Cause of Death: Abortion | Genealogical Findings Part II

The only photo of my grandmother.

The only photo of my grandmother.

As you likely know by now, meeting my birthmother, Deborah, was a dream come true. However, one aspect I haven't spoken publicly about is the complexity of being in reunion ongoing. One of my greatest assumptions upon finding Deborah was that I'd get to see what she looked like in her teens, twenties and beyond. However, after multiple inquiries, I learned the sad fact that my birthmother does not own a single photo of herself in childhood or early adulthood. Rumor has it that many of her precious items burned in a fire.   

Recently, my parents gifted both Deborah and myself a DNA kit through ancestry.com (thanks mom and dad!), which has propelled Deborah and I to learn more about our origins together, as she was even unclear as to how to spell her fathers name. Knowing that the history of blacks in the South is an ugly one, I've braced for some tough truths. But, per both mine and Deborah's history of secrecy and shame, I knew that we both are plenty well equipped to learn our ancestral truths - no matter how painful.

1928 Census, showing great-great grandmother's cause of death: "abortion."

1928 Census, showing great-great grandmother's cause of death: "abortion."

...women are fierce survivors, often holding families together against great odds. It’s both sad and inspiring.
— Della Kostelnik Juarez

For the past year, I've received emails with the subject line reading "progress..." or " "jackpot!!" and each time, my heart skips a beat. Della Kostelnik-Juarez's emails are comprised of a narrative-style information laced with links to historical articles supplementing the heart-wrenching facts of our ancestors. Della, a former television journalist, has a particular interest in women's lives throughout history and the choices and opportunities that existed for them. Her interest in genealogy may have stemmed from her personal lineage that dates back to Auschwitz. 

Yesterday, Deborah and I learned that our family roots trace back to a small town of 350 people, the site of the worst lynching in the history of the state of Georgia. As if this wasn't sobering enough, we also learned that my great, great grandmother's death certificate cites both pneumonia and a botched abortion as the cause of her death. An article in The Atlantic reported that "In 1902 the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association endorsed the by then common policy of denying a woman suffering from abortion complications medical care until she 'confessed'...In the late 1920s some 15,000 women a year died from abortions." It's a sobering reality to integrate the truth that my great-great-grandmother was one of those 15,000.

African-American genealogy is typically quite difficult to digest and for many White folks, it's deeply shameful and some simply try to omit family ties of slave ownership altogether (ahem, Ben Affleck). However, underneath those big, broad paint strokes of hard labor, whippings and torment, are stories of beauty, strength and survival - all traits that I've come to see in my birthmother. 

A PBS NewsHour clip, highlighted "...a study examining the DNA of Holocaust survivors and their children found similar variations from the norm in both generations for the gene associated with depression and anxiety disorders..." I can't help but wonder what trauma may have been genetically passed on to my body, too.

Understanding our lineage helps me to remember that none of our choices are made in a vacuum, which in turn helps me to better understand my own adoption story. We are all shaped by our place within the context of our time. It's easy to think that Deborah's personal hardships led her to sign documents relinquishing her parental rights and that her "decision" to place me for adoption was because of her less than ideal circumstances, but in reality the necessity for my adoption was predicated on the shoulders of her ancestors. While Della's work has filled a gaping hole towards my pursuit of "Closure," she insists that this project has greatly enriched her life, too.

I'm sincerely grateful.