Content warning: child abuse, suicide, infant mortality
“Background: I was born into an Irish Roman Catholic Family. More or less. My father was of Irish, English, and Scottish descent. But the family identified as Irish. Big time Irish. My mother was from Swedish, English and Welsh descent. He was raised Roman Catholic by his mother in the strictest sense. She was raised a Methodist in North Dakota. She converted when she married father. They wanted to have six children. Which they did. I being the oldest of the six, became both my mother’s caretaker and that of my three brothers and two sisters. I watched my mother become pregnant over and over and over again. Much to her agony. And many miscarriages. She was chronically clinically depressed and suicidal. But they were Catholic. No way to prevent conception. Nothing to do but carry the child to term. She was in no shape to keep doing it. But keep doing it she did. My mother had a baby boy when I was two years old. He died two days later from a heart valve problem. This precipitated her first suicide attempt. I was in the bedroom with her in my crib. She took an overdose of something. I don’t know how long it was until she was discovered. I do not remember anything about it. But I can only imagine how it felt. I was seven when the next baby, a boy was born. After that it was every two years, then four years until there were six of us. I remember them all. I loved them all. My father a professional man was also a violent alcoholic. He not only beat me, but did his best to crush my spirit. I did believe that I was stupid and that as a female I was inherently inferior. He did much the same to my two sisters. The three boys were marginally better treated. But my father treated everyone who crossed his door with arrogant contempt.
I attended 13 years of Catholic education. Including one year of Catholic college. In that first year of college I had the beginnings of my spiritual identity crisis. I became convinced that I was destined to hell. I was sent home and not allowed to continue at school. I left home. Not able to allow that man to continue his abuse on me. Some of the worst abuse stemmed from his perception of my sexual behavior. I say his perception because there was no sexual behavior on my part. I did not even date. Too afraid of what would happen if I did. Too mortified to expose any potential boyfriend to the ugliness that was my home and my father. I had no money and no skills. I got jobs waiting tables. Saying that I had experience that I didn’t. Usually I got fired the same day until I finally managed to keep one of the jobs. So, I was able to marginally support myself. But there was a huge hole in my heart. I was considered a bad influence on my siblings, so my contact was limited. I missed them so much. Most of all my two sisters, the youngest in the family.
I eventually tried to fill that hole with boyfriends. When I finally had sex at 20 years old and I was afraid to use contraception. A priest told me that the sin on contraception was worse than the sin of fornication. I did try to use the rhythm method of birth control. Also forbidden by the church except with the permission of the priest. And only for extreme reasons of health for instance. I became pregnant.
1964 Self-managed Abortion: At that time a woman couldn’t even get birth control from a doctor unless she presented herself as married. I didn’t know how to pull that off. And of course, abortion was illegal in 1963. I had an acquaintance who was a nurse in a doctor’s office. She told me about self-induced abortion by using a rubber catheter of the type used in the urethra during surgical procedures. I went to Tijuana, Mexico where I was able to purchase one at a pharmacy without a prescription. My boyfriend wanted to get married and have the baby. But I couldn’t face the trauma of having my family, and especially my father, even knowing that I had sex. When we got back home, I carefully inserted the catheter into my cervix. The idea was to wait about 24 hours until the bleeding began and then to go to the hospital. And the bleeding did begin. Heavy, heavy bleeding. Heavy cramping and pain. But I did not go to the hospital. I was terrified. So, I waited. Eventually the bleeding did stop. For a short time, I felt okay. Then I began to get sick. I went to a doctor. A friend took me. I didn’t tell her what I had done.
After examining me the doctor went to the waiting room and told my friend that this pregnancy had been tampered with. He told me that he could only give me antibiotics. If they did not stay down, I would have to go to Los Angeles County General Hospital, the only place that would treat for AA: Attempted Abortion. At LA County Hospital I was immediately admitted and rushed to surgery with a big red tag tied to my toe, it meant critical condition. I was given only sodium pentothal; this was supposed to be the truth drug. I found out that I could lie, however. I told the doctors that I was married and that my husband and I could not afford the baby. I said that I, and I alone, did the deed. He didn’t know anything about it. In fact, although he didn’t really want the abortion, he did drive me to Tijuana to purchase the catheter. And he was with me when I inserted it and through the bleeding. Much later after we divorced, he would regale me with names like “Abortionist Bitch!” I was asked if I wanted to know the sex of the baby. I declined. I couldn’t bear to know. I awoke in the AA ward. A room meant for four beds which contained about 11 or 12 beds. This hospital was the most down and dirty hospital in the Los Angeles area, usually reserved for the poorest of the poor. Most had done the AA using coat hangers and lead pencils. I had thought that my use of a catheter was safer than those methods. However, I discovered that even this method can rupture the uterus and cause death. I was grateful to be there. Alive. I was weak but alive.
Aftermath: My periods did not return. I saw an OB/GYN who put me on birth control pills to get them started again. Afterwards, I did have regular periods that were very light. When I had my two subsequent children, I found out why. My endometrial tissue was mostly absent and there was scarring of the uterine wall. I had Placenta Previa C-section, a 3-pound, 2-ounce baby girl who survived. With the second baby I went to term and delivered by C-section an 8-pound, 3-ounce baby girl. However, this time the placenta had grown into the uterine wall and I had massive hemorrhaging when the placenta was removed. Doctors said they had never before come so close to losing a mother on the operating table.” – Caroline Roche, age 75