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Shadow histories come into the light

The time for shame and silence has passed. Three women share their stories about the abortions that bent the arc of their lives.

MoveOn and Abortion Access activists rallied outside the US Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on May 3.Paul Morigi/Getty Images for MoveOn

If there has been a tendency since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade to take women’s reproductive rights for granted in this country, that is over now. Samuel Alito’s leaked draft ruling overturning Roe not only has sparked fury and protests nationwide, it has emboldened women to do something many had not previously done: share their stories. Ideas was privileged to hear from many who recall with searing clarity their own experiences of abortion before Roe. We also heard from women who wrote on behalf of those who did not survive an illegal abortion. What follows are three accounts. A warning: One of the submissions deals with sexual abuse.


‘It has taken me nearly six decades to tell this story.’

In 1965, I dropped out of college and signed up with VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps. I was 19 and a virgin. I became involved with a 30-year-old man, and when I missed my period, I knew I was pregnant.

I could not have a baby because I was still a baby myself. A friend gave me a list of abortion providers that included their towns, phone numbers, and a cue that told you what to say when calling — you could not say “I need an abortion.”

“I have a bad sore throat and have to be seen right away,” I said when I called the provider in Long Island, which I’d chosen because my cousin lived nearby. I knew she would come with me and give me a place to recuperate.

Susan Etscovitz at the age of 19.Courtesy of Susan Etscovitz

Next I had to come up with $500. My brother-in-law refused to let my sister give me the money unless I told my mother. That was out of the question. I was ashamed, and I did not want her to be ashamed of me. I lied and told my sister that my period came. I was panicked until my best friend, who had a wealthy boyfriend, prevailed upon him to give me the money.

The elderly male doctor met my cousin and me at the Amityville train station. I couldn’t help noticing that his car and home, where he had a makeshift operating room, looked as rundown as he did.

He resisted letting my cousin remain with me, but I begged. “OK,” he finally said. “It will be a good lesson for her.”

I lay down on a wooden table. He administered no anesthetic. I thought I would die from the pain.

The procedure took 30 minutes. It has taken me nearly six decades to tell this story.

Susan Etscovitz is a mother, grandmother, and activist and is retired from a 35-year career as a child welfare social worker.

‘She bled to death.’

I never knew my maternal grandmother. My mother never spoke of her, but her photograph sat on my mother’s bureau until my mother’s death. My grandmother’s name was Victoria Tinney Elias, and she died at the age of 36 on my mother’s 11th birthday, May 23, 1936.

Separated from her husband in New York and living in California with her two young daughters — my mother and her older sister — Victoria had gotten pregnant by a new boyfriend before she was yet divorced from my grandfather. This must have been a disaster for her.

Arrangements were made. Victoria had an abortion. She bled to death.

The author's maternal grandmother, Victoria Tinney Elias, circa 1930.Courtesy of Amy Selwyn

After the funeral, her daughters were sent East to live with the father they hadn’t seen in six years. The girls never saw or spoke to a member of Victoria’s family again. It was best to “move on,” the adults reasoned.

Once, toward the end of her life, my mother said, “I lost my mother, and I never got over it.” Neither did my sisters and I. Though we never met Victoria, her sudden, permanent absence from our mother’s life reverberated through ours. My mother could not show us love. She hated touching or hugging. She didn’t offer her lap or a soothing caress. In turn, I struggled to develop the trust and confidence needed for intimacy.

This is the half-life of a fatally botched abortion: It took my grandmother’s life, destroyed my mother’s, and left a hole in mine.

My grandmother was a woman of means. But even with that privilege, her need for secrecy and the fact of the illegality of the procedure had limited her choices. Her powerlessness set in motion a multigenerational trauma that I am still processing.

Amy Selwyn is a writer and visual artist living in Portsmouth, N.H. She is a candidate for an MFA in photography at Maine Media College.

‘I know I am not the only one.’

I am in kindergarten, and my teacher writes on my report card, “I’m worried about Elinor. She cries an awful lot.”

I am 7 years old, and I want to die. Last night, on the eve of my birthday, I somehow believed my father would not come into my room. I was wrong.

Elinor Grace Mattern at the age of 10 or 11.Courtesy of Elinor Grace Mattern

Now I am 12, and there is a woman I don’t know in the living room. My mother is sitting on the couch next to me, crying.

The next thing I remember, I am in a car, looking at lights out the window. We go over the Tappan Zee Bridge, and I wonder what would happen if I opened the car door. What would it be like to just slip over the side of the bridge and disappear into the water?

I don’t remember anything else.

The next day, I can’t get out of bed. I think I will never do anything but sleep.

And then? Everyone pretends nothing happened.

At 12, I make no connection between this confusing night and my confusing father, alternately angry and nice.

How did my mother know I was pregnant? I think the women in my middle-class Catholic family, in 1963, developed radar, picking up the pieces, covering for the men in the family.

I am lucky — strangers took risks and broke the law to give me a shot at a “normal” life.

If safe abortion is not available, what happens to a child who is raped in her own home and becomes pregnant at 12?

I know I am not the only one.

What happens when a baby is born to a child mother, and the father is the grandfather?

Elinor Grace Mattern is a poet, artist, and retired community college professor of English.

Kelly Horan is the deputy editor of Ideas. She can be reached at kelly.horan@globe.com.