MAY 13, 2020
SOMEONE IN MY FAMILY recently unearthed a series of photographs of my mother from the late ’70s. In one of them, she sits on a low wall somewhere sunny, slender-armed and long-legged in high-waisted denim shorts. She must be 19 or 20. Her breasts are comic-book-character, barbie-doll enormous. She has dark hair twice as thick as I know it to be now, and bites nervously on a thumbnail. She is extraordinarily beautiful. There is something disturbing about seeing her so young — so firm and healthy in every way, when I am already starting to sag.
A recent conversation with my GP, in which she recommended I change to a method of contraception that would be “kinder to the older woman,” got me thinking seriously about my body and how I want it to age. Since then, to help stave off a kind of muted panic about turning 30, I’ve begun to read extensively about motherhood. I am strangely drawn to stories of traumatic births and post-natal depression, as well as the all-consuming obsession many new mothers have with their babies. But I am also drawn to stories about not having children. About the decision to privilege one’s own creative life over family life. About the smug satisfaction — or is it desperation? — of what is sometimes known as DINK: double income, no kids. And to stories about the decision to terminate a pregnancy.
Choice Words: Writers on Abortion was begun precisely in the wake of such a decision. After aborting a pregnancy in 1999, editor and writer Annie Finch began looking for reading material that might help her come to terms with her experience. She was surprised to find very little writing on the topic of abortion. As she saw it, abortion is “a physical, psychological, moral, spiritual, political, and cultural reality that navigates questions of life and death” and should rightly, therefore, be one of the great themes of literature. Her response was to spend over 20 years pulling together a 400-page volume of writing by women (and the occasional man) on abortion from the 16th century to the 21st. Choice Words is published this month in the United States by Haymarket Books, whose titles are chosen for the contribution they make to struggles for social and economic justice.
Few will read this anthology as I did: cover to cover. Some will flip through it in a health clinic, or pick it up in a women’s prison, where, thanks to a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, many copies have been donated (priority was given to US states where abortion rights are most under attack: Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Montana, Indiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Utah, Tennessee, and Ohio). But those who do plow through from start to finish will find some careful curation of the nearly 150 contributions here. They range from lyric to narrative poems, plays, short stories, Twitter threads, memoirs, flash fiction, rituals, journal entries, and excerpts from novels. The material is organized into five sections: Mind, Body, Heart, Will, and Spirit. The first of these focuses on how people make the often very painful decision to terminate a pregnancy; Body focuses on the physical experience of abortion; Heart on its profound emotional aspects; Will, on the personal and political power inherent in our ability to give life, the courage and determination that the exercise of choice can require; and finally, Spirit on work that places abortion in a spiritual framework.
The anthology is prefaced by a thoughtful foreword by Katha Pollitt, author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, who sees in the anthology a reflection of the fact that abortion rarely constitutes a rejection of motherhood, as popular imagination would have it; rather, the majority of women who have abortions are already mothers, and for myriad reasons unable or unready to raise another child. There is also a comprehensive introduction by the editor in which she emphasizes a threefold vision for the collection: that it should resonate with individual experience, foster collective understanding, and inspire social change. This last is reflected in the extensive resources for community organizing, book group discussion, and campaigning for reproductive rights available on the Choice Words Action website. They encourage readers to think about the relationship between literature and activism, and about how Choice Words might be used as a tool to re-inspire a national movement for reproductive justice. The anthology closes with a list of author biographies and a timeline of original publication dates. While this last is useful, there were many moments during my reading when I wished each contribution was accompanied by a date and some information about the author. Only a handful of texts — notably excerpts from novels and testimonials from groups of high schoolers — included a prefatory paragraph setting them in context.
The range of stories detailed here is extraordinary. Finch has clearly made concerted efforts to seek out contributions from across ethnicities, cultures, genders, and sexualities, as well as texts by writers whose abortion experiences are rarely spoken about, such as those by disabled women. It is evident from one of the very first pieces that a plurality of perspectives is going to be a priority: Desiree Cooper’s “First Response” uses an innovative narrative technique to underscore the diversity of abortion experiences:
The moment we read the stick, some of us buckled on the bathroom floor. Having only bled once, we thought it was impossible. Having bled forever, we shook our graying heads and thought, “This is no miracle.” […] One day, we would have many children. One day, decades later, we would still be child free.
Not only does every woman experience this moment differently; every woman is also entitled to feel a whole range of emotional responses to it. Caitlin McDonnell laments that “any expression of sadness is pounced on as regret by abortion opponents” and insists that “women deserve both the complexity of the decisions that affect their bodies and the fundamental right to make them.” Leyla Josephine makes a similar point, in her poem “I Think She Was a She,” about the emotional intricacy of the choice to abort a pregnancy, saying: “I am allowed to feel it all.”
The section titled “Body” makes for some of the most difficult reading, ranging from an anonymous 16th-century ballad about an abortion resulting from rape to SeSe Geddes’s 2015 poem “Tugging,” which begins with the following visceral lines:
It’s the final moment — the tugging —
that’s the worst. A sucking deep within the pelvis,
where the body contracts as if
to cling to that tiny growth.
Diane di Prima’s poem “Brass Furnace Going Out: Song, After an Abortion” is also harrowing and moving in equal measure. A brutally realistic description of passing a pregnancy (“the pitiful shell of a skull, dumped in the toilet / the violet, translucent folds / of beginning life”) is followed by a beautiful image of a child “dissolving in water,” where “a turtle / older than stars / walked on your bones.”
But the section called “Spirit” contains what was, for me, the most moving text in the collection. Hanna Neuschwander’s “A Birth Plan for Dying” is a nonfiction account of being induced not quite six months into her pregnancy after her fetus was discovered to have a fatal brain abnormality — a procedure she later came to understand as a late-term abortion. Neuschwander recounts the unusualness of her situation: not all hospitals allow women to end pregnancies through labor and delivery, or if they do, they require the fetus to be given a shot of potassium chloride to stop its heart 24 hours before. “The thought of carrying River dead inside me was too horrific,” she says; despite how painful it was, she preferred to spend a precious 45 minutes with her very premature daughter before she passed away. Neuschwander is particularly good on the somatic connection between mother and child, as she imagines what life might have been like if her daughter had lived: “If one day she grew up and became very sick, I would slip into her hospital bed and become her again. If she needed to become me, I would slip off my self like a silk robe and she could enter.”
Much is made in the introduction of the book’s geographical scope. In fact, for me, despite contributions from household names like Amy Tan, Audre Lorde, Gloria Steinem, Joyce Carol Oates, Kathy Acker, Langston Hughes, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Ursula K. Le Guin, the volume’s most valuable, revealing, and often powerful contributions are those from beyond the shores of the United States. They remind us that in some parts of the world reproductive rights are as much to do with the freedom not to have an abortion as the freedom to have one. An extract from Mo Yan’s novel Frog is set in a rural Chinese village, where sterilization and IUD insertion is compulsory for any woman who has given birth twice; a character known only as “Zhang Quan’s wife” commits suicide rather than be forced to abort her pregnancy. Meanwhile the contributions by Shikha Malaviya and Manisha Sharma remind readers that there are an estimated 50 million more boys than girls under the age of 20 in India, where sex-selective abortions are often performed, despite being illegal, because boys are considered more desirable.
Other international contributions, such as testimonials from Pakistani schoolgirls, highlight how abortion entrenches gender inequality: Hajra gave up her hopes of studying to follow her husband around the world. She has lived her whole life in fear that he will find out about her teenage abortion — and that she was therefore not a virgin when they married — and divorce her. “I still harbor hope that, inshallah, God willing, one day I will return to studies and have a career,” she says. Unlike Hajra, Osman, the father of the fetus, “completed his studies in a timely fashion and is an engineer.” The contribution that follows, by Kristen R. Ghodsee, gives us a sharply contrasting perspective from the Eastern Bloc, where women “not only enjoyed full reproductive rights but lived in societies where abortion carried little stigma” — in fact, it is often used as a form of birth control. Seeing things from their perspective, the author begins to contemplate the possibility that perhaps “having multiple abortions is actually better than pumping yourself full of hormones for decades.”
Yet despite these illuminating additions from around the world, a quick glance through the author biographies confirms that this is largely an anthology of US American writing in English. There are only a handful of translations (10 out of nearly 150 contributions), and no contributions, for instance, by writers from countries with some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws, such as Chile and El Salvador.
For the book’s main readership — women in the United States — Choice Words could not be more timely. Reproductive freedom in the US is under unprecedented attack: a series of extreme bills were proposed in 2019, including one in Ohio that would have charged doctors with “abortion murder” if they did not attempt to “re-implant” an ectopic pregnancy. No such medical procedure has ever been successfully performed and ectopic pregnancies, which form in the fallopian tubes, are never viable; they do, however, threaten women’s lives.
It is also impossible to ignore that publication of this book comes at one of the strangest and most frightening periods of recent history. At the time of writing, the United States is the current epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, the number of people in New York City who have died from the disease eclipsed the death toll from 9/11. The pandemic, which will amplify all existing inequalities, is a disaster for US women. Crisis centers are already seeing a spike in the number of domestic and sexual violence cases being reported. Abortion access, too, is being threatened by travel restrictions and the non-availability of childcare and contraception, as well as increasing financial hardship (Lindy West reminds us in her contribution to this volume that an abortion in the United States can cost $400 even if you have medical insurance). Even more worryingly, a number of Republican-led states recently announced that for the duration of the pandemic all abortions are being classified as non-essential medical procedures and will therefore be cancelled or postponed. Doctors were barred from providing even “medical abortions,” which are administered by pill. Though many of these orders have been blocked by the courts or rescinded, the fear is that such temporary restrictions may be used as an excuse to change abortion laws more permanently.
In these disturbing times, an open conversation about abortion in all its forms is of the utmost importance. Choice Words brings that conversation into the cultural sphere, reaching, as Finch puts it, “beyond argument, into the realm of experience.” It is a first step toward giving this topic the literary weight it is due, and for any woman contemplating a termination, or coming to terms with having had one, it will provide solace and companionship as well as important information.
Part of the reason, I think, why I find that photograph of my mother in her teens so unsettling is that she is so clearly not a mother in it, and as such it makes me wonder what her life might have been like had she never become one. All women should have the freedom I am privileged enough to have, to think through what they want to do with their bodies as they age; to think through all that is implicated in the decision to become a mother, or not to become one, and to make informed choices about birth control. For that reason, this book urgently needs to reach beyond those most likely to seek it out and be put into the hands of the most marginalized and vulnerable women in society who do not necessarily have the freedom to exercise their reproductive rights.