Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880-1940 by Karen Weingarten

Abortion in the American Imagination takes us back to the early twentieth century, when American writers first dared to broach the controversial subject of abortion. Putting authors like Wharton and Faulkner into conversation with the era’s films and non-fiction, Karen Weingarten uncovers a vigorous public debate decades before Roe v. Wade. Along the way, she discovers not only how discourses on abortion have changed dramatically, but also how they’ve shaped our very sense of what it means to be an American.

to the left of the book jacket, a white woman looks off into the distance; the title is written in white lettering over black
Book cover, Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880-1940. (©Rutgers University Press)

1. You use literary analysis as a tool for historical study in this book, taking poetry, fiction, and film as primary sources for understanding the rhetoric of abortion in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What are the advantages of using popular culture as a tool of historical analysis along with more traditional (non-fictional) archival sources?

Literature, films, and popular culture—from advertisements to advice columns—reflect the ideologies, anxieties, and controversies of their time. However, I think it’s also more nuanced than this because—as obvious as it may be to say—it’s important to remember that in any historical era there were many ideologies and competing ways of understanding people’s reproductive practices and beliefs, especially when it comes to illegal procedures like abortion. Popular culture and literature, therefore, are not just reflections of dominant beliefs, but they were both tools of resistance—sometimes subtly and sometimes not—and they contributed to how audiences formed their own opinions about practices like abortion.

I’ll provide two examples from my book that demonstrate this point in more concrete terms: Viña Delmar’s bestselling 1928 novel Bad Girl tells the story of a young woman who gets accidentally pregnant. She considers an abortion—and even goes as far as visiting an abortionist—but then decides against it because, according to the novel’s logic, only working-class girls with “bad” behavior have abortions, and she desperately wants to make it into the middle class. (Eventually she and her husband even save up enough money to have a hospital birth to solidify their middle-class status.) This novel’s plot reaffirmed popular discourse about abortion at the time: moral, middle-class women didn’t have abortions because it was considered a dirty practice. Yet in Sinclair Lewis’s 1933 novel Ann Vickers, which was also popular with audiences, Ann has an abortion, even though she’s portrayed as having exemplary morals and status. In Ann’s case, her connection to a well-respected, kind woman doctor helps her obtain a safe and successful abortion with limited angst. Lewis’s novel isn’t as pro-abortion as more explicitly feminist novels from the time—like Agnes Smedly’s Daughter of Earth (1929)— but for a book that reached a wide audience, it successfully complicates the representation of abortion to show—accurately—that abortion was sought by women of many different classes, contrary to the media’s stereotypes, which Bad Girl reinforced. Reading these novels in conversation shows how varied attitudes toward abortion were, and how novels themselves created a political rhetoric about the procedure. And while more traditional archival material would certainly reflect this too—especially letters and diaries—literature can complement these archives in revealing ways.

2. In your conclusion, you point out that while modern media has liberalized its depictions of sexuality, abortion is still often depicted in conservative, even pro-life terms. What impact do you think that has on public beliefs about choice?

When I tell people that in 1972, the popular sitcom Maude, which aired on network TV, had a two-part pro-abortion episode that depicted choosing abortion as an ethical and thoughtful decision, they’re often surprised. Several TV stations decided to censor these episodes by refusing to air them, which I think demonstrates the power of popular culture to change people’s minds. Melissa Huerta has similarly argued in her new book, Representing Latina/x Reproductive Decision Making (Lexington Books, 2022), that showing Latina/x women choosing abortion on TV shows and films without guilt or judgment has not only challenged how Americans view Latinx culture but has opened the possibilities of reproductive care for Latina/x people themselves.

I published Abortion in the American Imagination in 2014, and in the last eight years there has finally been a return to depicting abortion on TV and film with empathy and nuance. Films like Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always and TV shows like Jane the Virgin and Scandal (to name just a very few) have expanded the representation of abortion to show women of color, and specifically Black and Latina women having abortions and how they may or may not struggle with these choices. They also show teenagers having abortions, which in states that require parental consent leads to heartbreaking complications for these girls. That’s not to say that there are no longer conservative—or judgmental—depictions of abortion on TV and film. The 2020 film Saint Frances was hailed for its unusual portrayal of abortion on film, and while it’s true that the movie doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the more intimate aspects of abortion, like bleeding, it also continues to stigmatize abortion by showing a young woman constantly bleeding after the procedure (with no explanation!) and depicting her as irresponsible in how she approaches her decision-making. (The film is also filled with Catholic imagery.) Watching films and TV shows with abortion representations can open conversations in families and between partners, but they can also reaffirm or challenge our beliefs, especially when a film portrays a character with compassion. The more positive representations of abortion in popular culture in the last few years mark a turning point in the media’s attitudes toward abortion, but I also think there is still more potential to show characters having abortion with more nuance. (For example, it’s still rare to see a character using abortion-inducing pills, which is increasingly the way abortion is accessed.) For readers interested in the representation of abortion on screen, I recommend the Abortion Onscreen Database, organized by Gretchen Sisson and Steph Herold.

3. What insights do you hope readers will take away from your book in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision?

I wanted to show in the book that the rhetoric of abortion has a history, and we shouldn’t assume that abortion must be framed in terms of life and choice. There was a point in history where abortion wasn’t politicized or seen as a moral choice. In fact, in the nineteenth century, it was simply a medical procedure to bring one’s bleeding back, and it was understood that a menstrual cycle might pause for many different reasons. The political terms used to frame abortion today are intentional, and as feminists like Ricki Solinger, Loretta Ross, and even Ruth Bader Ginsburg have argued since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion by using the language of privacy and choice, there were serious drawbacks to these terms. Roe allowed states to pass laws that chipped away access to abortion—like forty-eight hour waiting periods, parental consent laws, and sonogram viewings. Roe did not legalize abortion through the right to bodily autonomy or the right to parent under the terms of one’s choosing, and because it legalized abortion through a Supreme Court case—and not a law—it left itself open to constant attack. I hope readers of my book might see that our present moment was not inevitable. Abortion was not always seen in today’s moral terms, and I believe we can still change the conversation.

4. If you were to update your book for our present moment what would you add?

As almost half of American states have now outlawed or severely curtailed access to legal abortion, many people are turning to purchasing abortion pills—a combination of the drugs Mifepristone and Misoprostol—on the internet to obtain abortions. These two technologies—the internet and medical abortions—will change the landscape of what it means to have an illegal abortion in the US. And while having an abortion this way isn’t without its own medical complications (especially if the abortion ends up not being complete), it’s far safer than the practices used by women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when abortion was last illegal in the US. Still, I see a thread connecting these moments. Working-class and poor women like the ones portrayed by Roberta in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) or Dewey Dell in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) can’t access a surgical abortion because they neither have the money to purchase one, and credible doctors aren’t willing to risk their careers to help a woman with no status obtain one. Therefore, Roberta and Dewey Dell try to abort by medication, which was a dangerous prospect because they risked poisoning and death. I see a repetition of this predicament today in the US: people with the means to travel to states like New York and California that provide safe haven for people seeking abortion can still get the procedure in a safe and sanitary environment of care. However, many more people—especially women of color and poor women—will be denied this access. And even if they have more options than the Robertas and Dewey Dells in the previous century, they are still risking their health and lives when they undergo this procedure with limited medical supervision. While history isn’t exactly repeating itself, there are resonances, and I think pointing out these connections makes clear how outlawing abortion will have the most punishing consequences for people whose lives are already precarious.

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