Deeply personal secret is bared 'to help others'

DAN RODRICKS

October 17, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

It was a long time ago -- half her life ago. She was 26, taking graduate courses in Baltimore, working for $82 a week at an interior design firm and trying to get a career started. Her father had died. Her marriage had ended. She was living alone for the first time. And then she learned she was pregnant.

"I had had a traumatic year already," Regi Elion recalls. "I was undone at the time. I went to a shrink, and he told me to go home and take a hot bath."

She did more than that. She decided to have an abortion, though she knew it would be illegal and probably unsafe. Her pregnancy was unintended, a mistake. Regi Elion did not want to become a young, unwed mother. "I was scared, but I was very lucky," she says.

She knew a young man who knew someone who performed abortions. The cost would be $350. Elion didn't have it, so she called her brother and asked for the money, without telling him why she needed it.

On a chilly Thursday afternoon, the young man who arranged the appointment took Elion to meet some people. They blindfolded her and took her to an empty apartment with one sofa against a wall. Two other young women were sitting there, waiting. "They gave us a shot, or some medication, maybe Valium, to calm us down," Elion says. "We were all scared."

She was escorted into a walk-in closet. That's where the abortion was performed by a man Elion believed was a doctor. She later learned otherwise; the abortionist was really a medical assistant. About three months after Elion's abortion, the man was arrested for performing illegal abortions.

"I went home and slept," she recalls. "I stayed in bed Friday morning, and that night I was at my mother's house for Shabbas."

She told no one. She did not tell her lover; they broke up, never saw each other again. The only man who knew was the young man who had arranged it; they have been friends all these years.

The abortion was Regi Elion's secret, the most intensely personal of experiences in her life.

Until this year.

Elion, proprietor of the popular Federal Hill restaurant and bar that bears her name -- and certainly one of the best-known women in town -- decided to go public with her experience. She has appeared on local television on behalf of Question 6, the statewide referendum on Maryland's new abortion law, which would keep most abortions legal even if, as many fear, the Supreme Court overturns the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. Marylanders will vote on the statute Nov. 3.

It is an extraordinary thing Elion has done. In telling her story, she had no desire to have her identity cloaked, either. "If I'm ashamed to say something, I don't say it," she says.

"Look, I'm not a person who carries a lot of baggage through life. When something happens, I just deal with it and I put it behind me. I've always been that way. . . . But when I heard the [anti-abortion] fanatics, when I heard the debate about abortion -- all of that made me angry. I was outraged. I couldn't believe we are talking about this once more in 1992.

"We have to win this battle. We are fighting for the rights of womankind, the right to choose. I didn't have a choice; abortions were illegal when I had mine."

And they were not safe.

"I was lucky. I came out of it healthy. I didn't die," Elion says. "I know that I could have died that day. I know that many other women did. I also know that this country tends to forget the lessons of history, and that's why I am speaking out on behalf of Question 6."

Back in the spring, Elion attended a meeting on the referendum at a home in Mount Washington. She drove there with Eileen Kotecki, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood and a close friend.

"She told me [about the abortion] in the car on the way over," Kotecki remembers. "She wondered why we even have the possibility of going back to back-alley abortions. She said if there was anything she could do to help people understand what it was like, especially women my age -- I'm 28, and for me Roe has always been the law of the land -- she would do whatever she could."

And so Elion stood among 30 women and told her story. She says she never agonized over speaking up. "I felt it could help," she says. "It's a way of saying, 'Look, this happened to me years ago, do you want it to happen again?' "

Just before going public, Elion warned her 81-year-old mother, Ruth Klein, that she might be seeing her daughter on television.

"My mother is very contemporary in her views, and very supportive of me," Elion says. "When I said I wanted to open my restaurant in 1978, she said, 'Go for it.' . . . The day before I was to be on TV, I took my mother into the back of the restaurant and told her I had had an abortion in 1966 and that I was going to go public. And she said, 'That's good. You probably wouldn't have been a good mother, and I would have ended up baby-sitting. Can I have my iced tea now?' "

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