctor” asked her how long she had been knocked up. She cried when she told him that she was a married woman. He laughed and said married women don’t come to such places. The assistant was in the corner of the dirty room wearing a bloody lab coat eating a ham sandwich.

My grandmother was sent home with no post-operative care instructions and went to work the following day, where she began to hemorrhage. She was rushed to the hospital and they performed surgery to stop the bleeding. She was told she would be unable to bear children. They could tell she had an abortion. Legally, it should have been reported to the authorities. I have no idea why it was not.

Several years later, my grandmother was blindsided when she became pregnant again. Her doctors gave her drugs so she would not lose the fetus; that baby was my mother, and she was born with no major complications. When my mother became ill in her forties, doctors looked for reasons that an otherwise healthy woman would be having petit mal seizures and a lesion on her brain that would morph over time into a tumor. Doctors required her to fill out questionnaires: Had she used illegal drugs? (The hardest drug my mother used was Afrin.) Was she ever hit by lightning? (Yes.) What drugs were given to her mother while she was pregnant? (Thalidomide.)

It was after my mother’s death at 48 that my grandmother told me this story. She said my mother did not want us to know. It was our family secret—but she would live each day believing that my mother’s early death was related to the abortion she was forced to have, and, in turn, the medication she was given when she became pregnant. My grandmother died believing she killed my mother.

Making abortion illegal does not mean abortions stop happening. Instead, women die; women live with horrible secrets. No one should have to live with memories and guilt like my grandmother did.