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Nearly 100 years later, a family remembers an illegal abortion that ended in tragedy

Apotheker sisters and their mother.
Marisa McClellan
Apotheker sisters and their mother.

Updated June 24, 2022 at 10:52 AM ET

PORTLAND, Ore. — Leana McClellan never got a chance to meet her grandmother. But she knows the story of her grandmother's abortion. It was 1925, and Elizabeth Apotheker Kannerstein had just married.

"Within the first three months of their marriage, she got pregnant," says Leana McClellan. "And he was 23 and in law school, and couldn't support them. So they decided that she should have an abortion."

In 1925, that meant an illegal abortion. Lauren MacIvor Thompson teaches about the intersection of women's rights, medicine, and public health at Georgia's Kennesaw State University. She says that a hundred years ago — like today — access to abortion was stratified by race, class, and location. The quality of care was limited by what people could find, and what they could afford. Even information was hard to come by.

"Women were really reliant on familial networks, whisper networks, you know — having a cup of coffee at the kitchen table to find out what the options were," explains MacIvor Thompson. "And because it's criminalized, there's no regulation, there's no guarantee."

A couple days after her abortion, Elizabeth Apotheker Kannerstein died of complications. She left behind three kids from her first marriage. Her granddaughter says Elizabeth's kids' lives were shattered.

"The family actually had decided that they would split them all up and each would go to a different house, and the kids just clung to each other. They refused."

Only one aunt was willing to take all three kids — but her husband, who never wanted children, tortured them in little ways all through their childhoods. Leana McClellan says the situation was especially heartbreaking because Elizabeth's husband – their stepfather – wanted to adopt the children. But because the family blamed him for the pregnancy that led to her death, he was driven out of the family. Leana McClellan remembers him checking in on her mother over the years, but it was always kept secret from the rest of the family.

Losing a Matriarch

Before her death, Leana McClellan says, Elizabeth had been the heart of the family. She was also the breadwinner — which is why she couldn't afford to be off caring for another baby. This was a situation born of a previous family tragedy; after Elizabeth's first husband, a violinist, died in the flu epidemic of 1919, his fellow members of the Philadelphia orchestra took up a collection for her to open a Russian tea house. It had been the family's primary source of income when Elizabeth died.

"People would come in before the show for dinner and then after the shows ended, they would come back in for a drink," explains Marisa McClellan, Elizabeth's great-granddaughter

"Oh, right — they would always come in for scrambled eggs and caviar," remembers Leana McClellan. "And tea in glasses with little — whatever they are — skirts around them, so you can hold them."

The original Russian Inn interior.
/ Marisa McClellan
Marisa McClellan
The original Russian Inn interior.

After Elizabeth died, The Russian Inn stayed in the family. But the family wasn't the same.

"There was always an edge with my mother and her siblings that they were always kind of in survival mode," says Leana McClellan. Elizabeth's kids were always looking for safety and security, trying to fill the holes that had been left. When they had their own kids, they didn't know how to be parents themselves.

"All three of those children from that family just hurt their own children because of this event," Leana McClellan said.

Women seeking abortion had no safe options in the early 1900s

A few decades before Elizabeth died, there were abortion tools and medications sold in catalogues. "Female hospitals" quietly offered surgical abortions. But by the 1900s, many of these options were gone. The Comstock Act targeting obscenity outlawed the mailing of contraception and abortifacients — or even information about them. States also passed laws banning the procedure — some resulting from moral campaigns, some from regulations on the practice of medicine passed in response to the proliferation of patent medicines.

Historian Lauren MacIvor Thompson says that if people had the means, they could apply to hospitals for a "therapeutic abortion" in a sterile setting. But few people had that option — which resulted in many stories that ended like Elizabeth's.

"It doesn't reduce the number of abortions," explains MacIvor Thompson. "All it does is push these practices underground, and it makes women seeking abortions more vulnerable to people who are going to exploit them."

Nobody knows how many people died from illegal abortions. These traumas were often kept secret. Leana McClellan says that was the case for their family.

"All I heard was she got ill and died very quickly from some kind of an infection," Leana McClellan said. "That was it."

For this family, truth is part of the healing process

It wasn't until her 30s that an older aunt turned to her and said, "'You know, Elizabeth, your grandmother, died of an abortion.' And I went, 'Whoa.' And after she left I asked my mother if it was true, and my mother said, 'Yeah.' "

Still – it wasn't really talked about for years.

"I'm certainly not ashamed," says Leana McClellan. "But there's shame about letting the rest of the world know our family secret."

Marisa McClellan – Elizabeth's great-granddaughter – says it's especially important to tell that story now.

"Now we're here in a position where people are going to die the way my great-grandmother did 97 years ago. And how is that possibly OK?" Marisa McClellan asks. "You know, that hundreds of families, thousands of families are going to have holes ripped in them, are going to have to for generations deal with a loss of women because they're not going to be able to get safe, effective abortions."

These stories of people lost to illegal abortion are hiding in so many family trees. Even if the secrets are never told, they can still cast a shadow. The shadow of Elizabeth Apotheker Kannerstein's death has hung over this family for generations. By telling it, the family says, they hope to bring in some light.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 21, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
In an earlier version, Leana McClellan's name was misspelled several times as Liana McClellan.
Deena Prichep