Jhe first abortion I encountered in literature is not named. In Ernest Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants, which I studied in school, a man and a woman wait in a sleepy Spanish train station for the express to Madrid and carry on a veiled conversation while drinking:
“It really is a terribly simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not an operation at all.”
The young girl looked at the floor on which the legs of the table rested.
“I know you wouldn’t mind, Jig. It’s really nothing. It’s just to let the air in.
The girl didn’t say anything.
“I will go with you and stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and everything is perfectly natural.
“So what are we going to do next?”
“We will be fine afterwards. As we were before.
In four quietly devastating pages of dialogue, the man builds up the pressure and the tension mounts, but the narrative is more nuanced than just a case of a woman being manipulated into an ending.
When the English teacher asked us if we understood what the story was about, I remember feeling rather smug when I raised my hand and said “it’s an abortion”, even though it is much more obvious to me now as an adult, as is the metaphor of the white elephant as a hard-to-throw unwanted object. I hadn’t read much about abortion in books, but I knew about it through whispered conversations with friends – there was a high incidence of teenage pregnancy in the area where I grown up. Shortly after, we read The Soho Hospital for Women, a poem by Fleur Adock, in class, and my understanding of abortion grew even wider; it could mean a kind of death (she refers to Hine-nui-te-pō, the Maori goddess of the underworld), but also freedom. In the final verse, Adcock is released from the hospital after an unnamed procedure that can be interpreted as an abortion:
As I stand nearly untouched,
dizzy with freedom, no pain.
I lift my light basket, observing
how little I needed, in fact;
and go to checkout, in the rain,
to the lights and the long curve of the street.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these two examples recently, in light of the Roe v Wade reversal. In the years that followed, I had noticed the few literary abortions, to the point that I noted them when they arose. When they do, they don’t necessarily agree with the political case for reproductive rights. Like much abortion writing, they deal with complex emotions and in doing so act as direct counterpoints to “Call out your abortion!” No regrets!” social media logic, which, while politically important, must lack the nuance of more thoughtful creative work.
That’s why I so enjoyed Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, edited by Annie Finch, the first major literary anthology on the subject (it came out in 2020 but perhaps didn’t get 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 on the subject, but much of the literature was hard to find, no published or buried in larger works of literature”. The result of his work is an extraordinarily varied and diverse range of global voices and forms: poetry, fiction, memoirs and plays, but also tweets and diaries, and much in translation, from the 16th to the 21st century.
Few things are simplistic, and much of them are incredibly moving, whether it’s Lucille Clifton’s “lost baby poem” (“you would have been born in /winter/the year of disconnected gasoline/and no car” ) or Lindy West’s story of trying to access an abortion (“I didn’t want to wait two more weeks. I didn’t want to think about it every day. I didn’t want to feel my body change. I didn’t want to not wear and feed this artifact of my inherent lack of love…”) Some, like Jennifer Hanratty’s Tweets in Exile from Northern Ireland, which describe her trip to Liverpool for a pregnancy termination after a CT scan showed that her baby suffered from anencephaly, spark fury Her description of the boarding made me cry: “I know we made the right choice, but my body is desperate to hold him, to have him with me. If we were cared for at #home, he would be with us.’ The same was true for A Birt h Plan for Dying by Hanna Neuschwander, an account of a late abortion due to severe abnormalities. She writes, “I’m not looking for pity, but to have your worst personal pain to be the site of the most toxic conversation in public life is awful. It’s horrible every day.” As heartbreaking as she is, she knows that “ending River’s life was the most moral decision I’ve ever made.”
This is one of the most resonant themes in the collection, and one rarely touched upon: 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 event of the emotionally difficult life – Julia Conrad’s short article about her mother’s five abortions, and the corned beef sandwich she ate after her first, is a case in point. And yet another is the freedom to choose – to have an abortion, yes, but also not to have an abortion, as in the case of the millions of women who want to keep their babies female; Shikha Malaviya describes these “missing fifty million” as a “celestial kingdom / of abandoned girls”.
This varied anthology, spanning continents and centuries, can only increase our collective understanding of abortion, resisting simplistic narratives. I am deeply grateful for Finch’s effort, and I’m sure those who have experienced abortion will feel it even more. A Kickstarter campaign saw copies donated to clinics across the United States; unfortunately, some of these clinics may now be closing. The words on 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 from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.