wish every woman who has ever suffered an abortion would come to
know Dorothy Day. Her story was so typical. 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.] She had died
before I became Archbishop of New York, or I would have called on her
immediately upon my arrival. Few people have had such an impact on my
life, even though we never met."
Thus spoke the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor. The remainder of this
article substantially contains Dorothy Day's actual words as edited and
sometimes paraphrased by Dan Lynch. The information concerning her
abortion was obtained from her biographers and her autobiographical
novel, The Eleventh Virgin. Dorothy never publicly wrote or spoke
about her abortion. Her writings may be found at CatholicWorker.org.
Dorothy Day: I hobbled down the darkened stairwell of the Upper
East Side flat in New York City. My steps were unsteady. My left arm
held the banister tightly. My right arm clutched my abdomen. It was
burning in pain. I walked out onto the street alone in the dark. It was
in September of 1919. I was twenty-one years old and I had just aborted
Lionel, my boyfriend, promised to pick me up at the flat after it was
all over. I waited in pain from nine a.m. to ten p.m. but he never came.
When I got home to his apartment I found only a note. He said he had
left for a new job and, regarding my abortion, that I “was only one of
God knows how many millions of women who go through the same thing.
Don’t build up any hopes. It is best, in fact, that you forget me.”
I wrote about this experience in my autobiographical novel, The
Eleventh Virgin. In my youth I had thought that the greatest gift
that life could offer would be a faith in God and a hereafter. But then
there were too many people passing through my life, — too many
activities — too much pleasure (not happiness). The life of the flesh
called to me as a good and wholesome life, regardless of God's laws.
What was good and what was evil? It is easy enough to stifle conscience
for a time. The satisfied flesh has its own law. How much time I wasted
during those years! I had fallen a long way from my youthful ideals.
When I was fifteen I wrote, "I am working always, always on guard,
praying without ceasing to overcome all physical sensations and be
But these "physical sensations" allured me. I lived a social-activist
Bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village, New York City. I think back and
remember myself, hurrying along from party to party, and all the
friends, and the drinking, and the talk, and the crushes, and falling in
love. I fell in love with a newspaperman named Lionel Moise. I got
pregnant. He said that if I had the baby, he would leave me. I wanted
the baby but I wanted Lionel more. So I had the abortion and I lost them
I later wrote in my autobiography,The Long Loneliness, "For a long time
[after my abortion] I had thought I could not bear a child, and the
longing in my heart for a baby had been growing.”
In 1924 I started a "live-in" relationship with Forster Batterham, an
atheist and an anarchist. He believed in nothing except personal freedom
to do as you please. We took up residence in a beach bungalow on Staten
Island, New York. We foreshadowed the hippies of the sixties and lived a
carefree lifestyle living off the land and sea — gardening, fishing and
claming. I thought that we would be contributing to the misery of the
world if we failed to rejoice in the sun, the moon, and the stars, in
the rivers which surrounded the island on which we lived and in the cool
breezes of the bay. Like Dostoevsky, I began to believe that the world
would be saved by beauty. It was this beautiful, natural world that
slowly led me back to God. "How can there be no God," I asked Forster,
"when there are all these beautiful things?"
However, I felt that my home was not a home without a child. For a long
time I had thought that I could not have a child. No matter how much one
is loved or one loves, that love is lonely without a child. It is
incomplete. Soon I became pregnant again. I saw this as a miracle from
God because I thought that He had left me barren after the abortion. I
wrote in a letter to a friend, “I always rather expected an ugly
grotesque thing which only I could love; expecting perhaps to see my
sins in the child.”
On the contrary, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter,
Tamar Teresa, on March 4, 1926. I remembered that the labor pains swept
over me like waves in the beautiful rhythm of the sea. When I became
bored and impatient with the steady restlessness of those waves of pain,
I thought of all the other and more futile kinds of pain I would rather
not have had. Toothaches, earaches, and broken arms. I had had them all.
And this was a much more satisfactory and accomplishing pain, I
I thought about famous men who wrote about childbirth such as Tolstoy
and O’Neill and I thought, “What do they know about it, the idiots.” It
gave me pleasure to imagine one of them in the throes of childbirth. How
they would groan and holler and rebel. And wouldn’t they make everybody
else miserable around them. And there I was, conducting a neat and tidy
The waves of pain became tidal waves. Earthquake and fire swept my body.
Through the rush and roar of the cataclysm that was all about me, I
heard the murmur of the doctor and the answered murmur of the nurse at
my head. In a white blaze of thankfulness I heard faint about the clamor
in my ears, a peculiar squawk. They handed my baby to me. I placed her
on my full breast where she mouthed around, too lazy to tug for food. I
thought, “What do you want, little bird? That it should run into your
mouth, I suppose. But no, you must work for your provender already!”
No matter how cynically or casually the worldly may treat the birth of a
child, it remains spiritually and physically a tremendous event. God
pity the woman who does not feel the fear, the awe, and the joy of
bringing a child into the world.
I was filled with awe of my baby’s new life and in gratitude to God I
wanted her to be baptized in the Catholic Church. I did not want my
child to flounder as I had often floundered. I wanted to believe, and I
wanted my child to believe, and if belonging to the Church would give
her so inestimable a grace as faith in God, and the companionable love
of the Saints then the thing to do was to have her baptized a Catholic.
This was the final straw for Forster who wanted nothing to do with any
commitments or what he termed as my "absorption in the supernatural".
I knew that I was going to have my child baptized a Catholic, cost what
it may. I knew I was not going to have her floundering as I had done,
doubting and hesitating, undisciplined and amoral. I felt it was the
greatest thing I could do for my child.
So Tamar was baptized in June. For myself, I prayed for the gift of
faith. I was sure, yet not sure. I postponed the day of decision. To
become a Catholic meant for me to give up a mate with whom I was much in
love. It got to the point where it was the simple question of whether I
chose God or man. I chose God and I lost Forster. I was baptized on the
Feast of The Holy Innocents, December 28, 1927. It was something I had
to do. I was tired of following the devices and desires of my own heart,
of doing what I wanted to do, what my desires told me to do, which
always seemed to lead me astray. The cost was the loss of the man I
loved, but it paid for the salvation of my child and myself.
I painfully described this loss in The Long Loneliness: "For a woman who
had known the joys of marriage, yes, it was hard. It was years before I
awakened without that longing for a face pressed against my breast, an
arm around my shoulder. The sense of loss was there. It was a price I
had paid. I was Abraham who had sacrificed Isaac. And yet I had Isaac, I
I always had a great regret for my abortion. In fact, I tried to cover
it up and to destroy as many copies of The Eleventh Virgin as I
could find. But my priest chided me and said, “You can’t have much faith
in God if you’re taking the life given to you and using it that way. God
is the one who forgives us if we ask, and it sounds like you don’t even
want forgiveness — just to get rid of the books.” I never forgot what
the priest pointed out — the vanity or pride at work in my heart. Since
that time I wasn’t as worried as I had been. If you believe in the
mission of Jesus Christ, then you’re bound to try to let go of your
past, in the sense that you are entitled to His forgiveness. To keep
regretting what was, is to deny God’s grace.
After my conversion, I struggled to support my child as
a single parent working as a free-lance writer. In December 1932 I was
in Washington D.C. covering the Hunger March of the Unemployed. Watching
the ragged men marching moved my sense of social justice and I was
inspired to go to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to
pray. I cried out to God in anguish that some way would open up for me
to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.
When I returned to New York, I found waiting for me an unkempt man with
fire in his eyes. Immediately he began preaching to me in a thick French
accent his grand vision for social justice. His name was Peter Maurin
and together we founded the Catholic Worker Movement.
We opened houses of hospitality for the poor, the hungry, the homeless,
and for abused women and pregnant mothers. We practiced the spiritual
and corporal works of mercy. One day thirty year old Elizabeth came to
us at the end of her pregnancy. Her husband was a drug addict. It was
New Year’s Eve, the eve of the Feast of the Holy Family. He came to our
house drugged and sat at supper asleep while his wife fed him.
I called the ambulance but he refused their help. He muttered, “She’s my
wife. She has to stick to me. She has to take care of me.” Oh, I
thought, The distortion of the idea of the Holy Family. She has to take
care of him and she's about to bear his child! But we had a little bed
ready for the baby, and a box of pretty garments, and she was happy as
she looked at them, and there was even gaiety in our midst as we sat
around the fire and had a cup of tea in the holiday spirit.
I’ll never forget the time that I had to literally stand up against
birth control. My sister Della had worked for Margaret Sanger, foundress
of Planned Parenthood. When Della exhorted me that I shouldn’t encourage
my daughter Tamar to have so many children, I stood up firmly and walked
out of the house whereupon Della ran after me weeping, saying, “Don’t
leave me, don’t leave me. We just won’t talk about it again.” To me,
birth control and abortion are genocide. I say, make room for children,
don’t do away with them. I learned that prevention of conception when
the act that one is performing is for the purpose of fusing the two
lives more closely and so enrich them that another life springs forth
and the aborting of a life conceived are sins that are great
frustrations in the natural and spiritual order.
The Sexual Revolution is a complete rebellion against authority, natural
and supernatural, even against the body and its needs, its natural
functions of child bearing. This is not reverence for life, it is a
great denial and more resembles Nihilism than the revolution that they
think they are furthering.
Once I asked a man why he signed a petition for the Rosenbergs who had
been convicted of treason in the fifties. “It is because I am against
capital punishment,” he said. In other words, he, as the rest of us, is
in favor of life — life until natural death.
I was happy that I could be with my mother the last few weeks of her
life, and for the last ten days at her bedside daily and hourly.
Sometimes I thought that it was like being present at a birth to sit by
a dying person and see their intentness on what is happening to them. It
almost seems that one is absorbed in a struggle, a fearful, grim,
physical struggle, to breathe, to swallow, to live. And so, I kept
thinking to myself, how necessary it is for one of their loved ones to
be beside them, to pray for them, to offer up prayers for them
unceasingly, as well as to do all those little offices one can.
When my daughter Tamar was a little tiny girl, she said to me once,
“When I get to be a great big woman and you are a little tiny girl, I’ll
take care of you.” I thought of that when I had to feed my mother by the
spoonful and urged her to eat her custard. Shortly before she died I
told her, “We can no more imagine life beyond the grave than a blind man
can imagine colors.” How good God was to me, to let me be there. I was
there, holding her hand, and she just turned her head and sighed. That
was her last breath, that little sigh; and her hand was warm in mine for
a long time after.
[End of paraphrased article]
Dorothy Day is the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She is a
model pro-life lay witness and intercessor. She was chosen as the 20th
century's most outstanding lay Catholic. Cardinal John O’Connor of New
York introduced the cause for her canonization and said, “It is with
great joy that I announce the approval of the Holy See for the
Archdiocese of New York to open the Cause for the Beatification and
Canonization of Dorothy Day. With this approval comes the title Servant
of God. What a gift to the Church in New York and to the Church
Universal this is!”
Dorothy Day, Servant of God, pray for us — for us who labor for a
culture of life and a civilization of love, for the unborn, for the
mothers in crisis pregnancies, for mothers who have suffered from
abortions, for the poor and for the dying.