My grandfather told me about my grandmother’s abortion long after her death.
A bit of history. My grandmother was mentally ill. Though I have memories of homemade oatmeal cookies and games of Go Fish, I have more memories of profane outbursts, outrageous accusations, and bizarre behavior. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, my grandmother cycled in and out of treatment, tried and failed numerous drugs, and, at times, terrified me with her mood swings.
All the while, my grandfather stood by her.
As she approached her sixties, the good times became more infrequent. By the time she was in her seventies, they stopped. There was no mistaking something was wrong with her. She became a bright-eyed, bird-like woman who twitched constantly and did the Thorazine shuffle within the confines of their single-wide mobile home. Taking her out in public was an unpredictable experience. One day she could be smiling and eating happily. The next, she’d be pinching men in the buffet line and making inappropriate comments to the waitress.
My grandfather endured all of this because he loved her.
For many years I didn’t know what had happened to trigger her mental illness. I knew she’d been in Bellevue Hospital in the early stages of her disease. Fifty years later and my grandfather would still get tears in his eyes describing how the orderlies would tie her up, put her in ice baths, treat her cruelly. Prompted by the bruises he saw, he bribed the staff in hopes of better treatment. When she finally was released, he vowed never to put her in an institution again. He tried to keep that vow.
He told me about the abortion only when I’d finally summoned up the courage to ask why she’d been in Bellevue in the first place.
According to my grandfather, she had always been prone to worry and anxiety. She got worse during her pregnancy. The day after the birth, the nurse found my grandmother, with her infant son in her arms, attempting to jump out of the hospital window. She was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis. Whether she had command hallucinations telling her to kill herself and her child or delusions that the baby was possessed, I don’t know. Either way, the outcome was the same. Instead of going home with her husband and firstborn, my grandmother was committed to Bellevue Hospital.
My grandfather visited as often as he could. He gave the orderlies as much money as he could spare. He raised my father for three long years before she was released. Life slowly returned to normal.
And then she got pregnant again.
My grandfather, an Irish Catholic, and my grandmother, a Protestant, found themselves in a heartbreaking position. The doctors told them continuing the pregnancy would result in another psychotic break. This time, they told the couple, she wouldn’t recover. She would most likely spend the rest of her life in an institution.
Fifty years afterwards, my grandfather still agonized over the choice they’d made. Not the choice to have an abortion. He never wavered in his belief that continuing with the pregnancy would have robbed his son of a mother and put his wife in a hellish place. He agonized because instead of taking my grandmother to a clean, sterile place to have the procedure performed, he was forced to find a back alley abortionist, forced to choose between losing the woman he loved to mental illness or to the possibility of post abortion infection or death.
It was a decision they didn’t take lightly. It was a decision made by the two people most aware and most impacted by the consequences.
Today the politicians talk about abortion and, in the case of those who wish to outlaw the procedure, they talk about the parameters that should be used to decide if an abortion can be performed. If, as has been suggested, abortions should be allowed in cases of rape, incest or if the pregnancy puts the mother’s life in danger. But who gets to make these determinations?
Will rape and incest victims be forced to provide police reports, medical exams, and sworn statements attesting to their rape?
If the mother’s life is in danger, how will that be defined? Will someone compile a list of acceptable medical reasons with rationale? If the mother suffers from mental illness, like my grandmother did, would she be able to argue for the exception or is there some level of certainty that will need to be applied to meet the criteria. For example, if there’s a 30-50% chance of a woman having another psychotic break, is that enough to justify an abortion or will the woman be forced to complete the pregnancy and hope she beats the odds?
Because every time the politicians and the right to lifers talk about their anti abortion strategies, I think about my grandparents, a husband and wife who made a personal decision about their lives. The people who must live with the consequences of their actions should be the ones to decide. Not a committee. Not a politician. Not the courts. The people involved.
I’ll end with a quote by Frederica Mathewes-Green, a pro-life author and speaker who thinks society should work to prevent the situations that lead to abortion, rather than demonize the women who need one. She said, “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.”
I’m sure my grandmother didn’t want an abortion, but when she needed one, I wish she’d had the option of a safe and legal one.