A Death-Defying Illegal Abortion Nearly Destroyed Me

Ocean Sacrifice by Daniela Gioseffi.
Daniela painted Ocean Sacrifice at age 20 after sexual abuse by the KKK. She is now 81.


It was dark, and I had been told to take walks all day and into the night, so that thin tubing pushed through my cervix would release air into my womb and abort the eight-week-old fetus developing there. A girl on scholarship, in graduate school at a Catholic University in D.C., far from my home, I was alone, petrified, on an unknown street in Selma, Alabama, where big dogs barked loudly. Maybe one of them, rabid, might attack, knock me to the ground, lunge for my throat. I would die for my sin.


I became pregnant, although using birth control pills, a brand named Sequence, later removed from the market for too-often failing others as they did me. I thought I was behaving responsibly to prevent pregnancy. The father of the fetus was a boyish young man from a staunchly Catholic family who, like me, was on scholarship and had no money or parental wherewithal. Young students in love, away from home for the first time in our lives, we were planning to marry. In the meantime we were making do on what our funding allowed, he in his dormitory, I in mine, both of us working part-time. We had neither the means nor even a home in which to raise a child.

We had kept our love secret from our aging parents who, encumbered by serious illness, were in no position to help us financially. They’d be distraught, disappointed, or, worse, angry, had we abandoned our studies and married. Our prospects lay entirely in finishing our degrees. I turned to an old family friend, close to my father, in whom I had often confided, who had been like an uncle to me, until he had raped me when I was eighteen, a secret I kept, blaming myself, not wanting to destroy his long friendship with my father. An electrical engineer who had worked with my father making shortwave radios for American WWII efforts, he’d inherited his father’s Alabama estate and moved to Selma to set up its first television station. In guilt, he agreed to help me. We pretended I was going to Selma to check out an internship at his TV station.

His daughter, who’d been my playmate when we were young, was away at college, and I stayed in her room. My bogus uncle took me to a retired nurse in Birmingham who patted my thighs and told me how pretty I was. From under her mattress, she produced white surgical gauze, a thin catheter-like tube, and a speculum (used to dilate the vagina) wrapped in a clean white towel. My uncle was paying her, but she said she did this as a retired nurse to help women with unwanted or dangerous pregnancies, for whom she had compassion. She had me lie on the bed, with my legs in the air, as a gynecologist does, as she pushed the thin tubing up into my vagina through my cervix, forced open by the tubing. The gauze she used to hold the tubing in place was packed into my vagina, while the other open end she taped to my thigh.

“Air in a womb will abort a tiny fetus,” she said. She never used the word “baby.” “You’re only six to eight weeks; this should work well if you keep walking. You’ll have a miscarriage, you’ll start bleeding out the placenta, and the tiny fetus will abort.”

I cried, walking through the darkness that strange and harrowing night, dogs barking, my heart pounding, frightened beyond measure, feeling I had done something shameful and wrong, and knowing it was against the law. What I did not know, nor had I been warned, was that the real risk to my life was a possible air bubble in the veins or heart or lungs, causing a stroke: a distinct possibility attached to that illegal manner of abortion called packing.

When I got back to my bogus uncle’s house and lay down in his daughter’s room, I began to bleed out the placenta. I had terrible cramps, the worst I have ever experienced, but couldn’t cry out. I had to bite the edge of a pillow to keep from moaning and groaning too loudly or being heard by my bogus uncle’s wife, who thought I was simply visiting her husband’s Selma TV station as a friend of her daughter and an intern journalist. Finally, I sat on the toilet and pushed, and when I stood up to look, the bowl was filled with blood. Floating there, shaped like a minnow, was a curled, tiny, dark red fetus about an inch-and-a-half long.

I’m 81 now, and that image is still as clear as can be in my mind’s eye. I have wondered ever since who that little bloody minnow might have been if allowed to grow to fruition in me. The decision to abort was hard thought out and made by necessity — and was a principal reason that, as a feminist, I fought so hard for Roe v. Wade in the New Wave of Feminism in the 1970s. Women do not take abortion lightly.

I did not die, I only nearly did, and I was spared bringing into the world a life I did not choose to conceive and could not have raised, or even divulged to my own aging and infirm parents, or my boyish lover’s financially strapped parents, without enormous painful consequences. I am one of the lucky ones. By the grace of a doctor’s prescription, the bleeding finally did stop. I suffered physical pain, fatigue from anemia, the torment of guilt and depression, and menace to my health. Recovery took months.

That horrible, risky, illegal abortion allowed me a somewhat successful career as an author, prominent in the feminist movement. I had the same agent, New Feminist Talent, Inc., as Gloria Steinem, leading feminist of the ‘70s. My first stories and poems were published in MS, the magazine she founded with other feminists. I’ve won prizes, including an American Book Award. Yet I never wrote this harrowing story until now.

I married that young father of my pregnancy after graduate school. He was able to finish his degree and attain a good job with health benefits. I wore an inexpensive lacy wedding dress that our lovely, talented daughter, the fruit of our sanctioned union, later wore to her high school graduation. Our beloved daughter has given us two grandsons, who shower us with affection. And she finished her degree without fear of an unwanted pregnancy, thanks to the Supreme Court decision rendered in Roe v Wade. Now that hallmark decision has been wrongfully overturned by justices who lied during their nomination hearings about their respect for established precedent (stare decisis). These justices have also gone against the vast majority of American opinion in a decision directly targeting the separation of church and state, a principle enshrined in the U.S. Constitution in order to avoid religious wars within our diverse and democratic nation.

Roe v. Wade defends a woman’s right to an abortion as implicit in the right to privacy guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. That foundation document nowhere mentions God; instead, it is the framework for a system of government and a basis for laws passed and construed almost exclusively by white men. And therein lies the problem.

In the Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, or my Unitarian Universalist faith, as well as in other humanist beliefs, life begins when the newborn takes its first breath. (If a fetus is a person, why are fetuses not counted in the U.S. census?) No woman cavalierly aborts a fetus that could live well and happily outside her womb. A healthy, fully formed fetus is far too developed to abort, and it would be dangerous, both for the mother and the baby. Only the raped, poverty-stricken, or life- and career-threatened need the right to abortion, and then only in the earlier stages of fetal development. More than 50 percent of abortions are sought by mothers who already have enough children. Most pitiably and mercifully, parents seek abortions when a child will be stillborn, horribly deformed, or afflicted with disease and unable to live. It is a difficult decision to undergo the procedure, and Roe v. Wade was a law that understood that.

Some states have no provision for fetuses that are the result of rape of very young girls, with the ignorant and false idea that abortion is more traumatizing than giving birth. Giving birth is a far more death-defying risk for girls. Some girls menstruate as early as ten or eleven years of age and can be impregnated as young children. Texas has instituted no abortion rights even in the case of rape, though it has the highest rate of rape in the country, 13,509 reported cases yearly, with no doubt more unreported.
One of the most galling things about the overturning of Roe v. Wade is that the right-wing Supreme Court Justices have abused the constitutional tenet of separation of church and state in this—as well as their decision in Carson v. Makin, announced the same month.  It is not good for Catholics, or extreme born-again Christian Evangelicals, to force their religious beliefs on all peoples. It makes their form of Christianity more unwanted and despised by the majority of people everywhere. Families should have, and need, the right of choice to plan their own affordable size. The right-wing-weighted Supreme Court has ruled against the United States Constitution and thereby rendered itself corrupt and not representative of the majority of American moral beliefs. Nowhere is it written that a Catholic or Evangelical has to have an abortion. What has been destroyed is the right of one’s own religious beliefs and choice, and the personal, private freedoms of families.

And how hypocritical are the Libertarians who pretend to care so much for freedom but vote to limit a woman’s freedom in such a profound way. Should the extreme Catholics and Christian Evangelicals who force their religious beliefs down everyone’s throats have the say over all, when Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others believe that life begins with the first breath of the just born? There’s hypocrisy beyond belief in this corrupt, Trump/McConnell-driven court ruling.

Leaving this decision to state politicians—largely white Republican men—will force women to give birth against their will in states that rule against abortion, some insanely against abortion in all cases: when a women has been sexually assaulted; when the fetus she is carrying has a fatal abnormality; when having a child will kill a mother who will leave orphaned children she already has; if women are pursuing an education that will allow them to make a living; when they cannot afford a child, or yet more children; when their partner is abusive and they do not have the emotional support to give birth, always a risk of their lives. It is gut-wrenching for such women, especially poor women who cannot afford to travel, to end a pregnancy. Abortion will not go away, but will simply become far more dangerous. We cannot allow this abominable loss of freedom for half the human race to lead us to cynicism and inaction. No, no, no!

          We’re fighting back with a campaign that will move millions to vote for the party that protects the Right to Choice. As I heard an activist say, we will fight until hell freezes over, and then we will fight on the ice for the rights of women to their own bodies and lives. Women’s rights are human rights! 


Daniela Gioseffi is an American Book Award winning author of three  novels, a book of stories, six books of poetry, and three anthologies. She won the PEN American Center Short Fiction Award for her story Daffodil Dollars, aired by Alan Cheuse on NPR. Her first novel: The Great American Belly (Doubleday, New York) was optioned by Warner Bros. for a film. Her latest novel is The Story of Emily Dickinson's Master. She’s won grant awards in poetry and prose from the New York State Council on the Arts and the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry.


  1. Thank you Daniela, living up to your role as a champion of women’s issues — reflecting your history of being on the side of the angels … thank you for your courage to reflect, share and encourage us …

    1. Great points made here and backed by actual experience. Not only should we protect the right of women to not destroy their own lives, we need this right to not throw a young child into a long suffering life of: an overburdened inattentive mother, then this understand able neglect leaves the child prone to feelings of mental illness, substance abuse, and prison! This child foced into the world, the mother, the guilty father, society expenses… all suffer without this CHOICE. [Prof. Howard Seeman]
      not feelig

  2. Praise and applause, dear Daniela. I am grateful for your strong voice and concise explanation on this issue. Like Justice Ginsburg you remind us of what we must keep fighting for. Autonomy and equal standing in society. Thank you.

  3. Brava, Daniela, for combining extraordinary courage in telling your story, and extraordinary clarity in placing it in its true political context, with all the inhuman will to control the female body from
    pre-puberty to the grave–a grave that has been all too real for all too many women. Your writing is beautiful as your mind.

  4. Thank-you, Daniela, for this comprehensive account of the .many dangers, physical and emotional, of illegal abortions.
    Women have no choice.

  5. Daniela, I was so touched by your story. I had the same procedure in the late 1960s, but was not fortunate enough to find a caring nurse. Thank you for telling your story for all of us who survived. Many did not. I’m still haunted by my experience and recently wrote a less detailed account under “name withheld” in another publication. I don’t understand why politicians and others are so invested in taking away women’s rights, especially those that save lives. I printed your story and will keep it with a copy of mine.

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