Books May 2007

The Sanguine Sex

Abortion and the bloodiness of being female

In the middle of a hot New York summer 60 years ago, my mother and her two roommates were invited to spend a weekend at Fire Island. The three girls, recent nursing-school graduates, worked together at Bellevue and were sharing the rent on their first apartment. When a fourth young nurse of their acquaintance overheard them talking about the trip, she asked if she and her young man, a resident at the hospital, could borrow the apartment while they were away. In those days, lovers had to seize on those kinds of opportunities to be alone together. The apartment key was given to the friend, no big deal, and my mother and her roommates left for the beach.

They returned late Sunday evening, in a commotion of kicked-off shoes and set-down carryalls and switched-on lights. One of them pulled the string on the kitchen bulb, and her cry brought the other two. At first they thought a crime had taken place. Strictly speaking, one had: The boyfriend, a kid with a year or two of medical training under his belt, had performed an abortion on his girlfriend. Literally, a kitchen-table abortion. There was blood on the table and the floor, and there were wadded-up bloody towels in the sink.

Police Officers escort a woman to the hospital after a raid on
an illegal abortion in progress in 1944

What happened next, I don’t know. Probably two of the girls cleaned up (they were nurses, remember; they would not have been horrified by such a task once they had the nature of the thing sorted out), and probably the third went to the friend’s apartment to check on her. All three were accomplices to a crime, and they would have been keenly aware of that. At Belle­vue, my mother had twice attended dying young women who were victims of botched abortions, young women—“girls,” she called them—who spent their last hours on earth being interviewed by policemen. Terrified, alone, dying, neither would reveal the name of the abortionist; “they were too frightened,” my mother said. If I had to put money on which of the roommates bravely went to the girl’s apartment, I’d put it on my mother.

About 15 years before my mother took her weekend trip to Fire Island, she was a little girl living in Brooklyn in a bad situation. It was the Depression, her father was an unemployed laborer, and her mother—28 years old, a young woman from Coal City, Alabama, very far from home—had a toddler, a 3-year-old, and my mother, age 8. One day, according to the great and fearsome legend that shaped my mother’s life and so much of my own emotional life, my grandmother did something very ordinary: She ate a can of tuna fish. The can of tuna fish was tainted with botulism poisoning. She began to have great pain in her abdomen, and—this is a very important part of the story—the doctor wouldn’t come. Apparently he sent word that the woman in question had gas, and that she would be better in no time. She was dead in no time. “That’s why I became a nurse,” my mother said so many times in her life that it would have been a stock phrase, except for the anger and sorrow of the way it ended: “so that they couldn’t do to anyone else what they did to my mother.”

When I was a grown woman, I came across a wooden cigar box filled with old family papers, one of which listed gangrene as my grandmother’s cause of death. This surprised me, and I began to wonder about the story I had always been told—beginning with its central element: the can of tuna fish. Mary Parker was a poor housewife with small children and an unemployed husband. By what mechanism of self-indulgence would she have prepared and eaten tuna fish, without giving anyone else in the household so much as a mouthful? How could she have been the only person to have ingested any of the poison?

Maybe my grandmother ate bad tuna fish—or, according to an alternate version of the story, bad peaches—and the food killed her. Or maybe she was 28 and living through one of the greatest disasters in American history, with no end in sight, trying to feed and look after three small children, and she found herself pregnant again, and she just couldn’t cope. Maybe someone in that Brooklyn neighborhood knew someone who could help her out. Maybe the reason the doctor refused to see her is that he knew what she had done, and he wouldn’t go near her. It turns out that badly canned food—with its risks of ptomaine and botulism poisoning—was an ideal culprit on which to blame the sudden death of an otherwise healthy young woman: My family would not be the first to contain such a face-saving legend. In any event, my grandmother died, her husband was overwhelmed with misery, and the children were put on trains and scattered to relatives, and that was the end of that little family.

The history of abortion is a history of stories, and the ones that took place before Roe v. Wade are oftentimes so pitiable and heartbreaking that one of the most powerful tools of pro-choice advocates is simply telling them. The Choices We Made is a compendium of such stories, and while you could read it in an afternoon, you should not make the decision to do so lightly: It will trouble you for a long time afterward. In it, women whom we know for the large space they occupy in the world—writers Grace Paley, Linda Ellerbee, and Ursula K. Le Guin, and actresses Polly Bergen and Rita Moreno among them—tell us about a time in their lives when they were reduced to begging for a simple medical procedure that, because of the circumstances in which it was performed, almost killed several of them and left at least one infertile. Abortionists in those days included a handful of merciful and scrupulous doctors willing to risk prison, and more than a few monsters who considered groping or sexually assaulting their patients a droit du seigneur. Who would complain? And who didn’t have it coming? In those days, it was not uncommon for a woman to receive a D & C without anesthetic shortly after being lectured about the wages of being a slut.

Most of the abortions recounted in the book occurred sometime between the late ’30s and the early ’60s, a time when so many American young women were ignorant of some of the most basic facts of reproduction, and when an unmarried woman’s sexual life was, by definition, a shameful and secret thing. It was also a time in which pregnancy could destroy a young woman’s prospects: She could be thrown out of college, fired from her job, removed permanently from the marriage market. Criminal abortions, of course, were dangerous business, and among the women who survived the procedure, many were rendered infertile.

The quality of the criminal abortion that a woman received depended largely on where she lived and how wealthy she was. Reports a woman who got pregnant while a student at Barnard in the 1930s: “The actual abortion was comfortable, clean, the absolute tops.” On the other hand, here’s a description of an abortion the actress Margot Kidder had as an 18-year-old in the mid-1960s. Her boyfriend, John, made the arrangements, “all done with great secrecy and a great sense of evil and sordidness”; the couple were told to check in to a certain hotel room where the abortionist, a woman, would meet them. After gaining their assurance that they would never go to a hospital if something went wrong, she began the procedure.

I was told to undress and lie in the bathtub, which I did. John was in the other room. There was no anesthetic, of course. She jammed something through my cervix. It was incredibly painful. I was screaming and crying; I had no idea what was happening to me. Then she used what looked like a douche to shoot some sort of solution up through my cervix.

The woman had filled Kidder’s uterus with Lysol.

The Girls Who Went Away describes another price women once paid for having sex. It concerns the young girls—usually high-school students—who were part of a phenomenon virtually unheard-of today but once quite common in American cities and suburbs: the sending of underage pregnant girls to maternity homes, where they would bear their babies and surrender them for adoption. Neighbors and friends would be told that the girl had suddenly gone on an extended visit to an aunt or grandmother, and in the fullness of time the girl would return, pale and shaken, to pick up where she had left off, never telling anyone where she had been. In a series of heartbreaking interviews, these women—now in mid- to late life—tell what actually happened to them in those homes, how little they understood of the pregnancies they were experiencing, and how greatly they pined for babies many of them were not allowed to see even once.

The brutality of the experience was heightened by the youth of the girls who underwent it, girls who still considered their mothers—not their young boyfriends—to be the chief source of comfort and protection in the world: “It was very hard for me to say good-bye to my mother,” writes one woman:

I had never been away from home except for an overnight visit to a friend’s house. I was devastated to be away from her … Every night before I went to bed, I would write my mother a love letter. I think she kept them for most of her life. And it kept me in touch with the one person who really loved me.

As a younger woman, my heart would have gone out only to the girl in the ward, but in middle age, I imagine just as vividly her mother, receiving those letters and imagining her child so lonely and frightened, and so far from home.

Adoption was presented as society’s benign alternative to abortion, but the women interviewed for this book feel differently about that. Says another woman who surrendered an infant:

It’s hard to convince others about the depth of it … I’d have an abortion any day of the week before I would ever have another adoption—or lose a kid in the woods, which is basically what it is. You know your child is out there somewhere, you just don’t know where.
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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). She is at work on Girl Land, a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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