A family secret

Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision on Roe verses Wade, which granted all women in this country the right to a safe abortion. Thirty-three is not a notable anniversary for any reason other than this right is on shaky ground, as the makeup of the Supreme Court shifts and our country grows more fearful at the hands of the Bush administration.

Here in Philadelphia, in 1925, my great-grandmother Elizabeth, died from the complications of an illegal abortion. She was 32 years old and had three children, ages 10 (my grandmother, Della), 12 (Doris) and 14 (Milt). Her beloved first husband had died from during the 1918 flu epidemic. She was newly married to a man younger than herself, of whom her family did not approve, when she discovered she was pregnant for the fourth time.

No one who is still living knows the details of her death. I imagine that she was nervous but also hopeful, as she walked through the city to the abortionist who would take her life. I don’t know if she went alone, or if one of her four sisters went with her. I do know that she had plans for the future and that she intended to live. She wanted to raise her children to adulthood, to make a life a with her new husband, and to run her Russian tea room. Instead she died, leaving a cluster of orphans where a family once stood.

For years, the cause of Elizabeth’s death was a family secret. People were told she died of an infection, or of a case of strep. I remember as a small child imagining that she had cut her finger while cooking for the restaurant, and that the resulting infection had been what killed her. I know my cousin Melissa spent her first twenty years being terrified every time she would get strep throat, thinking she was going to die, just like her great-grandmother.

When my sister was an baby, my mother came back to Philly for a couple of weeks to help her aunt move into a new apartment, and spend some time with the rest of the family. It was during this time that my great-great Aunt Sue, the sole remaining sister of the five, was feeling chatty and confided in her how Elizabeth had died. As I got older, I came to know the story of the abortion, and assumed that others in the family did as well. I mentioned it in passing to a cousin five or six years ago, and her reaction was one of shock. Once she assimilated the news, it made the family puzzle a little clearer. After that, news spread quickly, and the myth of Elizabeth’s unknown infection dissolved into the tapestry of our family history.

I like to think that had Elizabeth been able to obtain a safe, legal abortion, she would have lived a long life, seasoned with a healthy mix of joy and pain. There will always been women who need, for a variety of reasons, access to abortion. I hope that they will always be safe and legal.

*Elizabeth is the one in the bottom, left corner.

14 thoughts on “A family secret

  1. seadragon

    What, what a sad story. I can’t believe your grandmother was orphaned at 10 years old and your poor great-grandmother didn’t live past 32. What happened to her new husband? Did he raise the children, or were they taken in by someone else?

    Such a statement about illegal abortions, isn’t it? I always wondered how people could think that if abortions were legal they would cease to exist, and then one day I realized that it’s not about that. It seems to be about making something legal which you believe to be immoral, and making it legal becomes akin to condoning/allowing/advocating/encouraging it. Which, of course, isn’t actually true.

    Anyway, you can’t really legislate morality, particularly when those moral judgments aren’t universal. Or rather, in my opinion, you shouldn’t. 🙂

  2. Karl

    You have real courage. Someday I will work up mine to share my family’s story.

    Our need to control others – which is what the abortion debate seems to be about to me – about control – only causes great pain and suffering.

    I’m not looking forward to the future. We seem to want to put people in power to have that control.

  3. Sandra

    It’s stories like these that make Roe vs. Wade so valuable. No woman should EVER die from an illegal abortion in this country ever again no matter what one’s religions views may be. Thanks for sharing your story.

  4. albert

    Incredible post. Sharing stories like this makes me know how important the issue of choice is in America [and the world, but we live here, so let’s stay on point]. The present Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel Alito seems to favor the overturning of Roe v Wade. The anointed Democratic candidate to take on Sen. Santorum, Bob Casey Jr, is not only anti-choice, but now stands outside the almost majority [only Ben Nelson (D-ND) is pro-Alito] of the Democratic Senators in opposition of the nomination. If he were senator today, he’d vote to approve Alito . Chuck Pennacchio, a Progressive running for the Democratic nomination, stood opposed to now Chief Justice Roberts’ nomination and stands opposed to Judge Alito’s nomination now.

    You can see him speak this Saturday at the First Baptist Church in a candidate forum [Casey won’t be there, Alan Sandals will]. 17/Sansom, Noon-3p, free and open to all.

  5. A friend

    Well, as a woman who has had an abortion, it was very strange reading this story, because I feel so connected to so many women who have made the same decision, but to have that opportunity. I fear things will change with the new justice, but tales like this need to be told, so others do not have to grow up without parents like your grandmother.

  6. Ajayi

    The complexity of abortion has long divided the U.S. The Pro-Choice movement often (till Hillary) refuses to acknowledge the morality of abortion, and the Pro-Life movement always refuses to acknowledge that women can and should make their own decisions about their own lives. If the Pro-Choice movement continues to talk about the right of abortion, the sooner women will lose this right. The debate needs to shift from abortion to helping every woman when she doesn’t want an abortion; before she is pregnant, abstinence for those who can do it, and contraception for everyone else. That obviously means more money for Title X, Sex Ed, and expanding health care to cover birth control everywhere. The fewer abortions in this country the faster we kill the Pro-Life movement.

  7. Mary

    Thank you for sharing this family portait about Elizabeth..a very pretty young women whom by the sounds of it..only wanted to do what was best for herself and her family.

    No matter what side of the fence you’re on in this highly controversial issue one must admit both sides have valid arguments. I suppose it comes down to if it affects one personally whether or not one is for or against abortion.

    Would that Elizabeth could have lived in today’s world..where safe prodecures are a woman’s right.


  8. Ellen

    This was very courageous to share – as it must have been horrible for your Great-Grandmother to go through. Stories like this are why I believe we should never go back to the “old days” before safe abortion became legal.

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