The Collective Power of Our Abortion Stories

“I had an abortion in 1999.” So begins Annie Finch’s important new anthology, Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, about the representation of abortion across literary genres. After her abortion, Finch searched to find depictions of the procedure in literature to make sense of her experience and was surprised to learn that no major collection existed. Her response is this hefty anthology that collects representations of abortion in novels, short stories, plays, poems, and essays.

My story is similar to Finch’s. In the summer of 2003, I too had an abortion. I was in graduate school at the time, and the subsequent fall I enrolled in a course about women’s memoir. Coincidentally, three of the assigned texts described an abortion: Annie Ernaux’s Happening (2001), Diane di Prima’s Memoir of a Beatnik (1969), and Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). All three women had abortions, each under very different circumstances. I was immediately drawn to these stories given my recent experience. Had abortions been depicted elsewhere in literature, and I hadn’t noticed? As I started recalling things I had read, I realized the references to abortion in literature and film were not infrequent, but, like Finch, I noticed that they were not collected anywhere. When I went to search for literary criticism about the topic, there was similarly little scholarship. I wrote my seminar paper that semester about the representation of abortion in these memoirs, and that’s when I decided on my dissertation topic, which later became my book on abortion stories in turn-of-the-century American literature and culture.

Choice Words was published in April 2020. (Courtesy Haymarket Books)

Finch’s search put her on a long journey to collect as many writings about abortion as possible. She finished in the shadow of a new administration that has made anti-abortion policy a cornerstone of its politics. I read the book in the early summer of 2020, while watching the repercussions of that administration’s cruel dismissal of human life during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were a few moments of relief—like the decisive win in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which affirmed that people who identify as gay or transgender cannot be fired from their jobs because of their identities, or June Medical Services v. Russo, which struck down the law that would have mandated health clinics to have a doctor with hospital admitting privileges on staff in order to provide abortions. If the Louisiana law had been upheld, the state would have seen its abortion clinics cut by half. However, the case was not a decisive win because Justice Roberts, whose majority vote struck down the law, made clear in his opinion that he only voted against the Louisiana case because he was respecting precedent.

What does all of this have to do with the representation of abortion in poems, plays, stories, and essays? As Katha Pollitt notes in her foreward to Choice Words, although abortions of every type are represented in its pages, the one kind of abortion that won’t be found is the “frivolous abortion,” because, as she rightly argues, it only exists in the myths of anti-abortion propaganda (xvi). Instead, the writings in this collection portray abortion in the myriad ways they are actually experienced. In weaving together such diverse representation, Choice Words succeeds in showing how abortion is—and has always been—an integral part of the human experience. Whether it’s legal or illegal, whether there is regret or relief, we will find ways to try to assert control over our reproductive bodies, sometimes at the cost of death. It’s this essential point that brings me back to the SCOTUS cases because these collected writings, when put together in this substantial volume, make a profound argument for why abortion should remain legal and why the outcome of cases like these most recent ones are critically important.

To the historian, Finch unconventially organizes the book by how abortion is represented in the text, with sections titled “Mind,” “Heart,” and “Spirit.” Each section reflects on how the decision to abort impinges on different aspects of the human experience, and how these aspects might be shared across time, location, and culture. In the section called “Body,” for example, the pieces included think about abortion as a bodily experience with physical repercussions. Finch is a poet, so this adherence to literary characterizations rather than chronology makes sense. But at times, the lack of chronology can feel jarring. For example, in the first section, “Mind,” Caitlin McDonnell’s “The Abortion I Didn’t Want” from 2015 follows an excerpt from Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, published in 1965. The narrators of these pieces have distinctly different generational voices. The inclusion of dates would have helped the reader transition from one text to another. To learn more about each piece, such as when and where it was first published, I had to consult the credits for reprinted texts at the end of the book.

Some of the pieces that stand out are Langston Hughes’ wonderful short story, “Cora, Unashamed,” about a young white woman who dies of an abortion and the Black woman who mourns her death. There is also an excerpt from Lindy West’s memoir Shrill, and a powerful poem by Sylvia Ramos Cruz asserting that abortion is healthcare.

One of the most poignant stories comes from Hanna Neuschwander, who has a late-term abortion when she learns that her fetus has a brain abnormality that is most likely incompatible with life. Neuschwander is given the option of whether to terminate the pregnancy. Eventually—and with much grief—she and her husband decide that a termination is the right decision. Toward the end of her essay, Neuschwander comes to the realization that she had a late-term abortion, and that if some politicians had their way, her decision would have been illegal. Together, these representations are meant to show that whether the characters feel regret, grief, or relief, they all demonstrate that “bodily autonomy is necessary to human freedom and integrity” (2).

Desiree Cooper’s “First Response” is one of my favorite pieces because of its experimental style. Unusually, it’s narrated in the first person plural, which seems to be the perfect way to tell the story of abortion. While reactions to a pregnancy and the decision to abort might each be individual and different, “First Response” reminds us that many women have shared experiences even as they differ. “We were pregnant with memory for the rest of our lives. We never thought about it again,” (16) are the closing lines of the story. They’re as different responses as can be, and yet they both have universality.

Although late twentieth-century writings make up the bulk of the collection, the book has impressive diversity. “The Scarlet A” by Soniah Kamal reenacts interviews of Pakistani students who had abortions. Jennifer Reeser shares a poem about a Native American root known for inducing abortion and kept hidden from the shamans, which comes from a story told by her Native American grandfather. The anthology includes Gwendolyn Brooks’ widely-taught poem, “The Mother.”

In fact, poems, perhaps because they’re easier to anthologize, represent a substantial part of the collection.

Late in the collection Nicole Walker writes, “It is hard to write anything beautiful about abortion” (322). Perhaps that’s true, but one thing many of the pieces in the collection share is their ability to evoke empathy, to make readers understand pain, to contextualize why a woman might choose an abortion or why she might regret her choice, even if you didn’t regret yours. As anti-abortion and anti-birth control laws chip away at our ability to control our reproductive lives, these stories remind us that abortion will always be part of the human experience and to pretend otherwise is an affront to our humanity. Annie Finch has given us a gift, and it is beautiful.

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