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One family's experience with illegal abortion


With abortion access in jeopardy, experts worry about a return to underground procedures. Deena Prichep brings us one family's story of an illegal abortion nearly a century ago and its impact through the generations.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: She never knew her grandmother, but Leana McClellan knows the story of her grandmother's abortion. It was 1925. She was just married.

LEANA MCCLELLAN: Within the first three months of their marriage, she got pregnant. And he was 23 and in law school and couldn't support them, so they decided that she should have an abortion.

PRICHEP: In 1925, that meant an illegal abortion. Lauren MacIvor Thompson teaches about the intersection of women's rights, medicine and public health at Georgia's Kennesaw State University.

LAUREN MACIVOR THOMPSON: Women were really reliant on familial networks, whisper networks, you know, having a cup of coffee at the kitchen table to find out what the options were. And because it's criminalized, there's no regulation. There's no guarantee.

PRICHEP: A couple of days after her abortion, Elizabeth Apotheker Kannerstein died of complications. She left behind three kids from her first marriage. And her granddaughter, Leana, and great-granddaughter, Marisa, say Elizabeth's death shattered her kids' lives.

L MCCLELLAN: They were taken in by an aunt who did love them. But her husband hated them.

MARISA MCCLELLAN: The stepfather, he had wanted to adopt them, but the whole family blamed him for her death.

PRICHEP: Before her death, Elizabeth had been the heart of the family.

L MCCLELLAN: She was the one that everybody adored. And she was there for everyone.

PRICHEP: She was also the breadwinner. She couldn't afford to be off caring for another baby. She had opened a Russian teahouse in Philadelphia's theater district to support the family after her first husband died.

M MCCLELLAN: People would come in before the show for dinner. And then after the shows ended, they would come back in for a drink.

L MCCLELLAN: Oh, right. They would always come in for scrambled eggs and caviar and tea in glasses with little - whatever they are, skirts around them so you can hold them.

PRICHEP: After Elizabeth died, the Russian inn stayed in the family, but the family wasn't the same.

L MCCLELLAN: There was always an edge with my mother and her siblings that they were always kind of in survival mode.

PRICHEP: Leana says Elizabeth's kids were always looking for safety and security, trying to fill the holes that had been left. And when they had their own kids, they didn't know how to be parents themselves. A few decades before Elizabeth died, there were abortion tools and medications sold in catalogs and female hospitals quietly offering surgical abortions. But by the 1900s, many of these options were gone, partly due to federal obscenity law that banned the mailing of abortion materials, partly due to state laws regulating who gets to practice medicine. Historian Lauren MacIvor Thompson says this resulted in many stories that ended like Elizabeth's.

THOMPSON: It doesn't reduce the number of abortions. All it does is push these practices underground. And it makes women seeking abortions more vulnerable to people who are going to exploit them.

PRICHEP: Nobody knows how many people died from illegal abortions. These traumas were often kept secret. Leana McClellan says that was the case in their family.

L MCCLELLAN: All I heard was she got ill and died very quickly from some kind of an infection. That was it.

PRICHEP: And it wasn't until her 30s an older aunt turned to her and said...

L MCCLELLAN: You know, Elizabeth, your grandmother died of an abortion. And I went, whoa. And after she left, I asked my mother if it was true. And my mother said, yeah.

PRICHEP: Still, it wasn't really talked about for years.

L MCCLELLAN: I'm certainly not ashamed, but there's shame about letting the rest of the world know our family secret.


M MCCLELLAN: It is a scary thing to talk about these days, but I'm glad you did it, mom. I think it's an important story to tell.

PRICHEP: And Marisa McClellan says it's especially important to tell that story now.

M MCCLELLAN: Now, we're here in a position where people are going to die the way my great-grandmother did 97 years ago. And how is that possibly OK? - you know, that hundreds of families, thousands of families are going to have holes ripped in them, are going to have to, for generations, deal with the loss of women because they're not going to be able to get safe, effective abortions?

PRICHEP: These stories of people lost to illegal abortion are hiding in so many family trees. And even if the secrets are never told, they can still cast a shadow. The shadow of Elizabeth Apotheker Kannerstein's death has hung over this family for generations. And by telling it, they hope to bring in some light. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deena Prichep

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