My Great-Grandmother’s Abortions

knitElected officials across this country seem to believe that they have the right to control women’s reproductive health. We have a seen a dramatic rise in lawmakers who think they know better than we do, and better than our doctors do, to make decisions about our health and our bodies.  The reality is that no matter what legislators would like to believe, there are limits to their powers.  Abortion exists because it is sometimes a necessity.  Banning abortion, or putting increasing limitations on women’s abilities to obtain an abortion, is not going to make the issue go away.  All these laws will do is imperil more women’s lives, and thus threaten the very families these laws purport to protect.

Abortion has been around for a long time.  For all kinds of reasons, throughout history women have sought to end pregnancies.  Sometimes the reason was poverty.  Sometimes the reason was the youth or stage of life of the mother.  Rape, incest, and illness also factor in.  Today, with modern pre-natal technologies, sometimes the reason is the health, or lack thereof, of the fetus.

Whatever the reason, desperate women have gone to incredibly dangerous lengths of end pregnancies that threatened their lives, whether physically or emotionally, and the lives and stability of their families.

I know this not only from reading the New York Times.  I know this from talking to physician friends about their patients.  I know this from talking to friends about their own abortion experiences – one who had an abortion as a terrified college student, another who aborted a tay-sachs fetus, and another who could not possibly support one more child given her precarious financial situation.

And I know this also because abortion is woven into the fabric of my family history.  My very pro-choice grandmother raised me and my sister on the story of her mother’s kitchen table abortions in the 1910′s.  It was very important to her that we knew these stories and understood how lucky we were to come of age in the post Roe v. Wade era.  Thankfully she is not alive today to see how that hard-won battle is being fought all over again.

Lina's sewing machine.

Lena’s sewing machine.

My great-grandmother Lena was an immigrant from the Poland/Austria region.  Her story is typical of so many of her time and place.  She arrived alone at 16 and set out to find work and a new life in a new country.  She married my great-grandfather and had four children.  They lived in a Lower East Side tenement (if you’ve never been, go to the Tenement Museum and get a sense of how tight those quarters were).  They scraped by, but barely. Lena took in piecework that she did at home on her Singer sewing machine.  She also cleaned houses for extra money – her husband, who delivered milk, wasn’t much of a provider.

Quarters were cramped in their apartment.  The three brothers had the bedroom.  The parents had the front room.  My grandmother, the only daughter, slept on a bedroll in the middle room, the kitchen.  And she remembered that twice she was asked to go and sleep with her brothers.  Curious, and probably disturbed by what she must have heard, she peeked into the kitchen and saw her mother on the kitchen table, having an abortion at the hands of a local “expert” with a knitting needle.  She remembered seeing this twice during her childhood.

These were acts of desperation.  The struggle to feed four growing children was a daily battle.  My grandmother remembered many lunches that consisted of a slice of pumpernickel bread and a pickle.  They were hungry often.  She was undernourished enough to qualify for a school program which provided her with a glass of milk every day.  This was before birth control was legal, safe, and widely available.  In fact Lena was a supporter of one of the great heroines of her era, Margaret Sanger, the birth control crusader and founder of what later became Planned Parenthood.  (Legend has it that she used to translate Sanger’s speeches into Yiddish for the neighborhood).

These memories stayed with my grandmother, and she passed them down to my mother, and then to us.  My great-grandmother Lena survived these experiences, and lived a long life.  She was one of the lucky ones.  Women all over the world die from poorly performed abortions every day.  And the ones who don’t die are often damaged for life due to infection, punctured uteruses, and perforated bowels.

My grandmother rejoiced that my sister and I would grow up in a world in which reliable, safe birth control was available, and in which abortions were safe and legal should they be necessary.  Gone were the days of coat hangers and knitting needles.  She understood how many more educational, professional, and financial choices were available to women once they could make safe decisions about childbearing.  If she was alive today, she would be shocked and appalled at how these basic rights enabling women to determine their life choices are being undermined by elected officials, and we should be too.  The anti-abortion and other reproductive  related legislation being proposed and voted into law around the country today sets us back decades, and dangerously imperils women’s lives and futures.

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One Response to My Great-Grandmother’s Abortions

  1. Well written and so important! Thanks for sharing your family story with all of us. As you said, when abortion is illegal, woman can be injured and die.

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