Critical Disability Studies and Fiction on the Right-to-Life Issues: Carlos Fuentes’ Christopher Unborn (1987), Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), and the Million Dollar Baby Franchise

Abstract:  After supplying examples of the jargon-laden academic discussion of critical disability studies, this paper summarizes major ideas which constitute the literary theory.  Two life-affirming fictional works which concern abortion and infanticide (Carlos Fuentes’ Christopher Unborn and Lois Lowry’s The Giver) are then briefly examined, using key ideas from the theory.  A significant portion of the paper is devoted to applying critical disability studies to a euthanasia work, identified here as the Million Dollar Baby franchise, consisting of the short story and its film equivalent.  The discussions of these three works are amplified by providing further commentary from a pro-life perspective.  Finally, the paper determines how the principles of critical disability studies comport with the five elements of right-to-life literary theory and demonstrates how critical disability studies is compatible with the aims of the pro-life movement, which counters the dehumanization of the disabled in anti-life fiction.

          Critical disability studies is the newest literary theory which students of literature can use in their analysis and appreciation of literature.  Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL), a trusted and popular resource used by faculty and students, dates the theory from the 1990s, so scholarly attention to its tenets is relatively still in formation.  However, several scholars have attributed the growth of the theory to political activism on behalf of those who are disabled or who otherwise have access issues which prevent them from full participation in society, much like political action after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 stimulated academic discussion of gay and lesbian themes in literature.  For many critical disabilities scholars, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 was the beginning of concerted efforts to further the opportunity of looking at literature from the disabilities perspective.

Methodology and Structure of the Paper

The methodology for this study is relatively simple.  After several paragraphs of significant summary, the Purdue site recommends seventeen titles for further reading: Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic (1963) and his Madness and Civilization (1964); Lennard J. Davis’ Enforcing Normalcy (1995); Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies (1996); David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis (2000); Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell’s Cultural Locations of Disability (2005); Ato Quayson’s Aesthetic Nervousness (2007); Michael Davidson’s Concerto for the Left Hand (2008); Tobin Siebers’ Disability Theory (2008); Fiona Kumari Campbell’s Contours of Ableism (2009); Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Staring: How We Look (2009)[1]; Tobin Siebers’ Disability Aesthetics (2010); Tanya Titchkosky’s The Question of Access (2011); Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013); Kim Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States (2013); Rebecca Sanchez’ Deafening Modernism (2015); and Maren Tova Linett’s Bodies of Modernism (2017).  All of these monographs have been read, the essential elements of the literary theory have been identified, and it is my task to discuss how the ideas relate with the right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

Although surprising, since one would think that disability critics would be vocal in their criticism of politicians who support the killing of the handicapped person (whether he or she is unborn or born), searches on academic databases for critical disability studies on the three right-to-life issues yielded dismally few results.  While I am certain that much more research exists on the intersection of critical disabilities studies and the three right-to-life issues than what I located, queries conducted within Academic Search Complete, a database recommended for college students as their first choice for beginning research, for example, support this claim.  Entering only the phrase “critical disabilities studies” (which automatically populates as a possible search phrase) and “abortion”, “infanticide”, and “euthanasia” in three unique searches (specifying that only scholarly, peer-reviewed articles would be found) yielded two results.

While the infanticide search found no scholarly article, the abortion search yielded one article.  Michelle Jarman’s highly connotative language in the abstract, provided by her to the database service, makes it clear that she does not support the first civil right to life:

The article challenges the politically reductive ways that disability is leveraged by both antiabortionists and pro-choice supporters—on one side to claim “protection” of all life, and on the other to use disability as a crucial justification for abortion rights.  It centers disability for two reasons: first, to demonstrate the deep connections of disability to the ongoing political erosion of access to reproductive healthcare services, which disproportionately impacts women of color and economically vulnerable women; and second, to build on recent scholarship suggesting a merging of critical disability and reproductive justice approaches to reconfigure the dominant pro-choice public discourse on abortion.  To bring these two approaches closer together, this article focuses on two key elements of the abortion debate—access and autonomy—from a critical disability studies lens.  By foregrounding disability approaches to access and critiques of autonomy, the complicated relational concerns of reproduction are brought into focus.  Ultimately, it argues that an interconnected relational context provides a more nuanced approach that both supports women’s access to reproductive options and demands an expansion of the political frame based on choice and rights to include valuing and sustaining lives, challenging precarity, and supporting complex reproductive decisions.  [46]

The sole euthanasia article obtained in the search vaguely concerns critical disabilities studies.  Nicola Gavioli’s purpose is direct and much less biased against the pro-life perspective than Jarman’s:

This article focuses on the way in which contemporary Brazilian literature participates in the international debate regarding bioethical issues, with a particular focus on the representation and discussion of euthanasia and assisted suicide.  Analyzing novels [and] in dialogue with scholars in Critical Disability Studies, I demonstrate how Brazilian literature today is engaged in such problematic discussions as: patients’ rights, disability, and “good death,” presenting unusual points of view […] and offering nuanced approaches that do not necessarily fit into binary simplifications for or against euthanasia.  (129-130; internal references to various novels omitted)

Fortunately for the pro-life researcher, the paucity of scholarly attention to the intersection of critical disabilities studies and the life issues indicates the opportunity which awaits younger scholars emerging in the otherwise leftist-controlled humanities and social sciences fields.

Monographic scholarship is careful not to endorse a pro-life perspective.  One can attribute such hesitancy to the general leftist perspective of most academics, who may either be intolerant or simply ignorant of what they perceive as a “conservative” position of support for disabled or handicapped persons.  For example, Lennard J. Davis is concerned about leftist support for abortion when he writes,

While the race-class-gender grouping tends to coalesce around what might be termed “progressive issues”, the disableist position may require realignments and rethinkings of some ideological “truths.”

For example, and very tellingly, the position of people with disabilities on the issue of abortion and fetal screening is not seamlessly in accord with a liberal/progressive agenda.  (162)

Despite this admonition, most critical disabilities scholars are firm in their use of the “race-class-gender” axis.  For example, Kim E. Nielsen’s decidedly feminist-oriented history of disability suggests that disability rights should be pursued in the same way that “scholars have examined the historical expansion of democracy” through “race, class, and gender” (xiii).  Similarly, Tanya Titchkosky mentions the race-class-gender axis several times and in various formations, whether as “race, class, and gender”, “race, class, gender, and sexuality”, or “race studies, queer studies, and various feminisms” (xii, [3], 6).

After surveying the constituent elements of the literary theory, the final step in the research involved locating major works which concern characters who are affected by disability or access issues.  Fortunately, pro-life literary scholars have considered not only many major literary works, but also emergent works which are popular but may not yet be in the category of canonical.  Since more research will add to the pro-life analyses of these scholars, the online volumes of University Faculty for Life’s annual conference proceedings will assist future researchers who wish to expand or update the work already done.

          Following the above methodology, this paper first examines the academic jargon which intrudes on scholarly analysis using disability theory.  I label this jargon the psychobabble which occurs in much literary criticism: the use of polysyllabic, abstract terms which signify not only the standard vocabulary used in any of the dominant literary theories available for students of literature (for example, feminist, Marxist, or queer theories), but also the political, usually leftist, intent of the academic who wrote them.  The second major section of this paper discusses political and religious bias evident in critical disability studies.  Once these linguistic impediments and biases are eliminated, the paper isolates five major ideas which constitute critical disability studies.  This study then advances to the application of critical disability studies to two areas of literature: first, a general discussion of how critical disability studies can be applied to several literary works which have heretofore not been analyzed through that literary theory, at least from a right-to-life perspective; second, to a more detailed examination of a significant euthanasia work, the short story “Million $$$ Baby” by F. X. Toole and its film adaptation, Million Dollar Baby, notable for having been acted by three Hollywood greats: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank.  The final section of the paper demonstrates how right-to-life literary criticism enhances critical disability studies.[2]

I.  Academic Jargon or Psychobabble?

          If they dislike writing research papers, it is no wonder that students either hate or despise literature assignments which demand that they do not merely read and enjoy great works of literature, but require them to read those works from the perspectives of one of several literary theories which present arcane vocabulary, tortured expressions, and unrealistic if not ridiculous conclusions or interpretations.  The terms and phrases death of the author, any formation of gender (such as gender fluidity), oppression, any formation of patriarchy (such as heteropatriarchy and patriarchy itself), white privilege, and other often-used terms and phrases from contemporary literary theory do not so much stimulate students to social action (note how many of them pertain to contemporary leftist political agitation) as they reduce them to the trite tears of boredom, probably because the terms themselves have now become so trite as to be devoid of meaning or laughable.

          While psychobabble can be found in any work which uses one of the major literary theories in the effort to explicate, overthrow, or distort a literary work, the following are some of the more obvious examples of psychobabble from the monographs recommended by Purdue’s OWL for further study of critical disabilities theory.

          Usually, the psychobabble occurs when critics use terms from the feminist literary lexicon to make critical disability studies claims about a literary work.[3]  For example, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder use a barrage of standard feminist terms when discussing Montaigne’s essay “Des Boiteux”:

While the eroticization of a physical difference is by no means undermined by the narrator’s equation of physical incapacity with heightened sexual potency, the challenge to an absolute devaluation of aberrant physicality requires the strategy of a radical inversion of cultural precepts.

          In part, the narrator’s sexualization of the boiteuse rhetorically appeals to patriarchal desires for feminine objectification.  The addition of physical difference to an economy of masculine erotics complicates the issue of desire (and desirability) by disrupting the visual field of the patriarchal gaze itself.  (75)

Sometimes, the psychobabble suggests a criticism of feminist theory, a bold move since feminist criticism is the foundation on which many critical disabilities scholars attribute the birth of their own perspective in literature.  This is the case when Michael Davidson writes that

disability also complicates feminist film theory’s treatment of filmic gaze predicated on an able-bodied male viewer whose castration anxiety is finessed by the director’s specular control over the female protagonist.  Laura Mulvey’s influential essay avoids the alliance between the objectified woman and a disabled male, the latter of whose loss of limb or eyesight is a necessary adjunct to masculine specular pleasure.  (4-5)

Davidson’s concern (obsession?) with castration anxiety continues in other psychobabble passages where he asserts that

Finding the historical specifics of compulsory able-bodiedness is an important task for disabilities and queer studies, but such scholarship is often limited by residual medical and psychoanalytic models that generalize the connection of bodies and sexualities around narratives of loss and lack.  [….]  Because [feminist psychoanalytic film theory] has been important for understanding how cinema structures acts of looking through gendered spectacles, it has disabled the disability narrative of many films by treating acts of looking and gazing as defined by castration.  (64)

          Of course, feminist criticism is not the only literary theory whose vocabulary scholars use to hang their ideas about disability criticism.  Ato Quayson’s postcolonial research argues that

Attitudes to disabilities in the West also evolved in response to interactions with other races.  The colonial encounter and the series of migrations that it triggered in its wake served to displace the discourse of disability onto a discourse of otherness that was correlated to racial difference.  […]  Disease provided a particularly supple set of metaphors to modulate some of the social anxieties that emerged in the colonial period around interracial encounters, both in Europe and in the United States, with the discourse on leprosy in the period being particularly productive.  (10-11)

The above passage is not as cumbersome as the following, which, seeming to abandon the vocabulary of any other theory, aims to discuss canonical authors, such as Samuel Beckett, from a disabilities studies perspective:

The primary effect of evacuating the facticity of disability is that its significance then serves to permeate the entire representational nexus while being simultaneously absented from that nexus as a precise site for interpretation.  Yet to read Beckett through a framework of disability is to have to forcibly intervene in the signifying chain that allows disability to be so easily assimilated to philosophical categories.  Indeed, this would be the central task of a criticism informed by a consciousness of disability studies and its place in the critique of the overall scheme of aesthetic representation.  (85)

Non-canonical authors fare no better, although the following may be a victim of tortured literary criticism more than evidence of psychobabble from a critical disabilities perspective:

[The American Sign Language poem] “Poetry” presents a seemingly paradoxical embodied impersonality that suggests how we might rethink the relationship between texts and bodies in such a way so as to remain responsible to diverse lived experiences while still opening up to post-modern fluidity and eschewing a version of personality (or impersonality) that would align it with absolute authorial control.  (Sanchez 48)

Sometimes, the scholarly psychobabble occurs when academics attempt either to justify their monographs or to define key terms in disabilities studies.  This category of scholarly psychobabble occurs when Rosemarie Garland Thomson introduces her research thus:

My purpose here is to alter the terms and expand our understanding of the cultural construction of bodies and identity by reframing “disability” as another culture-bound, physically justified difference to consider along with race, gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality.  In other words, I intend to introduce such figures as the cripple, the invalid, and the freak into the critical conversations we devote to deconstructing figures like the mulatto, the primitive, the queer, and the lady.  To denaturalize the cultural encoding of these extraordinary bodies, I go beyond assailing stereotypes to interrogate the conventions of representation and unravel the complexities of identity production within social narratives of bodily differences.  […]  Therefore, I focus here on how disability operates in culture and on how the discourses of disability, race, gender, and sexuality intermingle to create figures of otherness from the raw materials of bodily variation, specifically at sites of representation such as the freak show, sentimental fiction, and black women’s liberatory novels.  (Extraordinary 5-6)

Thomson’s verbal dexterity is not only able to collapse thousands of years of human history into one sentence (“In the tradition of Aristotle’s view of women as mutilated males, female genitalia—for the Western culture that later produced Freud—were the stigmata marking the putative absence that defined female lack”), but also to reduce her challenge of the grotesque in disabilities studies to a sentence which contains key terms from the lexicons of other theories: “Aestheticizing disability as the grotesque tends to preclude analysis of how those representations support or challenge the sociopolitical relations that make disability a form of cultural otherness” (Extraordinary 72; 112).

This reduction of the ideas from many other literary theories into an effort to explain disability theory as concisely as possible obtains when David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder discuss prosthesis, an essential term in their Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse:

Narrative Prosthesis is first and foremost about the ways in which the ruse of prosthesis fails in its primary objective: to return the incomplete body to the invisible status of a normative essence.  The works under scrutiny here tend to leave the wound of disability undressed so to speak.  Its presence is enunciated as transgressive in that literary works often leave the disabled body as a troubled and troubling position within culture.  (8)[4]

While it may not have been his intention to critique her, Tobin Siebers thought it was necessary to clarify a prominent feminist thinker’s definition of the body (a key term and concept, one would think, for any critic concerned with disability studies) with the following:

Donna Haraway, although eschewing the language of realism, makes a case for the active biological agency of bodies, calling them “material-semiotic generative nodes.”  By this last phrase, she means to describe the body as both constructed and generative of constructions and to dispute the idea that it is merely a ghostly fantasy produced by the power of language.  (Disability Theory, 203; internal citation omitted)

          Two final examples can illustrate the linguistic heights which critical disabilities scholars sometimes reach.  A passage in Lennard J. Davis’ analysis of deafness rises almost to grand philosophizing, replete with a great number of literary critical buzzwords which every academic should use at least once in his or her life:

For the writer, garrulousness and silence both empty meaning from language.  Meaning is the surplus value of the text’s production.  Or, in another modality, meaning is the symptom of the neurosis of totality.  Loquaciousness and silence reveal the symptomatic nature of meaning, and therefore are constant reminders of the deconstructive threat hovering around the text.  Loquaciousness, too, in an overdetermined way, also represents the transgressive sublimation of female power.  If women could legitimately give voice to their complaints, they would not need the subaltern tactics of unruly domestic linguistic infringement.  (116)

To their (dis?)credit, Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell collapse many literary critical buzzwords in one sentence, when they argue that “Williams’s ‘anatomy of film bodies’ [diagram] refuses simplistic demands of body genre films as crass or merely ideologically duplicitous, while using their fantasy structures as a means to expose ideologically invested formulas” (161).

II.  Political and Religious Bias

          Another noticeable aspect of academic discussion of critical disability theory is its political and religious bias, especially against Judeo-Christian values which shaped the Western world.  Academics’ biases against political conservatives in the United States may account for many politically leftist statements throughout the seventeen volumes suggested by the Purdue site.  For example, using terms with highly negative connotations to disparage a union between disability activists and pro-life conservatives, Michael Davidson writes that

The current administration of President George W. Bush is orchestrating its own biotech nightmare scenario around stem-cell research and abortion.  […]  Given this conflation of geopolitical and biopolitical discourses, it is little wonder that disability advocates, who have forcefully argued against physician-assisted suicide and genetic engineering, have found themselves in an unholy alliance with the religious Right.  (221)

The political bias is not as pronounced as the religious bias in the scholarship, yet the number of instances is sufficiently large to deserve comment.  Of course, many critical disabilities scholars accept the intellectual premise that the modern world is irreligious; for example, Quayson asserts that, “Even though in the modern world the notion of the proximity of the divine and metaphysical orders to the human lifeworld is no longer predominant, such beliefs have still flared up from time to time” (12).

Often, the bias against religious entities is subtle, as when Fiona Kumari Campbell suggests that the Roman Catholic Church had nothing in common with Islam in fighting the promotion of abortion at the United Nations: “Interest convergence has sometimes resulted in unlikely bedfellows (i.e. groups in the community forming alliances where normally their interests might be different or even conflicting)” (18), or her undisputed reference to a claim “that for people of European Christian decent [sic], internalised racism can empower, if not privilege, feelings of superiority” (21).

The person or, more correctly, the body, of Jesus Christ poses a particular problem for some critical disability scholars.  Rosemarie Garland Thomson writes that

The prodigy plot informs many of the foundational narratives of Western culture.  […]  Prodigious births came in the form of unusual bodies that could be distinguished from run-of-the-mill births so as to provide a discernable text.  While Jesus is not represented as monstrous per se, his body at both birth and death functions as a prodigy: its distinction offers it up as a preternatural gesture to be read.  Like monsters, Jesus was imagined as a sign from the gods.  (Staring, 210)[5]

          Despite these instances, the bias against religious contributions to human life is most obvious in its absence.  Foucault’s two monographs discuss religion in general and the Catholic Church specifically.  See, for example, his discussion of the Church’s role in creating leprosaria throughout medieval Europe in his Madness and Civilization  ([1]) or the idea expressed in The Birth of the Clinic that doctors after the French Revolution became “priests of the body” (37).  However, the contributions of religious entities regarding the sanctity of human life are rarely noted.  Why critical disabilities scholars do not explicitly recognize this vitally important factor of human life is a complex subject which must be relegated to future research.

III.  Key Ideas of Critical Disability Studies

          What remains from the rubble of academic critical disabilities psychobabble and the bias against religious ideas and conservatives?  Once the debris has been cleared, at least five key ideas remain, which can be useful to help students appreciate literature.  The catalog which follows is not progressive, in the sense of moving from one idea causing another, but cumulative; one idea does not ineluctably cause another.  The order of these ideas is my own summary of their occurrence across the works identified on the Purdue site and moves from general philosophical ideas to more specific and usually political matters of concern to the theorists.

          The paramount idea remaining is that critical disabilities theory considers disability not as a medical diagnosis, but as a social construct.  That is, while one’s perception of a disability may have a diagnostic foundation, it is unwarranted to conclude that the disability itself is or should be solely controlled by the decisions of the medical community.  Much more important is how people react to the diagnosis of a disability either to themselves or to another person and how life is affected by those perceptions.  Thus, the theory adopts feminist literary criticism’s notion that gender is a social construct more than a physical reality.  Critical disability scholars’ reliance on this feminist principle poses some problems, which will be discussed below.

          Second, critical disability studies posits that the ideology of humanness had been corrupted not earlier than the Enlightenment and certainly no later than the industrialization and attendant quantification of human work in the nineteenth century.  According to critical disability studies scholars, the nineteenth century especially saw the transformation of humanity from being celebrated for its diversity to one which was standardized, quantified, and controlled by medical authority so that any deviation from the norm of what a human being should be capable of doing became a disability.

Third, critical disabilities theory challenges the perspective that one who has an access issue or disability is not less-than human, but fully human with a body structure different from the norm of a human being with one head, two arms, two legs, and all five senses in functioning order.  While this tenet contradicts the ancient understanding of human nature and the perfection of the able-bodied (Aristotle has few friends in the critical disabilities theory community), one can quickly finish the possible syllogism resulting from these propositions: that critical disabilities theory is much more pro-life than, for example, standard anti-life feminist literary criticism or deconstruction, both of which seek to destabilize common notions of humanity which have obtained in the Western world since the rise of Judeo-Christianity.

          Fourth, several critical disability theory scholars have noted that disability is a universal phenomenon and part of human nature.  That is, disability does not apply only to those who are handicapped or who have access issues or other impediments that prohibit them from full participation in able-bodied society.  Critical disabilities scholars’ contention is that all of humanity is disabled if only because at some point in everyone’s life he or she requires some technological device to meet the criteria of an able-bodied person: from medicines (which can vary from the sporadic use of ibuprofen for caffeine-withdrawal headaches to life-saving insulin) to prosthetics (which can vary from the most complex of prosthetic devices, such as flesh-colored and computerized appendages for quadriplegics, to the simplest, such as glasses).  There is a danger in asserting this proposition.  If everyone becomes disabled, then one can argue that no special concern for the disabled should be tolerated, let alone mandated by law.  Herein are critical disability scholars caught in a philosophical jam: either they are justified in bringing attention to the lives of those who are disabled or they are not since all the uniqueness of the disabled body has evaporated in the universal claim of sameness.

          Finally, critical disability theory confronts persons (for example, Peter Singer[6]), cultural artifacts (the film The Best Years of Our Lives[7]), and institutions (such as the Jerry Lewis telethons[8]) which the critics say either distort the existence or jeopardize the right to exist of those who are categorized as disabled.[9]  Although they are advocating pro-life positions when they support the right to life of disabled individuals, critical disability scholars are hesitant to equate their support of the right to exist with the right to life.

IV.  Applying Critical Disability Studies to Various Literary Works

          Now that some general principles of critical disability theory have been identified, it is possible to illustrate how the theory can help to offer a reading of specific literary works different from the one which seeks patriarchal oppression of women by men (the tired axiom of feminist theory), or the conflict of ideologies, especially economic ones (as in the divisive class-warfare language of Marxist literary criticism), or in the distortion of heterosexual normativity (as in gay and lesbian criticism’s assertion of the validity of alternative “sexualities”).  Since this paper is designed for a conference of researchers who are concerned with the three life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, I have selected novels which address each of the three issues and will discuss how the major ideas from critical disability studies could enhance a standard reading.  Carlos Fuentes’ Christopher Unborn (1987) challenges readers to think about abortion and the life of the unborn, Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993) includes infanticide in its plot, and F. X. Toole’s short story “Million $$$ Baby” (2000)[10] concerns euthanasia.  The first two works will be briefly examined, while Toole’s forty-page short story and its two hour and twelve minute film adaptation will be discussed at greater length.

Carlos Fuentes’ Christopher Unborn (1987)

          Carlos Fuentes’ Christopher Unborn (1987) is a first-person narration of an unborn child who recounts the various stages of his development.  Literary theorists can view the novel as, from a feminist perspective, an exercise in patriarchal oppression; after all, Christopher is not only a male, but a male unborn baby who qualifies as a “parasite” in the feminist lexicon, feeding off (which means depriving his mother of) essential nutrients for her life.  The bulk of the scholarship attending Fuentes’ novel comes from this feminist focus.

A critical disability theorist, however, could discover the obvious: Christopher is as immobile as any born human who uses a wheelchair.  In fact, Christopher is more “crippled” than a wheelchair user, since the wheelchair user can move from his or her appliance to another location while it is impossible for the unborn child to experience anything but his mother’s womb.  Thus, Christopher is in an extreme subordinate (literary critics would use the standard term “subject”) position which critical disability theorists would find most objectionable since no one, whether disabled or able-bodied, should be so subordinate or subject to another human being.

Moreover, a critical disabilities theorist would recognize what pro-lifers have long argued since the beginning decades of the movement: the science of fetal development signifies one’s humanity.  Thus, whether Christopher consists of a clump of cells; a body with nascent arms and legs, similar to a born child or adult with phocomelia from having been a Thalidomide baby; or a fetus about to be born, one who is utterly incapable of surviving outside the womb without direct intervention by his parents: critical disabilities theorists should assert Christopher’s unqualified right to live as much as his mother’s.  Since one’s condition of dependency does not negate one’s right to life, he is a character whose birth would be welcomed in the fictional world of Fuentes’ novel.

Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993)

          Ostensibly concerned with overpowering a dystopian world where not only human emotions but also memories are banned, perhaps the most enduring feature of Lois Lowry’s The Giver are passages where handicapped newborns are killed.  In fact, it is the infanticide scene which becomes the crucial scene of anagnorisis in the novel which matures the adolescent Jonas into a young man on a mission of liberation.  That his father commits the infanticide of a defective child called a “newchild” in the eugenically-correct community is especially horrifying for Jonas:

          His father was talking, and Jonas realized that he was hearing the answer to the question he had started to ask.  Still in the special voice, his father was saying, “I know, I know.  It hurts, little guy.  But I have to use a vein, and the veins in your arms are still too teeny-weeny.”

          He pushed the plunger very slowly, injecting the liquid into the scalp vein until the syringe was empty.

          “All done.  That wasn’t so bad, was it?”  Jonas heard his father say cheerfully.  He turned aside and dropped the syringe into a waste receptacle.

          Now he cleans him up and makes him comfy, Jonas said to himself, aware that The Giver didn’t want to talk during the little ceremony.

          As he continued to watch, the newchild, no longer crying, moved his arms and legs in a jerking motion.  Then he went limp.  He [sic] head fell to the side, his eyes half open.  Then he was still.


          He killed it!  My father killed it!  Jonas said to himself, stunned at what he was realizing.  He continued to stare at the screen numbly.

          His father tidied the room.  Then he picked up a small carton that lay waiting on the floor, set it on the bed, and lifted the limp body into it.  He placed the lid on tightly.

          He picked up the carton and carried it to the other side of the room.  He opened a small door in the wall; Jonas could see darkness behind the door.  It seemed to be the same sort of chute into which trash was deposited at school.

          His father loaded the carton containing the body into the chute and gave it a shove.

          “Bye-bye, little guy,” Jonas heard his father say before he left the room.  Then the screen went blank.  (149-151; italics in original)

A Marxist literary critic would find in this passage the necessary conflict between ideologies which is an essential feature of the theory.  In this perspective, Jonas and his comrades are adolescent protagonists who oppose and overthrow the dominant ideology of their world to secure a more fulfilling and more human world for themselves.

          A critical disabilities theorist, of course, would elaborate on this essential plot resolution and point out that the protagonists are advocates of human life deemed inferior and subject to being killed, what the authorities euphemistically call “release” (2).  Moreover, while acknowledging that it depicts the disastrous effects of a totalitarian government on human life, a disabilities critic would emphasize that the novel concerns the rights of newborns who are handicapped, elderly persons who are valued for being repositories of mankind’s collective history, and the assertion that the state does not grant the right to life, but merely recognizes it.

          All of these positions of the disabilities critic have long been held by the pro-life movement.  The pro-life community has a written record addressing the threat of infanticide since the 1980s.  Effie A. Quay wrote And Now Infanticide in 1980, Joseph R. Stanton followed with his Infanticide in 1981, Melinda Delahoyde expanded the pro-life perspective on infanticide in her 1984 monograph Fighting for Life: Defending the Newborn’s Right to Live, and pro-life research in this area has continued since then.  Similarly, in the area of experience with totalitarian governments, Steven W. Mosher introduced the pro-life movement to the anti-life practices of the world’s most totalitarian state, the People’s Republic of China, in his seminal 1993 work, A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy , and pro-life special interest groups like Reggie Littlejohn’s Women’s Rights Without Frontiers continues promoting awareness that, as the masthead on its website announces, “Forced Abortion Is Not a Choice.”

F. X. Toole’s “Million $$$ Baby” (short story 2000; film 2004)

          F. X. Toole’s short story “Million $$$ Baby” illustrates the tenacity of Mary Margaret Fitzgerald who wants Frankie Dunn not only to train her to be a boxer, but also to manage her.  She is insistent that she will have no one else work with her, and Maggie’s devotion to her profession generates her success in the ring.  The possibility of her being a boxer winning a million dollar prize, however, is negated by a disastrous punch from an opponent and a fall onto a metal surface which transform her from a gifted boxer to a quadriplegic.  Thus immobilized, breathing on a ventilator, and having undergone one leg amputation, Maggie asks Frankie to kill her.  Although refusing at first, he agrees to kill her at short story’s end.  The film largely coincides with these essential details of the short story, although there are significant differences, discussed below.

          While some may use the short story as an argument for the medical killing called euthanasia, a critical disabilities scholar would emphasize not merely the bodily integrity of Maggie in both her able-bodiedness and her quadriplegic state, but also her humanity.  Maggie remains the same person she was after the accident in the ring; the difference post-accident is that she uses specific prostheses and technological appliances to continue living.

Her essential humanity is something which other characters in the short story do not recognize because they are focused on her mere body.  Frankie’s litany of distortions about Maggie’s body begins subtly in the story and film when he constantly asserts that he does not train “girls” for boxing.  The narrator reinforces Frankie’s perception of Maggie’s gender; she is a “girl”, even though she is thirty-two:

Two thick braids of deep auburn hair hung down behind each ear, framing a freckled face and a pair of agate eyes, like Frankie’s daughter’s.  She was maybe five feet nine and weighed a fit 140.  She was relaxed and stood gracefully, her weight balanced on both feet, and despite a broken nose, she was a looker.  (64)

Frankie’s focus on Maggie’s body continues when he eventually becomes her trainer:

“When you throw a right-hand, you got to step out to the left six inches as you move half a step in with both feet.  That frees your right hip and leg and foot, like this, so you can snap your ass into your shots.  I mean your backside.”

          “You got it the first time.  Got one on me like a forty-dollar mule.”

          Do you ever, Frankie thought, and long legs with calves like a ballerina.  Long arms and a short body, perfect for a fighter.  Because of her sweatshirt and T-shirts, he couldn’t be sure about her bustline, but she didn’t seem to be top-heavy, which was good for a girl fighter.  (70; italics in original)

          After the accident, Maggie is described more in medical terms that any disabilities critic would abhor and which pro-life scholars would classify as standard dehumanization, replacing the humanity of the patient with medical terminology.  “I’m a C-1 and C-2 complete” Maggie tells Frankie, explaining that “that means my spinal cord’s so bad they never can fix me” (85).  The narrator elaborates a substantial medical summary by asserting that

her neurologists determined that she was a permanent, vent-dependent quadriplegic unable to breathe without a respirator.  As a C-1 and C-2, she was injured at the first and second cervical vertebrae, which meant she could talk and slightly move her head, but that was all.  She had lost the ability to breathe on her own, to move her limbs.  She could not control her bladder or her bowel movements.  She’d be frozen the rest of her life. (85)

          Maggie’s dehumanization continues as the story races towards its denouement.  She is transformed into a non-human entity: “Twice she spasmed into a grotesque caricature of herself” (87).   If her humanity is referenced, then it becomes metaphorically transformed into another non-human entity, ice: “Most of the patients were cheerful.  Maggie was one of the ones who wasn’t, as each day the dread of a frozen life engulfed her” (87).  Maggie herself asserts her lack of humanness when she identifies with the term most commonly used by elderly persons who fear what they will become to their children, and the dehumanization is intensified being delivered in her hillbilly twang: “Bein a burden ain’t somethin I could handle” (88).  Besides being a burden, Maggie dehumanizes herself further by reducing her humanity to that of an animal.  “’Frankie’,” she said, now looking him straight in the eye.  “’I want you to put me down like Daddy did Axel [the family dog].’  [….]  The next day she asked him again.  “’You’d do it for a dog’” (92-3).

          Once the dehumanization has been fully depicted, Maggie’s request to be killed seems ineluctable.  At this point so late in the narrative, it is odd that Frankie likes being in “St. Brendan’s [which] was an old church, one in which the smells of burning candles and incense were ever present.  For Frankie it was a holy place, and he took solace from it, knowing that his torture was mirrored in the broken body of the crucified Christ” (96).  That he does not see the crucified Christ in the equally broken, immobilized, and therefore symbolically crucified body of Maggie makes Toole’s short story all the more compelling as evidence of the blindness that some have towards those who are medically vulnerable.

          Maggie’s killing in the short story differs greatly from the film.  In the movie, Frankie disconnects Maggie’s breathing tube so that she can “fall asleep”; he then injects adrenaline into an intravenous tube.  Thus, Maggie’s death scene is shown as utterly peaceful and passive, gentle music composed by Clint Eastwood himself swirling around the final scenes.  In the short story, however, Frankie plays a much more active role in killing her.

“I won’t hurt you,” he whispered in her ear.  “First I’m going to put you to sleep.  Then I’ll give you a shot.”


Frankie stood behind her so he wouldn’t have to see her face.  He firmly pressed his thumbs to both sides of Maggie’s neck, cutting off the blood flow to her brain at the carotid arteries.  In a few seconds, Maggie’s eyes closed and her mouth came open.  Oxygen from the vent escaped and became part of the whirlwind inside Frankie’s head.  He stood pressing for three minutes, long enough to give himself the time he needed.

          Frankie looked at her, had to choke back a howl.[12]  But he still pried her mouth open the width of three fingers, and injected the contents of the hypodermic needle beneath the stub of Maggie’s tongue.  The adrenaline, all thirty millimeters of it, was enough to kill a dragon, but Frankie knew it would dissipate in Maggie’s system shortly after being injected.  Should there be an autopsy, the tiny spot where the needle had entered would not to [sic] be noticed.  But even if it were, the adrenaline would never be detected.


He checked Maggie’s pulse.  It raced faster than a speed bag.  Then the stroke hit her and her face contorted, one eye sagging open.  (100; italics in original)

          Maggie’s killing scene allows critical disability theorists to demonstrate how warped contemporary society has become regarding the rights of the disabled.  A disabilities critic would emphasize Maggie’s humanity, despite her condition of dependency.  Such a critic would also emphasize the intrusion of the medical sphere into her life; Maggie’s equation of herself with the diagnosis that “I’m a C-1 and C-2 complete” is merely evidence of the degree to which a disabled person can internalize another person’s opinion of his or her medical condition.

Moreover, the disabilities critic would highlight the irony that Frankie and his associate Eddie are just as socially handicapped or disabled as Maggie herself.  Besides her medical condition resulting from the boxing injury, Maggie is handicapped in class status; in one passage the narrator simply reports that “She was born and raised in southwestern Missouri, in the hills outside the scratch-ass Ozark town of Theodosia.  […]  She was trailer trash” (68).  Frankie is similarly socially handicapped; he does not connect with his apparently large family, even though the text refers to “his children” and “his sons and daughters and grandchildren” but no wife (63, 95).  To reinforce the gruffness that probably accounts for his emotional distance from his family, Clint Eastwood, who plays his character, utters his lines with a grainy, smoker’s voice.  Frankie’s associate Eddie is also handicapped, literally; he lost one of his eyes in a boxing match.  With such handicaps or disabilities, it is no wonder that Frankie and Eddie do not perceive what it would take a formalist literary critic or a pro-lifer to perceive from Maggie’s essential biographical detail: Maggie, the trailer trash woman, hails from “Theodosia”, which means “gift of God.”

V.  Enhancing Critical Disability Studies with Right-to-Life Literary Criticism

As the commentary on Toole’s short story suggests, critical disability studies can be an intensely life-affirming school of literary criticism without explicitly identifying itself as such.  While critical disabilities scholars may be hesitant to identify themselves with the pro-life movement, we who support the first civil right should not be reticent in making the connections clear.  Certainly, the goals of the disabilities rights and pro-life movements are almost identical; while legislative goals may differ, both the disability rights and pro-life movements work to advance respect for more vulnerable persons who may be targets of infanticide and euthanasia activists.[13]  Therefore, we can complete the intellectual linkage between critical disability studies and the pro-life movement explicitly.

I have written elsewhere about five questions that right-to-life literary theory brings to the explication, analysis, and appreciation of literature concerning the life issues.  As life-affirming as critical disabilities theory is, these questions cannot only enhance that theory, but fill in significant gaps so that students of literature receive a comprehensive perspective of the controversial literature they are reading.

          Each of the five questions of right-to-life literary theory addresses some aspect of literary works which critical disabilities theory either briefly considers or ignores.  For example, whether the literary work supports the perspective that human life is, in the philosophical sense, a good, some “thing” which is priceless, is obliquely affirmed.  Granted, any disabilities critic must conclude that any life is a philosophical good, even one which happens to be less-able-bodied than another.  However, scanning the scholarly literature, one is hard pressed to find an explicit acknowledgment of this universal human right as a philosophical good.  Much more common is a recurring theme, expressed by Siebers and virtually all critical disability scholars, for example, that the specific human attributes of “race, class, gender, and sexuality” are important for securing human happiness, but not an explicit mention of the foundational right without which no discussion of these accidental characteristics could ensue, the right to life (Disability Aesthetics 28).

          Fuentes’ and Lowry’s novels are not as ambiguous as they seem in determining whether human life itself is a good.  Christopher’s struggle to be born is as life-affirming as Jonas’ struggle against the totalitarian state which encroaches on his life.  These are affirmations of life that a reader must work out beyond the mere plot development of an unborn child moving like a handicapped entity through nine months of gestation or teens moving from a dystopian world into an unknown and freer site for human development.

Determining whether human life is a philosophical good in Toole’s short story is much more challenging.  Most scenes occur, not in glamorous venues where Maggie revels in her boxing prowess, but in a poverty-stricken gym where “the stink” as Frankie calls it permeates the environment and where the intellectual development of the boxers in training is trumped by the physical growth of muscles, movements, and boxing technique.  That Frankie kills Maggie supports this dismal view of human life; if he thought that human life were indeed a philosophical good, then he would have acknowledged it, argued more forcefully against Maggie’s comparison of herself to a dog, and, most obviously, not killed her.

          The second question of right-to-life literary theory considers whether the literary work respects the individual as a being with inherent rights, the paramount one being the right to life.  After all, any critical disabilities critic reviewing a work of literature must affirm the life of the person depicted in the work who may not be able-bodied as other characters.  However, the reasons why such a character should have his or her life affirmed are not provided in any of the three works considered here, and the assertion for the right to exist remains on the surface level.  This fundamental philosophical difference between disabilities and pro-life literary critics is profound, for pro-life critics usually base their support for a person’s existence, whether fictional or real, usually on a religious basis or on a common understanding that certain rights are inherent in human beings, having come from the Creator.

          The third question of right-to-life literary theory covers the actions of a family, specifically whether the literary work respects heterosexual normativity and the integrity of the family.  In all three works discussed here, the families are broken or distorted, adjectives which would be used by any critical disabilities scholar to describe the less-than-perfect family situations in which the characters live.  Fuentes’ family consists of Christopher and his mother, and his father is spoken of as though he is always absent.  Christopher, whose vocabulary in Fuentes’ work is amazingly erudite, receives no whispers through the abdominal wall from a loving father as contemporary fathers sometimes do.  Jonas has a traditional family, but his father is ideologically handicapped by his anti-life philosophy of killing defective newborns; thus, Jonas’ father is automatically disqualified as a functional father, understood in the Jewish and Christian culture of the West as a man who performs the triple “provider, protector, and priest” duties for the family.

          The fourth question of right-to-life literary theory investigates whether the literary work comports with the view that unborn, newborn, and mature human life has an inherent right to exist.  Unfortunately, if critical disabilities studies counts a pro-abortion position, one of the major tenets of feminist literary criticism, as one of its own, then the philosophic problem which that tenet creates limits the universal applicability of the theory.  Thus, if feminist literary theory has enshrined the belief that the mother has greater rights than the unborn child, and if disability criticism accepts this premise, then critical disability studies is schizophrenic; it cannot argue for the right to life of all handicapped or disabled persons since it supports the killing of the most vulnerable and (like Christopher in Fuentes’ novel) most disabled person imaginable, the unborn child in his or her mother’s womb.  While many disability scholars ignore the right to life of the unborn as much as they are silent about Margaret Sanger’s support for eugenicist abortion,[14] others understand the disturbing connection between eugenics, abortion,[15] and attacks on the disabled.  For example, Rosemarie Garland Thomson writes that “Both the modern eugenics movement, which arose from the mid-nineteenth century scientific community, and its current counterpart, reproductive technology designed to predict and eliminate ‘defective’ fetuses, reveal a determination to eradicate disabled people” (Extraordinary, 34, internal quotes in original).[16]

Similarly, of course, if one accepts the proposition that the unborn child is, in true Nazi thinking, a life unworthy of life, then persons at the end of the chronological spectrum could also become vulnerable targets of eugenic forces.  Adopting the eugenic proposals of the Nazi regime would be especially schizophrenic since many critical disability scholars have demonstrated how the American and Nazi eugenics movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries assaulted the rights of those persons for whom disabilities studies was first created—the medically vulnerable, the disabled, and the handicapped.[17]

          The final question of right-to-life literary theory asks, when they are faced with their mortality, do the characters in any literary work come to a realization that there is a divine presence in the world which justifies a life-affirming perspective.  Fortunately, for brevity’s sake, the main characters in both Fuentes’ and Lowry’s novels need not concern themselves with a final religious reckoning; Christopher and Jonas and his companions have their lives ahead of them to explore the religious possibilities of their lives.  The religious sensibility in Toole’s short story, therefore, becomes all the more important for analysis since the characters are elderly, past their prime fighters, and, in Maggie’s case, near death.

          Eddie and Maggie have no religious background, and there is no evidence that either character is aware of basic religious teachings about death and the hereafter.  Frankie, however, supplies some evidence that he is aware of the divine presence in the world, a presence which does not assist him, apparently, in deciding moral issues.  Frankie’s love for the sacramentals involved in worship were noted above.  However, while he is aware of his religious duties as a Catholic (“In a few days it would be All Saints’ Day, a Holy Day of Obligation”), he does not find strength in his faith (“Frankie hadn’t received the Eucharist since Maggie’s injury” 95).  His confession to his parish priest illustrates how conflicted he is about how he “murthered a girleen [….] In me mind” (97).

          The lack of an effective sensibility of the divine presence in the world can be attributed not only to critical disabilities scholars’ rightful emphasis on the body, but also to their omission of other components of human life which most critical disabilities scholars dismiss.  While philosophers and theologians must debate what elements constitute human nature, it should not be debatable that human nature concerns the physical body, yes, but also the soul, the mind, one’s community with the living, one’s communion with the dead, and one’s responsibility to the future.  A disabled person does not live merely for the sake of enabling his or her physical being for his or her span of eighty or more years; he or she also lives intellectually, socially, and, hopefully, spiritually.

Maggie, however, is solely concerned about her body.  “I’ma dyin ever’ day,” she says to Frankie.  “Now they’re talkin ‘bout cuttin off my ulcerated leg.  [….]  I’m gettin worse, boss [….]  I don’t wont [sic] to live on like this” (92).  Living as a quadriplegic presents problems, as critical disabilities scholars would say, for able-bodied persons more than the quadriplegics themselves.  Having a leg amputated is further distressing, for both the quadriplegic and for others around him or her.  It is unfortunate that Maggie could not move beyond her physicality and develop her mind or inquire into the existence of her soul.  It may be a faulty comparison since no person’s life is an exact match with another’s, but, if the atheist Stephen Hawking could live as a quadriplegic and yet develop his mind to an exceptional degree, then Maggie, asking to be killed, permanently foreclosed her opportunity to discover how she, the trailer trash from Theodosia, Missouri was a “gift from God.”

          The above discussion hopes to demonstrate that critical disability studies has much in common with the right-to-life movement.  Partisan differences of most academics aside, those who use critical disability studies as their vehicle for a greater understanding and appreciation of works of literature are proposing pro-life ideas without, apparently, being aware of it.  While it is unfortunate that most academics who use critical disabilities theory cannot take the logical move to connect themselves with the pro-life movement, such a step is unnecessary, since pro-life faculty and students can make that connection for them.  Thus, many thanks should be given to those academics who have advanced critical disabilities theory to where it is today.  It is now up to contemporary pro-life faculty and students to take the theory to the next level, one which demonstrates how a life-affirming approach is manifest in even the most egregiously anti-life work of literature and can be overcome, “transgressed” in the parlance of jargon-laden academics, for the cause of protecting human life in whatever form it is found.

Works Cited

Campbell, Fiona Kumari. Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Davidson, Michael. Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body. U of Michigan P, 2008.

Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. Verso, 1995.

Delahoyde, Melinda. Fighting for Life: Defending the Newborn’s Right to Live. Servant Books, 1984.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. 1963. Translated by A. M. Sheridan, Routledge Classics, 2003.

—. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. 1961. Translated by Richard Howard, Routledge Classics, 1989.

Fuentes, Carlos. Christopher Unborn. Translated by Alfred MacAdam and the author, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford UP, 2009.

Gavioli, Nicola. “Bioethical Issues in Contemporary Brazilian Culture: Euthanasia and Literature.” Luso-Brazilian Review, vol. 54, no. 2, Dec. 2017, pp. 129–151. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3368/lbr.54.2.129.

Goodley, Dan. Foreword. Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness, by Fiona Kumari Campbell, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp. ix-xii.

Jarman, Michelle. “Relations of Abortion: Crip Approaches to Reproductive Justice.” Feminist Formations, vol. 27, no. 1, spring 2015, pp. 46-66.

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana UP, 2013.

Linett, Maren Tova. Bodies of Modernism: Physical Disability in Transatlantic Modernist Literature. U of Michigan P, 2017.

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Million Dollar Baby. Performances by Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank. Warner, 2004.

Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. U of Michigan P, 2000.

Mosher, Steven W.         A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy.  Harcourt Brace, 1993.

Nielsen, Kim E. A Disability History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2012.

Purdue University, College of Liberal Arts. Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism, 2019,

Quay, Effie A. And Now Infanticide.  Sun Life, 1980.

Quayson, Ato. Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation. Columbia UP, 2007.

Sanchez, Rebecca. Deafening Modernism: Embodied Language and Visual Poetics in American Literature. New York UP, 2015.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Aesthetics. U of Michigan P, 2010.

—. Disability Theory. U of Michigan P, 2008.

Snyder, Sharon L., and David T. Mitchell. Cultural Locations of Disability. U of Chicago P, 2006.

Stanton, Joseph R. Infanticide. Americans United for Life, 1981.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. Columbia UP, 1997.

Titchkosky, Tanya. The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning. U of Toronto P, 2011.

Toole, F. X. “Million $$$ Baby.” Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner. HarperCollins, 2000, pp. [61]-101.

—. “Million Dollar Baby.” Million Dollar Baby: Stories from the Corner. HarperCollins, 2005, pp. [61]-101.

Women’s Rights Without Frontiers. Forced Abortion Is Not a Choice, 2019,

[1] Rosemarie Garland Thomson and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson are the same person.  However, since the title page of Staring hyphenates her name while Extraordinary does not, I will use the hyphenated surname throughout when quoting from that monograph, following MLA format.

[2] I offer many thanks to colleagues who ended the presentation of this paper at Mundelein Seminary/University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois with a vibrant question-and answer period.

[3] Disability studies’ reliance on feminist principles is pronounced throughout the scholarship.  For example, in his foreword to Fiona Kumari Campbell’s work, Dan Goodley writes, “Through increased alliances with feminist, queer and post-colonial comrades, disability studies is continuing with its emancipation of disabled people at the same time as destabilising the dominant social order” (ix).

[4] Students would find Fiona Kumari Campbell’s effort at definition a bit more complex: “In contrast with biomedicalism, contemporary disability studies scholarship argues that the neologism disability is a relational signifier emerging out of interactivity between impairment and modes of socio-economic organisation framed by epistemologies of corporeal perfection” (131).

[5] Thomson’s distance from Christianity is again evident when she writes about how St. “Augustine delights in curious and inexplicable bodies as signs of his Christian god’s benevolent purpose and constant intervention in the universe” (Extraordinary, 56).

[6] Tobin Siebers is one of many critical disabilities scholars who identify Peter Singer’s anti-life positions. He argues that “Surprisingly, little thought and energy have been given to disputing the belief that nonquality human beings do exist.  This belief is so robust that it supports the most serious and characteristic injustices of our day [including] euthanasia [and] assisted suicide (Disability Aesthetics, 23-4).  Siebers’ intense opposition to Peter Singer is evident when he writes about the schizophrenic nature of some contemporary leftist political positions that the philosopher espouses: “Peter Singer concludes that we should outlaw animal cruelty and stop eating meat but that we should perform euthanasia on people with mental disabilities or difficult physical disabilities such as spina bifida [….]  This horrifying conclusion shows the limitations of eighteenth-century rationalism” (Disability Theory 92).

See also Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, who oppose Singer’s “argument that some disabled children should be passively euthanized because they lack the sentience that his brand of utilitarianism accords to fully ‘human’ organisms’” thus: “Such arguments characterized nearly all eugenic sentiments; they hinge upon scientific and philosophical willingness to empty certain individuals of qualities and thus reduce them to a state of mere matter” (214; internal quotes in original).

[7] The 1946 Oscar-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives is singled out by critical disabilities scholars for particular criticism.  Although previous generations may have viewed the film as an optimistic post-war film whose serious theme of the integration of soldiers into American society is balanced by the sentimentality of a romance between a typical girl-next-door and a returning seaman who lost both hands in the war, most criticism of the film by disabilities scholars seeks to dampen the positive emotions the film creates with a cold dose of emotionless psychobabble.  For example, Davidson reduces the range of emotions in the film to an

attempt to normalize the prostheticized body [as] represented in The Best Years of Our Lives and other films about the difficulties of disabled soldiers attempting to reenter social and private life.  Such normalization through prosthetics and film have implications for heteronormalcy, but the dark doppelgänger of this restorative trend—what I am calling the phantom limb of cold war normalcy—is played out in film noir.  (78-9)

[8] While some critical disability theorists are softer in their critique of Jerry Lewis (for example, Rosemarie Garland Thomson merely states that “Jerry Lewis’s Telethons testify not only to the cultural demand for body normalization, but to our intolerance of the disabled figure’s reminder that perfection is a chimera”, Extraordinary 46), others are brutal in their criticism, to whom no benefit of the doubt is granted that Lewis may have accomplished some good work.  For example, Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell state, “We recognize the ‘bumbling fool’ of comedy (as in the screwball plots of the 1960s that featured later disability telethon sycophant Jerry Lewis)….” (Cultural, 162).

[9] Michael Davidson’s generic critique of telethons could apply to Jerry Lewis or Danny Thomas, founder of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, since he uses the third-person masculine pronoun, but his claim, which sounds more jealous than scholarly, could apply to Shriner’s Hospitals for Children, whose television commercials saturate the airwaves: “The celebrity telethon host who patronizes his poster child guest disables with one hand whole soliciting funds for that child’s rehabilitation with the other” (176).

[10] For some reason, the 2005 reprint of Toole’s short story used the word “Dollar” for the symbols; the film version also uses the word.  Since Toole died in 2002, three years before the reprint and two years before the 2004 film, and may not have approved the substitution, I will use the symbols throughout when referring to the original style of the short story’s title on first publication.

[11] In this exchange, because she cannot speak (she bit her tongue off in an effort to commit suicide by bleeding to death), Maggie blinks twice to signify her affirmation.

[12] The idea that killing a human being in any act of euthanasia dehumanizes the killer him- or herself can be supported by this bit of fictional evidence.  Note that Frankie chokes back not a cry, something a human being would do, but a howl, which indicates that he has become not only less-than human and not only animalistic, but a ferocious animal, a wolf.

[13] Some disabilities scholars are keenly aware pf the convergence of the disability and pro-life movements.  David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder express their appreciation for “the latest generation of disability rights activists [including] the entire ‘Princeton 7’ of Not Dead Yet” (Narrative, xv; internal quotes and italics in original), appreciation expressed as “We are forever grateful” in another of their works (Cultural, xiv).

In contrast, while her attack on the group fails because her arguments are clear summaries of the case for activism from Feminists for Life with the disabilities movement, Alison Kafer categorizes members of Feminists for Life as “antireproductive rights activists” who are “moving steadily to present themselves as the better ally to disability movements” because “the FFL presents itself as more aligned with the interests of disability communities than the pro-choice movement is; according to this logic, advocates for abortion and other reproductive rights are too closely tied to eugenic practices and histories to support disabled people” (163).

[14] Few critical disabilities scholars note Sanger’s support for eugenics as the foundation on which the artificial birth control movement began.  To her credit, Maren Tova Linett makes the connection clear: “Eugenics formed a strong component of the birth control movement, as Margaret Sanger in the United States and Marie Stopes in Britain sought to popularize birth control among ‘undesirable’ populations” (12; internal quotes in original).

[15] It is striking, however, to read scholars who ignore the unborn completely when they should include them, as when Campbell writes, “From the moment a child is born, he/she emerges into a world where he/she receives messages that to be disabled is to be less than, a world where disability may be tolerated but in the final instance, is inherently negative” (17; italics in original).  Later in the work, however, Campbell calls abortion “eugenics by proxy” (157).

[16] To her credit, Thomson reiterates her opposition to the killing of disabled unborn children when she argues that “Indeed, one of our strongest cultural taboos forbids the extraordinary body, as the […] abortion of ‘defective’ fetuses, and other normalization procedures attest” (Extraordinary, 79; internal quotes in original).

[17] Fortunately, some critical disability scholars are not only aware, but also oppose euthanasia as a solution for a non-able-bodied person’s existence.  Their opposition spans the range from the casual notation of Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell’s remark that “All the films that return disabled charges to institutions—or worse, offer euthanasia” (180) to the attempt at compromise offered by Lennard J. Davis: “I am not saying that euthanasia is a bad thing, but rather that until we understand the social and political implications of disability, we cannot always make rational decisions about the right to die” 166).


When Culture Is Challenged by Art: Pro-Life Responses in the Art of T. Gerhardt Smith to Cultural Aggression Against the Vulnerable

Abstract:  This paper examines three paintings by T. Gerhardt Smith as pro-life responses to the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia: Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome, Femicidal National Organization Woman’s Planned Parentless Selfish Movement, and Killer Caduceus.  After identifying foundational principles of art aesthetics from a Catholic perspective, the paper determines that Smith’s paintings are consistent with ideas enunciated in St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists (1999).

T. (Thomas) Gerhardt Smith is an eclectic modern artist and an enigmatic personality.  His paintings contain representational figures, yet the dominant content of most of his work is abstract.  Few comments by the artist himself are extant to explain his work, and critical commentary and scholarship on his oeuvre is non-existent (for now).  To compound the scholarly challenge, biographical detail about Smith is scant.  According to his surviving relatives, Smith was born in 1944[1] and was a lifelong Wisconsin resident.  Although he was raised Roman Catholic, he did not participate in Church sacramental life.  However, his relatives assert that his Catholicism was evident in all his relationships and work.[2]  Credentialed with a BFA from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and a master’s degree in Education, several of Smith’s works were presented in an exhibition titled “Goliath Visiting”, held at the University of Notre Dame in October 1990.  He was a selectee for the National Endowment for the Humanities Asian Studies Grant Program in 1988.[3]  Smith died in Green Bay, Wisconsin on 15 April 2019.

Beyond these few biographical details, Smith produced several paintings which express not only the frustration of those who experience the cultural assaults on human life called abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, but also the sorrow, regret, and other intense emotions resulting from those assaults.  It is hoped that the purpose of this research (to promote awareness and appreciation of Smith’s work) will be augmented by the criticism of many other pro-life scholars.

This paper consists of three major sections.  The first section identifies foundational principles of art aesthetics from a Catholic perspective, consistent with St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists (1999)[4] which demonstrates how Catholic art aesthetics comports with and distinguishes itself from secular aesthetics.  The second section examines specific paintings by Smith which represent an artistic consideration of the life issues.  Expansive commentary will be provided on three representative paintings: Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome, which comments on abortion (1988), Femicidal National Organization Woman’s Planned Parentless Selfish Movement, which applies to infanticide (1989), and Killer Caduceus, which can be interpreted as applying to euthanasia (1987).  All three paintings are reproduced on the figures pages at the end of this paper.  The final section of this research will evaluate how the paintings comply with St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists.[5]

When contemporaries hear the word “icon”, they invariably think of its technological denotation.  It is telling that the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers as the first definition of the term “a graphic symbol on a computer display screen that represents an app, an object (such as a file), or a function (such as the command to save).”  It is as equally telling that a severely-restricted definition of the ancient understanding of the term occupies fourth position in the dictionary: “a conventional religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel and used in the devotions of Eastern Christians.”[6]  The history of the term may have moved chronologically from the ancient Greek world to Byzantine icons to, with the advent of film technology, images of favorite actors, such as Gloria Swanson, or historical events now captured as iconic images[7], such as the Madonna-like image of the Kent State shootings.  More importantly, though, each of these representations not only creates emotions in the viewer, but also stimulates one to action—whether silent prayer or vocal or otherwise discrete activity of a social justice kind.

The pro-life world, also, has its accumulating collection of art work which is iconic.  The pro-life catalog begins with Mary Cate Carroll’s painting/reliquary American Liberty Upside Down (1983) and advances to The Silent Scream ultrasound made famous by Bernard Nathanson and the monograph written by Donald S. Smith, elaborating the film (1984).[8]  Commentary about these art works can be found in many sources, such as published papers from University Faculty for Life conferences,[9] and need not be repeated here.  The work of T. Gerhardt Smith should be considered the newest addition to the pro-life artistic canon; the three paintings specified above can be appreciated as pro-life contributions to illustrate problems created by abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists (1999)

While the vocabulary of art aesthetics from a Catholic perspective is built on ancient Greek and Roman principles in terms of seeking truth, goodness, and beauty, Christianity brings several clarifying ideas to the study of what constitutes art.  One cannot view either the embryonic[10] art of the Migration Period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire or the full flowering[11] of magnificent Renaissance or Baroque paintings and sculpture and not perceive the Christian appreciation of the human body as good, or God’s creation as beautiful, or the underlying ideas of the art work about human nature or divine teaching as true, just as the ancients would have perceived the proportion of the Parthenon or any Praxiteles sculpture as manifesting not only correct principles of design, but also commentary about what is true, good, and beautiful.  The Christian development of ancient art aesthetics, however, clarifies those principles in several respects.  St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists encapsulates these principles, nine statements from which I will highlight to advance the appreciation of Smith’s works.

John Paul II begins his Letter to Artists with a most interesting phrase, “new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty” which suggests that contemporary artists are the ones “who are passionately dedicated to the search for” new manifestations of beauty.[12]  Thus, while we may still value Renaissance and Baroque paintings, the pope maintains that contemporary artists are the ones who are open to expressing their ideas about the true, the good, and the beautiful in completely new forms.  This is not a new axiom of art aesthetics; what we call modern art has aimed for “new ‘epiphanies’” since the mid-nineteenth century, just as the Renaissance was considered a new approach to art.

          What are new principles are the following.  An artist is not a creator, an attribute which belongs to God alone, but a “craftsman” since the artist “uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning.  This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as made in the image of God.”  In speaking of “the special vocation of the artist”, the pope summarizes thousands of years of human history, nearly equivalent to art history, with this personalist approach: “The history of art, therefore, is not only a story of works produced but also a story of men and women.  Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture.”

The pope then demonstrates the chronological progression of this personalist approach, citing ancient art aesthetic theory, which is nearly identical with the Christian view:

The link between good and beautiful stirs fruitful reflection.  In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty.  This was well understood by the Greeks who, by fusing the two concepts, coined a term which embraces both: kalokagathía, or beauty-goodness.  On this point Plato writes: “The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful.”

Since “beauty is the vocation bestowed on [the artist] by the Creator”, the pope further affirms that

Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation—as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on—feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbour and of humanity as a whole.  [….]  Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world.  It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning.

          Of course, the world has added new artistic expressions beyond Renaissance and Baroque art, and the pope acknowledges this bifurcation of the art world, highlighting what may appear as the secularization of modern art: “It is true nevertheless that, in the modern era, alongside this Christian humanism which has continued to produce important works of culture and art, another kind of humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God, has gradually asserted itself.”

          Although this bifurcation of Christian and secular art may be the basis for discussion of much modern art (steeped not in the true, the good, and the beautiful, but the false, the bad, and the ugly or the grotesque), the pope sees hope even in such dismal productions of our modern art period, for, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

          The final statements of the pope’s letter prove quite challenging to the analysis of work by an artist like Smith: “Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”  He further argues that “Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable.”  Finally, quoting Polish poet Cyprian Norwid that “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up”, the pope suggests that “People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us.”  The saint’s life-affirming and positive comments on artists and artistic production in Letter to Artists are as relevant today, when the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia relentlessly attack human life, as they were in 1999 when it was first published.

Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome (1988)

          The first painting to be considered, Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome, is easy to understand as a work concerning abortion if only because the subtitle makes it clear: Post-Abortion Syndrome (see figure 1).  Even if the subtitle were not present, the subject matter would be evident.

          Smith’s comments on this painting (written in a syntax which is often telegraphic) should be noted first:

Living with the memory of the death of a child, the death of her motherhood…living with this memory, holding wrapping the child for the last time.  Sorrow without tears, weapons of the love at her hand being wrapped with the child…bloody, red memory.  Out of sight, not out of mind, but out of your mind.  Post-Abortion Syndrome…simple format design, but I feel conveys a very strong message…death is, and expected, however premature death is the greatest tragedy.[13]

That is what the artist himself had to say about the painting, but, if these notes were not available, what would the contemporary viewer see?

          The painting depicts a woman and a child who seems to have been just recently born; the attached umbilical cord makes that apparent.  However, the pallid color of the child, a girl, contrasts with that of the woman; if her flesh tones indicate that she is alive, then the presumption is that the child has died.  Once these bare facts are understood, the deeper connection between the characters depicted becomes evident: the woman is most likely the mother.  Why else would she fix her vision upon the dead child and have such a sorrowful countenance?  Besides that, her breasts are full, reinforcing the idea that she would have nursed the child if she were alive.

          Once the facts of the painting and the relationship between the figures have been established, the viewer can extract more from the painting’s artistic components, especially applying conventional interpretations of color theory.  The characteristics of specific colors identified in this research are culled from Paul Zelanski and Mary Pat Fisher’s monograph Color, and the following quotes summarize general axioms of color theory which apply to the paintings discussed here.

          Zelanski and Fisher begin their chapter on the psychological effects of color first by commenting on its physiological effects.

According to physiological research with the effects of colored lights, red wavelengths stimulate the heart, the circulation, and the adrenal glands, increasing strength and stamina.  […]  Yellow light is stimulating for the brain and nervous system, bringing mental alertness and activating the nerves in the muscles.  Green lights affect the heart, balance the circulation, and promote relaxation and healing of disorders such as colds, hay fever, and liver problems.  Blue wavelengths affect the throat and thyroid gland, bring cooling and soothing effects, and lower blood pressure.[14]

          The authors then elaborate on the psychological effects of color.

Psychological literature is full of attempts to determine how specific colors affect human health and behavior and how best to put the results into effect.  […]  Bright colors, particularly warm hues, seem conducive to activity and mental alertness and are therefore increasingly being used in schools.  Cooler, duller hues, on the other hand, tend to sedate.[15]

An interesting fact which the authors point out which combines both physiological and psychological aspects of color is that both blind and sighted children

are affected by color energies in ways that transcend seeing.  One hypothesis is that neurotransmitters in the eye transmit information about light to the brain even in the absence of sight, and that this information releases a hormone in the hypothalamus that has numerous effects on our moods, mental clarity, and energy level.  [Furthermore,] colors that seem to increase blood pressure and pulse and respiration rates are, in order of increasing effect, red, orange, and yellow.[16]

          Zelanski and Fisher identify standard connotations of various colors in Western culture over several pages: black symbolizing death; red “associated with the color of blood, as well as with fire, warmth, brightness, and stimulation” and anger; and gray with “independence, separation, loneliness, [and] self-criticism.”[17]  They judiciously end their examination of emotions associated with various colors by noting that “The actual emotional effect of a specific color in an artwork depends partly on its surroundings and partly on the ideas expressed by the work as a whole.  To be surrounded by blue […] is quite different from seeing a small area of blue in a larger color context.”[18]

          That Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome uses colors of highly connotative value can be addressed quickly and with certainty.  The child, ghost-like, is depicted in simple ashen colors, almost a charcoal drawing instead of a lifelike representation of a newborn with lively flesh color.  The child’s porcelain-like skin is accentuated by having her rest on a red blanket, red being a symbol of not only bloodshed, but also martyrdom.  The mother herself, scantily clad, is barely covered in a yellow (connotative of the color of diseased matter) gauze-like garment, her body as exposed as her emotions.  That she is silhouetted against a black and blue background, both colors connotative of sadness and evil, highlights her sorrow, as though she is as encased in sorrow as the child is encased in a baby garment surrounded by a blood image.

          Perhaps the most striking thing about this painting is the gaze of the subjects.  The mother is looking downward, and it is a psychological maxim that a viewer would feel or be comfortable looking at her since the gaze of sorrow would be avoided.  The child, however, is looking directly at the viewer.  Who gets the viewer’s attention, therefore, is entirely subjective, depending on the comfort of the viewer, but some speculation should be provided here.  The painting could work in a post-abortion syndrome counseling session in one of two ways.  If the aborted mother wishes to work through her desire to see the aborted child, then she would fix her gaze on the child in the painting; if the aborted mother is so bereft that she is still at the stage of fixating or obsessing on her own sorrow, then she would identify with the mother in the painting.[19]  Either perspective—a focus on the psychological damage to the mother or the body of an aborted child—is suitable, therefore, for beginning a conversation about what occurs in every abortion.

Femicidal National Organization Woman’s Planned Parentless Selfish Movement (1989)

          The second Smith painting to be reviewed here, Femicidal National Organization Woman’s Planned Parentless Selfish Movement, seems to address infanticide—“seems” being the operative verb since there is little commentary either from the artist himself or from extant exhibition material that the intentional killing of a born child is meant in this painting, which is much more abstract than Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome (see figure 2).  Even the aggressively biased title does nothing to justify such a claim, which requires more intellectual activity from the viewer, much like an archaeological dig into an anti-life psyche.[20]

          Femicidal depicts four characters, three apparently human beings, the genders of whom cannot be determined with certitude; the figure on the left may be female, and the fully-clothed human figure on the right may be male, if the criterion of wearing a flowing dress or skirt indicates a female entity and wearing pants indicates a male one.  Another character reclines on the lap of the female character.  The remaining character is a skeleton hovering in front of the male character.

          Like Sorrow discussed above, Femicidal involves a child reclining horizontally in front of the female figure, this time on her lap instead of placed in front of yet removed from her body.  The male figure, reclining comfortably in the right portion of the painting, seems only a background for the more animated character, the skeleton, whose arm remains outstretched, most likely after having plunged some fatal instrument into the child’s body.  The dramatic irony of the painting is stunning and evident only when the viewer reflects that the skeleton, a dead artifact of what remains after bodily decomposition, is doing an action which rightfully belongs to the living human male being in the background.

          What, though, does Smith’s painting have to do with infanticide?  Can a rational case be made that the painting suggests the extreme negation of life which occurs in any infanticide situation?  The little commentary mentioned above concerning this work includes artist’s notes which make it clear that one of the characters on the right is “striking out” (note the present participle) for the ostensible purpose of not merely harming but destroying “the future of the child.”[21]  This language presumes that the child would have been born before his or her future could be directly attacked; thus, the painting is an abstraction of infanticide more than any other assault on human life.

          Moreover, one can point to an item in the painting which suggests that an infanticide has occurred by analyzing the characters’ choreography.  Note that the child is not standing upright as the other characters are; even the skeletal character has the benefit of being “alive” because it is standing upright, being able to hold oneself upright constituting a feature of most living creatures.  Something (a knife, blade, or some other linear object) has been plunged into the chest cavity of the child character positioned horizontally on the canvas.  The association is evident: this action external to the womb was the means of the child’s death, not an action internal to the womb, which is the means by which unborn children are killed in abortion (either by abortion instruments, a toxic saline solution, or an abortifacient pill).

Finally, consider the circumstances within the painting.  If this were an abortion-themed painting, the major character hovering over the child would be either dejected over the fatal choice of aborting the child or gravid in her pregnancy, with the same negative emotions attending the choice to kill the child.  This is not the case here, since the figure hovering over the child’s body is expressionless because her facial features are smudged, precluding recognition, as though she has been forced into the infanticide by another agent (the male character, her lover, or, worse, her husband).  The other characters’ faces are much clearer, so the narrative of the painting’s plot is shifted from the pain that an aborted mother would feel to the pain of the child him- or herself.  A final consideration of the narrative is even more chilling: the male character, presumably the father of the child being killed, has abdicated his role of protector of the family; he is the agent who authorizes the infanticide.

Killer Caduceus (1987)

          If the previous two paintings illustrate how Smith’s abstraction gradient increases from dominantly realistic representation mingled with abstract forms to dominantly abstract forms with some realistic representation mingled with unrealistic forms (no one actually sees skeletons interacting with human beings), then Killer Caduceus illustrates dominantly abstract forms with the barest of representational figures (see figure 3).

          The elements of the painting depict a menagerie of aviary and serpent forms—the entity in the one category being what looks like a bird, the others being what are more obviously serpents.  Caught between these elements is what appears to be a human figure; at least one presumes that by virtue of the arms occupying the center space of the painting as well as the presence of a head, which itself is a hybrid of a human head and the face of another creature.  That the color green occupies nearly half the painting is highly connotative.  Where green in most representational paintings symbolizes fertility and normal growth, here the denotation of the color green, especially coupled with the serpent which is also green, alters the connotation of green as normal and healthy to the other, common connotation of green as in something sickly, something vomited, or something venomous.

Is the interpretation here of the venomous nature of the green snakes justified?  One could argue affirmatively for two reasons.  First, the representational forms of the serpents are true to the natural world where there are indeed some snakes which are green which are highly venomous.  Second, if this painting is in some way a caduceus, then the viewer realizes something has gone terribly wrong with this iconic image; the snakes are off the pole on which they are supposed to writhe.  Thus, this convolution (leftist professors would say deconstruction) of the ancient symbol of the caduceus as a symbol of humanity’s effort to cure reinforces a stark function of snakes: they kill.

          This last detail ineluctably leads into the consideration of this painting as a statement on euthanasia.  One can surmise this from Smith’s own commentary on this painting (remember, as noted above, his telegraphic style):

“…the medical symbol being distorted to attack the figure coils ripping tightly around the medical profession and slowly taking the life/death hovering in back…”   Lethal force makes physicians the oxymorons of forensic medicine—no art, no Hippocrates, cold words, cold death.  If life does not matter, nothing does.[22]

From the above passage, one must surmise that the artist’s intent is not to comment strictly on abortion or infanticide, but on a broader category of attack on human life, euthanasia, which devolves on the idea of life unworthy of life beyond the chronological aspects which constitute the temporal domains of abortion and infanticide.  A human life which is deemed unworthy of life can range from one’s being unborn to one’s babyhood; thus, abortion and infanticide are the terms used to denote killing human beings at those stages of life.  However, euthanasia is the proper term for any other form of medical killing or assisted suicide perpetrated against human life from one’s childhood to the most advanced senior years.  The artist himself suggests the true intent of the medical profession attacked by the death-inducing serpents; “cold death” is the more realistic and therefore honest meaning of “euthanasia”—not “good death” as its Greek etymology would suggest, but contrary to the protection of human life, lacking all human compassion and love, and therefore cold.

Now that these three paintings have been reviewed, the final section of this research will evaluate how the paintings comply with Catholic art aesthetics, especially enunciated through St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists.  This task is particularly challenging for the pro-life researcher since Smith’s art is negative on virtually all fronts.  The topics are controversial; the figures depicted are tortured, morose, and nihilistic; the colors used are dark and sad; and the depictions are obscure, enigmatic, and non-representational.  The summary opinion of the paintings could be that these are tortured works from a tortured artist unable to survive in a tortured contemporary world and whose viewers are tortured into deriving a tortured meaning from what is depicted.  How, then, can Smith’s art comport with Catholic art aesthetics, especially those principles enunciated in not merely a pope’s, but a saint’s correspondence to artists like him?[23]  Applying the list of nine highlighted statements will show that Smith’s paintings are, indeed, not only worthy of serious attention, but also consistent with St. John Paul II’s ideas about art.

The first two of the pope’s comments and their applicability to Smith’s works can be combined since they concern the nature of the artist him- or herself.  The pope emphasized how contemporary artists “are passionately dedicated to the search for” new manifestations of beauty and that they strive for “new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty.”  The mother in Sorrow is as beautiful as any Madonna from the Renaissance; her voluptuous form alone would justify this claim.  That Smith uses a post-aborted mother as the subject for his painting, however, is so new in the repertoire of modern art that it is rare to find scholarly treatment of this image.[24]

Depicting an infanticide as an act of a non-human entity hidden within or emerging from a human being and venomous snakes escaping the pole of the traditional caduceus are two manifestations of life-destroying actions which are new in the art world.  Traditional infanticide paintings clearly depict human mothers smothering, strangling, or killing newborn children; see, for example, Joseph Highmore’s The Angel of Mercy (c. 1746).  Smith’s work alters the dynamic completely.  While the infanticide painting contains what looks like flowing garments as artistically rendered as any Baroque masterpiece, the infanticide occurs not at the hands of the mother, but by Death itself.  Similarly, the depiction of the corrupted key symbol of the medical profession, the caduceus, should lead the viewer to a painful epiphany: the medical profession has turned from healing to killing.

          The pope’s comment on the interrelationship between the good and the beautiful pertains to Smith’s work as well.  Remember that St. John Paul II writes that “The link between good and beautiful stirs fruitful reflection.”  The viewer cannot simply pass by Smith’s paintings without having such reflection generated by a quantity of questions: why this image, why this representational figure, why this color, why this abstract form, why this geometry between characters, why this darkness, why this light, etc.  The answers to these questions will constitute the “fruitful” part of the pope’s equation.  It is insufficient merely to ask questions about the “link between good and beautiful”; one must come to a conclusion about the ideas presented in the paintings.

          The penultimate series of statements by St. John Paul II merges his commentary about what the inherent beliefs of the artist should be.  What is Smith trying to say about “the inmost reality of man and of the world” in three remarkably dismal paintings?  The absence of any redemptive figure or element in the paintings (there is no cross, no crucifix, no savior image, no religious symbol in the works) forces even the staunchest secular person to wonder why.[25]  If the paintings celebrated abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, then the figures would appear, for example, as the jovial couple looking on the dead body of their aborted child, as in Mary Cate Carroll’s American Liberty Upside Down.  Absent any celebration, then, the viewer must wonder where the redeeming value of such seemingly nugatory works resides.  Recall that John Paul writes, “It is true nevertheless that, in the modern era, alongside this Christian humanism which has continued to produce important works of culture and art, another kind of humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God, has gradually asserted itself.”  Like the absence of redemptive figures in Dante’s Inferno, perhaps the central import of Smith’s depressing paintings is, paradoxically, the absence of any suggestion of a religious power.  The humans depicted in the paintings clearly manifest how morose, depressing, nihilistic, and fatal their actions against human life become when God is absent.

          The final highlighted statements from John Paul’s letter confront this humanism devoid of God which wrought such havoc in Smith’s world as of 1990 and continues to devastate our own, thirty years later.  “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption”, John Paul writes.  “Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable [because] People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us.”  Smith’s works, simply by virtue of their existence, manifest this “universal desire for redemption.”  Even though they may be uncomfortable viewing assaults against their fellow human beings, people still look, for example, at car accidents (the psychological principle of schadenfreude applies), yet they want to be freed from those horrors.  They do not want mothers to participate in the killing of the unborn, or parents to authorize the killing of their newborns, or those in the medical professions to destroy human lives.  These paintings, then, constitute a pictorial form of rhetorical negation, whereby one states what something is not for the express purpose of stating what something is.  Knowing the evils of the threats against human life will, finally, assist us, as St. John Paul II urges, “to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us.”

          A question should be raised at this paper’s conclusion.  How do these three paintings by Smith and similar art works enhance the scholarship on the life issues written from a social science perspective?  The following answers are tentative and subject, hopefully, to increased scholarship by younger pro-life academics who are poised to replace those anti-life professors who have already done enough damage to the professions and the culture from their positions in academia.

          First, it is presumed that works of art like Smith’s have the capability of advancing the scholarship on the life issues written from a social science perspective.  Pro-life academics are well aware that what they write about post-abortion syndrome, racial factors in abortion rates, or psychological ramifications of forcing the elderly to consider euthanasia instead of life-affirming medical care are vitally important contributions to counter anti-life threats against human life.  Thus, for example, Elizabeth Ring Cassidy’s work on post-abortion women is something everybody must know to be aware of the damaging psychological effects of abortion on women.[26]  Raymond Adamek’s sociological studies on demographics of anti- and pro-life activists are classic and should be mandatory for anybody active in either movement.[27]

          The social sciences would be remiss in neglecting the artistic achievements of pro-life artists such as Mary Cate Carroll and T. Gerhardt Smith, primarily based on a rhetorical analysis which compares with social science principles.  Most social science academic scholarship operates on two major Aristotelian concepts, ethos and logos.[28]  Social scientists rely not only on the credibility of the researcher investigating certain problems (the ethos concept), but also on the reasoned and thoroughly researched data and methodology used to support projects and studies to address those problems.  Focusing on human beings is, of course, the essence of the social sciences.  (What other entities do social sciences concern themselves with if not the sociological principles which apply to human beings, or the psychological theories which apply to human beings, or any other division of the social sciences whose conjectures and data-driven theories apply to human beings?)  Social scientists delving deeper into paintings such as Smith’s would thus examine dehumanization as thoroughly as William Brennan did in his initial research into linguistic dehumanization (1995) and his subsequent expansion of that research in 2008.[29]

          What else remains?  As every humanities academic knows, literature and artistic works benefit from a study of the credibility of the writers or artists and a logical analysis of their work, but the dominant Aristotelian concept in artistic production is pathos, the feelings or emotional power stimulated by the work.  Because they can assist social scientists by illustrating the emotions affected or created by threats against human life, the Smith paintings enhance communication on the life issues.  While it may be difficult for a female patient on the psychiatrist’s couch to talk about her abortion or a male patient to talk in a standard doctor’s office about his role in securing the death of his child, it is safe to discuss abortion when one talks about a figure in a painting.[30]  The same type of distance offered by the infanticide and euthanasia paintings may offer enough space for those suffering from these other assaults on human life to communicate their anxiety or guilt about those practices.  Optimally, once viewers understand the works and reflect on their own experiences regarding the life issues, the paintings may also stimulate corrective action regarding the controversial issues they address.

Figure 1

Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome

Source credit: Private collection of Dr. Samuel Nigro

Figure 2:

Femicidal National Organization Woman’s

Planned Parentless Selfish Movement

Source credit: Private collection of Dr. Samuel Nigro

Figure 3:

Killer Caduceus

Source credit: Private collection of Dr. Samuel Nigro

[1] While his obituary does not mention a birth date, material on the back of Killer Caduceus, which was displayed at the Newman Religious Art Show, specifies Smith’s birthday as 15 September 1944.

[2] Samuel A. Nigro, personal interview, 10 October 2019.

[3] Samuel A. Nigro, “Goliath Visiting,” brochure for the exhibition (1990).

[4] John Paul II, Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, [4 April] 1999,; accessed 15 October 2019.

[5] I thank attendees for a vibrant question-and-answer period which followed the presentation of this research on 25 October 2019 at the annual conference of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, held at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

[6] The ancient definition would be further relegated to fifth position, since the first definition is bifurcated into an “a” and “b” denotation.

[7] The redundancy “iconic image” is important, apparently, to distinguish between images which are simply noteworthy and those which are more important.

[8] Donald S. Smith, The Silent Scream: The Complete Text of the Documentary Film with an Authoritative Response to the Critics, (Anaheim, CA: American Portrait Films Books, 1985).  Some pro-lifers have argued that Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream is a precursor to Nathanson’s work.  However, besides being anachronistic, the connection is tenuous, based solely on the same word used in the title.

[9] Online volumes of the organization’s conference proceedings can be found at:

[10] That I use this word to describe the art of the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire is compatible with how St. John Paul II similarly describes early Christian art’s nascent stage in his Letter to Artists:

Art of Christian inspiration began therefore in a minor key, strictly tied to the need for believers to contrive Scripture-based signs to express both the mysteries of faith and a “symbolic code” by which they could distinguish and identify themselves, especially in the difficult times of persecution.  Who does not recall the symbols which marked the first appearance of an art both pictorial and plastic?  The fish, the loaves, the shepherd: in evoking the mystery, they became almost imperceptibly the first traces of a new art.

[11] Lest this summary of thousands of years of art history seem too (to continue the metaphor) florid, consider what St. John Paul II has written in his Letter to Artists: “This prime epiphany of ‘God who is Mystery’ is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity.  From it has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation.”  He repeats the floral metaphor when discussing “the extraordinary artistic flowering of Humanism and the Renaissance.”

[12] That the pope used the Greek term “epiphanies” is intriguing, if only etymologically.  Since “epiphany” means not so much a discovery, but an unveiling, St. John Paul II must have had in mind not only that the truth, goodness, and beauty of an art work is already present, but also that those elements are discoverable, or more precisely able to be uncovered or disclosed, by the artist him- or herself—a mighty task fraught with great joy and responsibility indeed.

[13] T. Gerhardt Smith. “Artist’s Comments,” 10 Sept. 2019 (typescript).

[14] Paul Zelanski and Mary Pat Fisher, Color, 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010), p. 41.

[15] Zelanski and Fisher, p. 42.

[16] Zelanski and Fisher, p. 42.

[17] Zelanski and Fisher, pp. 43-48.

[18] Zelanski and Fisher, p. 49.

[19] Timothy Rothhaar, a colleague who is an emerging Philosophy scholar, has suggested that, while the aborted mother and the father of the child are not the only victims surviving an abortion in real life, in this case of a pictorial representation of the effects of abortion, the viewer is also a victim.  That is, the viewer must suffer the negative emotions of the abortion experience since he or she is drawn into the painting.  Moreover, like any good and, in this case, startling and controversial visual experience, once the image of the sorrowing mother is in one’s brain, it is unavoidable that one will ruminate on the meaning and applicability of the image for him- or herself.  The dynamics of this psychological process must, however, be relegated to future research.

[20] The linguistic component of such an archaeological dig is much easier to resolve than the artistic one.  Not only is the first word of the title a coined term, merging “feminist” or “feminine” with the Latin suffix “cide”, to kill, but the first six words of the title merge two prominent anti-life feminist groups, the National Organization of Women and the abortion business Planned Parenthood.  One presumes that such intellectual perception would be easy; however, as the culture loses its common knowledge base, let alone its knowledge of the history of the pro-life movement, these linguistic elements must be clarified for the contemporary student and general public.

[21] Smith, “Artist’s Comments.”

[22] Smith, “Artist’s Comments.”  Besides these comments, the art historian would consider a secondary fact of the artist’s intent.  When this painting was displayed at the Newman Religious Art Show, the identifying tag on the reverse of the painting simply read Euthanasia.

[23] The reader will recall that the three paintings discussed here were completed by 1989, ten years before the pope issued his Letter to Artists.

[24] One exception may be Agnete Strøm’s 2004 research into Paula Rego’s Untitled: The Abortion Pastels (1998-1999: “The Abortion Pastels: Paula Rego’s Series on Abortion,” Reproductive Health Matters 12, issue 24, supplement (November 2004); 195-197; accessed 15 October 2019.  However, one can argue that Strøm’s article is not so much research as propaganda.  The beginning sentences of the article suggest not only the rarity of finding art concerning abortion, but also the explicit anti-life feminist function of Rego’s work:

At last, women’s experience of abortion is hanging on the walls of a museum so that we do not forget so easily what abortion is about. Untitled: The Abortion Pastels are great canvases depicting women undergoing abortion.  The artist, Paula Rego [….] is a remarkable artist and has a huge production that spans more than 50 years.  If you don’t know her work, let Untitled be your starting point to discover a great artist and feminist. (p. 195)

[25] The closest representation of an explicitly religious element occurs within Femicidal, where red slash marks, notably in groups of three, could reference the Trinity, the number of crosses on Calvary at Jesus’ Crucifixion, or some other symbolic meaning; the modal “could” must be used here since the artist himself did not leave any commentary about the meaning of these slashes.  The slashes are scattered over the top space of the work and only coalesce into a cruciform in the middle of the bottom half of the painting, separating the reclining figure from the skeleton and male character.  Thus, one is able to conjecture that the intention of the artist was to convey some religious imagery; otherwise, the slash marks would have resumed the chaotic pattern of the top half of the painting.

[26] Elizabeth Ring-Cassidy and Ian Gentles, Women’s Health After Abortion: The Medical and Psychological Evidence, 2nd ed. (Toronto: DeVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research, 2003).

[27] Ray Adamek, “Abortion Activists: Characteristics, Attitudes, and Behavior,” 31 January 1985 (typescript); “What America Really Thinks About Abortion,” 1 May 2004 (typescript).

[28] Kairos, the appropriateness of the situation, is implicit because every social science project and study depends on a circumstance in the real world which needs to be addressed or a problem which needs to be corrected.

[29] Brennan’s monographs are Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives (Chicago: Loyola Univ. Press, 1995) and John Paul II: Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, 2008).

[30] English professors can testify anecdotally to the power of writing about controversial issues from an objective, third-person perspective. If a writing assignment addresses such issues, inevitably a student may feel safe enough to conjure up memories of his or her own participation in such a matter.  This principle applies not only in writing about abortion, but also sexual or drug abuse or other conflicts.

Book reviews

Sharon Biggs Waller’s Girls on the Verge (Henry Holt, 2019)

Tedious teen abortion novel by abortion zealot, should have been cut 90%, but useful for pro-lifers.

If she reduced her 221 page teen abortion novel 90%, Waller would have matched Ernest Hemingway’s famous abortion short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”  Unfortunately, the reduction would not have improved the work; it would still be tedious and trite.

We’ve read stories like this before, and the plot is getting tedious, tiring, and tedious (did I say “tedious” enough?).  Camille is a pregnant teen mother who wants to kill the unborn baby using abortifacients and corrals her friends into helping her buy the drugs.  When the abortifacients fail to kill the child, she succeeds in having an office of the abortion business Planned Parenthood kill the unborn child.  That’s all.  End of story.

Not even the anti-male bias of the characters, or their angry feminism, or their “situation” (Camille lives in Texas, which has protective legislation to stop abortion as far as constitutionally permitted) changes the fact that this is just another teen abortion story.

However, fortunately for the pro-life movement, Waller’s novel shows how distortion of language is absolutely necessary among anti-life authors.  (Waller states that she is a volunteer for the abortion business Planned Parenthood [223].)  The distortion of language is something we can use as teachable moments to persuade mothers to reject abortion, which harms them, kills unborn babies, and alienates fathers.

For example, every pro-lifer knows how the pronoun “it” has been used since Hemingway’s time to dehumanize the unborn child.  Waller does the same.  Camille wants to “get rid of it” (22) because she denies that the baby is a baby (28).  Camille’s friend Bea asks, “How big will it be?” (78).  Camille will “Flush it down the toilet” (79).

The novel uses pauses and ellipses to show that even an anti-life author like Waller has her characters hesitate using the word “abortion” or any word referring to the unborn child, usually called a “fetus.”  (It’s amazing that virulently pro-abortion authors still don’t realize that the seemingly clinical Latin term “fetus” means one’s child or “offspring” and is meant to be affectionate.)

Moreover, Waller uses the technique of literary “stuttering” or “stammering” in several places.  Camille’s abortifacients would have her deliver the child: “I need to be near a toilet because…because” (78; ellipsis in original, and the sentence ends with terminal punctuation after the repeated subordinating conjunction).  Camille’s friend Bea asks, “How big will it be? […] “The…you know” (78; ellipsis in original).  Later in the novel, Camille’s use of “it” could refer to the abortion procedure or to the child (175).  Camille cannot look at the ultrasound of the baby (175).  Bea’s hesitancy in talking about the unborn child to be killed by abortifacients continues: “to cover the, uh, you know—” (197).

If the author’s stated intention is to help mothers and young women boast about the abortion killings, then these characters have far to go to force themselves into thinking that the medical assault called abortion is a good thing.

An egregious linguistic slip occurs when Camille comments on a time “when you can feel the baby kick” (178).  Was this deliberate, a Freudian slip, or an error on the part of the virulently pro-abortion author?

And, of course, the characters of this anti-life work must utter the standard canard of ignorance of bodily difference, that abortion is something which affects only the mother’s body.  Camille’s friend Annabelle (a stridently anti-male feminist who volunteers for the abortion business Planned Parenthood) utters her ignorance when she says, “It’s none of my business what you do with your body” (105).

Another of course: even Camille, rabid teen anti-life feminist that she is, cannot escape post-abortion syndrome (PAS), as is evident when she rhetorically asks, “How do you deal with awful things that happen?  How do you forget them?” (199).  It’s obvious, then, that she will never “forget” the abortion killing which she arranges.

The abortion itself is a one paragraph bit of linguistic obfuscation which any student in an English literature course would appreciate for its deception:

“Dr. Maria [the abortionist] inserts something in me.  I feel a pressure in my stomach followed by a pain that feels like the worst period cramps I’ve ever had.  But the pain only lasts a few seconds.  My paper drape rustles, and I feel the doctor’s hands as she helps me put my legs down” (213).

Note how the painful killing of the unborn child is obscured behind “the pain” that the mother herself feels, the verb “feel” repeated several times.

However, these are points that I leave for students to write about and for professors like me who will use this novel as an illustration of how a cadre of contemporary women writers are the new killers.

Pro-lifers who are more activist, such as protesters outside the offices of the abortion business Planned Parenthood, will be greatly encouraged by two statements in the “Author’s Note” about the effectiveness of pro-life picketing.  “Despite our best efforts to shield patients,” Waller writes, “they can’t help but notice the protesters” (224).  Waller testifies to the effectiveness of pro-life protesters again when she writes that “the political anti-choice [pro-life] movement is strong.  There are protesters at nearly every abortion clinic” (225).  Great work, activists!

While the novel can be read in several hours, it’s still feeble.  Pro-life activists, however, can use it as further evidence that anti-life authors continue to use the same standard and tiresome literary strategies to dehumanize the unborn child.

Book reviews

Dianne Touchell’s A Small Madness (Groundwood Books, 2015)

Well-written novel with both standard and clever dehumanizing language used by abortion supporters.

Supposedly meant for teens, this abortion novel can be enjoyed by all ages.  Pro-life readers studying how anti-life/pro-abortion people dehumanize the unborn child will be especially delighted in the plot and clever language.

Touchell does a remarkable job of using the dehumanizing technique made famous by Ernest Hemingway (calling the unborn child an “it”), and she adds several new twists to the anti-life/pro-abortion dehumanizing lexicon.

While one use of “it” is ambiguous (whether the term refers to the teens’ reactions about the pregnancy in general or to the unborn child him- or herself; see page 64), the uses of “it” to refer to the unborn child are extensive, closely followed by “thing” as another term to demean the unborn child.

Liv, the best friend of Rose, the aborted mother, suggests that she “get rid of it” (56).  Rose thinks the baby isn’t already, but “would […] become a real thing” (56).  Michael, Rose’s lover and father of the child, also queries, “Could they get rid of it?” (58).  Rose thinks of the baby as “the thing” and “it” (67).  Michael calls the unborn child an “it” who is now “like a manatee in his spinal fluid” (85).  When she thinks she is not pregnant but just has a delayed period, Rose declares that “I just created this thing in my mind” (115).  After she miscarries, Rose simply states that “It went away” (124).  When Michael and she reflect on what to do with the child’s body, Rose commands Michael, “Bring it to me”; “’It must be buried,’ Rose said again” (126; italics in original).  Looking at the corpse of the child, Rose calls her “the tiny gray thing” (128).  Even when he is drunk, Michael obsesses over the child’s burial, saying, “We buried it” (159).

Two of Touchell’s items of dehumanizing language towards the unborn child are certainly unique: snot and virus.  Michael compares having an abortion to “picking your nose” (58).  Certainly, likening his own unborn child (daughter) to snot says a great deal about this wayward young man.

Equating the unborn child to a virus may be a new entry in the fictional anti-life lexicon.  Michael concludes that his father’s disappointment in him is “just as much a virus as this thing inside of Rose” (62).  He repeats the metaphor later, referring to “this virus inside her” (82).  Rose herself uses this metaphor often; she says, “I have a virus in me” (97) when she is pregnant and “The virus had gone away” (172) after her miscarriage.

Rose clearly manifests post-abortion syndrome (PAS).  The novel is not a typical teen abortion work, where the mother goes to an abortion clinic to have the child killed; Rose is depicted as miscarrying, so the abortion occurring in this novel is not an elective, but a spontaneous abortion, morally neutral.  What may interest the reader more, though, is determining whether Rose’s intention and efforts to kill the unborn child herself (by smoking, depriving herself of food, etc.) meet the criteria of moral culpability in the child’s killing.

What’s even more interesting is that Rose follows a trajectory of personality defragmentation after the miscarriage and after the police come to speak with her on finding the baby’s body which the teens buried in an empty lot.  She becomes “disconnected” and “more detached and confused” (172).  She calls her thrust into reality “this disconnection” (181).  Another character labels Rose a “vacuous caricature” (186).  At novel’s end, only Michael obviously experiences “relief” after he apparently confessed his role in the child’s burial (189).

Taking only half a day to read, this novel not only definitely entertains, but also allows pro-lifers to study several linguistic ways that anti-life/pro-abortion people try to make the unborn child less than human.

Book reviews

Margaret Owen’s The Merciful Crow (Henry Holt, 2019)

Tedious plot, a funny teenage sex scene, yet the novel illustrates conservative and pro-life ideas.

The plot is implausible, the text could be rewritten in detailed paragraphs instead of one-liners, the novel has little to do with medical killing (euthanasia), and it confirms heterosexual normativity.

It was difficult reading the 369 pages of this fantasy novel for the reasons stated above, but readers can use some ideas from this novel to promote pro-life views about the sanctity of human life and conservative views about heterosexual normativity.

The sematic distortion in the novel is obvious.  Just as euthanasia supporters try to rename the killing of the elderly and the medically vulnerable as “death with dignity” or some other euphemism, the main characters in Owen’s novel are “Crows” who give “mercy” to persons either suffering from illness or dying.  The Crows don’t provide mercy, of course; they kill the people.  Pro-lifers can use this novel as an example of the linguistic distortion used to kill humans in an ancient pagan, albeit fantasy, world.

A major problem of the novel is conceptual.  If Fie, the main Crow character, has the power to create magic to make herself and others invisible to her enemies or to heal wounds obtained in battles, then why could she not use her magic skills to provide palliative care for those who are terminally ill?

Moreover, Fie’s knowledge of herbal sources used as either contraceptives or menstrual aids (171) indicates that even the pagan world in which Fie lives has great knowledge of natural remedies.  Why, then, could her society not have discovered a natural palliative to relieve the pain of those in a terminal condition?

Furthermore, perhaps the reason why Fie is so belligerent and angry throughout the novel is that she is stuck in the caste of being a killer.  Her character comports with the contemporary view that abortionists and euthanasia supporters are incredibly unhappy people.

However, the novel is not concerned so much with euthanasia killings as it is with a tediously narrated journey for Fie and two young men.  Thus, if you’re looking for a thorough fictional account of euthanasia killers, ignore this novel.

On the lighter side, the sex scene between Fie and Tavin is comedy at its best, thunder and all (241-243).  Yes, it is supposed to be titillating and probably is for young adult readers; mature persons, of course, would read these pages and laugh.

Besides being humorous, this sex scene reinforces heterosexual normativity.  Fie and Tavin are not moral exemplars; they are typical teens who think that sex is just an activity to generate pleasure instead of the expression of love between married persons.  It is extremely interesting, therefore, to see how the ever-snotty Fie has softened under the influence of having sex with a male (254).  Similarly, heterosexual normativity transforms Tavin’s idea about his purpose in life from a negative to a more positive one (243).

Whether promoting these heterosexual normative and pro-life ideas was the author’s purposes cannot be determined; the book jacket identifies Owen as someone who raises “money for social justice nonprofits.”

This novel was not worth the time I needed to plow through its 369 pages, but one can learn something from it, such as the above.  Otherwise, reading a master like Henry James (who writes in solid paragraphs) or Virginia Woolf (who is eclectic in her style yet does not lapse into ridiculous or tedious fantasy) would have been more entertaining.

Book reviews

Carrie Mesrobian’s The Whitsun Daughters (Dutton Books, 2020)

The masturbation scenes don’t deflect from the plot’s abortion; rename this novel “Teens Who Kill.”

The masturbation scenes in Mesrobian’s novel are titillating but not as remarkable as the euphemisms hiding the chemical abortion plot.  Of course, the scenes which abuse male sexual power are meant for the sexually immature (teens or young adult readers).  Serious readers (everybody else) can use Mesrobian’s fiction as yet more evidence of the linguistic gymnastics, if not duplicity, which pro-abortion characters use to promote a practice which harms mothers, kills unborn children (whether surgically or, as in this case, chemically with abortifacients), and alienates fathers.

The euphemisms to refer to the killing practice called “abortion” are numerous.  Daisy, a main character, expresses surprise that “the things required to unmake a pregnancy would be sold someplace as ordinary as Walmart” (84).  “Unmake a pregnancy”?  Why the euphemism?  You mean abortion, right?

Daisy’s claim that her aunt “knows someone who—” (87) with the dash indicating that the sentence is unfinished is a literary technique other writers have used to hide the fact that characters are talking about, yet again, abortion.

The chemical killing of Lilah’s unborn child is discussed with the usual impersonal third-person pronouns and deceptive language.  “It’s starting”, Poppy says, using “it” to refer to the abortion (155).  Poppy “explained […] that it would be slowly happening now, the lining shedding in layers of blood and tissue” (157).  “It”, of course, refers to the abortion, and “the lining shedding” obscures the fact that it is not only “the lining” which is “shedding” but the unborn child him- or herself who is being killed by “shedding” along with the “lining” and “tissue.”

Daisy’s boyfriend Hugh asks if her sister is “not-pregnant” (160).  The narrator records Daisy’s reactions that “whatever lived inside in Lilah began its descent” (162).  Translation: the dead body of the unborn child, now separated from his or her warm and life-giving uterus and therefore dead, is being passed out of that uterus, thanks to an abortifacient drug which his or her aunt gave to his or her mother.  (Yeah, nonsexist language is cumbersome but must be used to be fair to the unborn child character who may be one of the two genders.)

One character’s Freudian slip—“to get rid of the baby” (174)—is quickly covered by deceptive abortion language a page later when Lilah talks about what some mothers did to “expel the contents of the uterus” (175).

Just like other abortion novels, whether written for teens or adults, post-abortion syndrome is obvious even here, in a novel whose characters clearly do not advance pro-life ideas and are hostile to religious persons who are pro-life.  Typical of mothers who have aborted, Lilah seems happy after her abortion (197).

Jane’s last reminiscence, however, which closes the novel, suggests that Lilah suffers from post-abortion syndrome: “She thinks of the babe she did not have; she ponders names late at night in bed, her eyes on the once-fractured seam in the celling.  When I watch her, I find myself remembering what I cannot reclaim.  It is the closest I can come to human pain now” (208).

This is not literary evidence of abortion which is supposed to make a woman happy.  It is, obviously, literary evidence of post-abortion syndrome.

Overall, even though the author is most likely a leftist and pro-abortion Democrat (same thing; consult her Twitter feed), Mesrobian’s work could suggest a fascinating paper for a student to write about the dishonest language which abortion-minded characters and authors use to dehumanize the unborn child, to suppress evidence of post-abortion syndrome, and to ignore the role of the father.

Just make sure your professor is pro-life and not a feminist hag who thinks abortion is the only choice for an untimely pregnancy.

Book reviews

Elizabeth Keenan’s Rebel Girls (Inkyard Press, 2019)

A chore and a bore; a 412-page psychiatric study of a teen girl suffering from feminist monomania.

This novel with an unconvincing plot is more a psychiatric case study of a teen girl suffering from an outdated anti-life version of feminist ideology who discovers her innate heterosexual normativity.  Overall, the plot is not only unconvincing, but also difficult to plow through.  It didn’t help that President Trump had some magnificent rallies every day to distract me from reading this tedious narrative.

In essence, Athena, the first-person narrator who is anti-life, wants to help her pro-life sister Helen overcome rumors circulating in their high school that Helen had an abortion, which would ban her from being part of the Homecoming.

The essence of this plot was identified on page 95.  By page 369, the reader understands that all it took to overcome a teacher’s ban preventing Helen from being in the Homecoming was a call from her father to the principal.  Towards the end of the novel (page 402), Sr. Catherine, dean of discipline at the high school, vows not to expel another student who had aborted, so there was no issue worth writing about anyway.

Why, then, read 307 pages of a severely introspective unconvincing plot?

Furthermore, Athena’s preaching about abortion is equally unnecessary.  Athena mentions “abortion rights” (22), a standard anti-life phrase which distorts the first civil right, the right to life.  Being a typical anti-life feminist, Athena felt the need to talk about a pro-life crisis pregnancy center as a “fake abortion clinic” (61).  Worst of all is Athena’s claim that “There wasn’t anything wrong with having an abortion” (95)—a statement willfully ignoring post-abortion syndrome which, even in the novel’s setting of 1992, was obvious for mothers who aborted instead of chose one of several life-affirming options.

Athena may have committed an egregious Freudian slip when she admitted that the novel’s entire abortion language is unnecessary to the feeble plot.  When she and her friend enter the crisis pregnancy center, Athena lets slip that “none of this was really related to Helen, other than the associated topic of abortion” (135).

Wha-what?  This novel, then, is not about “abortion stigma” ([419]) or feminist empowerment of women (which is a pro-life concept).  Why, then, talk about abortion at all?  Just relate the story of a teenage girl who overcame certain rumors which could have prevented her from being part of Homecoming.

Including such propaganda is typical of contemporary women authors who are themselves anti-life.  (The author declares that she is anti-life/pro-abortion on page [417].)  No matter how anti-life writers try to justify abortion or, as in Keenan’s verbose effort, try to mitigate against “abortion stigma”, contemporary readers know that the task is impossible since abortion (which harms mothers, kills unborn babies, and alienates fathers) is an unnatural attempt to distort heterosexual normativity.

And, Athena, the main character, proves just how forceful her innate femininity is.  She is subject to typical teen girl infatuations and explosive hormones leading to heterosexual romance.  Like other teen girls, she (gasp!) likes boys, particularly some poor schmuck named Kyle.

“I seemed to forget everything about being a feminist when I was around him” (77), Athena claims.  “I felt like a bad feminist for caring that people saw I was on a date with a hot guy” [198]) is another statement of her infatuation with Kyle.  All of chapter 26 ([262ff]) is an exercise in teen girl angst; she overhears another girl talk with Kyle about his romance with Athena.

Note to the men.  Such ga-ga over a teen boy is just too much for male readers.  However, guys, being an English professor who focuses on fiction dealing with the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, I read it for you.  Now, go back to football practice.

Of course, the real purpose of Keenan’s novel is political.  Athena goes into an anti-Republican rant when she claims that “Republicans were priming the nation for a fascist dictatorship” (53).  What a classic case of projection!  We in 2020 see politicians in the useless Democratic Party release from jail Antifa domestic terrorists who riot in American cities.  The author herself explains her pro-abortion political propaganda when she states, “I wanted a setting parallel to today’s politics—something close, but not identical, to today” ([415]).

Typical that a pro-abortion writer must ignore contemporary pro-life achievements and turn to 1992 (28 years ago!) to force abortion into a novel merely concerned with a vapid Homecoming.

Thankfully, I can erase the nonsense of this novel with my next novel to review, a masterpiece by Evelyn Waugh.

Book reviews

Matthew Archbold’s American Antigone (Resource Publications, 2020)

Wicked humor, credible characters, fast pace: all the elements needed for today’s abortion fiction.

Directors looking for solid material for their next film should consider bringing Matthew Archbold’s novel to the big screen.  This 175-page novel makes compelling reading on a controversial topic that will appeal to readers and filmgoers.

Faculty and students of literature will appreciate the novel for its obvious connection with the ancient Greek drama, Antigone by Sophocles.  The comparisons between the ancient Greek drama and the actions developed in twenty-first century America are not restricted merely to the names of the characters and places.  For example, Anne Prince is the modern equivalent of Antigone, a princess in the ancient drama; the name of Anne’s sister Izzy is an abbreviation of Ismene, Antigone’s sister; and the action of the novel occurs in Thebes County, Pennsylvania, the modern equivalent of the ancient Greek city-state Thebes.

Much more importantly, the novel parallels the plot of the ancient Greek drama.  Sophocles’ drama develops the consequences of Antigone’s actions to provide a proper burial for her dead brother, and Archbold’s novel develops the consequences of Anne’s actions to provide a proper burial for her dead brother.

The major difference between Antigone’s brother and Anne’s is that one was born, the other unborn.

Thus, a 2,400-year-old ancient Greek drama is revised to depict the most significant moral problem in American culture—not racism, not illegal aliens flooding the border, but abortion and the status of the unborn child.

Obviously, people who support abortion—which is legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever, and which harms mothers, kills unborn babies, and alienates fathers—would find themselves in excruciating cognitive dissonance to resolve the moral problem this novel poses.

But that’s all right.  After all, fiction is meant not only to entertain, but also to teach.

Except for the clearly positive characters who live by moral standards, other characters, those who do not live by high moral standards, make uncomfortable reading, but the reader will be delighted in seeing these fictional persons.  It helps to read about hypocrites before engaging with them in the real world.

For example, the Catholic bishop who seems to oppose Anne’s effort to bury the aborted child is reprehensible for his lack of support for an obviously pro-life woman and for threatening the priest who has befriended Anne.  Anne’s Uncle Milton Prince, the newly-appointed prosecutor for Thebes County, is just as reprehensible.

However, readers understand quickly that both of these men operate not on high moral standards as Anne does, but on the basest of utilitarian ethics.  Both Catholic bishop and prosecutor live by “the ends justify the means” principle.  For the bishop, abandoning Anne when she most needs Church support will save valuable resources for other Catholic charities.  For the prosecutor, putting his own niece in jail will show voters that he’s not soft on crime, and getting elected is paramount because only then can he work what he believes are his social justice wonders.  Like his campaign adviser, what’s important is not living according to moral standards, but paying attention to public relations: “the main thing is the visual of the police dragging this bitch out” of the church where she sought sanctuary (95).

Meanwhile, ordinary characters are attacked by Antifa-like domestic terrorists, who try to stop Anne’s effort to bury her aborted brother with screams, physical violence, and near-murderous actions.  The police seem powerless to protect the good guys.  Archbold illustrates cogently and simply how ordinary pro-life people suffer at the hands of those (whether an abortion clinic director, a Catholic bishop, or a power-hungry prosecutor) who believe in sheer power.

The novel is not all political machinations and serious legal action.  Archbold’s humor is brutally wicked. 

For example, the humor with which Archbold treats the press conference that Uncle Milton barely survives (chapter 26, 88ff) is a horrible trauma for him, but a series of laughs for readers who like to see politicians squirm in hostile press conferences.

Similarly, Archbold’s description of Todd Dooley, an Antifa-like pro-abortion activist who lives in his parents’ basement, is brutally funny (chapter 30, 101ff).  The online dialogue that Todd has with other domestic terrorists who want to attack pro-life protesters could have been written as a serious commentary about the ferocity of hateful pro-abortion people.  Instead, Archbold makes us laugh at such feeble adults, more concerned about whether their messages should be contained on another portion of the online message board instead of the general thread.  Throw in comments about sexism, and readers will laugh at these ridiculous people.

Archbold’s work, in summary, both as a novel and as a future film, has something for everybody.  Serious readers who like to read about the resolution of moral problems in a fictional context will enjoy the problems created by a woman who wants to bury her aborted brother’s body while American law decrees that that body is not a human being worthy of such respect.

The relationship between the newspaper reporter Paul, who seems to be concerned only with getting the scoop, and Izzy adds romance to the novel and will enable the eventual film version to be labelled a “chick flick.”

Faculty and students would appreciate this novel for its contemporary adaptation of an ancient controversial dilemma.  Faculty should consider immediately adding this eminently readable 175-page novel to their course lists.

The rest of us ordinary readers can delight in a well-crafted, swiftly-moving plot whose characters make us think long after the reading is finished.

Book reviews

Deborah Garratt’s Alarmist Gatekeeping: Abortion (2021)

A feminist take on abortion: deceptive communication, censorship, and ways to empower women.

Abortion activists would appreciate this feminist perspective on the topic, which focuses on deceptive communication strategies, efforts to censor diversity of thought, and ways to empower women considering the abortion choice.

Garratt’s research reveals many uncomfortable truths about abortion that do not appear in major media or in various professions, such as the medical community, the legislature, or academia.  She accomplishes the task of uncovering these truths using Grounded Theory, which demands that researchers formulate their ideas based on data obtained in the research instead of fitting the data according to someone’s ideology or political perspective.

Thus, while doctors and legislators may not appreciate the results of her research, ordinary women and men will.

Garratt’s book develops the idea of “Alarmist Gatekeeping” to account for how abortion supporters use specific linguistic and communication strategies to maintain their influence on the public.  Garratt doesn’t use the standard labels usually associated with the factions on the issue.  Instead, she uses “Adherents, Incognisants, and Dissidents” to refer to those who, respectively, believe in, accede to, or oppose the “Dominant Messaging” of keeping abortion legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever.  (Note: since Garratt is an Australian researcher, I retain her British spelling in all cases.)

What Garratt’s research has to say about abortion Adherents is revealing.  Alarmist Gatekeepers on abortion use “two distinct strategies—Alarmist Recruitment and Perspective Gatekeeping—which work together to reinforce each other and perpetuate a cycle of disinformation and censorship” (7).  Abortion Adherents use “strategic ambiguity” to persuade ordinary people to adopt statements which are either false or deceptive, such as “women have the right to control their own bodies” (9).  Abortion Adherents rely on “experts” not so much for impartial data on the controversial issue, but to bolster their public relations image: “Expert status is determined primarily by the person’s strict adherence to upholding abortion rights and by their ability to hold some influence whether in the media or by virtue of their professional position or qualification” (12).

These strategies account for abortion Adherents’ heavy use of negative and alarmist terms (17); manipulation, analyzed into its “deception, intentionality, and advantage” aspects (23); and equivocation (24).  Garratt summarizes abortion Adherents’ linguistic deceptions succinctly when she writes, “Controlling language is a strategic aspect of Alarmist Gatekeeping designed to confuse thinking, override one’s defences, depersonalise, and dehumanise” (27).

Garratt is the first researcher whom I have read to explain in some detail why abortion Adherents oppose efforts by Dissidents (pro-lifers) to assist mothers with untimely pregnancies.  Apparently, in the abortion world, only the mother must “win” (31).  Therefore, abortion Adherents perceive pro-life help for mothers with untimely pregnancies as a threat to abortion itself.  Garratt demonstrates how abortion Adherents are anti-science when she documents how abortionists and clinic staff do not discuss fetal development because it is “pro-lifey” (90).  Abortion Adherents view pregnancy support groups as a threat because such pro-life services are a threat to their Alarmist view of abortion as the only choice which they think women should have (135ff).

A twenty-first century reader leaves Garratt’s research deeply saddened that abortion Adherents are essentially anti-woman for three reasons.

First, abortion Adherents must use language to remove emotion from every abortion, a task which mothers who experience post-abortion syndrome (PAS) cannot escape (32).

Second, when abortion Adherents use dehumanizing language about the unborn child, they themselves adopt patriarchal attitudes against women who regret their abortions.  Garratt rightly points out that such linguistic evasion distances women from their true selves: “Language is used to disconnect women from what is going on inside their bodies, to ignore relationship, as though the entity within is an uninvited stranger, rather than a human being created within them” (34)—a matter which she elaborates later in the book when she further discusses how abortion Adherents are “disconnected” from reality (45).

Garratt suggests a final reason why abortion Adherents oppose accurate information for women on abortion when she counters a key idea from anti-life feminist philosophy, women as “victims”: “Women are not victims of biology, and to teach women such lessons is designed to make them feel inferior instead of feeling in awe of what their bodies can do” (162).

Fortunately, Garratt offers two means that both Incognisants and Dissenters can use to overcome Alarmist Gatekeeping on abortion.  She encourages people, first, to stop censoring themselves by not saying what should be said about abortion and, second, to ask questions of the Dominant Messaging that abortion “needs” to be legal.

Since she is an Australian author, some terms in the book need clarification for US readers.  When she writes about “medical abortion”, Garratt means chemical abortion, as in the RU-486 abortifacient.  Also, the undefined word “furphy”, Australian slang for an erroneous or improbable story claimed to be factual (143), will interrupt the easy reading, but only momentarily.

Overall, Garratt’s research offers an interesting way for feminists to reevaluate their support of a procedure which—based as it is on deception and efforts to stifle dissenting opinions—is more anti- than pro-woman.  Every woman will appreciate knowing how to respond to the abortion movement, which would rather have women subject to their ideology than liberated intellectually.

Book reviews

Jessica Shaver’s Gianna: Aborted . . . and Lived to Tell About It (Tyndale, 1995)

A detailed biography of an abortion survivor; an account that anti-life feminists cannot refute.

Imagine going to an abortion clinic to have your baby killed by salt poisoning, only to see her emerge from the birth canal, alive and screaming like a regular newborn.

The account of the attempt to kill Gianna Jessen by a saline (salt poisoning) abortion is riveting without being gory.  Chapter one, which narrates the circumstances of her attempted killing in April 1977, is eight pages of right-to-life literature which every abortion activist, both pro- and anti-life, should read.

The rest of the biography of Gianna’s life (up to the book’s publication in 1995) is, as they say, history.  She was adopted into a loving Christian family, pursued her career as a musician, and began travelling extensively to promote the pro-life movement.

It is especially interesting for a reader in 2021 to know that tactics of activists in the anti-life movement have not changed since the 1990s.  The abortionist who tried to kill her was impersonal (6).  Anti-life hostility to people with disabilities is manifest when an anti-lifer screams, “Children with disabilities are a burden to society!” (91).  Anti-lifers heckled pro-lifers with vulgar and profane language in 1991 as Antifa domestic terrorists and pro-abortion Democrats do today (102ff).  Escorts at clinics run by abortion businesses like Planned Parenthood were described as “demonic” then as they can still be described now (119).

Other things about abortion since the 1990s have not changed.  One is the reaction of other aborted mothers to Gianna’s birth: “It’s a baby!” (9).  Another is the effect of post-abortion trauma, this time evidenced in Gianna’s violent reaction to something as normal as a blazing fireplace: “She is subconsciously reliving the abortion.  The roaring and crackling sounds recapitulate the effect of the saline solution as it burned her in the womb” (44-5).  An aborted mother confesses an abortion she had kept secret for years (72-3).  Fortunately, more abortion survivors are bold enough to share their accounts of how they were almost killed (207ff).  It’s difficult being for the “choice” of abortion when a fellow human being states that he or she was almost killed.

Feminists will recoil at the idea, repeated throughout the biography, that mothers who abort are ignorant of their choice: “You didn’t know what you were doing” (72), Gianna tells mothers who disclose their abortions to her.  Pro-abortion feminists want mothers to affirm that their desire to have an abortion is intentional, so this part of the biography would not only offend anti-life feminists, but also intensify the post-abortion syndrome (PAS) that aborted mothers experience.  Fortunately, pro-life psychological services can help mothers overcome the deep regret they have.

The biography has definite flaws.  Beyond the chapter one account, most of this biography is repetitious.  Also, the author refers to herself as “this [or “the”] reporter” when first person would have been smoother.  Despite these flaws, the biography can be read in half a day and qualifies as an important contribution to the literature of pro-life feminism.