The shadow of things to come


THE PHOTOGRAPH on the postcard is of a Gibson girl, hair piled atop her head, lace on her rounded shoulders, and a face in profile that is not so much pretty as soft and very young. Beneath the picture are these words:

Clara Bell Duvall was a 32-year-old mother of five when she died of an illegal abortion in 1929.

On the other side is written in a strong, slanting hand, "My mother in her wedding picture at 18 years of age."

"The image of her in her casket is seared in my brain," said Linn Duvall Harwell, who had just turned 6 when her mother died.

The hospital listed the cause of death as "pneumonia."

She used a knitting needle.

She had a son and four daughters.

"She was a beautiful mother," says Mrs. Harwell. "That must be understood. She was loving and affectionate. We were poor and it was 1929 but we were cared for. The minute she died, it all changed."

"I can't help but think how my life would have been different," says Gwendolyn Elliott, who is a commander in the Pittsburgh Police Department. She was 5 when Vivian Campbell, her mother, died in 1950; she and her brother were raised by their grandparents. When she was 18 and ready for college, she tried to cash in some bonds her mother had left her and was told she needed a death certificate. And there it was, under cause of death: the word "abortion," followed by a question mark.

The abortion orphans may be the shadow of things to come. Those of us who believe that abortion must remain legal are flailing about for a way to make vivid what will happen if it is banned once more. We have had the right so long that we have forgotten what the wrong is. Meant to evoke bloodstained tables and covert phone calls, the term "back alley" does not resonate for women who grew up with clean clinics and licensed doctors.

But there is indeed a kind of endless alley in the lives of Linn Harwell and Gwen Elliott, the dead end in your heart when you grow up without a mother. They tell us something about banning abortion that is both touching and chilling, these two little girls who grew up to become activists because of what happened to them. Which likely means many little girls, and boys, too, who do not know, who still believe pneumonia did it, or who are ashamed, who keep the secret.

This is the shadow of things to come. Someone's mother will die. That's not how we commonly think of this. We usually think of children having children, even though statistics show more than half of the abortions performed in the United States last year were performed on women over the age of 25.

We think of cases like the horrific one unfolding in Ireland right now, in which a 14-year-old girl who says she was raped has been forbidden by the courts to travel to England to have an abortion. Her parents made a critical mistake: They were good citizens. They asked police about having fetal tissue tests done as evidence. The attorney general stepped right in to enjoin the girl's planned abortion.

She says she was raped by a playmate's father.

She says she wants to kill herself.

A judge ruled that the risk of suicide "is much less and of a different order of magnitude than the certainty that the life of the unborn will be terminated."

It is a great mistake to believe that if abortion is illegal, it will be nonexistent. Ireland has the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, and still several thousand of its citizens travel elsewhere to end their pregnancies each year.

Some kind of douche, some kind of drug, some kind of tubing: Women will do it themselves. They always have. They become desperate for reasons we know nothing of, reasons not as easily quantifiable as being raped by a friend's father at age 14.

Linn Harwell's mother had had five children, eight pregnancies. Gwen Elliott's mother had two small children and had just separated from her husband. Their reasons died with them. What lived on were their motherless children.

"My father said that when they took me to the cemetery somebody told me she was sleeping," says Commander Elliott, "and I thought that any time he wanted he could go get her. My father says I used to ask 'Why don't we go get Mommy?' But I don't remember it."

That is the shadow of things to come.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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