Our Daily Lives

My Mother's Abortion Improved All of Our Lives

Sunday, May 2, 2010

There are many decisions a woman must make for her family as well as herself, including ending a pregnancy. Margaret Morganroth Gullette looks back on a secret choice her mother made decades ago and how it helped the life paths of her entire family.



Margaret Morganroth Gullette and her mother, 1942.(WOMENSENEWS)--When my mother was in her 80s, she told me matter-of-factly that she had had an abortion.

In the bad old days the operation was illegal, but we lived in New York City, close to many sympathetic doctors. She told me many details. There was secrecy, an hour-long trip to Manhattan on the subway and the company of her sister-in-law. Afterwards, the procedure having gone smoothly, she rested for a while in her sister-in-law's nearby apartment.

This must have occurred between 1943, when my baby brother was born, and 1949, in that post-Depression decade before the postwar boom began to raise our boat a little. I neglected to ask her why she had chosen to have an abortion, but I can make some astute guesses based on what I have pieced together in adulthood about my parents' circumstances while my brother and I were little.

My parents were poor until my mother started working as a teacher in 1951. Before I was 6, we lived in a basement apartment in East Flatbush in a house owned by a baker, who used to toss a bag of bagels down the stairs from time to time.

My father worked 10 or 11 hours a day with an uneven income as a self-employed oil-burner repairman. In 1946-7 we moved to Florida so he could start a nursery with a friend. The business failed within a year.

'We Ate Our Savings'

We moved back to Brooklyn and he started job hunting. He once bitterly recalled a six-month period of unemployment. "We ate our savings," he said, passing on a horror of joblessness that has stayed with me. His words describe what has been happening to many American families since the start of the current recession.

Those must have been the years when we had such little portions of meat that one dinnertime when my brother speared the last piece of pork chop on my plate and mischievously popped it in his mouth, I went livid.

Having two children already--in the 1940s, in the years when we had less food to eat, little furniture in the rooms and my father's salary was uncertain--my parents must have decided they couldn't afford a third.

My mother's thinking about alleviating our poverty came into it. She had stopped working sometime before I was born. In her view, you gave children some years of your motherly care--I got 10, my brother got eight--before you left home again for work. It wasn't until she got involved in the PTA of a remarkable public school I was attending that it seems to have occurred to her to become a teacher. My father encouraged her. "You're so involved in education, why don't you teach?" he said. To have given a third child another eight years would have meant at least another eight years of poverty for everyone else.

I want to add something--temporality--often forgotten or undervalued in the abortion rights debate, even by pro-choice people.

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Two years ago I helped a friend get an abortion. She already had five children and her 14 year old daughter was also pregnant. My friend had been told by her social worker that if she had another child that her welfare payments would be cut. She was already barely scraping by, getting paid under the table to clean houses. She knew that she would also be raising her soon to be born grandchild. She did the most loving thing for her family. She got an abortion. Thank God it was safe and legal.

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