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James Martin, S.J.July 01, 2011

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


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Adam Rasmussen
13 years ago
IT would be a good thing to have a saint who had an abortion, to prove that God offers forgiveness to women who have had abortions, a lesson that our culture needs both for those who are suffering because of their abortions and because for something to be forgiven it first must be a SIN. (Of course, the merits of her cause for canonization must stand on their own, though every cause is based on showing a person's life to the world as a moral example.)
Cody Serra
13 years ago
From this article, I can not see clearly what she thought about abortion. There is a factual  information about her feelings of disgust with her experience, and why she didn't want to make it public it at the time (it could distract the focus on the movement), but not much about her moral or religious views on the subject.

It does not make any difference to the merits of her life and her road to canonization. Perhaps, it makes her more like many women who, for different and complex life reasons, had an abortion or considered one. It calls for compassion without "our" judgement. 
Her life of giving of herself with passion and love for social justice canot be canceled out by this personal revelation.
God is the only one who can see inside our hearts and will judge with love and justice.
Beth Cioffoletti
13 years ago
I have been intrigued with Dorothy Day for many years.  Not head over heels enamored with her, but watching her.  How she dealt with things - the street people, her (ex)boyfriend, her daughter and son-in-law, their many children.  I've read her diairy, her letters to Merton, Jim Forest's autobiography.

It is clear to me that she had a conversion experience that changed her deeply and permanently.  She was led by, and trusted, a deep certainty.  And she relied on the Catholic Church to keep her "held" within this certainty.  As Jim Forest says, she was a "dinasaur Catholic", going to Mass daily, Confession every week, and saying the rosary.

I have no doubt but that she is a "saint", but I also wonder about those who are not graced with the certainty of Dorothy Day.  Even her daughter could not sustain the piety of her mother.

Is the purpose of sainthood to lead people to the Church, or to lead them to God? (or are these goals supposed to be the same?)   I just hate to see Dorothy used as a pawn in the political struggle surrounding abortion.
Beth Cioffoletti
13 years ago
sorry, should have said "Jim Forest's biography" (not autobiography).
Jim Forest
13 years ago
In the letter to a young woman cited by Robert Ellsberg, written in February 1973, Dorothy refers to her abortion as well as to two suicide attempts she made as a young adult: “Twice I tried to take my own life, and the dear Lord pulled me through that darkness — I was rescued from that darkness. My sickness was physical too, since I had had an abortion with bad after-effects, and in a way my sickness of mind was a penance I had to endure.” A few sentences later, Dorothy added, “I love you, because you remind me of my own youth, and of my one child and my grandchildren. I will keep on praying for your healing, writing your name down in my little book of prayers which I have by my bedside.” (Full text of the letter in All the Way to Heaven, edited by Robert Ellsberg. Also see the "personal remembrance" afterword of my biography of Dorothy, All Is Grace.)

Barry Hudock
13 years ago
I agree that her comments tell us more about her feelings about the experience of the abortion than about her moral stance on the issue.  I can imagine someone speaking similarly about their colonoscopy or Cesarian section. 

One thing it probably adds to her biographical record is the identity of the doctor who performed her abortion.  Wikipedia notes that Emma Goldman had more than one significant lover during her life, but one of them gets this description: ''In the spring of 1908, Goldman met and fell in love with Ben Reitman, the so-called 'Hobo doctor'. Having grown up in Chicago's tenderloin district, Reitman spent several years as a drifter before attaining a medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Chicago. As a doctor, he attended to people suffering from poverty and illness, particularly venereal diseases. He and Goldman began an affair; they shared a commitment to free love, but whereas Reitman took a variety of lovers, Goldman did not. She tried to reconcile her feelings of jealousy with a belief in freedom of the heart, but found it difficult.''

Not surprising that someone called ''the Hobo doctor'' might be described by someone else, having gone through an unpleasant experience with him, as ''dirty'' (as Dorothy spoke of her doctor).  Reitman has his own Wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Reitman

Vince Killoran
13 years ago
I agree with C. Serra's comment:  DD's comments can't really be understood as weighing in on abortion per se, at least not the (re)criminalization of it. It seems more like a revelation of her pastoral approach.  Of course, given her political DNA she didn't engage in court decisions or pending legislation (e.g., BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION) so she couldn't be expected to do so with ROE.
Daniel Marshall
13 years ago
To Adam Rasmussen and others: 
We all know and can empathize with awful stories of borderline cases and anguished decisions. 
However, we still have to deal with: 
-  the first response that Dorothy made, "I don't like to push young people into their sins." 
-  grief, remorse, and guilt experienced by many mothers such as Dorothy who have had abortions.  Anyone who has had or knows someone who has had a miscarriage can empathize with a woman who has brought one on by her own choice, and usually she has no one to affirm the validity of her feelings, adding to her sense of isolation; 
-  personhood of the baby aborted.  If we don't acknowledge it, then we're into having someone assign personhood at some juncture before or after birth, and then anything is possible, because what is assigned can be rescinded. 
-  agenda of the pro-abortion movement; 
I believe that when two factions are deadlocked, talking past each other, they are missing the real issue.  Everyone believes in choice, life, and respect for mothers under pressure.  The issue being missed or ignored here is personhood.  Nothing essential is added or subtracted from the fertilized ovum.  When is it a person? 
Whether continual war produces a milieu conducive to abortion or vice versa, there is a streak of hardheartedness and distraction that has infected a generous-hearted American people.  We could re-orient by disengaging  from consumerism and insisting on sources of reliable information. 
However pastoral, however much a “dinosaur Catholic” Dorothy was, she was not nieve about problems of church or society. 
Daniel Marshall
13 years ago
Sorry.  Not to Adam Rasmussen, but to C. Serra and others.
13 years ago
Guess I'm not really much of a moral theologian, but I really don't understand the comment "her comments tell us more about her feelings about the experience of the abortion than about her moral stance on the issue..."

Can't quite grasp that 'feelings about the experience' is not a valid consideration in making a moral decision, taking a moral stance. It seems to me, that the head and heart cannot be separated from each other. Sounds like that Kohlberg/Gilligan split.

And it seems that compassion - to suffer with - is a critical element in such decernment. Took her a long time, and some struggle (two suicide attempts) to find compassion for herself, and then extend it to others faced with the same situation.

Like I said, I'm not really much of a moral theologian.
Barry Hudock
13 years ago
Chris, sure, they're certainly related, but shouldn't be equated.  My feelings about a choice or event might say something about my moral judgment about it, but maybe not.  I have terrible and squeamish memories of the birth of my first child, born by an emergency Cesarian section.  It was a miserable experience for me - and I was just an observer; it was worse for my wife.  But neither of us regret it happening (it may have saved our daughter's life), and there was surely nothing morally wrong with the choices the doctors made to do it.

I just meant to point out that the comments Dorothy made about her abortion to Mr. Marshall only suggest it was a terribly unpleasant experience for her.  The comments don't make obvious (to me) that she thought it was a mistake or a sin, or that she thought abortion is an immortal choice in general. 

Given my understanding of her Catholic faith and her moral convictions, I'm pretty sure she did think it's wrong, for her and for others.  It's just not clear from these particular comments of hers.
Aloysia Moss
13 years ago
I can't help but think that Dorothy was right in her reticence to broadcast her experience of abortion  .   It breaks my heart every year when I see all those women trotted out  in Washington , D.C. at the Right to Life Rally wearing four foot sandwich signs  ,  '' I regret my abortion .  '' 

So far I have not heard of any virtue called Regret .   Didn't Jesus come to set us free from regret  ?  King David expressed his guilt and went on to rejoice in the Lord's mercy  . 

If in our ardor to fight against abortion we commit violence of another sort what is accomplished ?

Long ago  (when I was a high school girl ) Dorothy Day , a contemporary of my parents  was my hero .  She still is  . 
Mark Harden
13 years ago
" I see all those women trotted out  in Washington , D.C. at the Right to Life Rally wearing four foot sandwich signs  ,  ' I regret my abortion .  '  "

That's a grave disservice to those women, to uncharitably imply they are merely pawns of the prolife movement. Have you not read any of their personal testimony?

The concern to me is the statement that a woman decided to get an abortion specifically because Dorothy Day had gotten one. Unless more definitive statements from Day can be found in regard to MORAL regret for her abortion, it would not seem to be wise to canonize her. If this woman detgermined that because Day had an abortion it was OK for her, too, then how many more might conculde from her being made a SAINT that having an abortion was OK?

Canonization is not only an acknowledgement that somene is in heaven, but that they are worthy to put forth as a model for emulation in our spiritual life. For all her other good works, if Day can be seen (even if imprecisely) as a model for justifying abortion, her canonization would be a huge mistake. 
Daniel Marshall
13 years ago
What is hard to understand about the word "sins" in what Dorothy said.  The quote is verbatim.
Darren Friesen
13 years ago
For those concerned about Dorothy's thoughts on abortion, watch this interview from the 1970s from about the 5:15 mark.  It begins with a discussion of genocide, which she voluntarily turns to a discussion of abortion and birth control: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kR_6miCs7FA&NR=1. 

She upheld the Church's ancient teaching on both abortion and birth control.
Beth Cioffoletti
13 years ago
"She sounds like an interesting person, but questionable saint material.  Abortion, common-law husband, etc." (#13)

I'm reading the latest biography of St. Francis of Assisi ("The Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi" by Donald Spoto).  Spoto quotes a contemporary of Francis describing his early life as having been raised "indulgently and carelessly ...
Interesting that Francis, like Dorothy, spawned a new social movement.
Beth Cioffoletti
13 years ago
Somehow my full quote from the Spoto book was cut in the comment above.  Here it is again (maybe those ... did something)

[Francis'] early life as having been raised "indulgently and carelessely ...
Beth Cioffoletti
13 years ago
One more time:

Francis was raised "indulgently and carelessly and was taught shameful and detestable things full of excess and lewdness.  He boiled in teh sins of youthful heat and was steeped in every kind of debauchery."

( I left out all of the ...'s)
Ashley Green
13 years ago
@David Smith:
The abortion and common law marriage occured before Day's conversion to Catholocism.  After her conversion, it appears that she lived a very saintly life, intensely spiritual and dedicated to serving the poor.  We can agree or disagree with her politics, just as we can agree or disagree with the politics of politically active saints who were more conservative, but the important thing to keep in mind is how Day and others who are under consideration for canonization bore witness to true Christian discipleship once they made the commitment to the Christian way of life.   
Aloysia Moss
13 years ago
Thank you , Mark Harden for the website  .   I read several testimonies  .  My objection is to the wording of the sign  .  The signs do not express the same message as do the testimonies . 

I continue to hope these women are not being used . 

Saints give testimony to God at work in their lives , not to personal perfection . They tell us to let God in to our lives now ,  not to become carbon copies of them  .  They give us hope to see God can and does work with anybody  . 

We celebrate Augustine of Hippo and never worry that someone will go out  ruining orchards , womanizing ,  make a baby with a mistress and practice heresy as he did . 

Day's radical Christianity was a thorn in the side of a few in church leadership ...  just like Jesus ??? 
Jim Forest
13 years ago
In a comment above Mark Harden writes: ''The concern to me is the statement that a woman decided to get an abortion specifically because Dorothy Day had gotten one.'' Who is he thinking of? I knew Dorothy well and - in researching my biograohy of her - know fairly well the writings about her plus her letters and diaries. I have never heard of anyone using Dorothy's abortion as justification to do the same.

There is a transcript of a lengthy interview with Dorothy here:


Search ''abortion'' and you will see her describing abortion as a from of genocide.

The 10-minute segment of the interview in which she speaks about abortion is on YouTube:


Jim Forest
David Pasinski
13 years ago
Thanks to Daniel Marshall, Jim Martin, and each of you who have contributed to this string.  I appreciate all that Robert Ellsberg has written (have not read the latest)and Jim Forest's biography - of which I've already given away two copies. Complex feelings and discussion for me, but I appreciate the posting and believe that somehow Dorothy would also. This seems different to me than the revelations that were published about Mother Teresa who was promised a privacy that was not respected, I think, that should have been observed even though her "dark night" has truly been ironically illuminating to many. But that is another discussion...
Jim Forest
12 years 11 months ago
Dorothy signed very few statements on any subject, but I have just recalled one of the exceptions was a text on abortion issued by the Catholic Peace Fellowship in 1974. Here it is.

June 28, 1974

The Catholic Peace Fellowship Statement on Abortion

The January 22, 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion deprives all unborn human beings of any protection whatever against incursions upon their right to life and has thus created a situation we find morally intolerable, and one which we feel obliged to protest.

In issuing this statement in the name of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, we wish to make it clear that we do not speak for the Fellowship of Reconciliation with which we are affiliated. The FOR has not to this point taken an official position.

From the point of view of biological science the fetus is an individual human life. The social sciences may attempt to define "fully human" in a variety of ways, but their findings are inconclusive and, at best, tentative and certainly supply no basis for determining who is or who is not to enjoy the gift of life. No one has the right to choose life or death for another; to assume such power has always been recognized as the ultimate form of oppression.

A primary obligation of civil society is to protect the innocent. A legal situation such as now exists in the United States, making abortion available upon demand, is an abdication of the state's responsibility to protect the most basic of rights, the right to life.

We make this statement to protest a policy and a practice, not to condemn any individual for a tragic decision she or he may have felt forced to make, just as in our protest against war and its destruction of human life we pass no judgment upon the individual who acts in good conscience.

But just as we urge our leaders to institute policies that will put an end to the constant threat of war, so we call upon them, in particular our legislatures and courts, to undertake a prudent and thorough reassessment of the abortion issue in all its ramifications and to develop a policy that will extend the rights and protections afforded by the Constitution, and inherent by nature, to the unborn, and at the same time to provide every support and assistance to those who might otherwise be driven to consider abortion as a solution to real and demanding personal problems.

We reject categorically the Supreme Court's argument that abortion is an exclusively private matter to be decided by the prospective mother and her physician. We protest the thoroughly logical and perhaps inevitable extension of a practice which, though first argued in a personal context, has rapidly become a social policy involving publicly funded clinics and supportive agencies.

This is not a "Catholic issue," and to dismiss it as such is to deny the dedication and the contribution of those of other religions and of none. Nor is this simply a matter of one group of citizens imposing its own morality upon others, any more so than our conscientious resistance to the war in Viet Nam, to conscription, etc. Indeed, we insist that these positions are all of one piece, stemming from what Albert Schweitzer called, "reverence for life," and the consequent obligation to oppose any policy or practice which would give one human being the right to determine whether or not another shall be permitted to live.

For many years we have urged upon our spiritual leaders the inter-relatedness of the life issues, war, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia and economic exploitation. We welcome the energetic leadership our bishops are giving in the abortion controversy and we are proud to join our voices with theirs. At the same time we must point out that, ultimately, the sincerity of our words and theirs on any of these issues will be measured by our readiness to recognize and deal with the underlying social problems which turn many people to these deadly alternatives, to condemn all forms of social and economic injustice and to work for their elimination and the establishment of a social order in which all may find it easier to be "fully human."


Dorothy Day
Eileen Egan
Hermene Evans
Joseph Evans, M.D.
Thomas C. Cornell
James H. Forest
Gordon C. Zahn

* * *

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