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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

A complicated story: why we need nuanced depictions of abortion in books

A pro-choice protestor in South Carolina.
The fight continues … A pro-choice protester in South Carolina. Photograph: Meg Kinnard/AP

The first abortion I encountered in literature isn’t named. In Ernest Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants, which I studied at school, a man and a woman wait at a sleepy Spanish train station for the express to Madrid and conduct a veiled conversation as they drink:

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”

The girl did not say anything.

“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”

“Then what will we do afterward?”

“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”

In four quietly devastating pages of dialogue, the man piles on the pressure and the tension mounts, but the narrative is more nuanced than it being simply a case of a woman manipulated into a termination.

When the English teacher asked us if we understood what the story was about, I remember feeling rather smug when I put my hand up and said “it’s an abortion”, though it is far more obvious to me now as an adult, as is the metaphor of the white elephant as an unwanted object that is difficult to discard. I hadn’t read much about abortion in books, but I knew about it from whispered conversations with friends – there was a high incidence of teenage pregnancy in the area where I grew up. Not long after this, we read The Soho Hospital for Women, a poem by Fleur Adock, in class, and my understanding of abortion expanded further; it could mean a kind of death (she references Hine-nui-te-pō, the Māori goddess of the underworld), but also freedom. In the final verse, Adcock is out of hospital after an unnamed procedure which can be read as an abortion:

Whereas I stand almost intact,
giddy with freedom, not with pain.
I lift my light basket, observing

how little I needed, in fact;
and move to the checkout, to the rain,
to the lights and the long street curving.

I’ve been thinking about these two examples a lot recently, in light of the reversal of Roe v Wade. In the intervening years, I had noticed how few literary abortions there were, to the point where I took note of them when they cropped up. When they do, they don’t necessarily sit easily with the political case for reproductive rights. Like much writing on abortion, they deal with complex emotions, and in doing so act as direct counterpoints to the “Shout your abortion! No regrets!” rationale of social media, which, while politically important, must lack the nuance of more considered creative work.

Choice Words, edited by Annie Finch.
Choice Words, edited by Annie Finch. Photograph: Haymarket Books

Which is why I have so appreciated Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, edited by Annie Finch, the first major literary anthology on the subject (it was released in 2020 but perhaps didn’t garner much attention because of the pandemic). As Finch notes in the introduction, her 20-year search for examples led her to discover that “major writers had indeed written about the subject, but that much of the literature was hard to find, unpublished, or buried within larger literary works”. The result of her labour is an extraordinarily varied and diverse range of global voices and forms: poetry, fiction, memoir, and plays, but also tweets and journals, and many in translation, from the 16th century to the 21st.

Little of it is simplistic, and much of it is incredibly moving, whether it’s Lucille Clifton’s “the lost baby poem” (“you would have been born into / winter/ in the year of the disconnected gas / and no car”) or Lindy West’s account of trying to access a termination (“I didn’t want to wait two more weeks. I didn’t want to think about this every day. I didn’t want to feel my body change. I didn’t want to carry and feed this artefact of my inherent unlovability …”). Some, such as Jennifer Hanratty’s Tweets in Exile from Northern Ireland, which describe her journey to Liverpool for a termination after a scan showed her baby had anencephaly, are fury-inducing. Her description of boarding the flight brought me to tears: “I know that we made the right choice, but my body is desperate to hold him, to have him with me. If we were treated at #home he’d be with us”. So did Hanna Neuschwander’s A Birth Plan for Dying, an account of a late-stage abortion due to serious abnormalities. She writes that “I don’t seek pity, but to have your worst personal pain to be the site of the most toxic conversation in public life is awful. It is awful every day.” As heartbreaking as it is, she knows that “ending River’s life was the most moral decision that I have ever made”.

That is one of the most resonant themes of the collection, and one that is rarely discussed: abortion as an act of love, or compassion. Another is abortion as “a normal human activity”, which should be free from the tyranny of control or judgment, and from which it is possible to move on without it being an emotionally difficult life event – Julia Conrad’s short piece about her mother’s five abortions, and the corned beef sandwich she ate after her first, being a case in point. And yet another is the freedom to choose – to have an abortion, yes, but also to not have an abortion, as in the case of the millions of women who want to keep their female babies; Shikha Malaviya writes of this “missing fifty million” as a “celestial realm / of abandoned girls”.

This varied anthology, spanning continents and centuries, can only increase our collective understanding of abortion, resisting as it does simplistic narratives. I feel profoundly grateful for Finch’s endeavour, and I’m sure those with experience of abortion will feel even more so. A Kickstarter campaign has seen copies donated to clinics across the US; sadly, some of those clinics may now close. The words in these pages are a rallying cry, a reminder that the fight continues.

  • Choice Words: Writers on Abortion edited by Annie Finch is published by Haymarket Books (£21.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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