A ‘Stubborn Little Hold on Life’ An abortion before Roe v Wade

A ‘Stubborn Little Hold on Life’ An abortion before Roe v Wade

by Frances Karlen Santamaria

I’m not sure how or when I first heard that my mother had an abortion before I was born, but I knew, in a vague way, by the time I was a teenager, that I might have had an older brother or sister had my mother not terminated a pregnancy. 

My mother didn’t hide her past from her children, and it is possible she even told me of her abortion, but I don’t remember her doing so. Perhaps my father did—he would have become a parent while still in college. I do recall, when I was in my thirties, discussing my mother’s family with an aunt and how she suddenly leaned close and whispered to me about her abortion; for a moment I felt as though it was 1958 and abortion was still illegal. 

I knew, of course, that before the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v Wade abortions were criminal acts in the United States, performed in squalid hotel rooms. I had seen such scenes in movies such as Love with a Proper Stranger (1963), but dismissed them as Hollywood dramatizations. Then I recently discovered, among my mother’s journals, her description of her abortion, in 1958, and I learned otherwise. 

The enduring value of such first-hand descriptions, even if they are, as hers, a half-century old, is that each serves as a living voice amid the often dry historical record of our country, ensuring that future generations will know, as I did not, the real horror of abortions when criminalized. As Roe v Wade reaches its 40th anniversary this year, and remains under siege, such voices are more valuable than ever. Through details, she conveys the shame, the stigma, the squalor, the danger, the fear and pain which, to varying extents, millions of women endured. During the 1950s in the United States, as many as one million illegal abortions were performed, and more than one thousand women died, according to some estimates. 

I was born in 1964, six years after my mother’s abortion. I learned only when I read her journals recently that I was given the same name as the unborn child would have had if it had been a boy, as my mother had thought it was. 

She would have five children, of which I was the oldest. But I have sometimes wondered how it might have been to have had an older brother or sister. Or would I have been born at all? The decision of the abortion changed everything forever for our family, as it does and has in all families. 

In the spring of 1958, in Manhattan, my mother was twenty, and working at Mademoiselle magazine. One April evening, she conceived a child with my father. They were not yet married. She did not tell my father about her pregnancy. 

About three months later, in a hotel room, in Cleveland, Ohio, where she had grown up, she had an abortion. She would never shake her profound grief, guilt, and loss. On the date eleven years later—June 23, 1969—by then divorced with two sons, she would note in her journal: “11 years since that night in the hotel…felt I wanted to light a candle for that child, who would be ten years old.”

Ten days after my mother died, I was lying in a hotel room in Cleveland. Feeling ridiculous, I had given the name “June White” at the desk. The walls were a dingy pale green and the rug, with its pattern of interlocked circles, was fading. It seemed as though they were pulling and tugging with great force at a gigantic, stubborn tooth, absurdly located at my exact center. The local anesthetic they had given me was not working but I can’t remember much about the pain.  I remember holding my hand out, forcing it upon a pudgy hand wearing a mason’s ring, and disliking myself for needing him. Stranger and middle-man in a rushed, uneasy business deal my brother had arranged, each with children at home and a wife. He took my hand and held it and I was glad for that. Between gasps, embarrassed by my position on the bed, and fleetingly aware of being naked and alone with two strange men, one masked so that I could barely make out his eyes in the half-light coming from the open bathroom door. I think it was I who asked them to shut off the ceiling light. It had been too bright for me, and I didn’t care to be seen, or to see myself, or what was going on. They had enough light to see what they were doing, and I guess a lot of it was done by feel. I had begged them to be careful, earlier. “I want to have children—someday.” “All right, then,” the middle-man had said. I thought he seemed surprised that an immoral woman like myself should hope one day for a husband and a family. The fear I had earlier, that I would be unconscious and that they might steal my mother’s wedding ring from off my hand, had dissipated. It had been almost my major fear. 

People passed by the door; from my position at the side of the bed I could see light coming from the open transom. I could hear somewhere nearby a fight between a woman and a man, and sound of blows, as though he were slapping her. I kept my mouth shut as they struggled with the stubborn tooth-like thing, trying not to cry out. I clutched at the warm, fat hand and scratched my nails on the sheet when the pain got bad. It seemed like a long time. As they worked on me they talked, and I understood that something was wrong although they whispered in monosyllables. Mostly I kept hearing the word “dilation.” I gathered it was in the wrong position, a different one than they had expected. There were a few more tugs, and then some yanks so strong that my body slid a little bit across the bed and my eyes teared with pain. I tried to keep myself from going with the pincers, which I imagined to be huge from the way they felt—like medieval pincers used to pull out martyrs’ teeth. The creature did not budge. But I remember I felt proud of it—him—of that stubborn little hold on life that he had taken in the four months I had him lying within. It seemed right. He would have been like his father. I thought of him a little, in New York. It must have been hot today, and he didn’t know what was happening to me. 

Finally after a long time, he let go, and I felt a rush of water. It was warm; then they held a cold glass jar between my legs and I heard a plop and felt relieved of pain. They packed me with napkins I had brought, and took the $550. I thought it decent of them not to count the bills. Then the doctor in the mask took everything into the other room. I was alone for a moment. From the bathroom I heard the sound of the glass jars against the porcelain sink, and then the sound of the toilet flushing. 

I got dressed, met my friend R. downstairs and we went home. My father asked me how the show was when we got back and I said we had a good time. 

It still bothers me even though it’s been four years now. The sound of that toilet. I used to think, for the first week after, of my baby floating in the sewer, and I used to cry. I don’t cry about it much when I think about it now, but I still remember it and think of the shock on the creature, warm and safe one moment, then the toilet and the water, and the vast sewer system underneath the city. He was mine. I don’t really know if it was a boy; I asked the middle-man with the ring but he wouldn’t say. “The less you know about it, the better,” he said. He was really not unkind at all. I think he was probably right.

Frances Karlen Santamaria, a writer and diarist, is the author of the book Joshua, First Born (Dial 1970), a part of which is excerpted in the anthology “Revelations: Diaries of Women.”