Choice Words: Writers on Abortion
Edited by Annie Finch
Reviewed by Catharine R. Stimpson
In March, as the coronavirus pandemic was growing into a public health emergency as blatant as the siren of an ambulance, I read the landmark anthology Choice Words: Writers on Abortion. The collection’s editor, Annie Finch, wants “to make clear that bodily autonomy is key to human freedom and integrity.” The title—Choice Words—is a nice pun. The hundreds of selections focus on whether a woman can make decisions about her health, but “choice” also describes something of special worth, and the power to choose is worth fighting for.
In a poem by Sylvia Ramos Cruz, the heroine is an overworked, humane, harassed doctor “…[who] knows/ (safe) abortion is health care.” In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that 25 million unsafe abortions occur around the world each year. I thought of this poem as some states were putting containment and mitigation strategies into place, such as delaying non-essential surgeries and medical procedures. Ever alert for opportunities to burden women needing terminations, the governments of Texas and Ohio quickly moved to define abortions as non-essential, cynically conjoining the public health crisis of COVID-19 with the public health crisis of abortion constrictions. If the coronavirus is nature’s creation, the vicious tragedy of unsafe abortions is a human one.
I never had an abortion—I was too frightened of getting pregnant, too lucky, and too much in love with women rather than men. Growing up, however, I attended several “shotgun weddings,” a code we all understood. The bride’s pregnancy had forced a marriage between two teenagers, given an unwanted child “legitimacy,” and “saved face” for a family. The children were born. Some “turned out well.” Some did not. Some of the marriages lasted. Some did not.
Finch did have an abortion—in 1999, when she was already the mother of two, an experience that came with an “initial sense of shock and loss.” A poet with a PhD in literature, she turned to her subject for help. Literature, she reasoned, not only provokes understanding of both self and others. It also offers poetic justice to women who have suffered but whose voices have gone unheard.
Searching through cultures of past and present in the United States and globally, Finch unearthed an astonishing diversity of authors who had written about abortion. Some—Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, Audre Lorde, Margaret Atwood—are well-known; others are a cause for discovery and wonder. Together, they deploy a range of genres: fiction, poetry, plays, essays, autobiographies, liturgies, and rituals. Grateful though I am for this bounty, I missed the French and American manifestos in which women, some with the power of fame, publicly stated that they had had illegal abortions—potent weapons in the fight to legalize abortion. (Fortunately, another recently published book, Burn It Down: Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution by Breanne Fahs, includes Simone de Beauvoir’s “Manifeste des 343,” signed by her and 342 other women, some major celebrities and cultural figures, saying they had had abortions, then illegal in France.)
Inseparable from the variety of genres is the diversity of writers. Not surprisingly, then, they show the differences among women of “poverty, wealth, politics, ethnicity, (race), class, religion, marital status, age, geography, and/or nationality.” The authors live under disparate laws and customs. Abortions, and the larger policies about gender and reproduction in which they are embedded, have cruelly different meanings and practices nation by nation. Ana Bladiana’s ironically titled “The Children’s Crusade,” for instance, published in a student magazine and secretly distributed, condemns a 1966 decree that all Romanian women give birth to at least four children. An excerpt from Mo Yan’s novel Frog dramatizes the violent struggle by Chinese Communist party officials to force a village woman to abort her fourth child, a number that exceeds the family’s official allowance. “You Have No Name, No Grave, No Identity” is Manisha Sharma’s elegy for the Indian girls, perhaps more than six million each year, who are wiped away in sex-selective abortions (an antiseptic name) in a culture that too often values boys over girls.
In excruciatingly sharp contrast, “Sorry I’m Late,” by Kristen R. Ghodsee, tells of a lunch in contemporary Bulgaria in which an American interviews a local woman who works for an NGO. The Bulgarian apologizes for her delay, but she has had an abortion that morning, then had to run some errands and found herself in bad traffic. The abortion for her is neither traumatic nor shameful nor a “big deal.” Indeed, the writer muses, as birth control goes, a Bulgarian abortion compares favorably with her years of ingesting hormones.
Because of these demographic, legal, and social differences, and because of the stubborn ineluctability of individuals, each of the women in these texts has experiences specific to her. Desiree Cooper’s “First Response” depicts a chorus of women responding to their pregnancies and abortions: “Joyce didn’t have sex until she was married eight years later. Trish went back to work like nothing ever happened. We made a donation every anniversary. We were pregnant with memory for the rest of our lives. We never thought about it again.”
Unifying these diversities are two blunt facts. First, fertile women can become pregnant. Fertile men cannot. They impregnate. Second, women are neither playgirls nor playthings who giggle their way through abortions. Although some may be in denial, most intuit when they become pregnant. They then traverse the many chambers of the self, soul, and society. As Katha Pollitt (author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights) writes in her introduction, “Abortion is always serious. As serious as birth.”
To represent, narrate, and symbolize these facts, Finch calls on literature. She believes in the salutary powers of this fusion of language, perceptions, feelings, imagination, and craft. Although charged with metaphor and linguistic skill, the texts in Choice Words are relatively readable. Only a few—for example, those of Kathy Acker or Camonghne Felix—are formally experimental. Yet, all, from the most gentle of elegies to the most sarcastic and angry of condemnations, radiate a compelling honesty.
Inseparable from Finch’s belief in literature is her conviction in the necessity of women being able to use language, to speak and to write, whether we are professionals or not. One of the haunting themes of Choice Words is the price women pay for being unable to act as self-possessors of language, for being deprived of words, for the biting of the tongue and the suffocation of the mouth. The reasons? Shame, fear, vulnerability, poverty, isolation. In “She Did Not Tell Her Mother (A Found Poem),” teenagers in Kenya know young girls have died during an abortion. However, before her ghastly procedure, “She did not tell her mother. She started crying at night.”
Of course, people have also long talked or written about abortion. Especially, when abortion is illegal and/or socially shunned, language has taken three major forms: private or coded, lies, and public discourse. Accounts of the first appear consistently in Choice Words: speech that is solitary, or, if shared, is secretive, underground, words passed along a network. These are stories of a frightened young woman talking to a friend, or a mother, or a doctor who might understand. As texts by Judith Arcana and Paula Kamen remind us, in the 1960s women in Chicago could find safe illegal abortions if they had access to a piece of paper with a phone number and the code words “Call Jane” on it.
Although some private or coded language leads to useful communication, it also enables a second form of language: the lie. In Langston Hughes’s 1934 story, “Cora Unashamed,” a badly exploited black maid psychologically adopts Jessie, the “slow child” of her employers. When Jessie becomes pregnant, her mother takes her to Kansas City for an abortion from which she eventually dies. The official cause is a lie: fatal indigestion caused by big city food. Cora, at great personal risk, exposes the lie in the middle of a Very Respectable and Pure White funeral and accuses the parents of killing Jessie and her child.
As text after text dramatizes, the lies, if no Cora upends them, breed the most awful social hypocrisies, those enraging discrepancies between social appearance and reality. In “The Scarlet A,” Soniah Kamal interviews women who were once members of the same high school class in Pakistan. Unmarried women, who have lost their virginity outside of marriage, go for agonizing abortions to a “butcher under the bridge,” but married women, who have theoretically lost their virginity on their wedding night, have safe abortions with anesthesia in hospitals where they afterwards rest comfortably on pillows brought from home.
The third major form of language in Choice Words, public discourse, comprises the varying legal, political, philosophical, and religious arguments about gender, reproduction, and power. The abortion “issue” is fought not only about abortion as a practice, but about which narrative should prevail—for example, that of the “undeserving” girl who wants to fit into her prom dress vs. that of the rape survivor with a heart condition for whom abortion is a life-saving procedure. Katha Pollitt speaks to the frequent flatness that occurs in public speech about abortion when she recounts that her files were “crammed with articles” about abortion, yet, “… the debate over legal abortion is curiously abstract; we might be discussing brain transplants.”
By contrast, the literature of Choice Words is vividly concrete. Here are exact lists of medicinal herbs, the color of a pregnancy test, the look of the abortionist’s table, the sounds of metallic instruments in preparation for a curette, the chilly feel of the stirrups as feet are elevated and grasped, the smell of vomit, the excruciating cramps and pain, the look of streams and clots of blood, perhaps a glimpse of embryonic mucus, the stomach-clenching guilt. A woman cannot break her silence about abortion without deploying such physically, psychologically, and ethically precise language. It marks pain and scars, but it is also a breakthrough to memory, partial or full healing of trauma, and community.
Among the concrete experiences are being forced to listen to shouts of “murderer” or “baby killer” as a woman approaches a clinic. Some of the most powerful texts tell of these physical encounters and of encounters with punitive laws. In “Tweets in Exile from Northern Ireland,” Jennifer Hanratty tells of her 2018 journey, with a supportive husband, from Northern Ireland to England so they can obtain a legal abortion. Until the law was changed in October of 2019, women and health care providers in her home country could get up to life imprisonment for ending a pregnancy. The couple’s decision to go, like the trip itself, is “tortuous.” However, their son Linus, if carried to full term, would have been born fatally ill, suffering from anencephaly, the medical term for being born without a brain. Hanratty tweeted, she tells us, so people can understand “the real impact of the law: not in an abstract way, but its real visceral human impact.”
When the anti-abortionists have power, their punitive yearnings, if implemented, can take visceral form. An iconic figure in Choice Words is Purvi Patel, raised in an immigrant family in Indiana, who was sentenced to twenty years for “feticide” after a self-induced abortion. (Patel appealed, with the help of organizations such as National Advocates for Pregnant Women, and was released from prison in 2016.)
Because nothing is, or should be, alien to literature, writers must explore and imagine the lives of these anti-abortion activists. Thus, they are here in Choice Words: the protestors who stifle their doubts, the protestors who do not, the religious zealots who organize demonstrations and offer up a witchy woman to fight and a patriarchal God to worship. One such text, an Ursula K. LeGuin passage from “Standing Ground,” is a split-screen narrative. On one side is Sharee, seeking a clinic abortion, and her daughter Delaware, keeping her company. Sharee may be mentally challenged, but she knows why she wants an abortion. She was impregnated in a rape. On the other side are the protestors. One is a young woman, Mary, a common name in the texts that tear apart rigid Christian ideologies. Mary is scared, but feels at war, part of an “army of the Right.” For an older man, Norman, the protest is an outlet for two otherwise frustrated drives: aggression and eros. In lascivious detail, he imagines the women in the “Butcher Shop.”
Reading about Mary and Norman, I returned to a memory of being a young activist in New York working to legalize abortion. I am speaking on a panel in a school auditorium. On the right side, in middle rows, are our opponents: women dressed in pale, collared blouses. Voiceless, they are holding red roses. Their spokesperson is a middle-aged man who tells us about the travels of a sperm through the vagina and onwards, about the baby it engenders, and about the equivalent travels of an instrument that will murder the baby—only because a woman wi thout God selfishly wanted sex. Voice roiling with passion, he is turning himself on in public while wearing a suit and tie.
The organizing structure Finch devised places her texts in one of five sections: “Mind,” how women make their decisions; “Body,” the physical aspects of abortion; “Heart,” its emotions; “Will,” the “personal and political power inherent in our ability to give life, and the courage and determination that the exercise of choice can require even where it is legal and culturally acceptable”; and, finally, “Spirit.” These divisions establish artificial boundaries among the texts, which do co-mingle mind, body, heart, will, and, often, spirit.
Moreover, if Choice Words had been organized chronologically rather than thematically, I could have more easily discerned dramatic historical changes and comparisons in “real time” among countries. In the United States alone, change since Roe v. Wade in 1973 has included the growth of anti-abortion movements, their partial shift from violence to legislative activities, and the rise of pharmaceutical abortifacients such as RU-486. (My thanks to the anthropologist Faye Ginsburg for historical insight.) For example, in so ordering the poems, I would have started with “The Mother,” a tender, beautiful poem of 1945 by Gwendolyn Brooks, in which “the mother” remembers with grief and love “the children you got that you did not get.” Surely, this must allude to the children of enslaved women, ripped from them, as well as abortions; such children who are at once presence and absence. Then, I would have found the 1962 Anne Sexton poem “The Abortion,” a foundational text of “Confessional Poetry,” a far more self-lacerating narrative of the drive to an abortionist in Pennsylvania. Then, Marge Piercy’s adamant feminist declaration (1980), “Right to Life,” seizes the name of an anti-abortion movement and makes it her own. Defiantly, the speaker declares, “This is my body. If I give it to you/ I want it back. My life/is a nonnegotiable demand.”
Finally, I would have encountered a narrative about events in 2016, “River,” by Hanna Neuschwander. The anti-abortion presidency of Donald J. Trump looms on the horizon. However, a couple still has access to legal abortions. New diagnostic technologies of reproduction— ultrasound, a fetal MRI—also exist, but they inform the parents that their twenty-two-week-old fetus has severe brain abnormalities. Technical knowledge can make decisions harder. As so many others do, the parents mourn and bite on the truth that “there is no right way for your child to die.”
Through a Kickstarter campaign, Finch has raised money to donate copies of this book to clinics where literature might serve a woman sitting and waiting for her turn. Finch also hopes that the book will pollinate a collective and deeper understanding about women’s experiences within and across cultures. Choice Words tells us of decisions that demand some degree of moral and psychological and physical courage. None of these texts is about giddily throwing bouquets and confetti into the air, but the collection is asking for a kind of marriage: of understanding sex, of compassion, of common sense about a mother’s health and a child’s flourishing, and of respect for a woman’s capacity to say, “Perhaps there is no impeccably right way, but this is the best way now.”
Catharine Stimpson is a feminist scholar, University Professor of English, and dean emerita of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University.