Monday, February 25, 2013

Dorothy Day, Abortion, and The Eleventh Virgin: Reflections of an Abortion Survivor

If you read The Coming Fury, Bruce Catton’s book on the prelude to the Civil War, you cannot escape the conclusion that the North and South were completely different cultures in the years leading up to the Southern rebellion. At the extremes, the two regions hated each other on a visceral level; and many of the important players did not want to compromise—they wanted war.

Dorothy Day
 Today, our country is split over abortion, and the conflict is almost as strident as the nineteenth-century clash over slavery.  Extreme anti-abortion activists call abortion murder. They refer to the millions of aborted fetuses as a “holocaust.” People in favor of abortion talk about “reproductive freedom" and call themselves “pro-choice."

I myself am an abortion survivor. As an adult in mid-life, I learned from my mother that my father intended for his first child (me) to be aborted in my mother’s womb. My father found an Oklahoma abortion doctor and brought my mother to the doctor’s office without telling her his intentions. When he told my mother that she was scheduled for an immediate abortion, she refused. Thus I was born.

Even before learning of this event and even before my conversion to Catholicism, I was opposed to abortion. My position was instinctual, not intellectual; and I wonder now whether I knew while still in my mother’s womb that I was only minutes away from annihilation when my father brought my mother to that Oklahoma abortionist’s office long ago.

Still, I am not rabid on this issue. I understand there are reasonable arguments in favor of abortion in some circumstances--for victims of incest or rape. I realize I cannot walk in the shoes of an impoverished, single mother-to-be.  Therefore, I won't add to the millions of angry words that have been written about abortion.

I do think, however, that Dorothy Day, named a Servant of God by the Catholic Church and a candidate for sainthood, can help us understand abortion from the perspective of faith; and I hope my views are in perfect harmony with hers.

As everyone knows, Dorothy Day had an abortion as a young woman prior to her conversation to Catholicism. She became pregnant through her relationship with Lionel Moise, a Chicago newspaperman whom Dorothy lived with for a time.

After her conversion, Dorothy seldom mentioned her abortion, which she deeply regretted. But I’m sure she thought about it often. In 1978, not long before she died, she wrote in her diary, “I feel the guilt of my early life and my own promiscuity.”

But what were Dorothy’s views when she was young? We can learn a great deal about Dorothy’s feelings about her own abortion from her autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin, which was published in 1924. After her conversion, Dorothy came to regret the book and and tried to suppress it. It has been reprinted, however, and can be ordered on

The Eleventh Virgin is the story of June Henreddy, a young journalist and political activist. The book begins with June’s childhood and concludes with a powerful description of June’s relationship with her lover, Dick: an abusive, selfish, and deeply jealous man.

June is obsessed with Dick, and against the advice of her mother and friends, she begins living with him. Dick is pathologically possessive and refuses to allow June to work outside the home. "You're my woman," he tells her, "and you have to wait on me hand and foot" (p. 282).

Before long, June becomes pregnant. She knows Dick will leave her if she has the baby and she has too much pride to give birth in a home for unwed mothers.  She decides to have an abortion.

Dick promises to pick June up at the abortion doctor’s house after the operation is concluded. But on the day the deed is done, he doesn’t show up . In fact, he abandons her. As the relationship comes to an end, Dick's only act of kindness is to cash a check on closed account and give June the money.  Dick tells June that the funds should last her about two weeks.

The Eleventh Virgin ends with a brief monologue. "I thought that I was a free and emancipated young woman," June reflects, "and I found out that I wasn't at all, really."  She concludes that this new so-called freedom "is just a modernity gown, a new trapping that we women affect to capture the man we want."

What are we to make of The Eleventh Virgin, those of us who oppose abortion and those of us who believe that abortion is a precious civil right?

Abortion opponents should reflect on this: Although Dorothy Day deeply regretted her own abortion, she never spoke a harsh word on the topic.  After she converted to Catholicism, Dorothy lived her life in solidarity with the poor and the desperate; and I am sure she had the deepest sympathy for women who faced the difficult choice of whether or not to have a baby.

As for abortion advocates, they should ponder the central theme of Dorothy's novel. Human freedom is not found in politics, in license, in doing only what is personally expedient. As Mother Teresa put it, "It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish."

On the contrary, human freedom, as Dorothy Day later came to learn through her conversion, comes from devotion to God and commitment to others--commitment to our families, our children, and our communities.

Of course these are easy words to say. I myself am a deeply selfish individual. I rely on the Catholic faith and the example of the saints to keep me headed in the right direction, and yet I constantly stumble.

So let us pray for the canonization of Dorothy Day  Perhaps more than any woman in 20th century America, she made a radical turn from selfishness to faith. Even now, she intercedes for us and helps us live good Catholic lives in this postmodern world. How much more powerful will her example be when the Church recognizes her for what she is--a saint.

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