Readers of this column might have noticed that I try to avoid going over old ground or digging up long-gone columns and presenting them again. We’re not much for reruns around here.
But, of the more than 6,000 columns I have written for The Baltimore Sun, few have remained as relevant as the one I wrote 30 years ago about Regi Elion’s abortion.
At the time, she was the owner of a popular Federal Hill restaurant called Regi’s American Bistro, on Light Street, where Rosa’s Bar and Grill is today.
Elion had an illegal abortion in 1966. She divulged that fact in 1992, becoming one of the few woman to speak publicly about having an abortion. Elion did so because Marylanders were about to vote on a referendum to keep abortions legal if, as many feared, the Supreme Court voted to overturn or severely weaken the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.
Elion wanted voters to know what she had gone through to get an abortion before Roe affirmed a woman’s right to privacy and to an abortion.
It’s a story worth telling again as the Supreme Court of 2022 prepares to do what was feared three decades ago, when I interviewed Elion, and, more recently, when the worst president in the nation’s history managed to stack the court with three more anti-Roe conservatives who apparently care not a whit about precedent.
In 1966, Regi Elion was 26 years old, taking graduate courses in Baltimore, working for $82 a week at an interior design firm and trying to get a career started. Her father had died. Her marriage had ended. She was living alone for the first time when she learned she was pregnant.
“I had had a traumatic year already,” Elion told me. “I was undone at the time. I went to a shrink, and he told me to go home and take a hot bath.”
She decided to have an abortion, though she knew it would be illegal and probably unsafe. Her pregnancy was unintended, a mistake. Elion did not want to become a young, unwed mother. “I was scared, but I was very lucky,” she said.
Lucky only because she knew a guy who knew a guy.
She had a friend in contact with someone who performed abortions. The cost would be $350. Elion didn’t have it, so she called her brother and asked for the money, without telling him why she needed it.
The young man who made the arrangements took Elion to meet some people. Those people blindfolded her and took her to an apartment that was empty but for a sofa against a wall. Two other young women were sitting there, waiting. “They gave us a shot, or some medication, maybe Valium, to calm us down,” Elion recalled. “We were all scared.”
She remembered being escorted into a walk-in closet, where Elion believed she was in the presence of a doctor. However, she learned a few months later that the man was only a medical assistant of some kind and that he had been arrested for performing illegal abortions.
Elion told no one, not even her boyfriend; they broke up and never saw each other again. The only person who knew about the abortion was the young man who had arranged it, and they stayed friends.
The abortion was Regi Elion’s secret, the most intensely personal of experiences in her life, until the fall of 1992, when Question 6 was on the Maryland ballot. Voters were asked to approve a revised state law to prohibit government interference with a woman’s abortion decision before the fetus is viable, or able to survive outside the womb. There were other revisions in the ballot question, but the main point was to keep abortion legal to the Roe standard in Maryland.
Regi Elion supported the measure wholeheartedly, and she bravely sounded a public warning about making abortions illegal again. She told her story at an abortion rights meeting in Mount Washington, then went to the media.
“We have to win this battle,” she said. “We are fighting for the rights of womankind, the right to choose. I didn’t have a choice; abortions were illegal when I had mine.”
And they were not safe.
“I was lucky. I came out of it healthy. I didn’t die,” Elion said. “I know that I could have died that day. I know that many other women did. I also know that this country tends to forget the lessons of history, and that’s why I am speaking out on behalf of Question 6.”
The measure passed overwhelmingly, with nearly 62% of voters, more than 1.1 million Marylanders, in favor of the referendum. This year, the General Assembly further expanded abortion rights, acknowledging the threat to safe abortions posed by the Supreme Court’s extremely conservative majority.
Regi Elion died in 2019 at age 79.
“Look,” she told me on that quiet afternoon in her restaurant, 30 years ago. “I’m not a person who carries a lot of baggage through life. When something happens, I just deal with it, and I put it behind me. I’ve always been that way … But when I heard the [anti-abortion] fanatics, when I heard the debate about abortion — all of that made me angry. I was outraged. I couldn’t believe we are talking about this once more in 1992.”
Or, thanks to the Supreme Court, in 2022.