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Woman discovers her mother died from botched abortion nearly 60 years later

A mother-daughter duo turned their non-profit into an organization with a singular focus: serving Black women seeking abortion care.

POTOMAC, Md. — In 1963, Gertrude Hargett, also known as Gertie was a wife and mother in her 20s, determined to upend certain norms in this country. Women were fighting for more agency in their homes, with their bodies and their futures; and as a Black woman, those fights were intersectional with others.

Gertie was desperate to shift the paradigm for her family, but that would come with an agonizing choice. So, after already having kids and once again pregnant, she decided to get an abortion.

Yael Humphries, the daughter of Gertie had so little time to get to know her mother. Humphries was just 9 years old when her mother died in a New Jersey hospital room.

“Everyone says I remind them of her - she loved heels, as I love heels, she loved to dress... I remember my grandfather coming to get me out of school early,” Humphries remembered, as she flipped through a family album of photos. “When I got home, they told me that she had passed away.”

Gertie and Yael’s father, Ernest, married right out of high school and by age 20, they had two small children.

92-year-old Mildred Taylor-Morrison has vivid memories of her dear friend, Gertie.

“When I met her, she was fun-loving and like to tell jokes and she just had a beautiful personality.”

WATCH: A mother-daughter duo shares their thoughts after discovering a loved one died from a botched abortion. Here's what Election Day means to them. 

They laughed a lot as friends, but Gertie revealed that there were challenges at home.

“The marriage was kinda rocky, but she was hanging in there for the children,” said Mildred.

Gertie’s husband Ernest was a Marine. It was hard to make ends meet. However, by age 29, there was about to be even more pressure on their marriage and finances.

“I remember her coming to me and telling me she was pregnant and that she did not want to bring a child into the world,” Mildred recounted. “And, I told her, don’t do this Gertie, because if you do, you’ll never forgive yourself.”

Mildred had lost two children of her own. She knew about the pain. But she couldn’t talk Gertie out of a decision that could impact her life.

“She just thought she had to do it, she had no other choice."

Gertie confided in Mildred about that choice and asked her to keep it secret.

In 1963, abortion was against the law. Women seeking to end unwanted pregnancies were forced into dangerous situations. In Gertie’s situation, she received an unauthorized abortion with tools that were not properly cleaned.

Right after Gertie’s procedure - Mildred says she spiked a fever, endured soaring pain and ended up in the hospital. Not long after her abortion, Gertie’s organs shut down.

“I was devastated that I was not able to talk her out of it,” said Mildred.

It seems like a lifetime ago, and like yesterday for Mildred. She recalls how angry Gertie’s family was about the procedure. And how Gertie’s father blamed her for the loss of his daughter.

Gertie’s family mourned her loss. However, they never told her two children, Yael and Ernest, about the trauma she experienced during that unauthorized abortion. Family members concocted a story about Gertie’s last days that would be passed down through the generations.

“I was told that my mother died from kidney failure and she was on dialysis. Um, that’s all I knew,” said Yael.

Credit: Courtesy family
Mildred Taylor-Morrison raised her children with Gertie. Mildred is the one who told Gertie's daughter, Yael, the truth about how her mom died.

That all changed with a conversation in 2020 at Mildred’s 90th birthday party.

Her daughter said, “Mom, I think you need to tell Yael your secret.”

Finally, after nearly six decades, Millie would tell Yael the truth about how her mother died.

“She told me that my Mom had an abortion and got really, really sick and she died,” said Yael.

“I said to her 'no, no, no, she had kidney failure,'" Yael explained. “I told her, 'no, no, no that was not true, she was never on dialysis, she was never on dialysis,'" Mildred persisted. “It wasn’t the kidney failure it was because of the abortion she had, and she died of yellow jaundice because the tools they used weren’t clean.”

Yael was speechless. For decades, she lived in fear about a disease she thought was congenital. Her daughter thought she might be at risk for it too.

Excavating this misinformation came a range of emotions for Yael and her daughter Zuhairah.

“I am relieved because all these years I was really concerned about my kidneys," said Yael, as she wiped away tears. “I don’t have to worry about that no more.”

“I think we both just sat with it for a while, and you know, wow,” said Zuhairah Washington Scott, Gertie’s granddaughter.

When Roe v. Wade was overturned this past summer, Yael and her daughter, Zuhairah, were compelled to do something to honor their matriarch and protect other women’s reproductive rights.

“I’m a mother of three, but it was a thought to go to three, right? And, it was my choice to go to three,” said Zuhairah. “To think about being a woman in the circumstances that my grandmother was, already two children and having to make that life decision.”

Zuhairah served on the board of Planned Parenthood for years and had no idea at the time how the complicated issues around reproductive health were more than just theoretical.

This mother-and-daughter duo wanted other women to have the kind of agency their matriarch didn’t have generations ago. They turned their non-profit GLEW Foundation - the G is for Gertrude - into an organization with a singular focus: serving Black women seeking abortion care.

Yael now spends months visiting her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren in Potomac. Her heart is now regenerated with memories and laughter that she didn’t always experience in the home growing up being raised by her grandparents.

But there is still something to mourn when a person's life isn’t fully lived. When stories, traditions, and love are reconstructed, you cannot always rebuild the layers buried in shame and stigma.

Still, this mother and daughter have chosen to reclaim Gertie’s voice and bring her story out of hiding. They believe this new beginning allows them to see not just what they’ve lost, but what they’ve gained.

“I think it’s empowering because I think it’s important for stories to be told in their fullness,” said Zuhairah.

“They spoke so highly of her all my life. It was just like that little thing they forgot to tell me,” said Yael. “And I don’t think it would have made a difference if I had known then, the truth.”

 Learn more about the GLEW Foundation by clicking here.

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