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New York

Topics: Abortion
Area of Life Affected: Family Relationships

Shame Kills

I was just a little girl of 11 when my mother died suddenly. Pregnant for the sixth time, she died in an effort to stop the progress of that pregnancy and avoid having a fifth child. The instrument of her death was a knitting needle wielded by her own hand. She was dead within 24 hours of that lethal act, leaving four young children, a husband, and a comfortable middle-class life.

It was 1959. It was illegal to provide abortions or for a woman to have one.

“My mother did not need to die.”

She could have gone outside the country—there was enough money for that—but then she would have had to speak of her condition and her need. She had even had an illegal abortion before, performed by a physician who was a family friend, but he had said he would never help again. She was frightened and desperate, too ashamed to tell her mother or her physician father. Too ashamed to tell anyone.

My older sister, then 15, came home one afternoon to find her lying in a pool of blood. My father rushed home and called an ambulance to take her to a hospital but they could not save her. She was 32 years old.

My shattered family never spoke of it. The public reason for her death was “blood poisoning”—that was what they called the toxemia that took her life so quickly. That was also the story that was told to the children. When I was much older, I learned the real reason she died from a family member.

The years that followed were sad and lonely. In that echoing and empty house, where the warmth had been sucked out in one fall night, a silent winter descended that did not change with the earth’s seasons. The youngest, just a toddler, continued to look for her mother and call for her for months after she died. The older ones cried alone. But the secret of her death was never spoken of.

Even to this day, so many years after my mother died, I know there are family members who wish I would keep my silence. But I really cannot; it is a moral imperative that I tell the story of my mother’s death.

Today, the reason for her death appears to have been forgotten. She died of shame. She died because a safe and legal abortion was not available. And her death was not at all uncommon; it happened every day. It happened to married women with children, it happened to young girls, and it happened to unmarried women. My mother should not have died. She did not need to die.

Today, one in three women in the United States has had an abortion, but they are not forced to risk their lives for it. They go on with productive lives and in many cases have children, raise families, and forget about the desperate need that sent them searching for alternatives. Women who have grown up after abortion became a legal right have never known the mortal danger abortion once posed. But there is still enough shame that it keeps us silent.

We American women take our rights for granted. Don’t. By our silence we acknowledge the shame, and endorse the belief that guilt and shame are appropriate.

Today, I am speaking for my mother and for all the women and girls who lost their lives to shame. Please remember them and speak out. Please remember them and make sure that abortion remains safe and legal. Remember them.

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