Daring to Remember: My Mother’s Horror Story

I had an abortion in 1968, but what I am sharing here is my mother’s story from 1964. This is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir The Universe Works: A Memoir of Personal Growth and Social Activism.

Abortion has long been shrouded in shame, hidden and private. Unable to discuss their experiences, many women have been forced to feel isolated and alone. In 1992, to help counter this, a group in Santa Cruz, California called The Action Alliance for Reproductive Rights published a booklet of women’s personal abortion stories. It was only then that my mom chose to write her story. Even 28 years after the fact, she signed it “Anonymous.” She titled it “A Horror Story.”

Here, in her own words, is what my mom was forced to endure.

This is a horror story. Because it is true I will not spare any details. Only now, as the Supreme Court is deliberating whether a woman has the right to a safe and legal abortion, do I feel the need to share my experiences.

In 1964, I was 40 years old. My three children and I had just returned from Europe, where we had lived for two years following my divorce from a man who had used every legal tactic in the book in an attempt to deny my right to leave a destructive marriage. It seemed impossible that I could be one month pregnant. Getting the children settled back into school kept me busy while I wondered what to do.

Marriage to the father of this fetus was impossible. I feared going to a local doctor for help as my ex-husband was one of them. I knew that if I had a baby out of wedlock, he would use that to take custody of our children. He was still vindictive and I knew I was the better parent. I did talk in a roundabout way with a psychiatrist friend who indicated he was against abortion—no help there. Illegal abortion was something that happened to other women, but now I was faced with finding someone who could help me.

I went to San Francisco and picked a doctor out of the phone book. (Looking back on it now, I realize it had not even occurred to me to seek out a woman doctor.) I made up a name for myself. Anonymity was important. He was cruel, telling me of all the bloody abortions he had been called in on at the point of death. He seemed to enjoy my pain and fear—no help there.

I went to Los Angeles where, through a friend, I met a man who knew a technician in a hospital who would be able to “arrange something.” It would cost me $1,000, equivalent to almost $8,000 now. I had to trust this man because I knew no one else, and I was in my second month of pregnancy. We met at the hospital. I produced the money and was told to go home and wait for their call. The man was solicitous, but insultingly insinuating. I have never felt so powerless in my life.

The call came as I was in my third month of pregnancy. I was told that the technician had “cold feet,” but the man had found a doctor who would perform the abortion in his office. It would cost another $1,000, now a total of almost $16,000 in 2018. I felt trapped and desperate and completely vulnerable. I had confided in only two friends and they were feeling uncomfortable—wanting, yet not wanting, to distance themselves from the “problem.” We all felt like soon-to-be-exposed criminals.

On the doctor’s examining table I had what I thought to be a D&C. Because the doctor did not want to risk complications, in case there was a reaction to anesthesia, I was fully conscious and feeling every bit of it. I can even today recall the pain.

The nurse had blindfolded my eyes so I would not be able to recognize the doctor in case of his arrest. My procurer was present with more than consoling caresses. It’s amazing to me now to remember how grateful I felt to these two men who had “delivered me from evil.” The doctor wanted me to return the next day for more antibiotics. I was pleased that he was so concerned.

The doctor’s “clinic” was in a house in a poor black neighborhood, and I felt very white and obvious. I knew everyone knew I was having an abortion. I tightened at the sight of police officers.

Again, my eyes were covered. When the doctor arrived he had me on the table again, explaining that because by then I was so far along in my pregnancy, he had not been able to complete the abortion. I was to take some pills he gave me and come back in a week if I did not abort.

Again, I was back home, lying to my children and friends about my frequent trips to Los Angeles, praying desperately that the pills would work and knowing that precious time was passing. The pills did not work.

My return to the “doctor” of whom I knew nothing filled me with terror. His only recourse was to insert a catheter and send me home again with it in place. He was washing his hands of me. At this point I must have gone numb. My survival system went into automatic. I returned home, sent the housekeeper away, did the grocery shopping, fixed dinner for the children and, while they watched television in the family room, I silently aborted a formed fetus in the toilet. The bathroom was covered with blood, but I carefully cleaned all the traces before I crawled into bed.

In that bed, 26 years ago, I experienced a deep, compassionate, loving forgiveness of myself, an experience of grace which allowed me to go on. When I hear the anti-abortion crowd rave about killing children, I force myself to see that formed fetus floating in the toilet bowl to see if I feel guilty. I see only the sneeringly righteous face of the doctor in San Francisco, the power-hungry face of my manipulating procurer.

If legal abortion had been available to me, as it is now, I would have destroyed some cell tissue in my first month of pregnancy. I would not have been forced to struggle for over three months to find an “abortionist.” The delay itself forced me, in the words of these vehement anti-abortionists, to “kill a child”—for there was never any question in my mind that, whatever it took, I would not risk the loss of my children and what I felt was their well-being.

Every time I read my mother’s story, even now all these years later, I cry for her. I can see myself and my two brothers sitting in the living room watching TV, and now I see my mom too. I see her in the bathroom tearfully manipulating a catheter between her legs and painfully delivering a tiny fetus, frantically staunching the flow of blood and swallowing her heartbreaking sorrow to clean away all evidence of anything untoward in her children’s home.

Though there were profound differences between my mother’s abortion experience and mine in 1968, plenty of women were having experiences like hers and worse. Looking back many years later, I realize that I could easily have had an experience more like my mother’s, or could have been forced to go to Mexico in search of an abortion and ended up dying there. I was able to procure a safe abortion only because my dad was a part of the medical community; it was still inaccessible to others in California with fewer resources than I had. Still, while Mom’s experience was riddled with dangers from which I was protected, we both endured judgment, humiliation, isolation, fear and confusion.

Knowing this has fueled my lifelong passion to work for women’s right to choose.