When I was in my forties, I became avidly interested in Dorothy Day, and I read everything I could about her life. Day, as most know, was a bohemian, peace activist, Communist, and journalist who converted to Catholicism in 1927, similar to my own re-conversion after I tried out the lifestyles exemplified by the artists and intellectuals of my own day fifty years later. Day turned her deep sympathy for the sufferings of the oppressed, which had been the behind her mistaken enthusiasm for Communism in her youth, into a zeal for aiding others based on Catholic principles that she learned from the scruffy-looking, itinerant, philosophizing, Catholic Frenchman, Peter Maurin. Maurin appeared unannounced at her doorstep one day in December 1932, the day after she prayed to God to show her how she could best continue to work for social reform as a Catholic, and Day always believed that Maurin was the answer to her prayers.
Maurin convinced her to work with him towards his vision of a peaceful “green revolution” (a term he coined), a revolution to create a society true to Christ’s teachings about feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless, and so on, a society in which oppressive economic inequalities would not exist, “in which it would be easier for men to be good.”
Together they founded The Catholic Worker newspaper and a series of Houses of Hospitality and farms for the outcasts in society. For the rest of her life, Day, like Maurin, led a self-sacrificing penitential life of prayer, poverty, and humble service, and Day now is being considered for sainthood.
While reading about her life, I was surprised to discover how strongly an Americanized version of Freud’s theories had already taken hold of the culture, even in the first decades of the twentieth century, when Dorothy Day was still a young woman. Many of her literary and Communist friends, such as activist Emma Goldman, and playwright Eugene O’Neil, were proponents of “free love,” which—as many have observed accurately—isn’t love and isn’t free. Blithely promoting the claim that chastity gives rise to unhealthy sexual repression, many of them acted on that belief by being promiscuous.
In that intellectual milieu, in 1918, when she was 20, Dorothy Day gave herself with all her heart to a down-and-out devilishly attractive womanizing writer named Lionel Moise, who some claim taught Ernest Hemingway to write, but who now is only remembered, if he is remembered at all, as the man who didn’t love Dorothy Day. When she got pregnant by him in 1919, she knew he would abandon her completely if she did not abort their child. After four months of anguished vacillation about what to do, she told him she was pregnant, and they arranged an illegal abortion.
She wrote a fictionalized version of her experience in a novel, The Eleventh Virgin. Even though she tried to destroy all copies of the novel after she converted, years later she handed a copy to a biographer saying, “It’s all true.” In the novel, Day wrote about her fictionalized self that she was too proud to go home, face her mother’s disapproval, and keep her baby, but not too proud to cling to the man who did not want her or their child.
Later she told an acquaintance, “You know, I had an abortion. The doctor was fat, dirty and furtive. He left hastily after it was accomplished, leaving me bleeding.”
Moise was supposed to pick her up afterwards; she waited in pain in the dark outside the tenement where the abortionist worked from 9 to 10 p.m., but he didn’t show up. She made her way to Moise’s apartment in a cab to find he had packed up and left her with only a note. He wrote that she was only one of God knows how many millions of women who go through the same thing. She couldn’t expect him to limit his freedom and become just an average married man. As she later wrote, she realized she had sacrificed her child so she would not lose her man, and in the end she had lost them both.
Dorothy got an infection from the abortion and sank into sickness and deep depression. She tried to commit suicide twice. Then for years she was afraid that she would never be able to conceive another child. She said that abortion was “the great tragedy of her life.”
Most people only found out about Dorothy Day’s abortion after her death. The fact that she never spoke publicly against abortion is being used by some to claim she was not against it.
But she realized the Church’s wisdom after she converted, as she wrote in a Commonweal Magazine article in 1973, when she was seventy-five. She wrote in that article how a reporter had once asked her position on birth control and abortion.
My answer was simplistic. I followed Pope Paul…. Thank God we have a Pope Paul who upholds respect for life, an ideal so lofty, so high, so important even when it seems he has the whole Catholic world against him.
She was referring of course to Humanae Vitae, which Pope Paul VI published in 1968, five years before she wrote the Commonweal reminiscence, in which the pope restated the Church’s perennial teachings against both artificial birth control and abortion.
When she became a public figure, Dorothy Day resolved not to crusade against abortion because it might seem hypocritical, if it came out she had one herself. And to her dismay it happened at least once that a young woman who had somehow learned about Dorothy’s abortion justified having an abortion herself because Dorothy had done so. Day was afraid the knowledge might lead other women astray who might also take her much-regretted abortion as an example to follow instead of as a violent act against both the woman and her child, which, although it can be repented and forgiven, it can never be undone.
I am concerned that Dorothy Day’s proposed sainthood may be used to support the false idea that Day did not repent her early bohemian lifestyle and the abortion she had during her youth before her conversion.
I’ve already seen evidence that some pro-choice Catholics are constructing a false narrative: that if this woman who had an abortion is declared a saint, then the Church would be admitting that abortion may be a justifiable choice for women in difficult situations. Those who claim Dorothy Day was not opposed to abortion should have a hard time getting around the fact that Day was one of the signers of a protest against legalized abortion on June 28, 1974, eighteen months after the Supreme Court legalized it.
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….
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.
The protest letter included many statements about the need for compassion for women who feel driven to abort their children, but in no way did the signers portray abortion as anything other than the intolerable destruction of the life of a human being.
About the callous misuse of women’s sexuality that leads to the callous practice of abortion, Day wrote this in The Catholic Worker in September 1963, forty-four years after her abortion,
Sex is a profound force, having to do with life, the forces of creation which make man god-like. He shares in the power of the Creator, and, when sex is treated lightly, as a means of pleasure, I can only consider that woman is used as a plaything, not as a person. When sex is so used it takes on the quality of the demonic, and to descend into this blackness is to have a foretaste of hell, ‘where no order is, but everlasting horror dwelleth.’ (Job x.22)
What does the Catholic Church really think of Dorothy Day’s abortion? Here is one indication, a quote by the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, who proposed Dorothy Day for sainthood, and who commented that one day she may be the patron saint of women who have had abortions.
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. But later, 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.)