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Linn Harwell: Never Again


At first glance, you might pigeonhole Linn Harwell as a mild-mannered grandmother type. Well, she is a grandmother, but mild-mannered? Far from it. Harwell is a longtime activist on reproductive freedom and population control. She was a birth-control educator at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Connecticut that was the instigator of a landmark legal case that established marital privacy rights. Her name is on the Women's Wall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY. She spoke to hundreds of thousands of people at the 2004 March for Women's Rights in Washington, D.C. The root of her activism was the 1929 death of her mother from an illegal abortion. Linn was six years old at the time. 

Linn Duvall was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, "in my grandparents' home, which was an ugly yellow brick house. Ugly! But a lot of love in there, and a lot of tragedy too." The house contained her grandparents, her parents, two sisters and one brother -- and eventually, one more sister. "We had three bedrooms and one bathroom, so we were really jammed in there."


The children came pretty much on schedule. "Between all of us there's two years, except between me and my youngest sister there were four. That's because my mother had a successful abortion. Then she had my sister, and then she had the fatal abortion." 


Linn remembers very little of her mother: "Just things like when she'd open a can of tomato soup. We liked tomato soup. And when she sat in the claw-foot bathtub and my grandmother handed her one child after another and she scrubbed us up. I remember that. And she was very, very loving. I sure do remember that! 


Linn's father was a newspaperman, not exactly a lucrative profession. "I remember at one time he was making eighteen dollars a week with a wife and five children." It must have played a part in the abortions: the family couldn't afford to get any bigger.  


The fatal abortion happened in a fairly typical way. "The woman who helped her was a nurse who came from a very well-known family in Pittsburgh. She used a knitting needle, and that's all I know. She perforated the uterus, and my mother would have developed blood poisoning from the infection. 


"After the abortion, she was abed in the front room of the house where we were born. And my sister Eleanor, who was 10, was lying in a cot beside her. My mother, knowing she was dying, said to her, 'You will be the mother now.'  Just imagine saying that to a child!"


Clara Duvall was 34 when she died in March 1929. Her body was placed "in a beautiful, beautiful casket -- and my, she looked beautiful in the casket. And there was a huge wreath of white lilies outside the house, that designated death in this house."  

Read the rest of her story in my book, including her role in two United Nations conferences on population, and the creation of an educational foundation in her mother's memory. 

Contact me at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com