Now that I am the male co-chair of the Green Party of Florida, and running for the District 87 seat of the Florida House of Representatives, people ask me, “Why are you doing all this? What moves you to stick your neck out in these perilous, polarized times?”
Of course I have all sorts of true, politically correct answers. I am opposed to the corruption of the American two-party system. The Green Party of Florida has a great platform that provides real answers to the real problems facing this country and the world. I have this commitment to a world of peace and justice for all, and to fighting for the most oppressed among us. All that good stuff.
But lately I was reminded by current events of a story my Mother told me when I was 15. The story about that one time she had an abortion. It is a story we rarely thought about and never again spoke again about until very recently. Its a unique story that countless women could tell there own version of.
So please let me tell you a story or two…
Back in 1989, when I was 15 …
My mother called me into her office for a Very Important Talk, a story that profoundly radicalized me and has impacted my thinking on politics ever since.
I knew my mother had performed abortions. Her auspicious history included being the daughter of the late Ethelene Crockett, the first board certified female obstetrician/gynecologist (as a black woman) in Michigan. My mother had taught at the University of Wisconsin, and then later at the University of Michigan. She had performed hundreds of abortions and had served as medical director at Planned Parenthood. She followed her mother as the second board certified obstetrician/gynecologist in Michigan.
I don’t think she had ever intended to tell this particular story to me or to any of her other children. But she told it that morning because it was about to be on the front page of the Detroit Free Press Magazine the following day, June 18, 1989. The tagline on the cover read, “When a 15-year-old rape victim needed an abortion, Ethelene Crockett Jones, MD, was there. Now she’d like a word with you.”
As the Free Press reported, “A pregnant, impoverished 15-year-old girl … had been gang-raped, became pregnant, and sought an abortion in mid-January, one month after a state ban on the use of Medicaid funds for abortion took effect.” The ACLU was about to challenge the constitutionality of that ban on the girl’s behalf, and asked Dr. Jones whether she would perform the abortion.
“That girl’s right to make a meaningful life for herself was at stake — despite her tragedy,” my mother explained. “If I hadn’t believed I had that right, even when the law said I didn’t, my own life would have been terrible.” So it was done.
In the Free Press article, Dr. Jones recalled her horror during on-call duty in her third year of medical school as “a nightly experience to be down there in the emergency room and have woman after woman come in with an attempted abortion, and the methods these women used would curl your hair. They used caustic solutions in the vagina. They used coat hangers. They threw themselves down the stairs.” Jones recalled her very first patient. “Her autopsy report was clear: She had self-aborted, causing the fatal infection. … and she had left five children.” The infant mortality rate in Detroit in 1989 was 24%.
The timing of the story would prove significant because two weeks and a day later, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the verdict in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services of Missouri, a ruling which struck a serious blow against abortion. That ruling cut into Roe v. Wade by allowing states to restrict access to abortion by forbidding government employees, funding or facilities from performing abortions except to save the life of the mother. Justice Blackmun, writing in dissent, wrote that the opponents of all abortion were only a single vote away from effectively overturning Roe. “I fear for the future” and “a chill wind blows.”
Then my mother told me parts of a second, even more personal story, one she had never told before, which was also to appear in the Free Press article.
My mother had dreamed of being a doctor since she was 9 years old. In 1962 she was well on her way, studying at the Wayne State University Medical School in Detroit. As one of only 8 women and 2 blacks in her class of 125 students, she was under intense scrutiny. Most in the patriarchal, racist medical establishment at the time expected her to fail.
And then she was raped by her cousin’s best friend. And she got pregnant. It was the summer of 1963, 10 years before Roe v. Wade. Abortion was illegal in the State of Michigan. If she dropped out and had the child, the career she had worked toward all of her life would never come to pass. She could not face the shame she’d bring to her parents. Her lifelong dream would be over, as it would have been for almost every other black woman in the state. Despairing in her future prospects and fearing shame she might bring on her family, she attempted to take her own life. She mixed a bottle of liquor with a bottle of pills she found in her mother’s medical bag, then slit her wrists for good measure. She survived the attempt.
Her father sent her to a psychiatrist. When the psychiatrist learned of the pregnancy, he referred her to an OB/GYN. The doctor instructed her on how to self-administer an abortion.
My mother followed the doctor’s instructions in the basement of the family home. She experienced some minor bleeding, but was unable to tell if the procedure was successful. She was immensely surprised when her mother descended the basement steps to see “how it was going.”
Unbeknownst to Mom, her psychiatrist had informed her mother of their plan. After checking on Mom’s progress, Grandma took my mother to her office and performed the abortion herself.
Mom never told her parents how she got pregnant, and they never asked.
I still cannot imagine what it was like to tell parts of that story to the world in a newspaper article, or to your teenage son, but I know why she did it. My mother was an exceptional woman. She has inspired hundreds of young doctors and is a lifelong community activist to this day.
At the same time, she knows her story is not exceptional. She knew that before Roe v. Wade, doctors faced the prospect of prison if they performed abortions, and countless women across the nation had been forced to risk death and break the law to have some control over their lives.
In the Time of Kavanaugh.
Ethelene Crockett Jones had seen the threat posed by that 1989 pending Supreme Court decision. Now, with the ascension of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, a new wave of fear is crossing our land. It’s not simply that the radical right now has one more vote on our highest court. This shift comes at a time when the forces of reaction in both the Republican and Democratic parties are moving relentlessly towards austerity and war. The targeting of Roe v. Wade protections now becomes a stalking horse for all our threatened constitutional rights.
But constitutional rights are not the only rights. My mother knew this well back in 1989, when she stated her fundamental belief, “If I hadn’t believed I had that right [to perform an illegal abortion on myself], even when the law said I didn’t, my own life would have been terrible.”
So yes, our system of law is being delegitimized on many fronts. But as constitutional protections are shredded, people are being forced to confront what are their Human Rights, and to take a stand.
Historical clocks don’t simply get reset like is done with Daylight Savings Time. In the years before 1973, those women who did have abortions were forced to do so in the dark, literally and figuratively. They were then expected to be ashamed, and many were ashamed. Yet they got illegal abortions anyway.
Soon we will find Roe v. Wade on the chopping block again. The Supreme Court is not going to save us. It will be your state legislators who will decide whether women should be forced to risk death in the basements, the shadows and the alleyways in Florida. And our Florida State Legislature is a sorry bunch. But this is not 1989, and those days of shame are largely over. If the law is rendered illegitimate, then it will be defied. When elected to the Florida State Legislature, I will ferociously fight to defend these women on every front, and I will not compromise. That’s what my heart tells me to do.
— Samson LeBeau Kpadenou
Co-Chair, Green Party of Florida
Green Party candidate for Florida House of Representatives, District 87