Dorothy Day's Pro-Life MemoriesDAN LYNCH
I wish every woman who has ever suffered an abortion would come to know Dorothy Day. Her story was so typical. Made pregnant by a man who insisted she have an abortion, who then abandoned her anyway, she suffered terribly for what she had done, and later pleaded with others not to do the same.
too, after becoming a Catholic, she learned the love and mercy of the Lord, and
knew she never had to worry about His forgiveness. [This is why I have never condemned
a woman who has had an abortion; I weep with her and ask her to remember Dorothy
Day's sorrow but to know always God's loving mercy and forgiveness.] She had died
before I became Archbishop of New York, or I would have called on her immediately
upon my arrival. Few people have had such an impact on my life, even though we
Thus spoke the late Cardinal John J. OConnor. The remainder
of this article substantially contains Dorothy Day's actual words as edited and
sometimes paraphrased by Dan Lynch. The information concerning her abortion was
obtained from her biographers and her autobiographical novel, The Eleventh
Virgin. Dorothy never publicly wrote or spoke about her abortion. Her writings
may be found at CatholicWorker.org.
Dorothy Day: I hobbled down
the darkened stairwell of the Upper East Side flat in New York City. My steps
were unsteady. My left arm held the banister tightly. My right arm clutched my
abdomen. It was burning in pain. I walked out onto the street alone in the dark.
It was in September of 1919. I was twenty-one years old and I had just aborted
Lionel, my boyfriend, promised to pick me up at the flat after
it was all over. I waited in pain from nine a.m. to ten p.m. but he never came.
When I got home to his apartment I found only a note. He said he had left for
a new job and, regarding my abortion, that I was only one of God knows how many
millions of women who go through the same thing. Dont build up any hopes. It
is best, in fact, that you forget me.
I wrote about this experience
in my autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin. In my youth I had thought
that the greatest gift that life could offer would be a faith in God and a hereafter.
But then there were too many people passing through my life, — too many activities
— too much pleasure (not happiness). The life of the flesh called to me as
a good and wholesome life, regardless of God's laws. What was good and what was
evil? It is easy enough to stifle conscience for a time. The satisfied flesh has
its own law. How much time I wasted during those years! I had fallen a long way
from my youthful ideals. When I was fifteen I wrote, "I am working always, always
on guard, praying without ceasing to overcome all physical sensations and be purely
But these "physical sensations" allured me. I lived a social-activist
Bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village, New York City. I think back and remember
myself, hurrying along from party to party, and all the friends, and the drinking,
and the talk, and the crushes, and falling in love. I fell in love with a newspaperman
named Lionel Moise. I got pregnant. He said that if I had the baby, he would leave
me. I wanted the baby but I wanted Lionel more. So I had the abortion and I lost
I later wrote in my autobiography,The Long Loneliness, "For
a long time [after my abortion] I had thought I could not bear a child, and the
longing in my heart for a baby had been growing.
In 1924 I started a
"live-in" relationship with Forster Batterham, an atheist and an anarchist. He
believed in nothing except personal freedom to do as you please. We took up residence
in a beach bungalow on Staten Island, New York. We foreshadowed the hippies of
the sixties and lived a carefree lifestyle living off the land and sea —
gardening, fishing and claming. I thought that we would be contributing to the
misery of the world if we failed to rejoice in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
in the rivers which surrounded the island on which we lived and in the cool breezes
of the bay. Like Dostoevsky, I began to believe that the world would be saved
by beauty. It was this beautiful, natural world that slowly led me back to God.
"How can there be no God," I asked Forster, "when there are all these beautiful
However, I felt that my home was not a home without a child.
For a long time I had thought that I could not have a child. No matter how much
one is loved or one loves, that love is lonely without a child. It is incomplete.
Soon I became pregnant again. I saw this as a miracle from God because I thought
that He had left me barren after the abortion. I wrote in a letter to a friend,
I always rather expected an ugly grotesque thing which only I could love; expecting
perhaps to see my sins in the child.
On the contrary, I gave
birth to a beautiful daughter, Tamar Teresa, on March 4, 1926. I remembered that
the labor pains swept over me like waves in the beautiful rhythm of the sea. When
I became bored and impatient with the steady restlessness of those waves of pain,
I thought of all the other and more futile kinds of pain I would rather not have
had. Toothaches, earaches, and broken arms. I had had them all. And this was a
much more satisfactory and accomplishing pain, I comforted myself.
thought about famous men who wrote about childbirth such as Tolstoy and ONeill
and I thought, What do they know about it, the idiots. It gave me pleasure to
imagine one of them in the throes of childbirth. How they would groan and holler
and rebel. And wouldn't they make everybody else miserable around them. And there
I was, conducting a neat and tidy job.
The waves of pain became tidal
waves. Earthquake and fire swept my body. Through the rush and roar of the cataclysm
that was all about me, I heard the murmur of the doctor and the answered murmur
of the nurse at my head. In a white blaze of thankfulness I heard faint about
the clamor in my ears, a peculiar squawk. They handed my baby to me. I placed
her on my full breast where she mouthed around, too lazy to tug for food. I thought,
What do you want, little bird? That it should run into your mouth, I suppose.
But no, you must work for your provender already!
No matter how cynically
or casually the worldly may treat the birth of a child, it remains spiritually
and physically a tremendous event. God pity the woman who does not feel the fear,
the awe, and the joy of bringing a child into the world.
I was filled
with awe of my baby's new life and in gratitude to God I wanted her to be baptized
in the Catholic Church. I did not want my child to flounder as I had often floundered.
I wanted to believe, and I wanted my child to believe, and if belonging to the
Church would give her so inestimable a grace as faith in God, and the companionable
love of the Saints then the thing to do was to have her baptized a Catholic. This
was the final straw for Forster who wanted nothing to do with any commitments
or what he termed as my "absorption in the supernatural".
I knew that
I was going to have my child baptized a Catholic, cost what it may. I knew I was
not going to have her floundering as I had done, doubting and hesitating, undisciplined
and amoral. I felt it was the greatest thing I could do for my child.
So Tamar was baptized in June. For myself, I prayed for the gift of faith. I was
sure, yet not sure. I postponed the day of decision. To become a Catholic meant
for me to give up a mate with whom I was much in love. It got to the point where
it was the simple question of whether I chose God or man. I chose God and I lost
Forster. I was baptized on the Feast of The Holy Innocents, December 28, 1927.
It was something I had to do. I was tired of following the devices and desires
of my own heart, of doing what I wanted to do, what my desires told me to do,
which always seemed to lead me astray. The cost was the loss of the man I loved,
but it paid for the salvation of my child and myself.
I painfully described
this loss in The Long Loneliness: "For a woman who had known the joys of marriage,
yes, it was hard. It was years before I awakened without that longing for a face
pressed against my breast, an arm around my shoulder. The sense of loss was there.
It was a price I had paid. I was Abraham who had sacrificed Isaac. And yet I had
Isaac, I had Tamar."
I always had a great regret for my abortion. In
fact, I tried to cover it up and to destroy as many copies of The Eleventh
Virgin as I could find. But my priest chided me and said, You cant have
much faith in God if youre taking the life given to you and using it that way.
God is the one who forgives us if we ask, and it sounds like you dont even want
forgiveness — just to get rid of the books. I never forgot what the priest
pointed out — the vanity or pride at work in my heart. Since that time I
wasnt as worried as I had been. If you believe in the mission of Jesus Christ,
then youre bound to try to let go of your past, in the sense that you are entitled
to His forgiveness. To keep regretting what was, is to deny Gods grace.
my conversion, I struggled to support my child as a single parent working as a
free-lance writer. In December 1932 I was in Washington D.C. covering the Hunger
March of the Unemployed. Watching the ragged men marching moved my sense of social
justice and I was inspired to go to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
to pray. I cried out to God in anguish that some way would open up for me to use
what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.
returned to New York, I found waiting for me an unkempt man with fire in his eyes.
Immediately he began preaching to me in a thick French accent his grand vision
for social justice. His name was Peter Maurin and together we founded the Catholic
We opened houses of hospitality for the poor, the hungry,
the homeless, and for abused women and pregnant mothers. We practiced the spiritual
and corporal works of mercy. One day thirty year old Elizabeth came to us at the
end of her pregnancy. Her husband was a drug addict. It was New Years Eve, the
eve of the Feast of the Holy Family. He came to our house drugged and sat at supper
asleep while his wife fed him.
I called the ambulance but he refused
their help. He muttered, Shes my wife. She has to stick to me. She has to take
care of me. Oh, I thought, The distortion of the idea of the Holy Family. She
has to take care of him and she's about to bear his child! But we had a little
bed ready for the baby, and a box of pretty garments, and she was happy as she
looked at them, and there was even gaiety in our midst as we sat around the fire
and had a cup of tea in the holiday spirit.
Ill never forget the time
that I had to literally stand up against birth control. My sister Della had worked
for Margaret Sanger, foundress of Planned Parenthood. When Della exhorted me that
I shouldnt encourage my daughter Tamar to have so many children, I stood up firmly
and walked out of the house whereupon Della ran after me weeping, saying, Dont
leave me, dont leave me. We just wont talk about it again. To me, birth control
and abortion are genocide. I say, make room for children, dont do away with them.
I learned that prevention of conception when the act that one is performing is
for the purpose of fusing the two lives more closely and so enrich them that another
life springs forth and the aborting of a life conceived are sins that are great
frustrations in the natural and spiritual order.
The Sexual Revolution
is a complete rebellion against authority, natural and supernatural, even against
the body and its needs, its natural functions of child bearing. This is not reverence
for life, it is a great denial and more resembles Nihilism than the revolution
that they think they are furthering.
Once I asked a man why he signed
a petition for the Rosenbergs who had been convicted of treason in the fifties.
It is because I am against capital punishment, he said. In other words, he,
as the rest of us, is in favor of life — life until natural death.
I was happy that I could be with my mother the last few weeks of her life, and
for the last ten days at her bedside daily and hourly. Sometimes I thought that
it was like being present at a birth to sit by a dying person and see their intentness
on what is happening to them. It almost seems that one is absorbed in a struggle,
a fearful, grim, physical struggle, to breathe, to swallow, to live. And so, I
kept thinking to myself, how necessary it is for one of their loved ones to be
beside them, to pray for them, to offer up prayers for them unceasingly, as well
as to do all those little offices one can.
When my daughter Tamar was
a little tiny girl, she said to me once, When I get to be a great big woman and
you are a little tiny girl, Ill take care of you. I thought of that when I had
to feed my mother by the spoonful and urged her to eat her custard. Shortly before
she died I told her, We can no more imagine life beyond the grave than a blind
man can imagine colors. How good God was to me, to let me be there. I was there,
holding her hand, and she just turned her head and sighed. That was her last breath,
that little sigh; and her hand was warm in mine for a long time after.
Dorothy Day is the co-founder of the Catholic Worker
Movement. She is a model pro-life lay witness and intercessor. She was chosen
as the 20th century's most outstanding lay Catholic. Cardinal John OConnor of
New York introduced the cause for her canonization and said, It is with great
joy that I announce the approval of the Holy See for the Archdiocese of New York
to open the Cause for the Beatification and Canonization of Dorothy Day. With
this approval comes the title Servant of God. What a gift to the Church in New
York and to the Church Universal this is!
Dorothy Day, Servant of
God, pray for us — for us who labor for a culture of life and a civilization
of love, for the unborn, for the mothers in crisis pregnancies, for mothers who
have suffered from abortions, for the poor and for the dying.
Lynch. "Dorothy Day's Pro-Life Memories." Catholic Exchange (September
Reprinted with permission of the author.
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