Lana’s Story

Lana Clarke Phelan Kahn, 1921–2010

“Honey, did you think it was so easy to be a woman?”

 Lana was the orator of the Army of Three, Pat tells me. She had a natural eloquence and wit, which was obvious when we met in 2004 in her home for this interview. I feel honored to have known her.   – LO’C

Pat Maginnis:  Tell Laurie about the abortion you had, Lana.

Lana:     My first daughter was less than a year old. And the doctor had told me if I ever had another child, it would kill me, because I had a terrible pregnancy and a terrible delivery. So he said, “Don’t get pregnant—it’ll kill you.” But he didn’t tell me how not to. So of course I was pregnant again, and I was scared absolutely to death. I already had this little baby I had to take care of, and what was I going to do? There was nobody but me to take care of her!

My husband was working in the shipyard. And he was a nice man, there was nothing wrong with him, but he was not a man that made things happen—he was a man that things happened to. I just knew that it hadn’t been the right thing; it was a bad marriage.

And since I didn’t know anything about this baby business except that I was going to be pregnant all the time, I was going to get rid of what caused me to get pregnant, and that’s silly, but when you can’t figure out how not to get pregnant, you get rid of the cause. And it wasn’t that he did anything wrong or bad—but he was my problem.

Well, I was living in Tampa, working in Walgreen’s. Bless their heart, they always gave me a job. And I met a young lady in the cosmetics department, and she told me about a woman in Ybor City, that’s an outcropping of Tampa. And she told me to go out and see her to see if she could help me. Well, she could help me, but she needed $50. Well, that was a lot of money in those days!

Pat:      Three weeks’ wages!

Lana:   More than that! And so I knew what I needed to do, so I started saving money and I saved and scrimped and pawned everything I had of value, even a dollar. I piled it all in, and I still didn’t have enough money.

There was a nice man who came in there; I think he ran a garage or something. I’m pretty sure to this day that he knew what I needed that money so desperately for, but I borrowed the last five dollars from him, and then I had my precious $50.

So I went flying out to see her. By that time, I was four months’ pregnant. I didn’t know what it meant at the time; I had no idea. It had just taken me so long to get the money. I was just so scared. All I knew was, “Get the money, go out there and get this thing done.”

So I went out to see her, and she was a big lady, a big black lady, so human and so sweet. There was such rapport. As of that minute, I felt like I not only had a doctor, but I had a friend. And she told me to hop up on the little gurney. It was clean, the room was clean. It was in a little scruffy shack. You would certainly never think of it being a place to go, but anyhow, she packed my uterus with something; I’ve forgotten now what, it’s been so long.

Q:        Elm bark?

Lana: Yes, slippery elm. And she said, “Now, go home, and in a few days, this will start you up. Don’t come back here, and don’t tell anybody I did this.”

And I’ve only told everybody in the world. I’m sure she is long gone and dead.

But anyhow, I went home and about three days, I was running a heck of a fever, and I didn’t know what to do, again.

It never occurred to me to worry about the morality of this thing; I was desperate. And when you’re desperate like that, you don’t talk about the niceties of the thing, and you don’t sit down and philosophize about it. You simply save your own life and your family’s life. So I knew that somehow I had to get back out there to her, regardless of what she said.

So one of the most horrible moments of my whole life, we had gone to his [her husband’s] sister’s house for dinner, and I just hadn’t told any of them anything about this.

Q:        Even your husband?

Lana:   No. No, this is a thing you do yourself. And if you die and go to hell, it’s you that goes, not anybody else. So I excused myself to go to the bathroom because it was hurting so. When I sat down on the john and looked down, there was a little tiny hand protruding from my vagina and the blood was just flying, and I thought, “Oh my God, what do I do now?”

I didn’t take as long to think about it as Bush did the war…[laughs] I gathered up all the toilet tissue I could get in my hand and stuffed it back inside of me, pushed everything back up inside my vagina and just packed it. And got all the blood off I could and cleaned everything up. And then I went out back inside and said I had to go home because I was so sick, and that was not a lie. I was so sick, and he said, “I’ll go with you,” and I said, “No, no, no. You stay and have dinner and I’ll go home…” We lived very nearby.

Pat:      How old were you then?

Lana:   16. So I said “I’ll just go home, you stay and have dinner.” Well, he had no inkling, of course, and so I got out, looked at my purse and I had some change, just enough. We were in Tampa, so I caught a streetcar down the waterfront and into town and got on a bus. With all the money I had, I made it back to Ybor City.

It was raining when I got there, and I was all wet, and I went down, kind of slipped down to the side of the house. I could see a light. It looked so good—it looked like the light of heaven to me. And I tapped on the door, and she was home.

And she said, “I told you not to come back.” I said, “I’m so sorry, but I have to.” And I guess she felt sorry for my desperation, so she opened the door and let me in and put me back up on the little table, and said, “Oh my God, not much for me to do but clean you up,” and that’s what she did.

As she finished, the abortion was almost finished. And she cleaned me up.

Then I remember—and I’ve told this so many times—that lady, that beautiful black lady, she came in to the gurney and put her arms around me like this [enveloping motion] and she held me to her big, ample bosom, and she said, “Honey, did you think it was so easy to be a woman?”

I will never forget her saying that. Then she straightened me up and said, “Now, I want you out of here, and I mean it this time! Don’t come back; I’ll get in trouble if you do.” So she cleaned me up, and I got home. And slipped in the house and got in my bed, and I had a fever for two or three days. Then I went back to work.

Then, about three or four weeks later, I had money enough to go back to the doctor who had told me that if I’d had another baby, it would kill me. And when I told him that he had known I had been pregnant, he said, “I told you not to get pregnant.” And I said, “But did you tell me how not to?” “Well,” he said, “you should be more careful.”

“Careful!” In most cases, when it’s a young woman, you don’t know how to say no to your husband. That silly Bible says you can’t say no! That Bible gets more of us in trouble—I know it wasn’t meant that way, but it does. There you are, in trouble.

So I went back to him and I wanted to see if I was OK, cleaned up all right. And I told him what I had done. And he said, “Well, I figured a smart girl like you would figure a way out of it.”

Now this man was supposed to take care of me—he was an ob/gyn. And with all the education, he knew how; he had the privileges—and he said, “I figured you’d find a way out of it.” But I’m not that smart, I’m scared to death.

It was absolutely paralyzing. What an experience. I just don’t want anybody—any woman to have to go through it. And yet I think how fortunate I was to have found that lady. I think of all the tales I’ve heard of the awful stories of males that unfortunately have these ladies in helpless positions. And I realize that they can’t do anything about it; are really helpless.

If women don’t care enough to fight for their rights so that that does not happen to them—and I tell you, it will happen! —the time will come when one of them will run into this situation. Even with a husband, a family, they’ll get into a desperate spot, and this will happen to them. And it is not just a frivolous woman who’s been out screwing around.

Q:        Blame the victim?

Lana: Blame the victim! Most often, it’s a young woman who’s too young to know what she’s doing, and has no money and has no family backup, and is surrounded by an ocean of ignorance—an absolute ocean of ignorance.

And people talking about the value of life… of course it’s valuable. But she can have other children later on, when she’s older, more able to handle it and start her own family. It’s better.

So that was my personal experience. And so I’ve spent my life trying to be sympathetic and understanding to a woman who wants an abortion. I never ask her why she wants it. There may be one here and there who has a frivolous reason, but I’m not God, and I’m not going to judge her. By and large, they’re scared to death, and they just need somebody to give them a helping hand; a little guidance that says, “Go to Tijuana and turn left,” that sort of thing, you know.


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