The Shocking Impact of an Ancestor’s Secret Abortion

BY MICHAEL MILLENSON

When my siblings and I were young, we were fascinated by my father’s Uncle Byron. Handsome and confident, he drove a big, 1960s-era Chrysler Imperial, had a glamorous job — an executive at a Baltimore radio station — and radiated panache.

He also was part of a small family mystery. His father, Louis, was married three times, and Byron was raised by Wife № 3. But he was the biological child of Wife № 2, who died just a few years after his birth from an unknown cause.

Thanks to some persistent genealogical research, I recently discovered that cause: Annie Millenson had a botched abortion, and it killed her. It also destroyed her surviving family.

Following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and the resulting deluge of state anti-abortion laws, I took a closer look at my family story. I not only found unsettling signs of how the past can, indeed, be prologue, I also discovered why abortion could be an integral part of your family’s story, too ­– you just don’t know it.

In the last part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th, with contraception unreliable and childbirth dangerous, women of all social classes and religions (including Catholics) sought abortions. With an estimated two million abortions each year, “abortion was part of life,” writes Leslie J. Reagan, a University of Illinois professor, in the 1979 book, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine and Law in the United States, 1867–1973.

That abortion had relatively recently become illegal did not deter those who were desperate, as Annie Millenson surely would have been. When she married Louis Millenson, she was a widow who already had four young children (two girls and two boys). She, first husband Max and family had moved to Denver to be near a renowned Jewish hospital that could treat his “consumption,” as tuberculosis was then known. It didn’t work.

Max died in 1907. In June, 1909 Annie married Louis, a cigarmaker seven years older and, like her, a European Jewish immigrant. Byron was born in December, 1911. When Annie became pregnant again in late 1914 or early 1915, the family of seven was barely scraping by with help from Louis’s younger brother, who ran a large local butcher shop. Also, Annie was 40 years old.

“Therapeutic” abortions to save the life of the mother were often an exception to a state’s abortion ban. (Nineteenth and early 20th-century abortion opponents were actually less extreme than many current ones.) Annie’s abortion was performed by a respected Denver doctor, but he was neither a gynecologist nor surgeon. Did his connections confer tacit legal protection?

In any event, something went very wrong. There was bleeding and an infection that developed into the deadly condition we now call sepsis. After lingering for a few weeks, Annie died on April 11, 1915.

Annie’s death left Louis with unpaid medical bills of $200, a crushing debt at a time when a skilled cigarmaker might earn $35 in a week. I don’t know what Louis would do today if he lived in a state where abortion was criminalized and he had no money to feed his children. But the decision he made then was as shocking as it must have been agonizing.

The court overseeing Annie’s estate approved a $250 payment for one-way railroad tickets to New York for the four children from Annie’s first marriage. They were to live with an aunt and uncle they’d never met, and reimburse the train fare to the estate when they became adults. The two boys also got new suits and caps for $4.75 each; there’s no record of the girls getting any new clothing.

I found out about Annie’s abortion only because I was able to track down Ann, the daughter of the oldest of those four children, on her 90th birthday. After she told me how Annie died, I asked whether her mother, aunt or uncles ever spoke of Louis. After six years of marriage to Annie, he was the only father the youngest siblings (ages three and five when Annie remarried) might clearly remember. They never mentioned him, Ann replied.

The four children did not end up living happily ever after. The family life they had previously known was shattered as the two girls lived for a time with relatives and then on their own, and the boys were sent to a transient hotel.

Yet to my surprise, Ann, named after her grandmother, told me the siblings had stayed in touch with Byron after he was grown and living in Baltimore. She even sent me a photo of Byron and his wife posing with Annie’s children and their spouses four decades after the family separation. I was taken aback. Byron’s daughters knew nothing about this “second family” that was as much their aunts, uncles and cousins as the offspring of Louis’s other marriages. (My family came from Wife № 1.) Like the abortion, this branch of the family tree was a tightly kept secret.

In a 2020 Vogue article, University of California, San Francisco professor Diana Greene Foster Greene presciently warned about the failure to discuss abortion “as a personal issue and instead view it as an abstract political debate.”

“Abortion was part of life.” How many families harbor a decades-old abortion story similar to ours ­– tragic and secret, or merely secret? How many more families, post-Dobbs, will be forced to take the same kind of risks Annie and Louis did and be forced, too, into silence about their “crime”?

Yes, abortion remains legal in many states, including Colorado. And yes, there are now pills for contraception and abortion, at least for those who can access them. Nonetheless, all signs point to a growing desperation among many women faced with a powerful segment of anti-abortion activists for whom the mother’s life seems to have little value.

As author, activist, consultant and a former Pulitzer-nominated journalist, Michael Millenson focuses professionally on making health care safer, better and more patient-centered. This piece first appeared on his Medium channel

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