In her youth, Dorothy Day was surrounded by many influential voices who encouraged her to be sexually active before marriage. Emma Goldman egged her on to try ‘free love’, but Day was reluctant to let go of her natural inhibitions and start sleeping around. Later Day would write in her own autobiography that she had been repulsed by Goldman’s many sexual affairs. A dear friend of Day’s, Peggy Baird tried to sell Day on the idea that extra-marital sex was a good thing because it broke down barriers between men and women. Baird was unnerved by Day’s unwillingness to give in to sexual desire.
As a 21 year old, Day did, however, have a dalliance with another journalist, and became pregnant as a result. The fellow was a cad and pressurised her to have an abortion, and in September 1919, 96 years ago this month, Day made a decision that she would bitterly regret for the rest of her life. She had an illegal abortion. Afterwards, Day was weighted down with a guilt-fuelled depression. Reflecting on Day’s distress, it calls to mind Pope Francis’ words this week, when he described post-abortion women as bearing, ‘the scar of this agonizing and painful decision’.
Pope Francis has made provisions for all priests during the Year of Mercy to absolve the sin of abortion. Our Pope has not minced his words in decrying, ‘the tragedy of abortion’ and in being clear that the opportunity for confession is open to women with ‘a sincere heart’. On the part of a woman who has had an abortion, there must be genuine contrition for her sin, and a firm purpose of amendment never to have an abortion again.
Dorothy Day was one such woman who showed great remorse after her abortion, and who vowed never to commit the same mistake again. Day suffered from psychological problems after her abortion, and sought solace in prayer. Day had thought that her illegal abortion had rendered her sterile, but in 1928, she gave birth to her daughter, Tamar. After she baptised her baby, her live-in boyfriend, Forster Batterham rejected her. For at least five years after they had split, Day wrote letters to Batterham, beseeching him to return to her and marry her. Day even asked him, ‘do I have to be condemned to celibacy all my life?’ Reminding Batterham that she did not take naturally to a casual sex lifestyle she wrote, ‘you know I am not a promiscuous creature in my love.’ Batterham would not relent because he eschewed all religious practice.
Day would not leave the Catholic Church, in order to win back Batterham, it had been her refuge during her post-abortion grief. In 1932, Day met Peter Maurin, and they founded the Catholic Workers’ Movement. They ran soup kitchens and set up urban houses of hospitality, caring for the homeless and the hungry when the Great Depression was at its worst. The houses of hospitality took in many pregnant mothers over the years. There was one married lady called Elizabeth whose husband was a drug addict. Elizabeth was heavily pregnant when she left her husband and sought refuge in a house of hospitality. When Elizabeth had given birth, Day prepared a little bed for the baby and gave Elizabeth cute baby clothes, and said that an atmosphere of great joy flooded the house of hospitality because of the newborn baby.
In later years, Day’s daughter, Tamar would go on to be a mother of a very large family. Day’s sister Della had worked for Margaret Sanger, the infamous founder of Planned Parenthood. Della tried to tell her Catholic convert sister that Tamar should not have so many kids. Della may have been implying that Tamar should be open to aborting future pregnancies – Day’s grandchildren! Day wouldn’t fall for the Planned Parenthood line, and refused to accept Della’s point of view. Day knew the bitter pain of losing a child in an abortion and would not visit it on her own daughter, Tamar.
Dorothy Day has been given the title Servant of God, and as we approach the Year of Mercy, we must invoke Dorothy Day’s intercession for women who intend to confess the sin of abortion. Day is the perfect role model for post-abortion women. She had the humility and purity of heart to admit that her abortion was a grave mistake, she was sincerely contrite and later on she helped vulnerable pregnant women avoid the trap of abortion that she had fallen prey to. The Year of Mercy could well be the time when we see Dorothy Day’s intercession burn bright.