Elaine | East Tennessee

I’ll just always remember that woman and how she died. We should all remember her.

In 1979, I was in my last semester of college and was graduating with a BS in nursing. I’d been dating a guy for almost a year, a really kind man, when my birth control failed, and I got pregnant. It was ironic because about 6 months earlier, my boyfriend had finished chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s Disease, and the doctors had told him they didn’t know what that would do to his fertility or to the integrity of his sperm, meaning that there could be some chromosomal irregularities. That didn’t have very much to do with my decision to end the pregnancy, although it was a consideration. But neither he nor I were ready to have a family and we also knew we didn’t want to have a family together. Our relationship was one in which we cared deeply about each other, but it wasn’t going to go anywhere. And sadly, several years later, he did succumb to his cancer and he passed away.
As I said, he was a very kind man and supported me whole-heartedly in the decision. I remember him holding my hand the day that we went to get the abortion, and I knew it was the right thing to do. I went to a very good clinic where I’d actually worked previously when I was 19, and they were as professional and kind as you can imagine somebody could be. I got really good care and never regretted the decision. It was my decision to make. I think that choice lies within every single woman. It’s not the government’s decision to make, it’s not the government’s story to tell, it’s my story to tell.
The only time I ever felt guilty about it was when I’d hear some women — like a particular acquaintance of mine who was having fertility problems — who would say: if all these girls would quit having abortions, I could have a baby. Certainly I didn’t say anything to her because — you just don’t. But I remember thinking: I would never tell a woman to carry a pregnancy to term just so I could have a baby. I mean, that seems wrong. We are surrounded by people who say it’s wrong or whatever, but it’s our story to tell. It’s my story to live through. And 10 years later, when I would tour my sleeping children at night, I knew that I would never have had them if I hadn’t had made that decision. That decision gave me my family, and so now I’m proud of that decision.
As I said, I had worked in that clinic when it was just opening. I was a telephone counselor and I remember setting the chairs up and taking the first calls, and I remember them hiring the first nurses who were all really caring people. And I remember how excited everybody was to be able to offer this service to the women in our community.
The first patient that we had was either 12 years old or 13 years old. She had downs syndrome and her family did not know how she got pregnant which meant, obviously, it was some sort of rape. The nurses were concerned about her mental health and how we could best take care of her. Somebody knew some counselors who dealt in puppet therapy, so our very first patient was counseled with puppets. And they did seem to get out of her the aggression that had happened and who had raped her, but I was really struck by the kindness and compassion that we gave that young child. And then oddly enough the second patient was 52 or 53 who found herself pregnant. She was in the cusp of menopause and had grown children but, besides that, she was also a diabetic so she certainly had a lot of health reasons to terminate the pregnancy. She felt very guilty, never expecting to find herself in that situation, but she certainly didn’t feel like she could bring this pregnancy to term. I thought everybody did a good job of counseling her and I remember a week later she came back with a cake for everybody. She felt like we understood and helped her through a very difficult time. I just knew this clinic was one of the best things that had happened to the community. We had several women who came and talked to us about a known back-alley abortionist. We called it “back-alley,” even though he was a doctor and gave good care, but it was illegal, and it was in his home. And to go from there to this spanking new clinic I felt like, yeah, we’ve come a long way.
That became even clearer after my mom told me her own story. It happened in the late 1940’s when she was working as a secretary in New Jersey. There was a young Black woman who worked in the secretary pool with her, and this woman was beyond excited to have that job. She and my mom became fast friends. Their boss was a misogynistic man who would try to flirt with them, but they just thought that was as part and parcel of what you have to put up with. But then one day the boss asked this one particular secretary to stay after work and then he raped her. She got pregnant and was beyond grief-stricken. Her family was so proud of her. She was the one in her whole family making the most money and she didn’t know what she was going to do. She told my mom that some women in her neighborhood had told her where she could go to get an abortion. Mom asked her, do you think it’s safe? And she said, I don’t even think that matters now.
Then one Monday morning, she didn’t come in for work and they were worried about her, and so my mom got her address and went over there after work. Her mother answered the door and said she had died that Sunday night. She had had the abortion and they took her to the hospital but she had just lost so much blood she died. My mom always felt guilty, thinking about what could she have done to save her friend, but I’m really proud of my mom because she quit that job that week. Because of that, she told me she’d never vote for a president that wasn’t pro-choice–and this was a big deal –even if it canceled out my dad’s vote. I’ll just always remember that woman and how she died. We should all remember her.

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