Opinion: My aunt died of an illegal abortion. We can’t go back.

An abortion-rights supporter holds a sign outside the South Carolina Statehouse on Thursday, July 7, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. Protesters clashed outside a legislative building, where lawmakers were taking testimony as they consider new restrictions on abortion in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision overturning of Roe v. Wade. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

By Bonnie Dobson

May 2, 2024

When I was growing up, I was always closer to my mom. She was easier to talk to. Whenever I had a problem or was concerned about something, the first thing I would do was pick up the phone and call my mom.

The call would go something like this: “Hi Dad, is Mom home? OK, I’ll call back later,” or, if I was lucky, Mom would answer and we would talk. So after my mom died in 2021, I started getting to know my dad for the first time in my life.

When Roe v. Wade was overturned, I was lost. I felt something that I couldn’t put into words and I needed to talk to somebody. So I picked up the phone and called my dad.

I always knew where my mother stood on this issue. Growing up, we had six kids in the family and shopped at thrift stores to stretch our dollars. There was one thrift store in town that we never went to. One day I asked my mom why we didn’t shop there and she quietly explained that they do not support a woman’s right to choose. And that was that. Mom would not patronize a store that went against her beliefs.

I made assumptions about what my dad believed but I never was sure how he stood on this issue. When Roe was overturned and I called him, I asked him if he had heard the news. He said: “Yes, Bonnie I’m sick about it.” I took that opportunity to ask him why. Why was he feeling the same way I was feeling? That is when he told me a family story I did not yet know.

When he was nine years old, his oldest sister went off to college. This was a big deal in my dad’s family: He grew up in a small town in rural North Carolina and his family was dirt poor. My grandparents and their 15 kids lived in a two-bedroom house with no indoor plumbing. That they had saved enough to send their oldest to college was nothing short of a miracle.

That first year, his sister came back pregnant and my grandmother was heartbroken. She took her to get an abortion, which was illegal at the time. The procedure had to be done underground.

Over the next couple of months, my aunt slowly died from an infection while my father, a nine-year-old boy who idolized his sister, watched. He said it was so painful that he never wanted another woman to go through that. That experience shaped his life and view on abortion forever.

That was the 1940s, but these same fears, these same concerns, these same risks are in our families and communities again today. Women are again being faced with unconscionable choices and situations, traveling sometimes hundreds of miles and out of state to get healthcare due to lawmakers playing politics with our lives.

North Carolina is currently one of the few places to which women from Southern states can travel for abortion care—but even here, women are under threat by grandstanding candidates and lawmakers who will put their taking points over our safety.

What my family experienced is about more than abortion—it’s about health justice more broadly. It’s about what happens when bad legislation and economic disparities collide. It’s about the people who live at this vulnerable intersection: Women—especially poor women, rural women, and Black women—who are left with little care, few options, and, frequently, only bad choices.

My aunt’s story is barely one of the past; women today continue to die because of unjust healthcare systems and policies. Today, the US maternal mortality rate greatly exceeds the maternal mortality rates of other Western countries, with 1,205 American women dying from maternal causes in 2021, a rate that is increasing, not decreasing.

In North Carolina, the overall rate of maternal death is even higher than the US average, and Black women account for 43% of pregnancy-related deaths here, despite only 22% of the state’s population being Black.

In the towns and counties where my family is from, the lack of health insurance, postpartum treatment, and even the distance to healthcare facilities leads to pregnancy complications going undetected, with some women developing diseases and serious medical issues while being left all alone with insufficient care.

We have made progress. The expansion of Medicaid in North Carolina last year was a true working-class win, bringing a lifeline to nearly half a million of our neighbors who have enrolled since December. Furthermore, North Carolina has just taken the step to accept federal help and expand postpartum care for Medicaid recipients from 60 days to 12 months—a move that will impact roughly 65% of Black births.

But even with this progress, there remain those who wish to push us backwards instead of work with us to enhance our safety—last year, legislators in Raleigh enacted a 12-week abortion ban, including additional burdensome restrictions.

Progress is something that we cannot take for granted in 2024. That is why I am calling my dad often this year, to lean on his stories and wisdom. I’m calling my friends and family and neighbors too, to share my family’s story and what’s at stake in North Carolina and the nation for women like me, women like my daughters, and women like my aunt that I never got to meet, but who feels so present today.


  • Bonnie Dobson

    Bonnie Dobson is a mom from Alamance County, NC and the Deep Canvass Manager at Down Home North Carolina where she leads volunteers in the art of having deep, inquisitive conversations with people throughout rural North Carolina.


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