May 7, 2022
By Kathleen Stoll
I have the good fortune to work on issues I care about deeply. What motivates me is this: seeing our state and our nation someday ensure that every person has quality, affordable access to the health care they need when they need it. That every person can take care of their bodies and minds.
But this week the path forward for achieving this vision for women may have just hit a very large roadblock. Many women — poor women, rural women, women living in the wrong state — may no longer be able to get a full range of reproductive health services. Abortion being one of those services.
I don’t know that I can add much to the many, many commentaries already produced on the leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft decision that repeals Roe v Wade. As an attorney, I worry about the slippery slope that may be greased by this opinion if it stands unaltered. The Court in Roe v. Wade drew on the First, Fourth, Ninth, and 14th Amendments to find that the Constitution protects an individual’s “zones of privacy.” Citing earlier cases that ruled that contraception, marriage and child rearing were activities included in these “zones of privacy,” the Court found that the zone was “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” What else beyond the right to an abortion might no longer be protected is now very much an open question.
Beyond this fear, what can I really add to all the commentary? Perhaps I can add what many other women also have been sharing: a very personal story.
My Mom, Dottie Mae, who passed several years ago, was active in our Catholic church in a small town where everyone knew too much about everybody. But from the time I turned 13 through age 16, my Mom and I had secrets we shared.
Mom was the person that girls in our small town went to when they found themselves pregnant – sometimes due to rape or incest, sometimes due to lack of knowledge of contraceptives, sometimes due to insecurity and hoping to keep a boyfriend, sometimes due to a youthful sense of “not me.”
And this issue of abortion is where my Mom parted ways with the Catholic Church. She believed in the Church’s lessons of love demonstrated by Jesus’ life, in the miracles around us, in helping those less fortunate, and in every human’s mandated mission of charity of the pocketbook and the heart.
And she believed that some pregnancies were not meant to go to term. That a girl’s life and future mattered. That every baby should be born into this world under the most positive of circumstances possible.
So girls “in trouble” in my small town made their way to my Mom. I knew about this, and I knew to keep my mouth shut in a way that Mom made clear was absolutely non-negotiable.
In our small town, there was a retired doctor who lived in a big white house on a hill above town. He was loved and well-respected. And he was a kind and caring person. And he was a Dad who had raised three successful, happy daughters. And he performed illegal abortions on his kitchen table.
After dark, and regardless of the weather, on a predetermined night Mom would park off on a short side turn-off on the country road that led to the doctor’s big white house. It was a discrete mile-plus from the big white house. And Mom would walk a scared girl down that mile of road to the back door of the big white house.
There, the doctor’s wife would answer the back door and usher Mom and the girl inside. The girl would be offered a cup of herbal tea. And without anything else, she would receive a relatively safe and sanitary abortion on the kitchen table. And then she would get off the table, walk a mile back to Mom’s car, and Mom would drop her off — usually alone — at some location that didn’t raise suspicion.
If the girl bled more than the amount the doctor had told her to expect, she could not return to the doctor. She would reach back out to Mom and she would be taken to a hospital emergency room about 50 miles away. Her experience there was unpredictable, but Mom would try to smooth the way.
Mom made it clear to me that we were lucky to have this doctor on the hill.
And some parents brought their daughters to my Mom. Those girls did not need to be dropped off alone at night.
What other options were available for a girl who was not ready for pregnancy and a baby?
My Mom made sure they knew about another road that they could take. It led to what was called the “Magdalene Laundries” by a few of us in that small town.
The name comes from Ireland. It was a Catholic convent a couple hundred miles from our small town where a girl stayed until she gave birth, and the baby was taken away without allowing her to see it. The rumor among us girls was that any girl was definitely made to suffer for her sins. I really don’t know if that rumor was true or fair. I do know that the girl lost at least six months of school and most girls ended up dropping out altogether. This road required the involvement of the parents which was not always possible in the ugliest scenarios. Certainly, everyone in our small town knew why the girl had temporarily disappeared. Coming back was not easy and little if any support was extended to the girl.
I am sure some will call my Mom an accessory to murder. I do not.
I call my Mom a hero. For this and for so much more that she did I her life to help others. That she took matters into her own hands and did what was needed and right without thanks
— without even the men in our family knowing about it. She did not feel it was their business. She let me stand with her – to be inside the circle of women’s business — so I could understand what she was doing. So I could learn lessons of compassion, and lessons of difficult choices, and lessons of obligations to do the right thing when you can.
I believe the unavoidable and inherent truth if we lose the protections of Roe v. Wade in this nation will not be fewer girls or women facing unwanted pregnancies. It will not be fewer abortions. It is going to be many stories of diverse women rising up to demand and create fair chances for girls to control their own lives. It will be women not afraid to fight loudly for their reproductive rights, and also to quietly help other women stand up for the value of their own lives.
Kathleen Stoll serves as the Policy Director for West Virginians for Affordable Health Care (wvahc.org) and operates a policy and economic consulting business, Kat Consulting.