Christine Dinsmore is a writer and editor who lives in Woodstock, N.Y.
The assistant district attorney pressed the police officer for details. Did he ask my grandmother Maria Consolazio whether she knew she was going to die?
“I did,” Officer Arthur O’Neill answered. “She said she didn’t know.”
Reuben Wilson, the assistant D.A., further questioned: Had he asked her if she had any hope of recovery? O’Neill did — she didn’t know.
This testimony in State of New York v. Regina Michele was heard in the New York City 6th District Court of Brooklyn on Nov. 10, 1921. Michele, accused of providing an abortion, denied knowing or ever seeing my grandmother. The case was dismissed.
Maria died at age 36. She had already given birth to seven children, then ranging in age from 11 months to 10 years. An immigrant from Santa Paolina, Italy, an hour east of Naples, she spoke no English and depended on her husband, Francesco, to negotiate the world outside their Brooklyn flat. Maria, a talented seamstress, helped the family eke by, taking in clothing to repair and alter. Her oldest child, Biaggio, would lug piles of garments in need of her handiwork back and forth to tailor shops.
Maria’s death haunted my mother, Anna. The tears would come whenever she recounted the day she walked into the tenement kitchen and found her mother on the floor. In barely a whisper, Maria instructed her then-9-year-old daughter to run and get her “aunt,” her mother’s closest friend, who substituted for the family Maria left behind in Italy. She recalled how later, as her mother was taken away to the hospital, a kind police officer sat her on his lap and said he would make sure her mother would be okay. Of course, he couldn’t.
When Maria’s five surviving children would get together as adults, the conversation often veered toward life without Mama. In hushed voices, the three oldest — Biaggio, Anna and Michele — would relive that fateful day. Elena, 6 at the time, vaguely remembered. And Giuseppina, back then 2, hungered for stories of an unknown mother, hanging on to every detail as if her existence depended on the reality of a loving mother instead of the stepmother who annihilated Giuseppina’s self-esteem. Raimondo and Virginia didn’t survive childhood.
The consequences of my grandmother’s botched abortion are innumerable. Her oldest children were whisked away and placed in separate, sex-segregated Catholic orphanages. The youngest — Virginia — was placed in foster care, where she died a short time later. The psychological issues of abandonment and trauma played out differently with each child. None was immune.
Maria’s grandchildren knew she had died an awful death, but the exact cause was only hinted at. I was told she died in childbirth — a stretch of the truth by any measure.
As a child, I eavesdropped on a conversation between my mother and her sister Elena. “Papa says Mama is in hell,” my mother said, her voice rising to a wrenched crescendo. “Not true! God wouldn’t condemn such a loving woman. We couldn’t survive another mouth to feed,” Elena said. That was my first inkling that my grandmother did something terribly wrong — at least my grandfather thought so. Why else would she be in hell?
Years later, I asked my mother if my grandmother had died of a bungled abortion. She confessed her mother took something to end her pregnancy, adding, “It turned out she wasn’t even pregnant.” I bought that family myth until I read the courtroom transcript. Who is charged with performing an abortion on someone who was not pregnant? And after seven children, Maria surely knew whether she was pregnant. So much shame was wrapped up in that deadly afternoon. A devout Catholic family clung to the tenets of the church and was humiliated that Maria had an abortion. They couldn’t dare be outraged that church dogma forced their mother to reproduce over and over. The criminal case against Regina Michele, underscoring the illegality of Maria’s abortion, further stigmatized the family.
Until the day she died at age 102, my mother would talk achingly about her mother. She pined for “Mama,” wishing she had met her own husband and four children. She re-experienced that void throughout her life, magnified with every family milestone. Ninety-three years of grief.
The court transcript detailed a young mother confronted with her imminent death. Unable to afford another child, she took a chance to save her family but lost. Moments from death and away from anyone familiar, she faced the reality that her children would become motherless. In a time when women didn’t have access to safe abortions, they still happened, often with repercussions that lasted generations.
This week , another court — the country’s highest — heard the most significant abortion case in more than 20 years. I hope the justices will remember women such as Maria Consolazio as they deliberate. A pro-choice movement slogan states, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” For my grandmother and countless others who lived before Roe v. Wade , abortion often led to a sacrament — the last rites.