Dorothy Day and Abortion: A New Conversation Surfaces
Below is a newly surfaced account of a brief conversation that Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and longtime peace activist now being considered for canonization, had with Daniel Marshall, a longtime member of the Catholic Worker movement, around 1977, a few years before her death. It is the first time that this conversation about her abortion is being shared publicly. (I received this as part of a group email, and asked Mr. Marshall for permission to print it, which he has given).
When contacted, Robert Ellsberg, who worked for several years with Dorothy Day, and is today publisher of Orbis Books as well as editor of Dorothy Day’s diaries and letters, said Mr. Marshall’s account rings true. “It’s clear from her private writings,” Mr. Ellsberg told me, "that Dorothy was very concerned about abortion, but she didn’t want to appear judgmental, partially because of her own experiences. Nor did she want to sound preachy, because she was very private about her abortion, and she didn’t share that part of her life. But she did speak about with some people, including myself. In that case, a woman had just told her that she justified her own decision to have an abortion because Dorothy did, which may explain why Dorothy was so uncomfortable about talking about it. Overall, Mr. Marshall’s story sounds like a credible account of a conversation with Dorothy.” Ellsberg also pointed to one letter in the collection All the Way to Heaven, where (dated Feb. 6, 1973) where she writes to a woman considering and abortion and describes her experience. “I am praying very hard for you,” she writes.
By way of background, Mr. Marshall describes his work with Dorothy: “During the five years between mid-1972 and mid-1977, I lived, in two stretches, for two-and-a-half years at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, N.Y. I had earlier founded a short-lived CW house in Berkeley, became a military conscientious objector, traveled from community to community in this country and Europe, and homesteaded in New Hampshire….Dorothy called me 'my theologian,' maybe because I had been to Holy Cross, as Tom Cornell had been to Fairfield, but it shows the real poverty of Dorothy that she had to rely on such as me for theological discussion, though she was in correspondence with such as Thomas Merton and Dan Berrigan for tough questions and more extended reflections."
Marshall’s story of his brief conversation with Dorothy Day follows. My only edit was to add a parenthetical note into the story, which was provided by Mr. Marshall, about a potentially confusing comment made by Dorothy:
I want to contribute a reflection and some information that Dorothy entrusted to me. Dorothy did not ask me to keep what she said secret, but I took it in the context as a trust to be conveyed to history after she died.
One day, I found myself at a rare moment alone with Dorothy at the Tivoli Catholic Worker farm. We were in the yard beside the old former boarding house and summer camp, at a bench beside the wire fence that guarded the spot at which our ravine went underground, the front end of the yard.
I seized the opportunity to ask Dorothy to write in the paper about abortion as possibly the central moral issue of our time. She paused and gently answered, "I don't like to push young people into their sins."
Then after another pause, she spoke about the problem of writing about others: "I believe in memoir," she said. "I want to write my memoir. You know, The Long Loneliness was not an autobiography. What do you think of writing about others involved in one's life?" I thought of her brother, who was still alive at the time, not to mention Forster Batterham [Dorothy’s common-law husband with whom she later had a child] whom Dorothy visited regularly until she died, or at least until she could no longer travel, and whom I met, along with Dan Berrigan, at her wake--another story. "I believe that he will accept faith before he dies," she had said to me one day. I may have offered some stumbling thoughts. She said, "I think that maybe one should wait until fifty years after a person dies before publishing anything about him."
(As to what Dorothy meant by saying that The Long Loneliness was not an autobiography, I take it that she wrote the book at a particular time to a specific end: to tell the story of the slow workings of God in the soul of a most unlikely lover, first to attract her and then to lead her to Peter Maurin and to fulfillment in becoming the spiritual mother of a major Catholic movement for peace and justice. Half the book consists of reflections and stories about the essential aspects of a Catholic Worker vision.)
Then Dorothy said, "You know, I had an abortion. The doctor was fat, dirty and furtive. He left hastily after it was accomplished, leaving me bleeding. The daughter of the landlords assisted me and never said a word of it. He was Emma Goldman's lover; that's why I have never had any use for Emma."
I hung on every word that she said, not only because she was Dorothy, but because, although I had heard a rumor that she had an abortion, I was aware that few people knew of it from her.
I understood from Dorothy that she was asking me to comprehend what the consequences would be of a public statement from her on abortion and also that the public consequences might be a distraction from the issue and the cause. What she thought of abortion was clear as a bell from what she said.
James Martin, SJ