The Grandmother's Tale * CoveyClub

Reading: The Grandmother’s Tale

Parenting & Caregiving

The Grandmother’s Tale

The "back alley man" option can never be back on the table

By Suzanne O'Malley

I am as tired of the term “pro-choice” as the current president is of saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” I’m tired of putting things nicely; I’m tired of speaking in “pro-choice” or “pro-life” code. I believe in abortion. Here’s why.

Race back in time with me.

I’m sitting across the Astoria, Queens, kitchen table from the grandmother of a serious boyfriend. She’s made her grandson’s favorite meal — meatloaf. She’s wearing a floral housedress and apron. Her white hair is woven into two braids neatly tucked at the nape of her neck. She’s of German descent. She’s Catholic. I don’t know it yet, but she’s had an abortion.

My boyfriend thinks it’s funny to make me uncomfortable. He tells his grandmother that I work for Esquire magazine, and I’m writing about “midnight trampolines.”

Color rises in my face. I am writing a history of the so-nicknamed contraceptive device; I’ve unfortunately shared some bits of what I’ve learned with the boyfriend.

“Midnight trampolines?” she asks.

“Diaphragms,” my boyfriend says. “You know, birth control.”

The grandma chuckles and shakes her head.

“In the Depression?” she chortles. “With what money?” I’m not sure if what she says next is meant to be entirely benign. Maybe I detect the tiniest bit of anger, surely, but could it also be contempt? Contempt that her life could have been as simple as mine seemingly is? “When you got pregnant in the Depression,” she says flatly, “you went to the ‘back alley man’” — in Coney Island.

I’m silent.

“The butcher,” she continues. Seeing no hint of comprehension from me she adds, “the coat hanger man” in the back of an abandoned railroad car.

Every Friday (payday, she tells me), her husband came home drunk, ready for a roll in the sack, and another potential pregnancy. Unless she’d found him first, the family’s cash was spent.

There was already a daughter and a son with a birth defect she says she was barely able to feed. The son ultimately toppled off a cliff to his death.

I don’t remember the rest of that day. I think I ate the meatloaf and went home. I never saw the grandmother again because sometime later the boyfriend and I broke up.


Res ipsa loquitur: The thing speaks for itself. Any dilemma I had about abortions ended that day. A first-person account of one (or more) coat hanger abortions was my unexpected tutor. The grandmother’s shameless experience volunteered all those years later stunned me. I learned that, for many uniquely personal and painful reasons, women would always seek abortions. I vowed to myself that those abortions would continue to be legal, shameless — and safer than with a coat hanger.

I went on to write Are You There Alone?, a book about the murder trial of a mentally ill mother, Andrea Yates, who drowned all five of her children in the bathtub of their suburban Houston home. Afterward, I produced the feature-length documentary  Unborn in the USA (2007), tracing the then 30-year history of the right-to-life movement. The New York Times gave the film a good review. Rotten Tomatoes still gives it an 80 percent approval rating. For me, its most noteworthy accomplishment was that both sides of the abortion argument agreed that they were portrayed honestly and fairly. Both sides confessed that on film they seemed to themselves to be strident and uncaring — with the fault laying in their own behavior.

Googling “abortion” today, I learned that to get to substantial content one must first wade through dozens of pages of services advertising custom-written (including footnotes) college term papers on a student’s thoughts about abortion. The last sentence of one from says: “Abortion is a very complex issue that should remain a personal decision. The bottom line is that each woman should make her own decision based on her own morals and beliefs.” As much as I hate the cottage industry of made-to-order opinions on abortion, I think that statement sums up the feeling of about 70 percent of the US population.

Eventually, I came to a woman’s editorial published this week in The Baltimore Sun, one of the first fine newspapers to be gutted by tronc, Inc. (formerly Tribune Publishing). Titled “Abortion is much more than a woman’s ‘choice,‘” it begins with the words, “There is a popular pro-choice argument stating that a woman should have control over her own body….” I won’t repeat more, because the writer goes on to equate fetal cells and genes inside a woman’s body to elderly humans on life-support machines. No woman is a machine — life support or otherwise.

Now I am older than when I heard the coat hanger story. But I still learn from the women ahead of me. I have dinner regularly with a group of women, many of whom are lawyers — with opinions. One of them, very chic, once wore a unique gold necklace that she explained was made of men’s pocket watch chains linked together. I liked the imagery of a chain around one’s neck, left over from out-of-style men’s timepieces.

The last time we met, a complaint arose from one end of the dinner table. There ought to be an age at which the legal assault on women’s bodies was over — when one no longer woke up to news of a president absurdly proposing penalties for abortion. Perhaps male Supreme Court justices should recuse themselves from decisions involving Roe v. Wade. My friend looked mad enough to spit. “How long before they stop thinking they can tell me what to do with my body?” she exclaimed. How long indeed? She’s 95.

For me, it’s as simple as taking the “back alley man” option off the table. I don’t want to get into the arguments and justifications or the mass hysteria surrounding abortion. I don’t repeat an argument that I think is specious. I don’t mince words with an opposition I believe is wrong. Nothing gives a lie more power than repeatedly denying and defending it.

Once I heard the grandma’s story, I couldn’t tell a different one. A door closed inside me. It was wrong that this grandmother didn’t have a skilled medical professional to perform her Depression-era abortion. And until she told me that story, it had been no one’s business but hers.

Like I said upfront. I believe in abortion.


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