On Roe overturn anniversary, siblings remember their mom who died after being denied abortion

On Roe overturn anniversary, siblings remember their mom who died after being denied abortion

Gregg Johnson and sister, Tracy Jones, speak about their later mother, Shirley, who died after not being able to get an abortion during a complicated pregnancy. Photo by Avery Staker/Starting Line

By Ty Rushing

June 24, 2024

Tracy Jones and her brother don’t want other people to suffer like their family did following their mother’s death.

The Dobbs decision and overturning of Roe v Wade brings up an unfortunate memory for Tracy Jones of Davenport and her brother, Gregg Johnson of East Moline, Illinois, whose mother died after she was denied a medical abortion.

“It was in 1972 when our mom, Shirley, died of eclampsia,” Jones said. “She was a recently divorced woman with three small children in a high-risk pregnancy that, as it progressed, was going to kill her.”

Eclampsia is when a woman with preeclampsia starts to have seizures, which may lead to coma or death for the woman and the fetus. Both conditions are pregnancy-related, high-blood pressure disorders, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.  The institute also notes that women with preeclampsia are at increased risk for organ damage/failure, preterm birth, pregnancy loss, and stroke.

Jones, a Democrat running for the Iowa House District 94 seat, which includes parts of Bettendorf, Davenport, and Eldridge, said her mother’s options were limited because of where and when she lived. 

“She sought a life-saving abortion,” Jones said. “A few weeks before her death, she had traveled to New York—where abortion was legal—[but] she was denied because she was determined to be past the allowable time frame of 24 weeks.”

Shirley came back home and died on July 13, 1972. Jones and Johnson went to live with their father; their older sister, Katherine, went to live with her dad. Six months after Shirley’s death, the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v Wade, and abortion access was legalized nationwide.

“Every family is one complicated pregnancy away from becoming my family; do not fool yourselves,” Jones said. “Our mom died because she didn’t have access to health care. Abortion is health care, and women deserve unapologetic access to all their health care needs, including abortion.”

Jones and her brother told this story at a small rally on Monday outside the Iowa Capitol to mark the second anniversary of Roe v Wade being overturned by the US Supreme Court.

“I woke up today not in the best of moods,” Johnson said. “It was two years ago. We thought our story would not be repeated. It was on a Friday afternoon when this decision came down, and it was like a kick in the gut because I didn’t think there was ever going to be another family that was going to go through what ours did, but all over this country, there are.”

Johnson has also shared his mother’s story on the floor of the Illinois House of Representatives, where he serves as a member. He said he was proud to be in Iowa to speak up for women’s rights but also disappointed that he had to.

“In 2024, here we are again fighting the same fight that our mothers and grandfathers had to fight so many years ago,” he said. “Across the river in Illinois, we have some of the most pro-choice laws in the nation, but that wasn’t always the case.

“It took many, many years and many legislative fights and there’s no reason Iowa can’t do the same, but to do that, you do need the right leaders in the state house.”

Abortion remains legal in Iowa, but Republican lawmakers passed a bill last year that bans abortion after six weeks, which is before most people know they are pregnant. The law has been held at bay by an injunction; however, the Iowa Supreme Court will issue a ruling on Friday that determines where it will stand.

“It’s really so sad that my sister and I live nine miles away from each other, and my sister wakes up in a state where she has so many limited rights to what my wife and daughter have in Illinois, and that’s just wrong,” Johnson said.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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