My grandfather’s new start was short-lived. My grandmother, now almost fully deaf, had learned to lip read and could hide that fact. As my grandfather got fired from menial job after menial job, she made another choice. She knew one of the two local doctors performed illegal abortions, a chancy venture at the time. A doctor caught performing abortions then lost his license and faced prison time. (Now, they face harassment and death at the hand of so-called pro-lifers, so not much changed there.) The money she knew he made from the procedure appealed to her. She had two young children to feed, clothe, and house—and an alcoholic husband to keep in "the drink." She made the doctor an attractive offer—train her, give her the proper instruments and medications, and she’d perform the abortions for him; then, they would split the fees—sixty percent for him, forty for her. He agreed but told her if she were caught he’d deny he knew anything about it.
That was an easy choice. She needed the money. Then, she chose to help rural and small-town women end unwanted or dangerous pregnancies. Because she’d been a Protestant in Ireland, she didn’t eschew the training on methods of birth control, and she gave instruction on that—also illegal in Virginia then.
This was a profession, much like my hapless grandfather, never discussed in the family, and she only confided in me not long after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. She didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. She believed a woman should decide when or whether to give birth. She wanted me and others to have the choices she didn’t. "And the money wasn’t bad, either," she said.
The rich and poor women in her area came to her in distress and left less so. She took the money and didn’t judge. That wasn’t her place, she said. But when my now-married mother came to her for an abortion because she didn’t want to share her husband with anyone, my grandmother refused. My mother’s subsequent self-abortion attempts—Lysol douches, pitching herself down a flight of stairs—weren’t successful, and I’m still stubborn and pro-choice.
My grandmother kept up this distaff profession until a few years before she died. She never lost a single mother, and many of them returned to her for midwifery during their wanted pregnancies. Some, then and now, would call her a murderer. Most of her patients thought of her as a savior. She considered herself neither. She offered what she had rarely been able to take advantage of herself—choice.
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