A grandmother’s rage

A Grandmother’s Rage

Lynda McDonnell

When I was a girl growing up in the boom years of the 1950s, new suburbs filled up with tract houses for growing families. Three- or four-child households were routine, and Catholic families were even bigger. One of my aunts had nine children, another eight, so our six felt like nothing special. We viewed only children with pity and suspicion, certain they would grow up both lonely and selfish. 

In the world of my childhood, big families were God’s will, enforced by the Catholic church’s ban on use of contraceptives other than the rhythm method, a demanding but unreliable effort to time intercourse so as to avoid pregnancy.

In that tight, closed, certain world, I remember a singular voice of dissent – my Grandma Tillie, a sturdy, proud woman who wore shapeless housedresses, baked the world’s best pies and spent hot summer evenings on her front porch rocking, sipping iced tea and visiting.

She was an Aunt Bee figure, with a broad lap and wide smile, tightly permed hair and a fondness for pink towels, talcum powder and sweets.  She doted on her grandchildren. Dimes were ready whenever the ice-cream truck jangled by.

With three children, widely separated by age, she was a curiosity in a world of young families where the crib was rarely empty. She was 24 when she had my father in 1920, 34 when his sister was born, 40 when their kid brother showed up. Perhaps there were miscarriages or long periods of celibacy.  I never asked: Asking her about sex or family planning was unimaginable.

But her challenge to a priest’s authority over women’s fertility remains burned into my memory. I don’t remember how it came up. Perhaps I was back from college or visiting with my newborn son when she recalled a retreat for women in her parish held years before. Before those pious, churchgoing women, the black-robed priest declared that any woman who had fewer than four children was shirking her duty as a Catholic wife and mother.

Decades later, Grandma Tillie remained indignant at his presumption of God-like authority: “What did he know about what it takes to raise children?”

As I reflect this week on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, I feel a similar fury: How dare those six judges (and legislators in 26 states working hard to ban abortion) assume they know better than pregnant women what is best for them and their children?

For at the heart of arguments about undue burdens, constitutional rights and religious morality is this essential question: Do we trust a woman’s ability to decide what is best for her and those who depend on her?  For those men and women in black robes and tailored suits determined to stop women from ending pregnancies, the answer is a resounding no.

No woman feels proud of having an abortion, I’d wager. The choice is too intimate, shaded and widely condemned for that. Listen to the voices of women who’ve had abortions, and you’ll hear relief and sadness, gratitude and pain, wistfulness and sometimes regret.  You’ll also hear the complex calculations that informed their decision: Can I provide for this child? Can I give them the emotional and material support they need to thrive? How might this child affect my own dreams for the future, my partner, my other children, the children I someday hope to have?

It’s not women like me – educated, living in a blue state, with resources to take off days from work, buy plane tickets, pay for hotels and clinic bills – who’ll be hurt by this decision. It’s poor women living in places like Texas and Mississippi, strapped to provide for children they have already, and without the money, time or network of support to clear the barriers that legislators keep shoving in their way.

We know already what happens when a woman who seeks an abortion is turned away. The Turnaway Study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, tracked the lives of 1,000 woman who sought abortions at clinics in 21 states, then compared the outcomes for the woman came in time to receive abortions with those who came too late. The turnaway group was far more likely to endure years of poverty, stay tied to violent partners and end up raising the child along. They were less likely to bond with their babies, and their existing children suffered from poverty and slower development.

As a Catholic woman born when Queen Victoria still ruled the British Empire, my grandmother would probably be appalled by the idea of abortion. But I think she would rear up in righteous anger at the idea of a crowd of men in black suits deciding they know what is best for America’s women and their children.

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