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Abortion and Rap Music: A Literary Study of the Lyrics of Representative Rap Songs

          I was first introduced to rap music by a student at Cleveland State University many years ago.  The young man gave me a cassette of a then current controversial rapper.  I found that I enjoyed the music immensely.  While I will never surrender my love for Respighi or opera, I came to understand why artists such as Eminem are popular–immensely popular–with our students.  The music is often quite catchy, and the lyrics of some songs may be the perfect antidote to the level of political correctivity which has gripped American colleges and universities.  [1].  Contemporary music sings about drugs, life in the ghetto, life in the suburbs, rebellion, and sex–the same topics that people who thought they were pioneers of a new music in the 1950s sang about, or the pioneers of the new music of the 1960s, 1970s, and now the rappers.

          When I thought about what might be suitable to present at a UFL conference, I thought that, instead of the “usual” literary analysis paper, I would investigate how rap music addresses abortion, keeping two purposes in mind.  First, faculty (most of whom are at least two decades beyond the ages of their students) should know something about the contemporary music that our students listen to, if not for a positive evaluation of the music, then at least merely for the sake of knowledge.  Second, more germane to our purposes, although it may be viewed by consensus as an art form of significant rebellion against social mores, when it concerns abortion, I argue that rap music espouses traditional pro-life positions.  It may be too radical a claim to assert that, if today’s young people are much more pro-life than past generations, rap music contributed to this generational growth towards pro-life viewpoints.  However, the question which I will research here is interesting: if rap is so violent, so demeaning, so vulgar, so profane, so unorthodox, so hedonistic, so indicative of a culture’s collapse, then why is it that any right-to-lifer would feel comfortable singing its lyrics on abortion?

          My initial research showed that abortion is, while not a major theme in rap music, at least a significant topic.  Problems in my methodology arose immediately.  Locating songs which deal with abortion involved some rather difficult and time-consuming searches of various databases and internet search engines.  It helped, too, to ask those people who knew most about my subject: my students.  Class discussion about assigned essays often falters because few students read them, but, when I casually mentioned in discussion with some students that I was working on a literary analysis of rap lyrics, suggestions flowed freely.  After compiling a list of songs which seemed most important for review, my next step was to obtain library copies of cassettes and cds as quickly as possible so that I could either purchase the copies myself or be knowledgeable about what I noted in the delivery of the lyrics.

          One other matter must be addressed since it helped the methodology of this presentation.  This year’s paper developed from a workshop that I presented at last year’s conference, when I offered preliminary comments on the lyrics.  I was fortunate that I had an entire session to present my research.  Thus, I had freedom to play certain excerpts from songs so that the audience would hear the dissonant rhythm and the complex rhyme patterns which are constituent features of rap music.  I printed out the lyrics for some of the songs from reputable internet sites so that the audience could follow along as the artist performed the segment of his or her song.  Instead of merely reading results of my own research, I thought that I would conduct the workshop as a class, playing certain excerpts and then asking the attendees what they thought about the songs or the lyrics.

          There is a good and a bad effect to the way that last year’s workshop was conducted.  Unfortunately, the participatory style of the workshop prohibited us from discussing all of the songs that I wished to cover.  We simply ran out of time.  However, what seemed unfortunate was really fortunate, for the conversation among the attendees was so engaged and perceptive that I was reluctant to end the discussion to move on to another sample lyric.  Thus, while I had prepared ten songs for consideration, we were able only to listen to and discuss three songs in the hour and fifteen minutes allotted.

One song that we did not have time to consider which will be evaluated here is “Abortion” by Doug E. Fresh, released in 1986.  The first song that we had time to review last year, “Retrospect for Life”, released by Common in 1997, engaged attendees with its style and its message.  I was impressed with the intense discussion which followed.  The second song that we had time for (and even that had to be truncated) was the 2001 song “Real Killer” by Tech N9ne.  These three songs are the bases of the present discussion.

What were the results of our discussion?  What literary commentary could I make about the various songs concerning abortion?  What conclusions can be reached about rap music and its concern with abortion?  This year, I intend to critique the above-mentioned songs from a more detailed right-to-life perspective.  I will proceed chronologically, presuming that the message of one song will construct a composite view of rap’s treatment on abortion.

Definition of “Rap”

          Before discussing the three songs, a definition of “rap music” will be helpful for the dual purpose of being able to identify songs which fit into the category and excluding many other songs which, while they may concern abortion, cannot be classified as rap.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines “rap” as “a style of popular music (developed by New York Blacks in the 1970s) in which words ([usually] improvised) are spoken rhythmically and often in rhyming sentences over an instrumental backing” (“Rap”). Elsewhere, in the online version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, rap is defined as “the competitive use of rhyming lines spoken over an ever-more-challenging rhythmic base” (”What Is Rock?”).

          Thus, following these definitions, several noteworthy songs which concern abortion have been excluded from this study.  “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols, an early abortion song released in 1977, is appropriately tempestuous (to illustrate how wild the mental state can become when abortion disturbs one’s psyche) but can be classified more as hard rock instead of rap.  In 1989 Nikki D released “Daddy’s Little Girl”, a song which suggests that the mother who aborted can rely only on her father after her abortion. Even though this song “was the first [by a] female rapper to rhyme about abortion, from a young woman’s perspective” (Marable), “Daddy’s Little Girl” has a much slower tempo and thus would not qualify as rap.  In 1990 DC Talk released “Children Can Live (Without It)” which has a traditional rock structure and beat.  The self-evident “Abortion Is Murder”, released in 1994 by P.O.D. (an acronym for Payable on Death), can be classified more as metal or punk instead of rap.  Perhaps the only connection that this song has to rap is the presentation of the lyrics, which are not so much sung as they are shouted.   Two songs released in 1997–“Brick” by Ben Folds Five and “In America” by Creed–are excluded for a couple of reasons.  Although it is not as slow in tempo as “Daddy’s Little Girl”, “Brick” is a traditional rock song whose lyrics are clearly understandable and not as complex as those in rap songs.  “In America” must be excluded, even though it criticizes abortion as national policy, since it carries a more traditional rock structure and beat.  [2]

A final aspect prominent in the definition of rap must be clarified.  Lexicographers and music critics have much to say about rap as a political tool for powerless groups in society:

                   Rap had a long history in African-American culture;

however, it came to musical prominence as part of the

hip-hop movement.  Public Enemy used new digital

technology to sample (use excerpts from other

recordings) and recast the urban soundscape from the

perspective of African-American youth.  This was music

that was at once sharply attuned to local political

conditions and resonant internationally.  By the

mid-1990s rap had become an expressive medium for

minority social groups around the world. (“What Is

Rock?”)

Thus, from its beginnings, rap has always been controversial, if only because it is the expression of views opposed to the dominant culture.  Since the dominant culture supports abortion, rap would thus be a natural vehicle for the controversy of abortion.

Furthermore, I find it interesting what music critics do not say about rap and its political purpose.  In 1991 Michael Eric Dyson summarized rap’s approach to women in purely traditional feminist literary critical terms.  For Dyson,

          The constant references to women as “skeezers,”

          “bitches,” and “ho’s” only reinforces [sic] the

          perverted     expression of male dominance and patriarchy

          and reasserts the coerced inferiority and

          objectification of women as sexual “things” exclusively

          intended for male pleasure. (21)

As recently as August 2000, an online article in Billboard discusses the political activism of the “new hip-hop generation”, but the activism that is discussed is not abortion, but other social concerns.

                   Inspired as much by today’s headlines and community

                   issues as by their own philosophies of life, a new wave

                   of artists is taking hip-hop to another level with

                   expressive, message-filled rhymes laced over inventive

                   beats that entertain and inform–without preaching.  At

                   the forefront of this new beat generation are Capitol’s

                   Dilated Peoples and Interscope’s Jurassic 5, who join

                   Mos Def, Common, Black Eyed Peas, dead prez, Channel

                   Live, and Reflection Eternal among the ranks of

                   activist hip-hop Acts….  “I feel I’ve helped open

                   people’s eyes to another brand of music that isn’t all

                   about ice, cars, and how many women you’ve fucked,”

                   says Common.  “And that brand is about love, being

                   creative, expressing yourself, and individual

                   responsibility.” (Mitchell et al.)

Another artist, Speech (from Arrested Development), states that the group sings “about the realities of life from a different perspective: about children without fathers, about 16-year-old single mothers feeling trapped” (Mitchell et al.).  A list of organizations at the end of this article identifies the concerns of modern rappers: programs designed “to teach teens how to react if they’re detained by the police,” efforts to preserve “culture and education”, AIDS awareness, and voter registration (Mitchell et al.).

Anne O’Connell’s 2003 online article “A Feminist Approach to Female Rap Music” is especially interesting in that it does not say that abortion constitutes part of the feminist agenda.  O’Connell does, however, point out what female rappers do accomplish:

                   Through the use of powerful lyrics, these artists use

language and images which allow women to lessen their

sexual insecurities and inhibitions.  Following their

predecessors of women’s blues, female rappers have

released their desires instead of repressing them,

denying themselves to be victimized.  Through the use

of lyrics and style, female rap musicians have given

all women, especially African-American women, a strong

sense of self identity and empowerment.

The article says nothing about abortion as a means of self-identity or empowerment.  In fact, it does not even mention the word “abortion” at all.  [3]

1986: “Abortion” by Doug E. Fresh

          Released in 1986 on the album Oh, My God!, “Abortion” is a song by Doug E. Fresh, an artist from the older generation of rap artists.  In the world of rap, 1986 is ancient history since many artists and different styles have already contributed to the field. One critical review by Ernest Hardy uses this song as a justification for the hasty claim that “a lot of hip hop’s political text is unyieldingly conservative” (qtd. in Phipps).

          The song begins and ends with a “Rock a Bye, Baby” lullaby as though it were a children’s rhyme played on a music box; a crying baby attends the music.  The rap element quickly manifests itself, however, as the artist runs through a series of themes that will become more prominent in other subsequent rap songs.  The persona speaks about abortion as a “distortion” and that the “world’s morals are out of proportion”.  [4]  Abortion, called “so sad”, is specifically identified as “killing newborn babies”.  A final theme is abortion’s effect on population growth; specifically, the persona sings that with abortion the “whole population starts to fall”.

1997: “Retrospect for Life” by Common

          The performer known as Common released this song on the One Day It’ll All Make Sense album in 1997.  Summarized as “the mental struggle of a male dealing with the possibility of abortion to resolve problems” (Smoke), “Retrospect for Life” includes Lauryn Hill doing refrain and backup vocals.  While the refrain is sung in a casual, slower beat, almost ballad style, the intervening stanzas come closer to the ideal of the manner in which lyrics in rap should be performed.  More importantly, in terms of dominant theme, instead of merely singing about the pregnancy of his girlfriend, the persona connects the abortion decision with the wider social background of African-American genocide.  The persona is keenly aware that, if the mother of his unborn child has an abortion, she will contribute to the further depopulation of the African-American race.

          Before listening to the song, one should be aware of the following points that might involve a pro-life interpretation or perspective on the song.  In the opening monologue, which contains the barest of piano accompaniment and which begins with what sounds like the heartbeat of an unborn child, the persona appeals to the listener directly, pleading that “we gotta start respectin life more y’all” and that “we losin too many of ours” (Common).  [5] This idea of abortion as a means of reducing the population is enhanced here; it is not so much important to note that abortion merely reduces the population as much as it is important to sing that abortion reduces the population of African Americans.

          In the first stanza the persona directly addresses the unborn child, calling him or her “you” and, later, the definitively gendered “my son”.  After the first chorus, in the second stanza the “you” being addressed is no longer the unborn child, but the mother herself.  Significantly, the child is relegated to the pronoun “it”, even though he is also called “our child” and “this boy”.  Towards the end of this second stanza the persona, still addressing the mother, encourages either himself, or her, or the both of them (the language is unclear) to abandon “the beadies and let’s have this boy”.  [6]  This last appeal is particularly striking because it is obvious (or so it seems) that the unborn child has already been aborted.  Some verb tenses used throughout the first stanza are definitely past; the persona “wasn’t prepared mentally nor financially” to be a father, and he “wanted” the child “to be raised within a family”.  However, some statements in this first stanza are present tense: the persona says that “she [the mother] and I agree” that they could not afford a child and that he “don’t wanna, go through the drama of havin a baby’s momma” (even though this last clause can be construed as a future statement).  It is only in the last stanza, however, that the death of the child is definitive: “though his death was at our greed, with no one else to blame”.

The chorus, sung by Lauryn Hill between the first and second stanzas, is a refrain repeated twice, and the rhythm of the song is maintained.  After the second stanza, however, between the repeated refrains, the beat skips.  As a missed beat in the scansion of poetry may suggest that something may be wrong in a poem, so too the missed beat here may indicate that there is something wrong with the idea presented in the song.

The conclusion of the song contains more dialogue, this time not from the persona himself, but, apparently, from a father whose voice on the “hotel messaging center” indicates that he urgently desires to “kick Jesse Jackson’s ass”.  Why this violent act?  Is it an act of protest against a representative of African-American leadership, which is dominantly anti-life?

          The matter of genocide of the African-American race is a theme which activists in the pro-life movement have been sounding for years.  As early as 1972 in her now famous essay “Abortion, Poverty and Genocide: Gifts to the Poor?”, (which should be one of the foundation documents of early right-to-life literature) Erma Clardy Craven documented the genocide intent not only of family planning but also abortion programs targeting the African-American community.  After summarizing the conditions of African Americans at that time, Craven, writing “as a Black, Protestant social worker of thirty-four years experience in the rat-infested ghettos of the United States”, affirms that “the deliberate killing of Black babies in abortion is genocide–perhaps the most overt form of all” (233).  Two decades later Akua Furlow and Thomas Strahan extensively compiled research data on abortions in the African-American community in their report, “African-Americans and Induced Abortion”.

          More current research shows that racial discrimination against African Americans in the form of abortion remains.  Dayton Right to Life recently collated research on abortion and the African-American community.  Research from the past decade shows that Craven’s original call to stop the genocide intent of abortion programs in African-American communities has not been heeded.  Dayton Right to Life summarizes 1992 research, stating that “abortion services have been deliberately and systematically targeted towards African Americans.  A disproportionate number of the nation’s abortion clinics are located in minority neighborhoods”.  Citing the Center for Disease Control’s Abortion Surveillance Report for 1999, Dayton Right to Life further shows that “35% of abortions in the United States are performed on African American women while they represent only 12% of the female population of the country” (“The Question” [3]).  [7]  Common’s song reinforces a theme that contemporary research has long documented: abortion should be a primary concern of the African-American community, since it affects the survival of an entire race.

2001: “Real Killer” by Tech N9ne

“Real Killer” was released on the 2001 album AngHellic by Tech N9ne, who is billed as “rap’s first anarchist” (“Tech N9ne’s”).  According to his website, Tech N9ne wrote the song “Real Killer” for an apparently cathartic purpose.  “‘Real Killer’…unflinchingly bares all about his personal experiences with abortion” (“Tech N9ne’s”).  The opening verse summarizes the persona’s sexual activity with the mother of his child who is called “this chick”.  Later, in verse two, the persona has another sexual liaison with “this chicklet” who becomes the mother first of his triplets and then of another child.  With both mothers the persona arranges abortions for all five unborn children.

          If one follows the printed version of the lyrics, the words cascade over each other, leaving little room for significant pauses.  Moreover, if the lyrics are considered as mere free verse poetry, several terms from standard poetic discussion can be used to evaluate the text.  The many instances of feminine rhyme (for example, “I sitted” and “we quit it”) throw the rhyme scheme off considerably, especially as the lines are sung in the manner, as enunciated in the Encyclopaedia Britannica definition of rap, as “the competitive use of rhyming lines spoken over an ever-more-challenging rhythmic base” (”What Is Rock?”).  The song rushes through 621 predominantly monosyllabic words in the space of six and a half minutes.  In fact, of the 621 words in the song, only nine are polysyllabic, and even those nine are all trisyllabic.  The preponderance of monosyllabic words has two functions: first, the possibilities for numerous spondees abound; second, a corollary of the first, the high number of spondees makes the singing of the lyrics heavy and, in this case particularly, harsh.

More interesting from the viewpoint of right-to-life criticism are the negative connotations of these nine trisyllabic words.  “Abortion”, “murderer”, and “scandalous” are all obviously negative.  The other terms (“agreement”, “evidence”, “natural”, “nobody”, “probably”, and “proportion”) are negative when the surrounding terms clarify that they are used to comment on the abortions in the song.  The persona indicates that the first abortion should be performed secretly; with “no evidence”, the persona and the mother are “both…in agreement” over having an abortion.  The persona affirms “that [there] ain’t nobody iller” than he is for persuading the mothers of his children to abort.  The term “proportion” is used only when the persona states that abortion is “blown out of proportion” (an idea that Doug E. Fresh promoted earlier in his 1986 song).  The word “probably” is used when the persona reflects on what two other beings, the unborn child and God, are thinking.  “Probably” is used first when the persona considers that the unborn child, the “baby”, was “probably thinking we [the mother and he were] scandalous” in going to Kansas for an abortion.  It is used again when the persona considers that he knows “God/ Probably thinking/ I should die”.

The chorus is direct in its conclusion whose apposition defines the persona.  He is a “real killer”, and, if there is any confusion about this direct, simple-structured sentence, then the following equation should eliminate any confusion: “that is me”.  Moreover, two other appositions reinforce the guilt that the persona feels.  After identifying himself as a “real killer”, the persona is called not only a “mass murderer” but also a “natural born killer”.  What is interesting is that it is obvious that the persona himself did not perform the abortions, and yet he feels responsible for the killings.  Even more important is the slippery slope slide into immorality, progressing from passivity to another’s request to compliance to more direct action, which indicates that a level of force was used on the mother in the last abortion.  In the first case the mother telephones the persona requesting help in obtaining an abortion.  For the second pregnancy (the triplets) the persona calls his abortionist friend again to arrange the abortion.  The persona even feebly chastises the abortionist, asking “Homie how could you/ Be so raw” to which the abortionist retorts “How could you be so raw” (vocal emphasis in the song).  Significantly, for the third pregnancy, the persona not only arranges, but apparently forces the mother to undergo an abortion.  “She wanted to have it”, the persona states, “But I made her do/ The same shit”.

Race, the Negativity of Abortion, and Musical Courage

          At least three conclusions can be drawn from the above discussion on abortion as a theme of rap music.  First, although there are notable exceptions, it appears that abortion is a concern of minority rappers who tend to give it more full-length treatment than white rappers.  Common, Doug E. Fresh, and Tech N9ne are all African American and have devoted significant attention to abortion in full-length songs.  In contrast, white rappers address the issue briefly.  For example, Eminem refers to abortion once in the song “Just Don’t Give a Fuck”.  Although it is unclear to whom the truncated present participles apply, the song speaks of “extortion, snortin, supporting abortion”, which could apply to Eminem himself or to his alter ego, Slim Shady.

          Second, for all its so-called rebelliousness against social norms, when it considers it at all, rap music continues to designate abortion as a negative practice.  The rappers discussed here make it clear that the use of the word “abortion” itself is always negative in connotation.  For those of us who are more literary minded, this continuation of the negative connotation of the term corresponds with how literary works (especially major fiction) produced in the United States still consider abortion, even after thirty years of nine-month legalization.

Moreover, the rappers discussed here who may be classified as expressing a pro-life viewpoint use the term with greater freedom than others who sing about abortion.  Thus, for example, Doug E. Fresh did not hesitate to title his song “Abortion”, and Tech N9ne clearly enunciates the word in his “Real Killer” song even though he could have muted the enunciation as he did other words.  Of course, other artists who may have expressed a pro-life viewpoint about abortion who work in other categories of contemporary music are equally heroic in using the word.  For example, P.O.D. makes the pro-life view clear in a song simply titled “Abortion Is Murder”.  Perhaps the exception is Creed’s use of the definition of abortion instead of the word itself.  The song “In America” states that “Only in America [do] we kill the unborn/ To make ends meet”.

Evidence can be found for the contrary position also.  Artists who express an anti-life viewpoint (that is, the song seems to present a position of support for the practice) have difficulty using the word, as though the connotative power of the term “abortion” would jeopardize their message.  (Or perhaps their revenue; after all, if today’s youth are increasingly pro-life, why would a young person spend money on a cd to support an artist who personally advocates a violation of the first civil right?)  For example, the song “Brick” by Ben Folds Five does not mention abortion, even though it is clear from the narrative that the couple goes to an abortion clinic.  The song is a musical justification of research documenting the disastrous effects that an abortion has on the continuance of a couple’s relationship.  The word “abortion” is never used.  Similarly, Nikki D’s song “Daddy’s Little Girl” concerns the love that a mother feels for her father during her abortion.  (Of course, a right-to-lifer would ask: what kind of father would not only damage his own daughter by having her undergo an abortion but also kill his own grandchild?)  As in the Ben Folds Five song, the word is never mentioned.

Finally, the third conclusion that can be drawn from the research presented here is that rap music on abortion supports the pro-life viewpoint much more than it does the anti-life one.  There is no epideictic for abortion among those who sing about it. Abortion is clearly a negative force affecting not only the composers, but also the communities and ethnic groups which they represent.  In the past decade rap has celebrated the killing of promiscuous girlfriends (Eminem’s “Kim” song) and has glorified sexuality (nothing new to the music world especially since the advent of rock).  One would think that this new category of contemporary music would have celebrated abortion as the ultimate freedom for young people–especially young women–who demand the expansion of personal freedoms.  This effort to glorify abortion as a reproductive right or as a foundation right of one version of the feminist movement simply has not occurred.  It probably never will, since, thus far, rap has established the precedent that abortion kills not only the unborn child, but also harms his or her mother and disenfranchises the father.

In rapspeak, to “dis” means “to discount or show disrespect for a person; to put someone or something down…an expression of disrespect” (Smitherman 108).  Clearly, the intent of the rappers discussed here is to attack abortion which disenfranchises the many entities which it affects.  Jesse Jackson is dissed; abortionists are dissed; those who collaborate in abortion are dissed, even at the cost of dissing oneself, as the personas who sing about their cooperation in the abortions of their children testify.  If there is one idea that can be learned from this study, it is that right-to-lifers can find a strong contemporary cultural ally in rap music; rap has dissed abortion.

Works Cited

Ben Folds Five. “Brick.” LyricsDomain.com. 2001-2003. 16 May 2003 <http://www.lyricsdomain.com/lyrics/6009>.

Common. “Retrospect for Life.” Raplyricssearch.com. 16 May 2003 <http://www.raplyricssearch.com/Songs/0,1388.aspx>.

Craven, Erma Clardy. “Abortion, Poverty and Black Genocide: Gifts to the Poor?” Abortion and Social Justice. Eds. Thomas W. Hilgers and Dennis J. Horan. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1972. 231-43.

Creed. “In America.” Lyricsstyle.com. 1997. 14 May 2003 <http://www.lyricsstyle.com/c/creed/inamerica.html>.

Dayton Right to Life. “Abortion Attitudes in the African American Community: Key Findings of a Study Conducted by Dayton Right to Life in Dayton, Ohio.” [n.p.]: Dayton Right to Life, [n.d.].

—. The Question: What Is the Leading Cause of Death in the African American Community? Dayton: Dayton Right to Life, [2002].

DC Talk. “Children Can Live (Without It).” Lyrics.jp. 16 May 2003 <http://www.lyrics.jp/lyrics/D003400010012.asp>.

Dyson, Michael Eric. “Performance, Protest, and Prophecy in the Culture of Hip-Hop.” Black Sacred Music: a Journal of Theomusicology 5.1 (spring 1991): 12-24.

Eminem. “Just Don’t Give a Fuck.” Lyricsstyle.com. 16 May 2003 <http://www.lyricssrtyle.com/e/eminem/ justdontgiveafuck.html>.

—. “Kim.” Lyricsstyle.com. 16 May 2003 <http://www.lyricssearch.com/e/eminem/kim.html>.

Fresh, Doug E. & the Get Fresh Crew. Oh My God! OldSchoolHipHop.com. 16 May 2003 <http://www.oldschoolhiphop.com/records/ohmygod.htm>.

Furlow, Akua, and Thomas Strahan. “African-Americans and Induced Abortion.” Lifeissues.net. 2000-2002. 30 May 2003 <http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/air/air_vol6no1_19931.html>.

Kid Rock. “Abortion.” The History of Rock. New York: Atlantic, 2000.

Marable, Manning. “The Politics of Hip Hop.” 2002. 14 May 2003 <http://www.urbanthinktank.org/politicshiphop.cfm>.

Mitchell, Gail, Rashaun Hall, Marci Kenon, Jill Pesselnick, and Ray Waddell. “New Hip-Hop Generation Returns to Activism.” Billboard 112.33 (12 Aug. 2000). Academic Search Premier 16 May 2003 <http://web20.epnet.com/citation.asp>.

Mosher, Mike. “Bodies: Sex Pistols and Abortion Art.” Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life 55 (May 2001). 14 May 2003 http://eserver.org/bs/55/mosher.html.

—. “The Motor City Is Blanching: White Rap Gets Paid.” Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life 56 (summer 2001). 14 May 2003 http://eserver.org/bs/56/mosher.html.

Nikki D. “Daddy’s Little Girl.”  Daddy’s Little Girl. New York: DefJam, 1991.

O’Connell, Anne. “A Feminist Approach to Female Rap Music.” 14 May 2003 <http://rap.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.csc.vsc.edu%2FCom.web%2Ffemalerap.Html>.

Phipps, Keith. Rev. of Chuck D Presents: Louder Than a Bomb. TheOnionAVClub.com. 16 May 2003 <http://www.theonionavclub.com/reviews/music/music_v/variousartists14.html>.

P.O.D. “Abortion Is Murder.” Warriors4Jah.com. 16 May 2003 <http://www.warriors4jah.com/song_files/murder.asp>.

“Rap.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. 5 May 2003 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi>.

Sex Pistols. “Bodies.” 14 May 2003 <http://www.purelyrics.com/index.php?lyrics=pqsswlao>.

Smitherman, Geneva. Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Smoke. “Nothing Ordinary.” Rev. of One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Music-Critic.com. 14 May 2003 <http://www.music-critic.com/urban/common_oneday.htm>.

Tech N9ne. “Real Killer.” Therealtechn9ne.com. 16 May 2003 <http://www.therealtechn9ne.com/Pages/Frameset.html>.

—. “Tech N9ne’s AngHellic Will Be to Rap….” Therealtechn9ne.com. 16 May 2003 <http://www.therealtechn9ne.com/Pages/BioBottm.html>.

United States. Office of National DrugControl Policy. Pulse Check: National Trends in Drug Abuse, Spring 1996; Trends in Drug Use, Part III; Marijuana. 4 Mar. 2002. 12 May 2003 <http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/drugfact/pulsechk/spring96/p_6smar.html>.

“What Is Rock?  The Difficulty of Definition.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 5 May 2003 <http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article?eu=65609>.


[1] One online commentator, Mike Mosher, asserts that rap is youth’s reaction against such political correctivity.  Mosher quotes “Conservative writer John Leo [who] gloated that Eminem’s popularity was evidence of youth’s backlash against tightly monitored school behavior codes, zero-tolerance Hate Speech laws and other manifestations of repressive ‘political correctness’” (“Motor City”).  Mosher does not refute Leo’s assertion.

[2] Sometimes, of course, a song obviously titled “Abortion” may concern abortion only tangentially.  This is the case with Kid Rock’s 2000 song “Abortion”.  The song contains only the vaguest of references to abortion as a practice; rather, the song uses abortion as a metaphor for the angst of a man tortured by love.

[3] Similarly, even though he argues that “’Bodies’ remains the most important song to deal with abortion, a major political issue of the 1970s when it was written,” as recently as 2001 social critic Mike Mosher expresses his frustration in trying to find not necessarily rap abortion songs, but abortion songs in general:

                        There appears to be little progressive, feminist art on

this topic in wide currency, perhaps because abortion

is necessary rather than celebratory.  Many women have

spoken of variegated, deep feelings after abortion, its

procedures altering a significant biological course,

and to articulate these, perhaps cathartic art forms

are best.  If two decades after “Bodies,” Liz Phair,

Hole, or L7 had abortion songs as powerful as “Bodies”, I simply don’t know about them. (“Bodies”)

[4] Unfortunately, no reputable source could be located to provide quotes for this song’s lyrics.

[5] For this and subsequent songs, the lyrics were transcribed by another person and uploaded on one of numerous internet lyrics services, so deviations in grammar and punctuation may not have been those suggested by the artist.  Moreover, unless otherwise indicated, lyrics for the songs have been obtained from the source indicated at the first quotation.

[6] According to a recent online publication from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a “beadie” is

                        Marijuana…used both alone and in combination with a

                        number of other drugs–most commonly alcohol, and in

                        some areas, crack or PCP.  In New York, a variety of

                        Indian marijuana laced with PCP (“beadies”) has gained

                        popularity.  Both crack and PCP may be sprinkled on

                        marijuana; a marijuana cigarette or cigar may also be

                        dipped in a liquid solution of PCP, dried and then

                        smoked. (United States)

[7] The reader may also be interested in a summary of research findings from a study conducted by the organization.  Titled, “Abortion Attitudes in the African American Community: Key Findings of a Study Conducted by Dayton Right to Life in Dayton, Ohio”, two findings mention the influence of Planned Parenthood specifically: “Planned Parenthood is well known and generally regarded very favorably.  Interestingly, the only negative mentioned about Planned Parenthood was that they [sic] tended to push women into abortions” (unpaginated).

Categories
Papers

Academic Perceptions of Abortion: a Review of Humanities Scholarship Produced Within the Academy

          What do my colleagues in humanities say when they write about the right-to-life issues?  This was the question I posed for research to be presented at this year’s annual conference of University Faculty for Life.  Hopefully, within the following pages the answers I provide will prove satisfactory.  Here is my perspective on the “state of the scholarship”–at least in humanities–on right-to-life issues.

          The methodology for this year’s paper was simple.  I wanted to focus on recent humanities scholarship dealing with the three right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.  A few items from recent scholarship came to my attention from a variety of sources (such as email lists from pro-life groups in Canada and the United States).  However, virtually all of the monographs published since 2000 which I thought would pertain to the life issues were advertised in recent issues of Publications of the Modern Language Association, the official publication of the premiere organization which concerns itself with scholarship in the humanities.

          The clause “which I thought would pertain to the life issues” indicates that, sometimes, I was led to “dead ends”.  Thanks to the immediacy of email, I could obtain responses from the various scholars to ascertain whether their works concern abortion.  For example, I thought that Generation and Degeneration: Tropes of Reproduction in Literature and History from Antiquity Through Early Modern Europe, a 2001 monograph edited by Valeria Finucci and Kevin Brownlee, would certainly concern abortion.  Finucci emailed to say that “it does not, although there are a few references”.  Similarly, I thought that Laura Frost’s 2002 monograph Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism would definitely concern abortion, but Frost emailed to say that “My book doesn’t address right‑to‑life issues or any related reproductive issues. I focus on fantasy and sexuality/eroticism in literature”.  Tamar Katz also responded by email to say that her 2000 monograph, Impressionist Subjects: Gender, Interiority, and Modernist Fiction in England, “doesn’t discuss abortion”.  Nancy J. Peterson’s 2001 monograph, Against Amnesia: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crises of Historical Memory, “discusses history, not abortion.”  Michelle Lise Tarter confirmed that the 2001 monograph which she edited with Janet Moore Lindman, A Centre of Wonders: the Body in Early America, does not concern abortion at all.  “I don’t think that any of the essays actually approaches this topic of abortion”, she notes.  “There is one essay on Elizabeth Emerson (Hannah Duston’s sister), but the issue of abortion is not actually discussed.”  Finally, Elizabeth A. Wheeler replied that her 2001 monograph, Uncontained: Urban Fiction in Postwar America, also does not concern abortion.

           Perhaps the problem in identifying abortion passages in current scholarship is one of indexing.  For example, in her 2001 monograph, Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934, Rachel Blau DuPlessis does “treat one poem by Mina Loy that in passing mentions abortion.  It is not indexed in the book.  The chapter concerns representations of sexual intercourse in literature, and is entitled ‘”Seismic Orgasm”: sexual intercourse, its modern representations and politics'”.  [1]

          Thanks to the Ohiolink interlibrary loan system which includes virtually all of the libraries of public and private colleges and universities in Ohio, I was able to obtain many of the titles I wanted to review.  Having obtained these, I quickly determined that the focus of scholarship on the life issues was restricted to the first life issue, abortion.

          My critique of some scholarship will primarily concern the absence of discussion of the right-to-life issues in areas where, in my estimation, the scholarship should have addressed the issues or would have been more comprehensive if the right-to-life issues were addressed.  Towards the end of my research, I decided that I would contact the authors themselves, asking them questions about their presentation of material–or lack thereof–on the right-to-life issues.  Finally, I will demonstrate whether ideas from the recent scholarship can be used to help students as they study a representative passage of contemporary literature.

          When I reviewed the draft of this paper, the idea came to me that what I would present can be classified into three facetious categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The “good” section will consider recent scholarship which is not hostile to right-to-life interests or persons, but which presents material which right-to-lifers can use in the classroom to support claims made since the founding of the movement.  The “bad” section discusses recent scholarship whose hostility to right-to-life interests is obvious.  The “ugly” section consists of the application of some ideas from recent scholarship to that representative passage of contemporary literature I referred to in the previous paragraph. I do not mean to say that Juliana Baggott’s poem “Seventy Degrees in December” is ugly.  Au contraire, I contend that the application of some ideas from recent scholarship itself creates an ugly interpretation of literature.

Review of Selected Humanities Literature

          Although academic discussion of the international effects of the first right-to-life issue of abortion is rare in recent literature, [2] academics delving into the experience of the United States have much to say.  Paradoxically, some academics have contributed to the abortion “discussion” by what they have omitted as much as by what they have written about the subject.

          Nancy Bauer’s 2001 monograph Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, & Feminism continues recent scholarship which strives to enlighten the ideas of one of the most important women in the twentieth century.  Bauer provides extensive footnote commentary on Beauvoir’s attitude toward children and abortion.  After documenting Beauvoir’s commitment to abortion, Bauer writes,

                    Beauvoir was notorious for her own horror of having and caring for babies.  But in interviews, especially toward the end of her life, she was at pains to insist that her own lack of desire to have children did not play a role in her admonishing women to consider carefully the possibility of opting out of motherhood. Tellingly enough, Beauvoir warned that, given the demands placed on mothers in our culture, having children frequently constituted for women a form of slavery.  When asked, for example, by Yolanda Patterson in 1985 what advice she would give to women who wanted both to have children and to “maintain their own identity and independence”, Beauvoir said, “One must really follow one’s deepest desires.  Otherwise one feels unfulfilled….  But one should be very careful not to become enslaved.”  And in an interview (one in a famous series) with Alice Schwarzer in 1976 she said, “I think a woman should be on her guard against the trap of motherhood and marriage.  Even if she would dearly like to have children, she ought to think seriously about the conditions under which she would have to bring them up, because being a mother these days is real slavery.” (274; ellipsis in original)

In this respect, Bauer is continuing the research by Germain Kopaczynski, documenting the emergence of abortion in Beauvoir’s work and how that importance may have been based on faulty readings of Catholic ethical positions.  [3]

          While Beauvoir was writing in France, in the United States a new label was given to those writers who were reacting against the tenets of postwar American life: the Beat generation.  Most of the major writers of the Beat generation are associated with the culture of the 1950s.  Many pro-lifers may associate the Beat generation with support for abortion as well, thinking that any reaction against middle-class American values from the 1950s would obviously include abortion.  Since this decade is often cited as the one that Beat writers in the 1950s and 1960s reacted against, one would expect to find some support for the overthrow of the right to life among Beat writers.  Ann Charters’ 2001 monograph Beat Down to Your Soul: What Was the Beat Generation? is fascinating because it does not establish this connection between an admittedly radical group of writers and an attack on the first civil right to life.

          One chapter, especially, is noteworthy for what it does not say about abortion, as Charters herself confirms in an email response that “abortion isn’t addressed in” the monograph.  Titled “Panel Discussion with Women Writers of the Beat Generation”, Charters leads discussion with “a panel of so-called Beat chicks”, women who were involved in the Beat movement not only as writers themselves, but as spouses or lovers of male Beat writers such as William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.  Although she credits Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique as “the most influential book in radicalizing American women readers” (612), Charters claims that

                    We women wanted marriage too.  Our sexual freedom came at a high price in the 1950s, when most men respected a woman only if she was somebody’s wife….  Although we were in rebellion against what we considered our second-class status in American society, we still respected marriage.  Ironically, at the time we thought it was the final proof of our independence.  A wedding ring was a visible sign to an uncaring world that we weren’t immature or irresponsible or unstable, that we had accomplished something of value on our own. (613)

          In the interview itself, other panelists speak only of feminism and liberation in vague terms.  For example, Joyce Johnson suggests how radically different the Beat chicks were from their 1960s second-wave feminist sisters:

                    In the late fifties, it was an enormous thing for a young woman who wasn’t married to leave home, support herself, have her own apartment, have a sex life.  This was before the pill, when having sex was like Russian roulette, really.  It wasn’t the moment then to try to transform relationships with men.  Just to get your foot out the door into the world as an independent person was just such an enormous thing. (629; emphasis in original)

According to Johnson, Jack Kerouac “had a horror of the idea of bringing life into the world because he had seen a child die, that child being his brother” (630-1).  That is the closest one comes to finding a passage that can be construed in any way as being anti-child.  The final panelist whom I will mention, Joanna McClure, further stated that “I didn’t join the women’s movement, but I did my personal part in creating freedom for myself” (630).

          Sara M. Evans’ essay “Sources of the Second Wave: the Rebirth of Feminism”, published in the 2001 monograph Long Time Gone: Sixties America Then and Now, has a much more activist section titled “Making the Personal Political”.  While it is common knowledge that “consciousness-raising groups were seedbeds for what grew into diverse movements around issues ranging from women’s health, child care, violence, and pornography to spirituality and music” (201), Evans exemplifies this connection between such feminist groups and abortion:

                    As groups analyzed childhood experiences for clues to the origins of women’s oppression in relations with men, marriage, motherhood, and sex, discussion led to action, and action on one topic led to another.  For example, in an early meeting of New York Radical Women, several women described their experiences with illegal abortions.  For most it was the first time they had told anyone beyond a close friend or two.  The power of this revelation, however, contrasted sharply with the current debates surrounding proposed liberalization of the abortion law in New York, which were conducted with clinical detachment. (201-2)

          The one paragraph in her essay solely devoted to abortion is worth closer examination.  After discussing the disruptions of legislative activity on abortion, Evans writes that

                    With this and numerous other actions and demonstrations women’s liberation groups made themselves the “shock troops” of abortion rights, joining an already active abortion law reform movement.  For the most part, they sought to intervene directly, offering services, public education, and assistance to women rather than lobbying for reform.  In Chicago, a group within the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union called “Jane”, which began doing counseling and referrals in the late 1960s, shifted in 1971 to performing abortions themselves.  Between 1971 and 1973, Jane performed eleven thousand illegal abortions with a safety record that matched that of doctor-performed legal abortions. (202)  [4]

          What is striking about this section is the absence of discussion about the growth of pro-life alternatives during this same period.  Birthright and other pregnancy support groups experienced phenomenal growth in the 1960s and 1970s, in part to help meet the demands of mothers who chose to give birth instead of abortion.  [5]  Similarly, judicial and legislative efforts to retain protective measures are ignored.  [6]

          Kevin M. Crotty’s 2001 monograph Law’s Interior: Legal and Literary Constructions of the Self has several interesting points to make about legal constructs and the language of rights which will be quoted extensively.  Crotty discusses the thinking of many prominent theorists whose works impact legal thinking on abortion.  The twentieth-century philosopher John Rawls and the legal theorist, and now federal judge, Richard Posner have profoundly affected their respective disciplines.  Crotty critiques some aspects of their thinking vis-a-vis individual rights, the freedom of the individual, and abortion.  Stanley Hauerwas had already argued against the application of Rawls’ philosophy in his chapter on abortion in the 1981 monograph A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (see pages 216-7 especially).  While not expressly updating Hauerwas’ research, Crotty does elaborate two decades later some of the ideas mentioned in Hauerwas’ work.  For example, when discussing Rawls’ concept of “public reason”, Crotty suggests that, when applied to abortion,

                    instead of sealing off public debate from intractable problems, the boundaries Rawls envisions may make the debate even more bitter and divisive, for these public terms seem to predetermine the result and to silence opposing voices before the fact. (37)

It should be obvious that pro-lifers can use this line of argument to demonstrate how various levels of political correctivity–whether in the humanities, law, or other disciplines–have attempted to silence their own voices.

          Similarly, Crotty points out potential problems in Posner’s thinking which pro-lifers can use to their advantage.  Posner “develops the line adumbrated by Holmes [that “the man of the future” will be “the social engineer, not the legal expert versed in the letter of the law”], and argues that law should be a relatively unselfconscious, ‘transitive’ tool for bringing about rational outcomes” (153).  However, according to Crotty, when Posner’s argument involves abortion, recent twentieth century decisions by the Supreme Court such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Roe v. Wade (1973) indicate that such rational development is frustrated.  Specifically, if “the normative question of women’s reproductive rights–or the connection between women’s autonomy and legislation outlawing abortion–does not play a major role in his argument” (153), then what, in Crotty’s estimation, does?

                    After Brown and Roe, any concept of rights, if it is to be really plausible, must be responsive to the physical aspect of citizens as beings with a race and gender.  By confronting the Constitution with the sexuality of its citizens, for example–a reality that had previously been obscured or marginalized in law–Roe requires considerable adjustment to the legal image of ourselves as simply rational and autonomous. It points to a more complex model that situates rationality within a personality that both promotes and undermines it.  Naturally, a vision of the human being as deeply sexual and therefore partly irrational is hardly a surprise in a post-Freudian era.  [7]  The point is that Roe made sexuality relevant to an understanding of the Constitution and the political community it structures. (192)

The implications of such a philosophy are clear for Crotty:

                    As in Brown, autonomy emerges from Roe as something partisan and contested.  The majority opinion in Roe struck down the abortion laws at issue in the name of privacy, and in the interests of keeping the government out of necessarily intimate decisions.  But preventing states from legislating against abortion did not secure state neutrality.  First, by assuring women control over their reproductive functions, Roe leveled the playing field for males and females in the public sector.  It also modified the family’s internal dynamics on the interests of securing individual autonomy: parents, for example, cannot use law to veto a minor’s decision to have an abortion.  More deeply, by holding that states could not take away from women the ability to choose, Roe made it likelier that women would be autonomous individuals able to govern their own lives rationally.  In other words, Roe did not so much respect an independently existing autonomy in woman as help to produce it, and to do so in the face of deep and pervasive social forces that resisted it. It reflects a troubling view of the Constitution as an aggressive force, bringing about the autonomy it presupposes.  Roe and Brown, then, both undermine Holmes’s vision of the Constitution as facilitating debate, but existing essentially independent of it.  The Constitution, as construed in these cases, is necessarily partisan–immersed in the political fray, and struggling to bring about its own version of the good.  (213)

          On these premises, criticism of Roe, a creation of only about three decades, is not only obvious, but also possible, if only because it is on a collision course with a millennia-old construct of the human condition: the family.  Crotty states:

                    Roe replicates in a highly sophisticated latter-day setting the conflict between state and household that drove (for example) the Oresteia, in which a legal system was based on the denial of the woman’s role in procreation.  The state stands for equality, generality, and legality, while the family embodies specificity, hierarchy, and authority.  The citizen has a certain fungibility, for (s)he is conceived abstractly–that is, apart from the concrete particulars that constitute the individual identity of the person within the household. The citizen, too, has a certain atemporal quality: young and old citizens, qua citizens, are equals.  The family, in contrast, is deeply rooted in time and change: age is a highly significant difference among its members, and the household is in a continuing process of generation, growth, and decline. (214)

Crotty concludes his criticism of Roe by saying that

                    Roe represents the culmination (at least for now) of a development in which autonomy becomes ever more problematic, and increasingly difficult to reconcile with perceptions of the individuals’ vulnerability to circumstance and his or her deeply formative relations with others, above all in the household. (217)  [8]

A practical application of Crotty’s criticism of Roe will be suggested in the “ugly” section at the end of this paper.

          There are many more minor passages which can be culled from current scholarship to assist pro-lifers in the effort to restore the first civil right to life.  For example, Claudia Roth Pierpont’s 2000 monograph Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World chastises Anais Nin for the deception with which she wrote of her abortion.

                    This abortion is shocking to read about.  The story that Nin made of it, the celebrated “Birth”, begins with the line “‘The child,’ said the doctor, ‘is dead,’ and goes on for its five brief pages to describe the agony of a woman stretched on a table, six months pregnant, too weak to push the child from her body and too tender of spirit to be fully willing to push it out, “even though it had died in me” and “even though it threatened my life”….  The story was drawn from Nin’s diary, and reappeared in elaborated but not substantially altered form…in 1966….  There were many clues in this account to what really happened, but they were easily ignored in the light of Nin’s insistent claim to truth…. The convolution of lies and editing and reediting is hard to sort out, and here, still, are the luxuriantly sentimental phrases–“regrets, long dreams of what this little girl might have been”, and “the simple human flowering denied to me because of the dream, again, the sacrifice to other forms of creation”.  This abortion was a sacrifice made to art, and to ensure “my destiny as the mistress, my life as a woman”….  In this instance, rewriting her history was probably Nin’s best deed for the feminist cause, and her most important lie.  For even in an age of hard-won and vulnerable freedoms, the truth we are offered now is recognizably obscene. (76-8)

          Anthony Cunningham’s 2001 monograph The Heart of What Matters: the Role for Literature in Moral Philosophy includes commentary on post-abortion grief without unnecessarily criticizing the validity of such a concept, as many anti-lifers have done:

                    The sense of moral diminishment associated with guilt and shame can sometimes be seen in cases where people feel justified, indeed compelled to do what they do.  For instance, studies show that a large percentage of women who choose elective abortion because of severe genetic defects or malformations in second trimester fetuses not only suffer overwhelming grief but often experience feelings of profound guilt and diminished self-esteem.  This is so despite the fact that they are convinced their course of action is best for the child and their family. (203)

Cunningham concludes his footnote source citation by saying that “Having to aim directly at ending a desired pregnancy can exact a grave toll.  [9]  Unlike other deaths, abortions usually do not attract the same communal recognition and support that mean so much in the grief process” (289).

          Finally, Susan Wells’ 2001 monograph Out of the Dead House: Nineteenth-Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine can help fill out an important part of nineteenth-century abortion history.  If many historians view the effort to safeguard the right to life in the nineteenth century as a male construct, then Wells’ research refutes that premise.

                    All women physicians knew of Madame Rastell, the New York abortionist….  It had been Madame Rastell’s profanation of motherhood, in fact, that finally determined Elizabeth Blackwell to overcome her repugnance for the body and become a physician.  Early graduates of the Woman’s Medical College, writing on such topics as medical jurisprudence and criminal abortion, specified ways of determining whether abortions had been induced and ways of resisting patients’ pleas for help in obtaining one.  Rachel Gleason, a water cure physician who, with her husband, ran a popular sanitorium in New York State, told women who came to her for abortions that a woman who married was obliged to accept children as they came, and she disputed their belief in the legitimacy of abortion before “quickening”, when the fetus could be felt moving….  Gleason’s control of her patients’ reproduction was all the more effective because she offered an understanding ear to the transgressor….  Gleason’s account suggests that, while they practiced a conventional range of therapies, women physicians also understood their medical practice as support for, and regulation of, motherhood. (32-3)

          All of these excerpts from contemporary scholarship can certainly be used to advance the pro-life movement.  Now, however, I would like to move on to research which is hostile to pro-life interests.

Academic Scholarship Hostile to Right to Life

          Susan Friend Harding’s 2000 monograph The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics begins my examination of academic opposition to pro-life interests.  Commenting on the opening anecdote of Jerry Falwell’s 1986 monograph If I Should Die, Harding writes that

                    The feminist image of a woman gaining control over her body and her life through abortion rights becomes the other victim of abortion, a helpless girl who is driven to abortion because she has no other way.  With a few more strokes of a pen, If I Should Die converts another feminist image, that of men opposing abortion rights to deprive women of elemental, bodily equality and liberty, into an image of a born-again male hero rising up in the country of reproducing women, a man-father-Father figure who will save girl-mothers, as well as babies, from the maw of abortion. (188; emphasis in original) [10]

          This passage can be interrogated from a pro-life perspective on many levels, the first, of course, being language.  One can note Harding’s preoccupation with “feminist images”–at least three identified here.  In the first image, abortion is defined as “a woman gaining control over her body and her life through abortion rights”.  Note that “abortion” is not defined as either the medical definition of the premature expulsion of the fetus before viability, or defined as the termination (as in “ending”) of a pregnancy by natural or other means, or defined as the killing of an unborn child.  I find it curious, too, that Harding has made the overthrow of the first civil right plural.  What other “rights” are involved in abortion besides the court-sanctioned opportunity to have the unborn child killed?

          The second image which Harding proposes is that opposition to abortion is a male practice–and not only simply to be described as a male practice, but a practice “of men opposing abortion rights to deprive women of elemental, bodily equality and liberty”.  Harding proposes that we accept several aspects of the non sequitur logical fallacy manifested here.  Thus, if any man opposes abortion, then he also wants to deprive women of political rights (“liberty”) and of equal opportunity which is described in such a way that it pertains not only to positions in society (“equality”), but also to their physical integrity (“bodily equality”), which is itself enhanced as being fundamental to their personhood (“elemental, bodily equality”).

          One gets the impression that Harding is caught up in the earliest avatar of feminist literary criticism, which was (and still is) preoccupied with the idea that a male-dominated society, encapsulated in the term “patriarchy”, is one which necessarily oppresses women.  [11]  The language she uses demonstrates that she highly resents males who are involved in the pro-life movement, so much so that the entire movement itself is reduced to the third image that she excoriates, “an image of a born-again male hero rising up in the country of reproducing women, a man-father-Father figure who will save girl-mothers, as well as babies, from the maw of abortion”.  Even the highly connotative word “maw” suggests that the word is suitable because pro-life activism can be equated with a sentimentalized drama.

          Susan Ehrlich’s 2001 monograph Representing Rape: Language and Sexual Consent continues the academic dislike for pro-life terminology.  Although her work is primarily concerned with rape, it is interesting to note the biased use of language in her discussion of the case of Boston abortionist Kenneth Edelin:

                    That the lexical items designating objects and events in a trial can constitute “potentially important social acts” is convincingly demonstrated by Danet (1980) in her analysis of a Massachusetts trial in which a Boston obstetrician-gynaecologist was charged with manslaughter for performing a late abortion.  Focusing on the ways that the prosecution and the defence named and categorized the aborted entity, Danet illuminates the ideological and strategic significance of such choices: the prosecution consistently used terms such as “baby”, “child” and “little baby boy” whereas the defence used terms such as “fetus” and “products of conception”.  In other words, the “war of words” waged in this trial invoked and reproduced more general cultural debates about the “living” status of aborted entities.  After all, intrinsic to legal definitions of manslaughter, and arguably a conviction, is the concept of “killing” which presupposes the prior existence of a “life”. (37-8)

          John V. Pickstone argues in his 2000 monograph, Ways of Knowing: a New History of Science, Technology and Medicine, that American and British abortion “histories, especially if they are comparative, may serve to help us understand the presentation of issues in our present, and the prospects of reaching accommodation, if not agreement” (223; emphasis in original).  Unfortunately, Ehrlich focuses on the connotative impact of words in order to destabilize the facts of abortion history.  Once again, the use of clear and concise language by pro-lifers is apparently the tool which most irritates anti-lifers.

          Ehrlich’s continuation of the assault on pro-life terminology is nothing contrasted against that of Andrea Slane in her 2001 monograph A Not So Foreign Affair: Fascism, Sexuality, and the Cultural Rhetoric of American Democracy.  While most of this monograph is concerned with cultural studies, Slane continues the assault against pro-life ideas on the opening pages:

                    Outside the 1996 Democratic National Convention, a lone white man in a suit and tie staged a one-man antiabortion protest.  Holding an American flag, he clutched a white baby doll to his chest and waved a black one over his head.  As a father figure in a domestic tableau, the man likely wanted to be seen as protecting babies from their bad mothers, who, with the approval of the government, would kill them. (1)

          This passage can be critiqued on the same bases as that of Harding’s earlier.  First, of course, is the incorrect identification of the pro-lifer as an “antiabortionist”.  As long ago as 1987, Faye Ginsburg commented on the difficulty of using biased language in scholarly material.  Studying abortion activists in Fargo, North Dakota, Ginsburg was one of a few scholars who chose to use the correct terms which pro-lifers use to identify themselves, basing her argument on “Malinowski’s axiom that the anthropologist’s task is, in part, to represent the world from the native’s point of view, I have used the appellation each group chooses for itself” (“Procreation” 634).  [12]  Slane, however, is concerned not so much about the content of the ideas which the pro-lifer suggests by his actions as much as she is by the gender of the pro-lifer.  Obviously, being male makes more of a statement worthy of contemporary critical attention than other aspects of his picketing.  The pro-lifer’s attempt at racial equality and patriotism are unremarkable to Slane–at least at this point in her cultural criticism.  What is perhaps more disturbing is the presumption Slane makes that the pro-lifer has made a judgment about the mothers who abort: specifically, that they are “bad mothers” and that this judgment, which she thinks that he wholeheartedly adopts, comes from the babies to be killed by their mothers.  I know of no pro-lifer who has such a condemning attitude toward mothers who abort.  Moreover, Slane may be in one of those scholarly enclaves which sees picketing as the only vehicle for pro-life action, thus eliminating the need to comment on other spheres of activity–legislative, political, judicial, financial, pregnancy support care, etc.–which occupy pro-lifers’ lives.

          More important than this image to be explicated by a cultural studies approach is use of the holocaust metaphor.  Slane bristles at the association of the Nazi holocaust and the one occurring in the United States:

                    The logic of the parallel between Nazi Germany and the United States surely draws in large part on a metaphor of the gigantic human costs of the Holocaust, where state-mandated, scientifically-executed killing is equated with the state-sanctioned legality of elective abortion.  This argument of course depends on the equation of the embryo or fetus with the adults and children exterminated in Nazi death camps–a widespread practice in the antiabortion movement….  By drawing an equation between the murder of millions of Jews and other “undesirables” and abortions, antiabortion advocates hope to succeed in both granting personhood to embryos and casting feminists and abortion doctors as state-sanctioned murderers. (2-3, 80)

          The above quote merges passages spanning eighty pages, and yet they illustrate the consistent vehemence with which contemporary scholarship reacts when faced with the pro-life claim of equality between the two holocausts.  It is significant that Slane’s parallelism grammatically lessens the impact of the abortion holocaust.  Where the genocides of Nazi Germany are labelled “state-mandated, scientifically-executed killing”, the abortion holocaust in the United States is termed “state-sanctioned legality of elective abortion”.  The inference should be clear, according to Slane: the various genocides in Nazi Germany were somehow hoisted on the German nation while abortion was simply recognized by the Supreme Court as a matter of the expression of a voluntary choice.  Slane is unable to recognize the personhood of the unborn child with the personhood of the victim of the Nazi concentration camps.  Commentary has already been given on the inappropriate use of the word “antiabortion”–itself given in tortured and verbose language which should confuse the logical mind (can one really be an “antiabortion advocate”, that is, one who advocates or supports a position against abortion, or one who is against a position of support, or one who…?).  Finally, Slane perpetuates the stereotype that pro-lifers attack feminists and abortionists (called euphemistically “abortion doctors”) personally and label them “murderers”.  This fear, of course, is one expression of what she incorrectly perceives as an ad hominem attack made against anti-lifers.

Application of Ideas from Recent Scholarship to a Representative Passage of Contemporary Literature

          Juliana Baggott’s 2001 collection of poems, This Country of Mothers, contains one poem, “Seventy Degrees in December”, which I have chosen for the experiment expressed at the beginning of this paper–to demonstrate whether ideas from recent scholarship can be used to help students as they study a representative passage of contemporary literature.  Here is the full text of the poem:

  1.

We’ve grown accustomed to death,

but today in warm wind

              the leaves clamber

to return to their limbs–

not from regret as much as confusion.

And I am pregnant again.

This baby I already know,

                 stitching itself

inside me, something desperate.

I imagine its birth feet first

ready to steel itself against gravity.

My grandmother believes that bees

are the souls of the dead,

that dead souls

           are folded, like eggs

with cake batter, into the infant body or before.

Bees dream of the tulip’s sweet cradle.

I pull down a bare limb.

It is covered

          with impossible buds.

  2.

We never grow accustomed to death,

                     leaves, perhaps

but not the baby dying in the womb.

Wasn’t I the desperate one, steeling myself

against birth?

           My grandmother is here again,

this time not with her bees

but to tell me Aunt Effie lost one this way too,

so long inside her, though,

                    it turned to stone.

I imagine that is the weight

that stays in my belly,

                 a rock child that could fit

in the palm of my open hand.

And what of the bare limbs?

Did I expect the impossible buds to bloom? (Baggott 39-40)  [13]

          A near-parallelism in this poem recalls another parallelism in a more famous poem about another kind of failed pregnancy–Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem about abortion titled “The Mother”.  A refrain in Brooks’ poem incarnates the mantra of the post-abortive mother.  “Abortions will not let you forget”, the persona says (Brooks 430).  After discoursing on conditions under which the abortion was performed, the reader cannot determine if the last claim of fact in the poem is sincere or not: “Believe me, I loved you all./ Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you/ All” (430).  I have asked my students to analyze Brooks’ poem many times; they mostly come away from the poem with the idea that the persona is a mother who willingly aborted the child, ostensibly because of dire economic circumstances.  How would my students react, what would they write, if I asked them to do a one-page paper on Baggott’s poem on the condition that they use ideas from contemporary humanities scholarship?

          For “fun and games”, here are two sample papers that I suggest would be written.  The first column will contain a paper written by someone in an institution which values literature more as a means of cultural criticism (naming any university might do to meet this criterion).  The second column will contain a paper written by someone in an institution which values literature in three ways: as literature, as literature which can be viewed from a multiplicity of critical perspectives, and as literature which manifests the ancient dictum of Horace that all literature not only pleases, but also teaches.  Let’s say, also, that the student who will write the second paper is a pro-lifer at a community college where, unlike a student at a cultural studies-based university, he or she will be expected to read, write, and think critically and to master certain subjects which may no longer be “privileged” in other institutions–that is, he or she will be expected to master grammar, rhetoric, and research paper production.

          Obviously, the woman in the poem is oppressed in several ways: first by the fetus itself; second, by all of male society, whose oppressive demands have forced the woman into another, probably unwanted, pregnancy. No man is mentioned in this poem; in fact, the only actors in the poem are women: the woman narrating this poem, the narrator’s grandmother, and the narrator’s Aunt Effie, who is mentioned as an authority. Male history, or, rather, the male version of history is eradicated; it is the women in the poem who have authority.  Therefore, this poem is a celebration of women’s voices which have been suppressed for millennia.           Whatever emotional trauma the woman feels for the fetus is a product of centuries of manipulative male ordering of society which we are only now beginning to overcome. Several contemporary authors such as Ewa Plonowska Ziarek have affirmed the importance of our sexuality as a matter which supersedes other social interests.  Moreover, we must be aware of how language can be used to distort reality.  For example, Susan Ehrlich has argued that language can be used to attempt to hoist humanity on non-beings such as fetuses.  Susan Friend Harding and Andrea Slane similarly caution us against falling into antiabortion language traps, which will enslave women.          Obviously, the mother is suffering from the loss of her unborn child.  First, of course, the title suggests that something is abnormal; it is not normal in this northern climate that December should have such high temperatures. The first stanza continues this motif of abnormality: instead of staying on the ground after they have fallen off the trees, “the leaves clamber/ to return to their limbs”.  The impending miscarriage is intimated by the imagery of “a bare limb” and “impossible buds”.  The leaves’ wanting “to return to their limbs” may personify the hope that the unborn child could somehow restore him- or herself in the womb.           Although the poem cannot be scanned in a regular pattern, certain phrases seem to read as spondees, suggesting heaviness.  For example, the line “Bees dream of the tulip’s sweet cradle” can be scanned so that the first two words constitute a spondee: “Bees dream”. Several similes, metaphors, and personifications help to convey the importance of the loss of the child.           Socially and politically, this poem may have great importance.  Unlike many other contemporary literary works, the unborn child is personified as “this baby”.  The genderless reflexive pronoun is used twice, but it is used in such a way that the humanity of this child to-be-miscarried is not demeaned: “I imagine its birth feet first/ ready to steel itself against gravity”.  Perhaps the use of this pronoun reflects the anguish of the mother who cannot bear to think further that the unborn child is either a son or a daughter.  The mother expresses her anguish poignantly as she affirms that “We never grow accustomed to death,/ leaves, perhaps/ but not the baby dying in the womb”.           While many critics hold negative views toward the family (such as Susan Ehrlich and Andrea Slane), others (including Kevin M. Crotty) have recently indicated the importance of the family.  In fact, one critic, Anthony Cunningham, suggests that any loss of an unborn child has severe ramifications for the parents.  The family relationships of the mother are obscure.  While she does refer to some persons in her family who strive to support her (her grandmother, for example), the males in her family are absent.  Where is her boyfriend, male partner, or husband?           Finally, this poem can be reviewed through many literary perspectives, for example, psychological criticism, to determine the emotions of the narrator; feminist criticism, to determine how the mother feels oppressed by the loss of the unborn child; or Marxist criticism, to determine the value of the unborn child who meant a great deal to this mother.

          Of course, such a reductionism as the above papers exemplify is meant to prove a point.  If students are offered only a biased view of one of the major political and social movements of our time, then they will not only produce papers which are reductionist (once one says that a work of literature can be blamed on oppression of women by men, what is left that’s important enough to say?).  They will also produce papers which will satisfy the political correctivity of the instructor.  We are well aware of the so-called liberal bias of academics.  A recent online article carried by LifeSite News from Canada mentions, for example, that “a poll of Ivy League university professors in the U.S. has found that only one per cent want a legal ban on abortion” (Westen).  [14]  If an instructor steeps him- or herself only in a biased scholarship–and if that is one which is primarily derived from an anti-life view of the world, then his or her students will suffer not only from lack of objectivity in writing papers designed for academic use, but also from a stifling political correctivity that will be carried into the world once those students graduate.

          Fortunately, once they graduate and realize that various “feminist images” proposed to them are either vapid or false, I trust that these students who have been academically nurtured on anti-life pablum will switch to our side.  Nobody feels comfortable in a condition of living a lie–witness, to her great credit, Norma McCorvey.  I hold that pro-lifers are more intellectually honest when it comes to literature discussion.  Unlike anti-life academics who may omit pro-life research, we are able to use the best from the bad (anti-life) criticism as well as the best of ancient and modern pedagogy and andragogy.  Therefore, we are crucial in academia, for it is our job to see that students are educated not so that they become partisans to anti-life principles, but that they become and remain open to the best that comprehensive humanities research has to offer.

                                                     Works Cited

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—. “Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex: Laying the Groundwork

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—. Email to Jeff Koloze. 28 May 2002.

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Wells, Susan. Out of the Dead House: Nineteenth-Century Women

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—. Uncontained: Urban Fiction in Postwar America. New

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Ziarek, Ewa Plonowska. An Ethics of Dissensus: Postmodernity,

          Feminism, and the Politics of Radical Democracy. Stanford:

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          2001.

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          Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Cambridge: Harvard UP,

          2000.

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    [1]  Although their work does not concern abortion, some scholars think that a study of the first right-to-life issue is needed.  For example, Nicholas Dames responded by email that his 2001 monograph, Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1870, “contains nothing pertaining to abortion.  An interesting possibility, but I can’t think (offhand) of any recent scholarship on the issue” of abortion.  Similarly, Edvige Giunta confirmed in an email that her 2002 monograph, Writing with an Accent: Contemporary Italian American Women Authors, also does not concern abortion, “though it certainly deserves attention”.

    [2]  For example, the introduction to the 2000 monograph A History of Women’s Writing in Italy, edited by Letizia Panizza and Sharon Wood, contains only the briefest reference to abortion: “Abortion was the second issue which drew women in their hundreds of thousands in a campaign of information and civil disobedience, and was finally legalised in 1978, thus largely ending a hidden but widely felt scandal” (8-9).

    [3]  See, for example, Kopaczynski’s 1994 article “Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex: Laying the Groundwork for Abortion” (Cithara 33.2: 18-29).  I am especially grateful that Kopaczynski responded to an urgent email query of mine recently, when I sought to determine further the bases of Beauvoir’s support for abortion.  In that email Kopaczynski writes: “I have checked the French original; even there, Beauvoir does not give any indication precisely where she got the quote supposedly from St. Augustine”.  Beauvoir may have inaccurately tried to recall some material from other works.  Kopaczynski suggests that “if it be from St. Augustine, I would opine that the most likely source is his ‘De nuptiis et concupiscentia.’ Another possibility would be from one of his sermons”.

    [4]  The continuation of this paragraph suggests the source for the abortionists’ version of the right to privacy:

                        Sarah Weddington, an unemployed law school graduate who belonged to a consciousness-raising group in Austin, Texas, investigated the legal risks of providing an underground abortion referral service.  Her research revealed the possibility of a legal challenge to laws against abortion based on the right to privacy. (202)

    [5]  One thinks immediately of Birthright, because, beginning with one office in Toronto in 1968, the organization expanded first throughout the metropolitan Toronto area, then advanced into various Canadian provinces.  In 1972 Birthright expanded internationally by opening an office in Atlanta, though the first chartered chapter was established in Chicago.  Louise Summerhill, Birthright’s founder, travelled to South Africa in the late 1970s to set up chapters.  Birthright was “one of the only volunteer organizations in South Africa which helped whites, coloureds and blacks indiscriminately”, according to the founder’s daughter, Ms. Louise R. Summerhill.  By the early 1980s Birthright expanded to a total of over five hundred offices in North America.  Moreover, there are numerous other pregnancy service organizations which either modeled themselves after Birthright or expanded services beyond Birthright’s original platform.

            In a now-dated 1998 telephone interview, Summerhill estimates conservatively that two million calls were received by Birthright affiliates.  Birthright now receives 50,000 calls annually through its hotline alone (1-800-550-4900).  She also estimates that there are about five hundred affiliates, but the number is constantly changing.  There are about seventy affiliates in Canada, 450 in the United States, and others in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, and Hong Kong.  Although Birthright affiliates are not on every continent, Summerhill states that the group has helped women on all continents through various contacts.  Finally, since confidentiality is such a strong factor, few records are kept in the offices; thus, Birthright volunteers do not know how many babies were born to women who visited Birthright.

            To put closure on this matter, I asked Evans by email whether her work says “anything about counter‑abortion groups, such as Birthright”.  Her emailed reply was “I deal mainly with the pre‑Roe V. Wade era (which means I do not deal with groups like Birthright).”

    [6]  Research by Jack and Barbara Willke, summarizing legislative activity on abortion, is noteworthy here.  Thirty-three states “voted against permitting abortion for any reason except to save the mother’s life” (157).  Moreover, these authors note that

                        In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, pro-abortionists challenged the constitutionality of laws forbidding abortion in most states.  In about 1/3 of the decisions, such laws were declared unconstitutional and varying degrees of abortions were permitted.  (Most were states that had already legalized abortion[.)]  Two thirds of the state courts[,] however, declared existing laws to be constitutional. (157)

    [7]  In rather lugubrious language Ewa Plonowska Ziarek argues along the same lines in her 2001 monograph An Ethics of Dissensus: Postmodernity, Feminism, and the Politics of Radical Democracy:

                        If we approach sexual difference as the disappropriative labor of the negative revealing the incompleteness of the subject and the asymmetry of sexual relations, then the possibility of all ethical encounters, including erotic ones, depends not only on embodiment but, more specifically, on the condition of being a sexed subject. (221)

    [8]  This passage compares with Hauerwas’ 1981 commentary on a claim by Rawls that “the family may be a barrier to equal chances between individuals” (277).  Finally, Crotty’s claim about the force of the family’s influence on the individual reflects current sociological and communication theorist definitions of the term.  Judy C. Pearson and Paul E. Nelson’s 2000 monograph, An Introduction to Human Communication: Understanding and Sharing, 8th ed., defines “family” as “an organized, naturally occurring, relational, transactional group, usually occupying a common living space over an extended time period and possessing a confluence of interpersonal images that evolve through the exchange of meaning over time” (182).

    [9]  I do not think a pun was intended.

    [10]  Despite such an overall biased approach towards right-to-lifers, Harding does supply some objective details about pro-life history within the born-again communities.  She states that Evangelical involvement in the right-to-life movement can be attributed to “three overlapping stages and venues”:

                        The first was the…internal debate among evangelical scholars and intellectual leaders that heated up after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision….  The second stage, the effort to convert conservative Protestant leaders more generally to a stricter anti-abortion position, was launched in 1975 when Billy Graham convened a two-day leadership meeting to “determine a proper Biblical response to abortion-on-demand”….  Perhaps the most important event in this second stage was the production and distribution in 1978 of the five-part film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race?.  The film and an accompanying book with the same title were written by Francis Schaeffer IV and C. Everett Koop…. (191)

    [11]  See, for example, Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray’s 1997 dictionary of literary terms widely used in the classroom, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms.  Citing the work of French feminist Julia Kristeva, the editors note that it is essential to understand that “feminine or feminist writing that resists or refuses participation in ‘masculine’ discourse risks being politically marginalized in a society which still is, after all, patriarchal” (123).  David H. Richter’s 1998 anthology of literary criticism, The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends (2nd ed.), begins with the claims that “patriarchal misogyny, the canon, and women’s writing are key issues for the critics” whose writings are represented in the chapter on feminist literary theory.

            Since its publication in 2000, another popular summary of contemporary literary theories appears in the anthology Literature for Composition: Essays, Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 5th ed.  The editors, Sylvan Barnet, Morton Berman, William Burto, William E. Cain, and Marcia Stubbs, declare that

                        Feminist critics rightly point out that men have established the conventions of literature and that men have established the canon–that is, the body of literature that is said to be worth reading.  Speaking a bit broadly, in this patriarchal or male-dominated body of literature, men are valued for being strong and active, whereas women are expected to be weak and passive. (509)

    [12]  To her credit, Ginsburg reiterated this axiom in another work on the same subject.  In her article “The Case of Mistaken Identity: Problems in Representing Women on the Right”, published in the 1993 collection When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography, Ginsburg affirms that “However divided the field of sociocultural anthropology has become, Malinowski’s axiom–that the ethnographer’s task is to represent the native’s point of view–is still widely accepted” (163).

    [13]  I would like to thank Southern Illinois University Press for granting permission to print this poem.  For full bibliographic information, please see the Baggott entry in the Works Cited.

    [14]  The rest of the online article is worth quoting in its entirety:

                        The disturbing results of the recent poll by Luntz Research Associates found that 84 per cent of the professors supported Al Gore in the elections, with only 9 per cent supporting President Bush.  Only one of five professors attended religious services at least once a week. Forty‑eight percent said they rarely or never attended a religious service.  Analyzing the data, writer Maggie Gallagher warns, “academia has as rigid a hierarchy of status as the military, and a handful of top schools not only set the tone for the nation’s academics, but they also train and influence the next generation of American leaders.  Ideological uniformity is dangerous to the primary intellectual mission of any university: the pursuit of knowledge. How much will professors of (look at the list)‑‑government, political science, law, philosophy, social sciences, economics, sociology‑‑overlook and fail to explore if their work takes place in a relatively insular, parochial intellectual community, free from radically competing points of view?”  Zero per cent of the professors polled identified themselves as conservative. Six percent said they were somewhat conservative, 23 percent were moderates, 30 percent somewhat liberal and 34 percent liberal, with a margin of error of 8 percent.

Categories
Papers

Adolescent Fiction on Abortion: Developing a Paradigm and Pedagogic Responses from Literature Spanning Three Decades

I.        Justification for This Study and Criteria for Novels

          Consider these following possible first lines:

          “It was a dark and stormy night….”

          “The inspector looked at the knife protruding from the back of the deceased….”

          “Tiffany wondered whether she would ever meet the man of her dreams….”

          Each opening line indicates in what genre the work of fiction can be categorized.  For Gothic fiction, for example, the paradigm seems to be that there must be a dark, ruined castle.  There must be a heroine or some other damsel in distress.  There must be a sinister presence.  The opening section, if not the opening paragraph or the opening line, must address certain meteorological circumstances (accounting for the derivative line ridiculed in much fiction “It was a dark and stormy night…”).  And there must be love.  [1]

          A detective novel will situate the reader immediately so that he or she will be hooked into reading about how someone has been murdered.

          For a romance–whether it is a Harlequin or a Danielle Steel or a paperback which features a Fabio-type [2] stud on the cover holding a sweet virginal and buxom young woman lest she fall–certain other criteria of the paradigm must be met (including some already facetiously stated here).  [3]  Although feminism has empowered women to unparalleled degrees in the last thirty years, the contemporary romance is still much fashionable with young American women and appeals to them for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps the appeal of the glossy-covered paperback romances indicates just how successful the romance paradigm is in the marketplace of ideas.  Women buy these books or borrow them from the libraries because they follow a basic pattern: girl meets boy; boy and girl fall in love; girl and boy fall out of love; boy and girl are tortured for a time; and finally girl and boy fall in love again and live happily ever after (whether that living is done in a sacramental union or not is up to the individual writer’s tastes and religious and moral persuasions).

          Before analyzing details of a possible paradigm of the typical adolescent abortion novel, we must consider an important presumption of this paper.  Why should we even care what our students read when they were teens when they are now in college or university?  After all, we who are on the faculties of colleges and universities have much more important matters to lecture about and cannot worry about what our students read when they were still teens.  While there are definite civil rights and biological rights involved in answering this question, I will propose a more pedagogic response, based on some recent classroom experiences with adult abortion fiction.  The following example of literature discussion will demonstrate why we should care.

          Recently, while teaching Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants”, the inability of the students to sympathize with the female main character, Jig, was striking.  First, of course, few students know on an initial reading that the story is about abortion.  Secondly, even after a traditional New Critical close reading, few students came to understand how tortured Jig feels about being coerced into having an abortion.  This inability to appreciate Jig’s anxiety is further complicated for the student because there are no “stage directions”–markers which indicate, for example, with what tone of voice a line of dialogue should be read–to help the student understand certain key passages.  Consider the following lines from the story.

                   “You don’t have to be afraid.  I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”

                   “So have I,” said the girl.  “And afterward they were all so happy.”

          …

                   “Do you feel better?” he asked.

                   “I feel fine,” she said.  “There’s nothing wrong with me.  I feel fine.”  (Hemingway 322, 324)

These lines can be read in multiple ways, especially because, although the prime marker is one of hyberbaton used in the first sequence and none in the last two lines of the story, the author himself gives no indication what words should be emphasized more to indicate the tone of the character’s voice.  For example, Jig’s last line can be read so that emphasis is given on the first-person pronoun: “I [meaning not you, American man, but I, your lover] feel fine” or “There’s nothing wrong with me [meaning this pregnancy is a problem for you, American man, but not for me; I want the child]”.  With such emphasis, the entire result of this story moves from life-negating to life-affirming.

          Some mechanism prohibiting satisfactory interpretation similarly operated in my literature classes.  Nearly every student presumed that Jig acquiesced in the American man’s effort to force her into abortion.  [4]  When I asked my students if they have ever read anything like Hemingway’s story before, the inevitable negative answer made me ask further: what did these new college students, most of whom are just out of high school, read before?

          I realize that was a loaded question.  As we know not only from our own experience in the classroom but also from Hirsch’s seminal work, the databank of “common knowledge” is disappearing among American students.  [5]  E=mc2?  Huh?  The Madonna as opposed to Madonna?  Wha?  When did World War II begin for the British Empire?  Duh…  Similarly, while it can be argued that what most of my students, especially the ones from government schools, said to me may be true (that they never read a book through all of high school), I thought that they must be reading something.  The libraries continue to buy paperback novels geared for teens.  These novels enjoy high circulation.  And many of these novels are about abortion.  And so I began to investigate abortion as a topic in adolescent fiction.

          The novels which I will discuss in this paper have been selected on the bases of four criteria.  First, the novels must primarily concern abortion as an actuality or potentiality within the plot development.  This necessary condition excludes many other novels which may happen to include teens as subordinate characters but whose true protagonists and antagonists are adults whose actions affect (and may even effect) the actions of young people.

          Secondly, these novels must be established teen fiction.  The novels I have selected have stood perhaps the most important criterion which demarcates whether a work is to be canonized, the test of time.  Granted, while the issue of abortion has a relatively longer history in the adult American literary canon (one thinks of Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night published in 1934 or of William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms of 1939), for teenagers the abortion issue did not hit young adult fictional concerns until the early 1970s.  It is striking that adolescent fiction should have had such a delayed reaction from the swarm of controversy as represented in adult novels on abortion.  And yet there may be definite reasons to account for this delayed reaction.  As Zena Sutherland, a commentator of children’s books writes:

                    Many children today have seen more violence and more sexual titillation on television and in the news than children knew of in the past; almost every child has heard rough language that earlier generations never heard–or didn’t hear until they were adults.  Not all of these issues affect every child directly, but almost every child knows about them.  These facets of contemporary society have appeared in adult literature and, following a pattern of long standing, after a time, they began to appear in books for adolescents, then in books for younger children.  Beginning in the late 1960s, one taboo after another was broken in children’s literature.  (15)

Thus, whatever is meant by the “pattern of long standing”, it seems that the world of adult fiction was the testing ground for explosive issues which eventually filtered into the adolescent category.  Furthermore, Ramsdell affirms that reading interests of teens changed in the late 1960s, stating:

                    During the 1940s, 1950s, and well into the 1960s, most of the female teenage population was eagerly devouring the light romances….  Many of them, of course, also dealt with the more substantial issues….  However, the general tone was always innocent and upbeat, and serious topics such as divorce, pregnancy, sex, marriage, drug and alcohol abuse, or death were rarely discussed.  With the advent of the “problem novel” in the late 1960s, things did an about-face.  Romance was out and reality was in.  Typically, these realistic, often urban-set novels reflected the turbulent times, and social themes such as alienation, isolation, abuse, pregnancy, death, drugs, prejudice, poverty, divorce, injustice, and sex were the rule.  (212)

          Thirdly, the novels to be discussed are popular not only with the library community (especially young adult librarians whose recommendations often determine whether the books will be purchased for public and school library collections).  [6]  These novels are also popular with the readers themselves in terms of theme.  Teen readers want to read about the lives of such experiential-based characters.  As Diana Tixier Herald indicates in her study of teen reading preferences in her recent book, Teen Genreflecting: “Even with the escalating rate of teen pregnancy and the prevalence of teens keeping their babies, teens still want to read about how others cope with the situations caused by early parenthood” (86).  A subdivisional point of this criterion is that, with one significant exception, all novels had to be American in production or authorship.  If the United States is the greatest advocate of abortion legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy, then studying how American teens respond to abortion fiction may suggest what tone future voters will bring to political resolution of this biological rights question.  [7]

          Finally, the titles I will examine will be what I consider the best for either the span of years they cover in the real world of abortion politics or for the subject matter it expounds.

II.       Paradigm for Teen Abortion Novels

          To begin a discussion of the novels, I propose that a template can be helpful.  As there are various genres of fiction addressing adult reading interests, each of which has a necessary template, I argue that adolescent fiction on abortion has a template, a paradigm, which orders the novel, the world being depicted, and the characters who move within that world. [8]  More importantly, perhaps my paradigm will convey some common themes in teen abortion fiction to which we in higher academia can respond.

                     Paradigmatic Elements of Adolescent Abortion Fiction

1)  A teenaged girl (unmarried, seventeen years old, and irreligious) reluctantly discovers that she is a mother.

          a)  The young mother usually can recount several previous sexual adventures with the father of the child.

          b)  She has difficulty telling not only the father of the child (who is usually the same age and equally irreligious), but also her family about the pregnancy.

          c)  She expresses fears that she will be rejected by the father of the child and her family.

2)  The reaction of the teen father to the pregnancy has three immediate effects.

          a)  He usually accuses the mother of not having used contraception effectively.

          b)  Either not thinking or not aware about alternatives to abortion, he may renounce his child completely; he may also renounce the mother herself.

          c)  The teen father will either encourage or pressure the mother of his child to have an abortion.

3)  The mother agonizes over deciding whether to abort or to give birth.

          a)  She sees concrete instances of young mothers who are burdened with their newborns and few examples of young mothers who are happy.

          b)  She thinks that her decision on abortion is constrained by medical or legal limits regarding when abortions can be performed.

4)  The decision regarding abortion can generate two significant outcomes for the mother.

          a)  If the mother aborts, especially if the abortion was arranged by either her parents or others, the mother immediately regrets the choice; the relationship with the father inevitably deteriorates, and the novel will end either clearly negatively or ambiguously.

          b)  If she does not abort, the mother will become more mature (whether she decides to keep the baby or put him or her up for adoption); novels which depict that this choice has been exercised will invariably end positively.

          Two points must be remembered while I read this paper.  I will group all subdivisional aspects of a Roman numeral level from my outline together for easier discussion.  Moreover, the functions of each primary level of the outline could be collapsed into four dependent phrases: Roman numeral I: the Teenaged Girl Becomes a Mother; Roman numeral II: the Father’s Reaction; Roman numeral III: the Mother’s Decision; and Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision.  [9]  While there are details in individual novels which I will consider which do not fit the paradigm exactly, most novels on abortion for adolescents which I have read and researched generally reinforce the structure presented above to a surprising degree.

          Now to analyze specific fictional works.

III.  Analyses of the Novels

          While the decade of the 1960s offers few examples of fiction solely devoted to teenagers dealing with abortion, there are several good examples which can be considered a prelude to the format of most other teen abortion novels.  One of these is Shirley Ann Grau’s The House on Coliseum Street (1961) which depicts what can happen to a young woman who is wealthy, aware that she can attract many men, and who is sexually promiscuous.

Roman numeral I: the “Teen” Mother

          Although she is twenty-years-old (27), three more years than what the paradigm would suggest is the standard, Joan’s behavior is reminiscent of an adolescent.  She is unable to develop social contacts, even to the point of taking an obscure job in the library far away from other people where she attends college (71). In fact, Joan’s self-esteem is so low that she manifests masochistic tendencies (51-2).  She is unmarried, a lapsed Catholic (8), and is reluctant to acknowledge that she might be pregnant.  Joan has had a variety of sexual experiences: not only does she engage in intercourse with her steady boyfriend (83), but she also becomes attracted to a wilder type of man, whom she later discovers is a professor at the college she attends (115).  Although her mother asks her if she is being “careful” (86), the reader discovers much later in the story that Joan had been using a diaphragm as her main means of contraception (219).

Roman numeral II: the Father’s Reaction

          When Joan becomes pregnant, Michael places blame for the pregnancy on her, saying that he thought she would be “careful” (124).  In many ways, their conversation about the three ways to handle the pregnancy is presented on the page in ways similar to Hemingway’s story.  Using clipped dialogue, the man is for the abortion while the woman expresses some doubts (125-7).

Roman numeral III: the Mother’s Decision

          Although there is little to suggest that she suffers agony in the decision regarding abortion, Joan is able to personalize the unborn child, even though dehumanizing terms are simultaneously used.  While she refers to the unborn baby as “the child” in one place, she later says, “it would look something like a shrimp, or a piece of seaweed” (119).  Joan acknowledges that the unborn baby is “another generation inside of me.  A tiny point of life, a floating point of life” (138).

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

          Since this novel is written in medias res, the reader learns early on that Joan’s mother arranged for the abortion (9); Joan herself derisively thinks how organized her mother became to make arrangements for it (132-3).  Although the problems attending the abortion decision seemed to have been lessened for her since her mother and aunt were the ones who planned the abortion, Joan suffers greatly after the abortion is performed.

          Amazingly, once the abortion had been performed, Joan “had forgotten to tell Michael”, the father of the child (141); later, however, he was happy that she had the abortion (153).

          With the beginnings of what we would now call post-abortion syndrome, Joan minimizes the effect of the abortion by literally minimizing the aborted child: he or she becomes “a tiny speck of a child” (154).  A few pages later she is having regrets about the abortion (156).  Elsewhere, she wonders what would have been done “with the little shrimp child” (174).  She cannot eradicate the memory of the child, though.  Joan still recalls the baby (204) and assumes that “the hurt will stop when I’m pregnant” (217); many pages later she still thinks of the aborted child (241).

          Joan’s social life deteriorates considerably.  She skips classes and becomes no longer interested in her steady boyfriend Fred (176), who later confronts her about the abortion (178-80).  Joan tries to get Michael fired from his teaching position at the college by saying he arranged for the abortion (235-8).  She does this to get revenge against Michael, who now has not only merely one new girlfriend (a younger student), but also a second new girlfriend, Joan’s younger sister.  The ending of the story shows the effect of Joan’s life destroyed: after she tells the dean of the college about Michael’s supposedly urging her to have an abortion, she knows she has to “leave”; at novel’s end Joan is symbolically locked out of her house, sitting on the porch (242).

          Winifred Madison’s Growing Up in a Hurry (1973) is the story of sixteen-year-old Karen who develops a romance with Steve, a Japanese-American boy.  Published in the same year as the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, this novel clearly illustrates the paradigm in action.

Roman numeral I: the Teen Mother

          The circumstances of the protagonist in this novel are worth examination.  Karen is a sixteen-year-old (3) who is on a first-name basis with her parents: her slightly aggressive mother, Martha, and her more congenial father, Ross (5-6).  Karen has a stutter (8) and probably because of this suffers low self-esteem (11).  Karen’s older sister is using the pill (40) and her mother is too busy socially to be involved with her (65-6).  Steve, Karen’s boyfriend, is depicted as an enlightened individual who has seen more of the world than the sheltered Karen.  He brings her to visit his friends as they do drugs (76-7); he even encourages her to attend a “population control” talk in their community (83).  Halfway through the novel they engage in sexual intercourse (96-7).  Karen’s sense of religion is displayed when she thanks “Whoever” that her period came (99).  Unfortunately, however, Karen later realizes that she is pregnant and calls it a “Terrible Discovery” (120-1).

Roman numeral II: the Father’s Reaction

          Before their sexual encounter, Steve suggests that Karen go to a “clinic” for “protection” (97).  She lacks the courage to enter it, however (99-100).  Although she asserts that she is using “the rhythm thing” (109), Karen is careless about “marking calendars” (118).

          When informed about the pregnancy, Steve at first feels male pride in being a father, but immediately thereafter suggests that she have an abortion (124-5).  Steve commands Karen to go to a clinic for a pregnancy test; if positive, she should get an abortion.

Roman numeral III: the Mother’s Decision

          Karen’s experiences with babies is not positive; she sees a sad sixteen-year-old with a baby (47).  Later in the novel, there is a scene of a mother and her child intruding on the conversation (126-7).

          And yet, Karen’s language describing the unborn child shows her ambiguity regarding the humanity of the unborn.  Often Karen will identify the unborn child as a baby (125).  In contrast, the child is called “a Thing, an Encumbrance”, or simply “it” (131).  At one point Karen admits that “it” is “my baby” (159).

          Karen decides on abortion and calls an abortionist (133-4).  She recalls stories and stereotypes about “abortion butchers” (138).  Significantly, the first abortionist she goes to avoids the word “abortion” (142).  The first estimate she receives is that the abortion will cost 300$.  Unable to pay such a large amount, she contemplates suicide (144).  A second abortionist talks about “wanted” life (161) and ultimately convinces her to have one.  She is helped in her decision by her mother who, although personally against abortion, thinks that it is the right decision for Karen (probably because news of Karen’s pregnancy would be a social embarrassment if it reached the mother’s circle of friends) (151).  At another point, Karen presumes she may need to go to a psychiatrist for approval for the abortion.  It is this fact in the novel which can indicate that either the action is pre-1973 or the characters think that lack of a psychiatric barrier could prohibit an abortion being done on a teenager (161).

          More importantly, after deciding on abortion, Karen thinks that Steve will fade from her life (148).  She states that she would have turned back from going to the abortionist if Steve had been there to stop her (157).

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

          After Karen has the abortion, the immediate reaction is sorrow, not even the presumed joy that the “problem” has been resolved.  In fact, a couple of pages later, the novel ends with this note of dejection (166-8).

          Originally published in Sweden in 1973 and then published by Viking Press, Gunnel Beckman’s Mia Alone (1975) has enjoyed continuous popularity since its debut, perhaps for two reasons.  First, the cultural milieu of Mia Alone does not differ as radically as another multicultural novel would.  Secondly, coming onto the publishing scene so soon after Roe v. Wade made the subject matter of the novel contemporary, meaningful, and interesting for young readers.

Roman numeral I: the Teenaged Girl Becomes a Mother

          Seventeen-year-old (56) Mia is faced with the difficult situation of not knowing, but presuming that she is pregnant.  Her attraction to her lover Jan is based on physical attributes primarily.  Mia had slept with him five times (29-30).  Several pages later, the reader discovers that they had used condoms (49). Much later in the progression of the novel, Mia’s mother asks her daughter whether she even knows about contraceptives (120).

          The indicators for Mia’s religious sense are clear.  Mia views the ban against sex before marriage as sanctimonious (37) and later in the novel she even questions the existence of right and wrong (39).  Similarly, to match her lack of a religious sense, Jan is described as an atheist, even though his father is a minister (75).  The closest one comes to determining the ethics and morals by which these young people operate is in a statement contrasting two world views: Mia refers to “the Christian’s talk” in distinction to her family’s ethics (106).  One presumes that the family’s ethical sense is devoid of a Christianizing influence.  Thus, for example, Mia is able to assert that using contraceptives was “a sin” in a time which she designates only as “before”, but that now financial and social exigencies not only suggest contraceptive use but require it (40).

Roman numeral II: the Father’s Reaction

          Jan has little to say about the possible pregnancy.  Although he (and presumably Mia) have had sex education since age five (35-6), Jan had been specifically taught that abortion was murder (51-2).  Jan’s purported sense of respect for the unborn child, then, functions in this novel only to be an agent of distress to the young mother.

Roman numeral III: the Mother’s Decision

          Babies are not a good subject or influence for Mia.  Since her agony over being pregnant occurs around the Christmas season, the holy day itself takes on an emblematic function in the novel. Since Mia’s exclamation “If only it hadn’t been Christmas” is repeated twice (16), the reader’s attention is drawn to the importance not only of the season, but also of the main character’s reaction to it; the reader would thus question such a seemingly hopeless response.  It is significant that the author has Mia note someone else’s screaming baby (15).  It is even more interesting that Mia says that she hates Christmas (43) and doesn’t say what Christmas is all about when she relates her “distaste” of it (78).

          Family influences further complicate Mia’s thinking about abortion.  Mia’s parents are separating.  Her father is openly anti-life (103), and Mia’s mother specifically states that she thought about abortion when she was carrying her (21).  Her mother’s negativity extends to the condition of all women; she says that women are in a “rat trap” (15).  Moreover, Mia’s grandmother, whom she respects greatly, asserts that women’s liberation for her does not include abortion (64-5).

          Mia displays the ambivalence which is typical for young mothers in these novels.  A three-week fetus is described as looking “horrid” (42).  Mia’s response to a classroom situation-ethics type question regarding the survival of a human baby is “God, what a mess” (40).  Abortion for Mia is equated with “having it taken away” (94).  Only the mother is viewed as “the living person” (106).  However, despite her lack of a religious sense, Mia identifies the unborn child with distinctively humanizing terms which the omniscient narrator supplies to help the reader understand what’s going on in Mia’s mind.  Mia, or so the narrator reports, calls the possible unborn baby a “a child, which was perhaps already inside her” (21) or the “possible child” (53).  Not only does Mia’s family compound her agony, but it seems as though this same omniscient narrator also aggravates her: the narrator asks Mia questions about abortion similar to those offered in clinic situations (41).  In this way, the narrator of the novel functions as the catalyst for dialogue on the issue of abortion.

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

          Fortunately for Mia, however, a possible untimely pregnancy is ruled out, almost like a deus ex machina: Mia’s period comes a month late (113).  [10]  One of her first reactions is happiness that she doesn’t have to make a decision about abortion (114).  However, Mia is committed not to make the same mistake (whether that is getting involved sexually or merely risking becoming pregnant again) in a passage which is strikingly repetitious and adamant in its resolution:

                    It was as if she would never again be as she had been before, childish like that, and unaware and credulous.  Never, never ever again would she expose herself to this.  Never.  Never ever take a single risk again.  That’s what it felt like.  (117)

As a final consequence of her possible pregnancy, Mia turns against Jan (121).

          Although Rosa Guy’s Edith Jackson (1978) contains writing which drags in some places (92-3), the novel provides insights into the factors which may persuade an African-American teen mother to abort, including financial, familial, and distorted sexual concerns.

Roman numeral I: the Teen Mother

          Written in first-person, Edith is a seventeen-year-old African-American (4) whose mother died from tuberculosis and whose father abandoned the family shortly before (29-30).  Edith plans to quit school to raise her siblings (35).  One other important figure in her life, her minister Reverend Jenkins, sexually assaults her (41-2).  Edith’s sister Bessie is similarly being sexually aroused by “Uncle” Daniels (the boyfriend or live-in lover of Mother Peters, who is Edith’s foster mother) (60-1).

          Another woman who shows great interest in Edith is Mrs. Bates who tells Edith that she doesn’t “count” (53).  It is Mrs. Bates who introduces the idea of “choice” to Edith–but here choice merely means intellectual progress (54-5).  Later in the novel, Mrs. Bates says that Edith should be “a person who can make choices and fight for them” (57).

          Edith’s attitudes toward sex and children are displayed in a few key utterances.  She says that her parents should not have had more kids after her sister Bessie was born (74).  And, although Edith helps with the abandoned children in the institution to which she is ultimately sent after her stay with another foster family is terminated (98-100), her positive caring attitude toward one particular abandoned child is tempered by a social worker at the institution who says that the “luxury of choices” is denied to black children (103-4).  This nuance of “choice” can be balanced by another statement said by Mrs. Bates regarding Edith’s sister’s being adopted by white Jews (it is a “wise choice” in her opinion) (129-30).

          Edith’s first sexual encounter with any man is with James, the thirty-two-year-old nephew of Mrs. Bates (139-41).  Even after he returns to his aunt’s house after an extended absence, his first thought seems to be to get physical with Edith (134).  Edith becomes pregnant by him (145).

Roman numeral II: the Father’s Reaction

          When she discovers she is pregnant, Edith wants to tell James to share the good news with him, hoping that he will want to marry her (154).  James’ response is anything but altruistic.  While Edith just wants to talk with him about getting married, James rushes her to a friend’s apartment where he tries to force sex with her (156).

Roman numeral III: the Mother’s Decision

          In the absence of a strong moral foundation, Edith can rely only on the opinions of others regarding abortion.  Mrs. Bates’ daughter Debra thinks that Edith should have an abortion (145); in fact, Debra asserts that abortions are common among her college friends (147).  Ruby, the sister of Edith’s best friend Phyllisia, is sick in bed but the friend casually comments that she “only had an abortion” (175).  When she goes to a welfare office to seek financial help with having the baby, Edith is faced with a couple of episodes of children who are certainly not angelic.  A belligerent child in the office waiting room disturbs her (182).  More negative images of children immediately follow this scene (184).

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

          This novel ends with Edith deciding to have an abortion; she calls Mrs. Bates who will be with her during it (186-7).  However, her decision to kill the unborn child is obviously negative: when she makes the fateful phone call to her lover’s aunt, Edith does so haltingly, stuttering and stammering in her attempt to get the words out.

          Harriett Luger’s Lauren (1979) is a good example of teen abortion fiction closing out the first decade of abortion legal in the United States.

Roman numeral I: the Teen Mother

          Lauren’s home life presents great difficulties for the heroine of this novel.  Her parents fight a lot (6); later in the novel, in one particularly demeaning argument, they suggest that they have other romantic involvements.  In fact, Lauren’s mother intimates that she got married because she was pregnant (147-8).

Roman numeral II: the Father’s Reaction

          Lauren’s male friends are typical adolescents ogling sex pictures and who claim to be familiar with sex.  The reaction of Lauren’s boyfriend Donnie on hearing she is pregnant is to command her to go to Planned Parenthood (19).  He has a chance to obtain an academic scholarship, and, since he does not want to jeopardize his chances at obtaining it and she hasn’t followed through with his first recommendation, he commands her again to do something (23-4).  Donnie asserts that he will “stick by” Lauren (39).  They fight, however, when she thinks he’s more concerned about his chemistry test than her or the baby (40-1).

Roman numeral III: the Mother’s Decision

          Lauren’s terminology used to describe the unborn child is typically ambivalent as in other adolescent novels.  Abortion is described euphemistically as “taking care of” pregnancy (4).  She calls the baby a “worm” (21-2).  During an exam, Lauren thinks that the baby could be a “monster” in retribution for her “sin” (34).  Lauren calls the unborn child a “ghost” and an “it” (67).  At one point she calls the baby a “little bastard” and, to “get even” with it, she thinks she will “let [the baby] be born” (104). Despite such dehumanizing language, she knows that the unborn child is a baby (29).  Not only that, but she thinks of the baby as a person: “a me, an I” (154).  After an attempted suicide, Lauren’s changing attitude is expressed through the omniscient narrator who calls the fetus a “tiny creature”, a positive sign that the humanity of the unborn child is secure now that Lauren chose life for herself and, by implication, saved the child from death as well (128).

          Lauren made the decision to give birth to the child after some difficult forces tried to persuade her to do otherwise.  Not only was she urged to abort by Donnie; even the first thought of her two best friends was that she should get an abortion (25).  Even an abortion counselor tries to dissuade her against abortion for half an hour (36-7).  Her mother wants her to have an abortion (43-4).  Donnie’s parents wanted her to have an abortion (47).  When she left her house, planning to have an abortion, she simultaneously thought of the possibility of raising the child herself (53).  Lauren wonders if she was too far along in the pregnancy, “too late”, to have one performed (62).

          Fortunately, if it were not for the positive experience of meeting two poor mothers who decided to give birth to their babies instead of having abortions, Lauren could have been just another abortion statistic (56).  Liz, one of the two mothers who befriend her and with whom she stays after she left home, says Lauren “didn’t do anything wrong” and asserts Lauren’s right to keep the baby (69).  After a long interlude (the second “book” within the book) with the poor women Liz and Dawn, she attempts suicide by drowning (105).  After Lauren returns home, the reader learns she had been away a month.

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

          As incredible as it sounds, coming so soon after her suicide attempt, Lauren’s parents (and Donnie’s parents) still want her to have an abortion (111-2).  What’s even more incredible is that Lauren falls in love with Donnie again (122-3).  Donnie is adamant, however, in not wanting their baby (123-4).  Donnie’s response to Lauren’s query–“how can you love me and not our baby?”–is matched by his saying that he feels forced into marriage (124).

          Eventually, Donnie loses the scholarship (143).  Although Lauren eventually decides to give the baby up for adoption, she does this because she has matured: she wants what’s best for the baby (156-7).  Moreover, it is suggested that Lauren, no longer an adolescent girl, has now found her own self, has become a woman (156).  This new mature attitude is manifested when she chastises her younger sister for engaging in premarital sex; Lauren reacts furiously, telling her sister that she should not engage in such behavior (151-2).

          A. M. Stephensen’s Unbirthday (1982) continues the trend of teen abortion novels whose characters have a definite pro-abortion bias.

Roman numeral I: the Teen Mother

          Although the teen mother in this novel and her boyfriend had used condoms “religiously” (8), Louisa Billingham discovers she is pregnant because her period is late (7).  Louisa describes herself in this largely first-person narrative as a girl who is “as popular as a python with acne” (14).  The opinion which she and Charlie have about sex is easy to summarize: they think sex should be for immediate gratification (22); she even mocks her parents’ cautions against engaging in sex and other rash behavior (26).

Roman numeral II: the Father’s Reaction

          Charlie does not seem to have any significant role in this novel except to engage in sex with Louisa and to crack frequent jokes.  In fact, the title of the novel can be found in one such joke: having an abortion is an “unbirthday” (82).  Driving her to the abortion, Charlie’s humor distracts Louisa from the reality of what she will do (89-90).  After she has her abortion, Charlie and Jane (see below) sing “happy unbirthday” to her (107).

Roman numeral III: the Mother’s Decision

          Louisa ridicules books in her library which espouse a pro-maternal position (29).  Unlike other abortion novels, where images of babies are skewered so that the main character can see how bad it would be to be a mother, in this novel Louisa purposely denigrates the positive images of babies she comes across (51).

          Louisa ruminates over her abortion decision clandestinely.  The baby is “the biggest secret” in her life (53); she rejects and ridicules advice to tell her parents about the pregnancy (54-5).  Both she and Charlie think that abortion is the best solution to this untimely pregnancy; moreover, he suggests that they do not use the word “killing” to denote abortion since the baby is an “it” (56).

          Louisa’s secrecy is accomplished with help from a Women’s Center staffperson at a college in the area, significantly named Jane.  This affable feminist activist plays an important role in the novel.  She relates her own abortion episode to Louisa.  According to Jane, the word “abortion” is strictly negative and the alternative “termination of pregnancy” is to her even worse–an honest comment from such a strident feminist activist (63).  Jane describes the pre-Roe period as bad because women did not have the option of abortion (65).  Jane distorts the views of her pro-life mother (65-6).  She relates how she thought that she “could get help from Planned Parenthood” (72) and how euphoric she was over her abortion (72).  Jane’s narrative regarding her abortion ends with the phrase “The End” and seems to the reader as though the abortion is the same as a fairy tale or as innocent and simple as any piece of fiction (73).  It is shortly after this that Louisa decides on having an abortion (77-8).  The abortion itself is “secret”: the actions of the aspirator are described, not the actual killing (101).

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

          Louisa herself says at first that there were no problems after the abortion.  She then qualifies that by saying that there may be one: Charlie resents her friendship with Jane.  After more narratorial thought, Louisa thinks that there might even be another: the secrecy involved regarding her abortion (108-9).  By the last lines of the novel, the reader can presume that her affection for Charlie is slipping as she becomes involved in feminist activism; she records that she is working against “a powerful local congressman” who is “one of the sponsors of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion” (112).

          The last one-line paragraph in the novel is one of those statements which proverbially speaks volumes in four words.  Speaking about the congressman she’s trying to unseat, Louisa says, “He says it’s immoral” (111-2).  Such a statement, being in third person, not only shows that Louisa has now distanced herself from moral and ethical statements, but also makes it seem that she herself can no longer argue the morality of abortion.

          Norma Klein’s Beginners’ Love (1983) is one of many novels which depicts the abortion decision from the unique perspective of the father.

Roman numeral I: the Teenaged Girl Becomes a Mother

          While the focus of this first-person novel is the hero’s reaction to his girlfriend’s pregnancy, the reactions of the young mother are reflected in the leading male character.  In fact, although the main character is a seventeen-year-old young man, when Joel thinks that he is in some way “being like Leda” (172), he may be voicing the projection of the lead female character through a male body.  [11]  Thus, for example, the attitude that Joel has toward diverse sexual matters is replicated in Leda.  Joel cannot withstand the temptation to masturbate; he does so at least three times in the novel not only while thinking about his girlfriend Leda, but another woman also (21, 112, 194).  Joel is masturbated another time by Leda (63); on another occasion, she oral sexes him (92-3).  When she notices that he is having an erection, Leda’s response of “Let’s just take our clothes off and get it over with” makes it seem as though sex is a chore for these young people, not a pastime of delight (125).  Joel’s attitude toward sex in general can be summarized in one maxim: he thinks girls want boys who are sexually experienced (35).  With such a sexual philosophy Joel finds nothing wrong with having sexual intercourse with Leda at least four times (88, 126, 143, and 162).

          Joel is ostensibly Jewish (46), although he affirms that he is not religious (78).  His best friend, Berger, who is also irreligious (104), makes snide comments about celibacy (133).

          Although Joel’s father discourages him from having sex with Leda (106), he asks Joel whether he is using birth control (130). Joel expresses some fear about their not using birth control (91), but it seems clear that the woman is supposed to be the one who is in charge of that.  It is only when Leda says that her period is late that she admits she hadn’t regularly used her diaphragm (142).  Joel, too, assumes some responsibility for the pregnancy, saying that he had some condoms that he “could have used” (144).

Roman numeral II: the Father’s Reaction

          Joel is certain that, if Leda is pregnant, she’ll “just get rid of it” (144).  Perhaps in reference to the anti-life feminist joke, Joel finds out by a father’s day card from Leda that he is a dad (172).  Joel accuses Leda of not having been “careful” (174). When asked, Joel thinks she should not have the baby (180).  Joel says “it’s better not to think about it” regarding the baby’s future (182).  Although he had never thought about babies before, Joel now sees them all over (155).

Roman numeral III: the Mother’s Decision

          There is no anxiety over an abortion decision between the two young people.  Leda is shown on several occasions as having already made up her mind for abortion: she is adamant that, if she is pregnant, she will have an abortion (163) because, for her, “it was just a little clump of cells” that could become “a real baby” with the passage of time (180).  Perhaps one factor which led her to accept abortion–in a reversal of what most other male characters experience in other adolescent novels–Leda is accepted into Yale and being pregnant would prevent her from fulfilling her educational career (176).

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

          When Leda has her abortion, the other mothers in the abortion clinic look dejected, even though many of them, as in Leda’s case with Joel, have their boyfriends or the fathers of the babies with them (197).  After the abortion, Leda wants to “celebrate” (203). However, when she and Joel invited another brother-and-sister couple from the abortion clinic over her apartment to smoke some marijuana, almost immediately into the celebration she cries over “our babies” (205).  Leda’s plaintive “we’re all going to be fine” spoken almost immediately after her breakdown over the aborted babies sounds too similar to the famous lines from Hemingway’s story (205).  Just as saying “fine” for Jig meant the opposite, for Leda, it can be argued that matters will not be satisfactory for her.

          As the novel reaches its denouement, Leda’s and Joel’s relationship deteriorates after the abortion (207).  They grow apart, especially after he goes off to a Texas college (209).  The novel ends with a group of characters wanting to see the film “Endless Love”.  This was the film which Joel and his best friend saw when they double dated and Joel first met Leda.  Joel’s final comment about seeing the movie is telling, symbolic as it is of the main characters’ now broken relationship: “I saw it already” (216).

          From this point on in the paper, I will depart from one of my necessary criteria to analyze three teen novels which show a growing concern not so much for abortion in contemporary teen fiction, but how a mother or her lover, the father of the child, react to the mother’s decision choosing life over abortion for the unborn child.

          Colby F. Rodowsky’s Lucy Peale (1992), chronologically the first in this new set, is a unique departure from most adolescent fiction.  While this novel may depict a lead female character who is responsible for her act of fornication, the culpability is lessened by two factors: Lucy Peale’s father is an ultra-strict fundamentalist Christian who wants his recently-graduated from high school daughter to confess her sin publicly at a revival; secondly, the boy who impregnates her is depicted as one who forced his will on her.  Instead of confessing her sin, she runs away (26) and eventually meets another young man, Jake, who harbors her in his apartment, cares for her food and clothing needs, and, most importantly, does not take sexual advantage of the young woman who just happened to come across his path.  Jake is a very respectful young man who wants to reserve his sexual powers for marriage with his ideal woman.  If this novel merges with the genre of a romance, then Lucy Peale is both a novel depicting the lives of two tortured young people caught up in teen pregnancy and simultaneously a novel of mature romance.

Roman numeral I: the Teen Mother

          In retrospect, Lucy recalls how she became pregnant.  Wanting to get out of her father’s stifling environment, Lucy meets a gang of young men which includes Phil, the father of her future child by one act of sexual intercourse (35).  She discovers she is pregnant when she vomits from morning sickness (7).  When she decides to run away to avoid confessing her sin in public, Lucy realizes that her father is not going to come after her to bring her back home (31).

          Lucy’s ambivalent thoughts and low self-esteem are detailed in a series of uncomplimentary similes: her thoughts are “like fiddler crabs” (37) or “like burrs on a dog’s ear” (43).  Other girls whom she sees walking with confidence are “like flies on sticky paper” (39).  Lucy is immature and cannot function socially (41).  The reader presumes she is seventeen-years-old since she graduated from high school “this year” (69).

Roman numeral II: the Father’s Reaction

          Jake, her boyfriend, is a former college man (59).  Although he has numerous classic books scattered all over his typically-messy bachelor apartment (61), he found working on the beach more interesting than college.  He is not to be considered a beach bum, however; his ambition is to be an assistant to a British author, Adrian Blair, who will be a writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins (68).

Roman numeral III: the Mother’s Decision

          Lucy’s father is an evangelist who calls her baby a “sin”; she retorts “my baby’s no sin” (11).  She doesn’t want “to get rid of it” (77).  Much later in the novel, there is a curious reference to the baby as an “it”, but in a humanizing way (116).  When the baby kicks, Lucy then “knew” that she was carrying a child (96-7).  Lucy says she can’t think of the baby as an “it” after she and Jake discuss things about their life together (116-8).  More importantly, Jake provides the necessary moral support for Lucy by reacting happily to news of the baby’s quickening (98-9).  Unlike most other teen abortion novels, Lucy experiences a pleasant encounter with some children (87-9).  She hopes to marry Jake and be happy with him forever.

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

          If the abortion portion of the novel seems resolved [Lucy will not have an abortion and Jake and she seem to be the “perfect couple”–they even argue as agreeably as married people do (100-3)], then the problem for the reader over the final sixty pages is to consider whether they can succeed in their ambitions.  Fortunately, and, once again, unlike most other teen abortion novels, Lucy and Jake are genuinely religious (94-5).  Even though Lucy comes from a family which distorts Christian ideals, they both want the baby to know about God (118).  Their “living together” is asexual (100).  When Lucy gets into bed with him one night, thinking that the only way she can repay him for his kindness is to offer him what her rapist, the father of her child, took from her, Jake jumps out (106).  Sex “counts for too much” for Jake, he tells her (115).  Jake considers the baby his (107), he wants to marry her, and (putting most men to shame) he is a perfectly romantic young man (108).

          This happiness, which may seem saccharine to most jaundiced readers, is too much for Lucy, however: she plans to leave him so that he would not be burdened with a wife and a baby as he pursues his chance at working for Blair (110, 148-9).  Just when it seems this incredibly-happy resolution would fall apart, at the end of the novel, like a deus ex machina, Lucy’s sister Doris leaves her strict family and decides to help with the baby (162).  Jake goes to Baltimore to be assistant to Blair.  In short, what one would never find in most teen abortion novels, this story ends happy.  The final statement (“it’s going to be okay”) conveys none of the ambiguity or despair found in novels where the mother has aborted (164-7).

          Marilyn Reynolds achieved success not only with her print version of Too Soon for Jeff (1994), but also with the made-for-television film adaptation of the novel as well as her Hamilton High series of stories for teens.  [12]  Like other novels of the early 1990s, this one reflects the anxieties of the father of the child.  In a first-person narrative, Jeff Browning relates his experiences with the pregnancy of his lover.  Jeff is a seventeen-year-old who has an excellent chance not only at winning his high school’s debate competition but also a scholarship to a university when he discovers that he is a father.

Roman numeral I: the Teen Mother

          Christy Calderon, a Mexican-American (35), is Jeff’s lover.  Although she is depicted as having had a Catholic grade school background (Jeff for some reason laughs when he first hears this fact) (40), Christy is as irreligious as Jeff.  Jeff is halfway between being an atheist and being a believer (73).  All we know about Christy at the beginning of the novel is that, when she announces her pregnancy to Jeff, she is happy about the baby (13-4).

Roman numeral II: the Father’s Reaction

          Jeff’s reaction to the pregnancy should be understood in the context of his sexual understanding.  He is not a virgin (10); presumably, he had used condoms with Christy (16).  His mother, who is studying to be a nurse, had talked with him about condoms (17).  Jeff’s father had abandoned him and his mother when he was little (18).  He is unable to control his sexual impulses and masturbates thinking about Christy (45-6).  Jeff was enrolled at a human sexuality class at Planned Parenthood (57).  Jeff reports that his friend Jeremy says that abstinence “is the wave of the future” (183).  Lest this can be interpreted into a statement that he has learned from his sexually explicit ways and will reserve his sexual powers for marriage, the reader is immediately hit with a qualification of this fact of abstinence history: Jeff couches it in negative connotation, specifically saying that his friend “may be telling the truth about virginity, or he may be following another of his old-fashioned codes…” (183).  Even after his experience with Christy, when he eventually goes out of state to college, Jeff meets another young woman, for whom he buys condoms, and with whom he has sex at least three times (198, 200-1, and 212).

          With this type of sexual background, it should be no surprise that Jeff is angry at the baby.  He accuses Christy of being lapse about birth control (14); he wants her to have an abortion (15).  Even though his mother says that abortion “makes sense” to her (57), Christy calls Jeff a “baby killer” (63).

Roman numeral III: the Mother’s Decision

          At one point, while Jeff wonders if it is too late for an abortion (36), Christy is adamant that she will not abort, saying “It’s my body, it’s my choice, and I choose NO ABORTION!” (36).  Eventually, Jeff wins the debate competition for his high school and is accepted into a Texas university later that fall (112).  Jeff later learns that Christy has given birth to a son (145) whom he later calls “my son” (160).  Jeff’s father, however, urges him to disavow anything to do with the child, viewing the pregnancy as a trap on the part of Christy (165).

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

          Although Jeff and Christy go their separate ways at the novel’s conclusion, Jeff ends the novel with a limp paternal directive: he tells his newborn son not to have sex without a condom (222).

          Sheila Cole’s What Kind of Love? The Diary of a Pregnant Teenager (1995) follows a category of teen fiction which depicts the anxieties of teen mothers who have exercised their reproductive rights by choosing to give birth to their unborn babies.  [13]

Roman numeral I: the Teen Mother

          Valerie is a fifteen-year-old who describes her sexual relations with her lover Peter early in the novel (7-9).  Even though she immediately thought of “protection” because she wanted to have sex with Peter (22), Valerie discovers she’s pregnant (36).

Roman numeral II: the Father’s Reaction

          Since he is Harvard or Stanford bound (27), Peter suggests she has “to do something” (40).  Several pages later it is clear what he wants her to do: ask about abortion at Planned Parenthood (44).  Because of perceived time limits on abortion, Peter blames Valerie for waiting so long (57).  When Peter proposes marriage to her, the unborn child who was called an “it” suddenly becomes “Our Baby” (61).  While Valerie progresses in the pregnancy, Peter advances toward his college goals (140).  Eventually, Peter reneges on promise to marry her (170).

Roman numeral III: the Mother’s Decision

          Valerie is confronted with an image of a sixteen-year-old girl carrying a baby (43).  She calls the baby an “it” (46).  Valerie assumes Planned Parenthood is the place to go for birth control (48).  Since she’s four months pregnant, abortion must be done in hospital; it would cost her more (52-4).  Her parents want her to abort (68).  Peter’s and Valerie’s elopement wedding plans are halted (83-4).  Despite an ultrasound which she has had which enables her to bond with her baby (91-2), Valerie calls the baby an “it” (103) or “this thing growing inside me” (107).  The unborn child is dehumanized with a direct simile: he or she is “like an alien invader” (112).  Eventually, while she calls the baby an “it”, Valerie is able to humanize the child in a direct metaphor which culminates in her first positive emotional statement for the child: he or she is a “little astronaut floating inside…I love you” (127).

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

          Although she had hoped for marriage and a happier resolution of the problems of parenthood, Valerie, seeing that Peter is more interested in his college career than his fatherhood, renounces him and decides to offer the baby for adoption (190-2).

IV.  Critical Evaluation and Pedagogic Responses:

Attacking the Paradigm

          Now that several works have been scanned for paradigmatic elements, it may be helpful to consolidate some general criticism before engaging in a pedagogic response.  First, it should be noted that adolescent fiction on abortion in the 1960s seemed to be “masked” or, better yet, “encased” in a larger, more comprehensive plot which involves the adult characters of the novel.  For example, Romulus Linney’s 1965 novel Slowly, by Thy Hand Unfurled depicts the anguish of a mother who comes to realize two brutal truths: first, that her daughter had an abortion and died of it; and second, the daughter seems to have had the abortion at the mother’s insistence.  Similarly, the concerns of Carla, the young mother who seeks an abortion in Violet Weingarten’s 1967 novel Mrs. Beneker, occupy only a small portion of the plot.  Even though 1967 is a decisive year in abortion history in the United States, the more dominant concern in the novel is a feminist one: the emergence of Lila Beneker, who in her middle age is finally developing her talents as a liberated woman.

          The situation is similar in another novel in this pre-Roe period, B. J. Chute’s The Story of a Small Life (1971).  Richard Harris, the narrator, is more concerned not so much that a seventeen-year-old young man whom he admires gets his girlfriend an abortion as he is concerned that the young man get out of the ghetto.  Even though abortion permeates this novel, the function of the narrator is clear: he is distant from the actors in the abortion subplot; the novel is his spiritual quest, at which, of course, he dismally fails.  [14]

          A period of less than a decade spans the earliest of the novels I have read before abortion was legalized in the United States throughout the nine months of pregnancy.  Adolescent novels in the years immediately preceding and following Roe were strong in their support for abortion; this pro-abortion bias continued until decade’s end.  Although an uncomfortable decision for teen mothers, abortion is never questioned as an inappropriate course of action in Gunnel Beckman’s 1973 novel Mia Alone.  Jeannette Eyerly’s 1972 novel Bonnie Jo, Go Home is perhaps the most hostile account of a mother who wants to abort.  Abortion is the social-worker’s cure for the poverty and apparent hopelessness of the African-American lead character in Rosa Guy’s 1978 novel Edith Jackson.

          And yet, despite the stridency of some of the characters in firmly pro-abortion novels, the 1970s can boast of a life-affirming trend as well. Evelyn Minshull’s 1976 novel But I Thought You Really Loved Me is one of many novels which explore the situation of a young mother who has decided to give birth to her baby.  Korie, who is not a sexually-promiscuous young woman, happened to fall for the very attractive Ron who impregnated her. When Ron not only rejects the baby but also rejects her, Korie turns to the people who love her the most: her family.

          The theme of mothers who return to the safety of their families after the difficult experience of being rejected in love (and maybe even abandoned by their lovers as in Korie’s case) continues throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.  These novels show a growing trend toward the principle that abortion is a negative solution to an untimely pregnancy.  According to Jane S. Bakerman and Mary Jean DeMarr, who studied adolescent fiction in the two decades from 1961-1981, some fiction began this life-affirming trend in the late 1970s.  Joyce Carol Oates’ 1978 novel, Son of the Morning, depicts a teen mother who wants to keep her baby after her lover abandons her.  They also categorize Joyce Maynard’s 1981 novel Baby Love as a novel about teen mothers who want to keep their babies.

          A new trend developed in the 1990s, however, that proved not only commercially acceptable, but (an even prior proposition) appealing to the mass of the teen reading audience: the role and reaction of the unwed father to an untimely pregnancy.  This decade saw a variety of fictional accounts of young teen fathers who may at first have been strongly unwilling to have anything to do with their unborn children but who ultimately become their born children’s best defenders.  Such is the case in Marilyn Reynolds’ 1994 novel Too Soon for Jeff.

          This trend toward the father’s view of life-affirming options may indicate that abortion itself as subject matter may be submerging itself under a more prominent one, just as it was a subordinate issue for fiction in the 1960s.  The interest in abortion as a prime factor in the plot is waning even more significantly against fiction with an emerging life-affirming theme.  Norma Klein’s 1988 novel No More Saturday Nights may be one of the earliest novels to connect the dramatic tension of an unwed teen father and the trend to look beyond abortion as a dilemma which seems unsurmountable.  The bibliographic summary for this novel reads:

                    A seventeen‑year‑old unmarried father wins the rights to custody of his son in court; goes off to college in New York City, where he finds an apartment with three girls as roommates; and improves his relationship with his own father, always knowing his baby is the most important thing in his life.

Terry Farish’s 1990 novel Shelter for a Seabird is summarized in its bibliographic record as: “At a time when her stern father seems determined to sell the island home where her family has lived for generations, sixteen‑year‑old Andrea is swept into a doomed romance with a nineteen‑year‑old AWOL soldier”.  Kimberly M. Ballard’s 1991 novel Light at Summer’s End is concerned not with an abortion decision to be made by the fourteen-year-old lead character, but by the decision to abort which her mother made.  Ballard’s novel shows how excruciating the abortion decision is for other persons involved: siblings, the father of the child, and grandparents.  [15]  Berlie Doherty’s 1992 novel Dear Nobody is summarized as a story where “Eighteen‑year‑old Chris struggles to deal with two shocks that have changed his life, his meeting the mother who left him and his father when he was ten and his discovery that he has gotten his girlfriend pregnant”.  Another 1992 novel, Geraldine Kaye’s Someone Else’s Baby, makes it clear that abortion for the young mother involved is not a serious option; deciding whether to keep the baby or not is the real concern: “Seventeen‑year‑old Terry, single and pregnant, decides to keep a journal to help herself come to terms with an unhappy homelife and poor self‑image as she tries to decide whether or not to keep her baby”.  This is also the case in Marilyn Reynolds’ 1993 novel Detour for Emmy, which is summarized as an exploration of a young mother of a child already born: “Emmy, whose future had once looked so bright, struggles to overcome the isolation and depression brought about by being a teen mother who gets little support from her family or the father of her child”.  [16]  C. B. Christiansen’s 1994 collection of short stories, I See the Moon, is summarized in its bibliographic record thus: “Twelve‑year‑old Bitte learns the answer to the question, `What is love?’ when her older sister decides to place her unborn child for adoption”.  Abortion as an issue is certainly of secondary importance in Doran Larsen’s 1997 novel Marginalia, which is primarily concerned with abused children and adolescents in the Buffalo area.  The latest contribution to the body of adolescent abortion fiction is James Wilcox’ 1998 novel Plain and Normal, which seems to merge the popular fascination with homosexual and lesbian issues with the plight of teens dealing with untimely pregnancy.  It is obvious, however, that the issues which were once most characteristic of teen fiction (untimely pregnancy or serious thoughts about abortion) are relegated in this novel to the exploits of homosexual men in Manhattan and in an imaginary place in Louisiana.

          After having gone through several key works of teen abortion fiction, it may be helpful to demonstrate how one can attack the legitimacy of the paradigm as used as a template for such fiction. Just because an author may adapt his or her story to such a tight outline does not mean that the outline itself is beyond question. In fact, it is our duty to attack it to demonstrate that abortion novels need not follow such a pro-abortion bias.  If we are in the business of encouraging our students to think positively about life, to surmount whatever problems are thrown their way, and to encourage them to become fully human, then we must guide them in the dissolution of some of the nastier elements of the outline.  It is our task to demonstrate to our students that sometimes the fiction which they have read can be severely questioned–as strongly as anti-lifers would question the value of human life.  Therefore, I would like to offer some “speed bumps” to help our students understand that they need not necessarily adopt the elements of this paradigm as a contemporary decalogue to guide their reading or their lives.

          One counter to the validity of the outline is to ask students why an irreligious attitude seems necessary for modern life.  Why are so many characters not so much seemingly tolerant of others’ religion, but openly anti-religion?  More acutely, why are Roman Catholics so reviled in contemporary teen fiction on abortion?  [17] Joan in Grau’s The House on Coliseum Street is a lapsed Catholic (8).  When she arrives at the abortion clinic, strongly anti-life Bonnie in Eyerly’s Bonnie Jo, Go Home is suspicious that the cab driver is Catholic (26).  Bonnie has a supposedly Catholic friend who helps to arrange the abortion for her (59).  Leda, the heroine in Klein’s Beginners’ Love, and her friend dress up as nuns in one episode, only to mock them (114-5).  Christy, the mother in Reynolds’ Too Soon for Jeff who is later shown to be manipulative, had a Catholic grade school background (40).  This is the same young woman who yells at her father that “All you care about is what your stupid old church says!” (64).

          A review of sexuality can assault the integrity of the outline as well.  What is sex?  It might be helpful to encourage students to discuss whether they truly believe in the merely secular rendition of the definition.  If a secular view of the term is accepted among today’s students, then it can be pointed out that the characters in these novels demonstrate how sex which was perceived as something purely stimulus-driven and seemingly beautiful between a young man and a young woman can become selfish and demeaning.

          Moreover, why should a young person immediately think of Planned Parenthood when discussing birth control and abortion?  Planned Parenthood immediately comes to Peter’s mind when he suggests abortion of his child in Cole’s What Kind of Love? The Diary of a Pregnant Teenager (44); the mother of his child, Valerie, assumes Planned Parenthood is the place to go for birth control (48).  [18]  The lead character in Eyerly’s Bonnie Jo, Go Home sees a child in a baby stroller with a “Planned Parenthood” sticker written across it (6).  On hearing that his girlfriend is pregnant, Donnie in Luger’s Lauren commands her to go to Planned Parenthood (19).  The Women’s Center staffperson in A. M. Stephensen’s Unbirthday who relates her own abortion experience to the protagonist of the novel automatically thought that she “could get help from Planned Parenthood” (72).  Jeff’s inability to control his sexual promiscuity in Reynolds’ Too Soon for Jeff can perhaps be attributed to the fact that he was enrolled at a human sexuality class at Planned Parenthood (57).

          Where are the abstinence courses and programs?  Where’s Birthright?  Where are any of the crisis pregnancy support groups around the country that have served the maternal, legal, and financial needs of mothers with untimely pregnancies since before the Roe decision?  Why don’t these pregnancy-support groups appear in teen abortion fiction?  And, in true Marxist literary critical fashion, if they do not appear, then students should examine why they do not.  Their absence may be evidence of the oppressive power of an anti-life feminist distortion of matriarchy.

          The outline can be attacked from a feminist viewpoint in another manner also.  If today’s young woman is truly a feminist as society supposedly makes her to be, then she should assert her right over the father’s noncompliance with her choice to give birth.

          Some feminist writers argue that such teen fiction liberates teens–female teens, especially, of course, since female teenagers are women in an expansive denotative and connotative definition of “woman”.  Proposing an alternative feminist view is not only politically-incorrect in today’s academic world, but also revolutionary since the standard party-line feminist thinking is that sexuality liberates pure and simple; there is no discussion of the responsibilities which go along with sexual rights.  These feminist writers are absolutely positive that teen sexuality has solely empowering tendencies whose primary function is to overcome the much-aligned and difficult-to-define term “patriarchy”.  [19]  What does this really mean, however?  Does it mean that party-line feminist thinking is so deeply entrenched in a view of sexuality that it obscures the fact that sometimes young women who engage in sexual activity face certain “dire consequences” of a failed sexual interest when the boyfriend leaves her when she’s pregnant? Does it mean that the party-line feminist thinking is blind to the presence of a third party–the unborn child–who often is sacrificed as the teen sexual partners debate how they should live the rest of their lives?  Could it also mean that party-line feminist thinking is bankrupt–as is the fiction which embodies such thinking–and that readers must therefore turn to creative authors like Ballard, Cole, Luger, Minshull, and Rodowsky who provide that alternative feminist envisioning?

          More importantly, for purposes of examining the fourth Roman numeral in the classroom, students should be asked about the relative merits of each of the two outcomes.  The first outcome is clearly the result of a bad choice.  Abortion–despite any of its linguistic masks as “freedom of choice” or “pregnancy termination” or the exercise of a tenuous “right to choose”–still is absolutely negative.  It is significant that none of the teen novels which end with the mother aborting the child end “happy”–not the saccharine kind of happiness of a gushy romance novel, but aesthetically pleasing in the sense that fiction which involves romance between two teen partners should end resolved in the love between the partners, not in ambiguity.  The novels which end in abortion end in loss of romance, loss of individual strength for the mother, and loss of certainty.  Of course, no student would object to the pleasing ending of a life born and a young woman who, in true feminist fashion–matures to adulthood when she makes the best choice for herself and her child.

          I began this paper with sample opening sentences from particular genres.  Maybe the dominant feature of adolescent fiction on abortion is best characterized by the ending statements.  If an adolescent abortion novel ends in the killing of the unborn child, then the ending would be as sad as that in Eyerly’s Bonnie Jo, Go Home: “Leaving New York eleven days after she had arrived, her face seemed to have aged a year for every day she had been there” (114) or as ambiguous as the ending in Klein’s Beginners’ Love: “I saw it already” (216).  If, however, the adolescent abortion novel ends with a life-affirming statement, then that which ends Rodowsky’s Lucy Peale may have already set the standard for what a young mother with low self-esteem can do in her life and that of her unborn child:

                   I’m ready now, and I’ll go and get Doris and she’ll come home with me and we’ll put my stuff in the bedroom, where the crib’s already set up, and her stuff in the living room, and then maybe we’ll go out and I’ll show her the library and the laundromat and what the beach’s like in wintertime.

                             I’ll go now and this time I’ll drive right up to the house, only Pa won’t be there, ’cause Doris said he had to see a man over Salisbury way.  But Ma’ll be there and maybe she’ll come out.  Or maybe I’ll get brave and go inside and see Warren and Liddy and where I used to live, and even that moldy old parrot.

                   And maybe I’ll get to see the quilt.  The one Ma’s making for the baby.

                             And as far as the rest–everything else–it’s going to be okay.  One way or another, it’s going to be okay.  (166-7)

                                                     Works Cited

Bakerman, Jane S., and Mary Jean DeMarr. Adolescent Female Portraits in the American Novel, 1961‑1981. New York: Garland, 1983.

Ballard, Kimberly M. Light at Summer’s End. Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw, 1991.

Beckman, Gunnel. Mia Alone. Trans. Joan Tate. New York, Viking, 1974. Trans. of Tre veckor over tiden. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Forlag, 1973.

Christiansen, C. B. I See the Moon. New York: Atheneum, 1994. Electronic. Cuyahoga County Public Lib., OH. 3 May 1999.

Chute, B. J. The Story of a Small Life. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1971.

Cole, Sheila. What Kind of Love? The Diary of a Pregnant Teenager. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1995.

Doherty, Berlie. Dear Nobody. New York: Orchard Books, 1992. Electronic. Cuyahoga County Public Lib., OH. 3 May 1999.

Doty, Carolyn. A Day Late. New York: Viking, 1980.

Eyerly, Jeannette. Bonnie Jo, Go Home. New York: Bantam, 1972.

Farish, Terry. Shelter for a Seabird. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1990. Electronic. Cuyahoga County Public Lib., OH. 3 May 1999.

Faulkner, William. The Wild Palms. New York: Random House, 1939.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender Is the Night. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934.

Grau, Shirley Ann. The House on Coliseum Street. New York: Knopf, 1961.

Guy, Rosa. Edith Jackson. New York: Viking, 1978.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Literature and the Writing Process. 5th ed. Eds. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X. Day, and Robert Funk. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. 321-4.

Herald, Diana Tixier. Teen Genreflecting. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1997.

Hirsch, E. D. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Kaye, Geraldine. Someone Else’s Baby. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1992. Electronic. Cuyahoga County Public Lib., OH. 3 May 1999.

Klein, Norma. Beginners’ Love. New York: Hillside Books/E.P. Dutton, 1983.

—. No More Saturday Nights. New York: Knopf, 1988. Electronic. Cuyahoga County Public Lib., OH. 3 May 1999.

Larsen, Doran. Marginalia. Sag Harbor, NY: Permanent Press, 1997. Electronic. Cuyahoga County Public Lib., OH. 3 May 1999.

Lee, Joanne. I Want to Keep My Baby. New York: NAL, 1977.

Linney, Romulus. Slowly, by Thy Hand Unfurled. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.

Luger, Harriett. Lauren. New York: Viking, 1979.

Madison, Winifred. Growing Up in a Hurry. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

Maynard, Joyce. Baby Love. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Minshull, Evelyn. But I Thought You Really Loved Me. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray, eds. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

Oates, Joyce Carol. Son of the Morning. New York: Vanguard, 1978.

Ramsdell, Kristin. Happily Ever After: a Guide to Reading Interests in Romance Fiction. Littleton, CO: 1987.

Renner, Stanley. “Moving to the Girl’s Side of `Hills Like White Elephants’.” The Hemingway Review 15:1 (1995):27‑41.

Reynolds, Marilyn. Beyond Dreams: True-to-Life Series from Hamilton High. Buena Park, CA: Morning Glory, 1995.

—. Detour for Emmy. Buena Park, CA: Morning Glory, 1993. Electronic. Cuyahoga County Public Lib., OH. 3 May 1999.

—. Too Soon for Jeff. Buena Park, CA: Morning Glory, 1994.

Rodowsky, Colby. Lucy Peale. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992.

Rossner, Judith. Emmeline. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Spencer, Pam. What Do Young Adults Read Next? A Reader’s Guide to Fiction for Young Adults. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1997.

Stephensen, A. M. Unbirthday. New York: Avon Books, 1982.

Sutherland, Zena. Children & Books. 9th ed. New York: Longman, 1997.

Too Soon for Jeff. By Marilyn Reynolds. Perf. Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Jessica Alba. 1994. Videocassette. Films for the Humanities, 1996.

Tolman, Deborah L. “Doing Desire: Adolescent Girls’ Struggles for/with Sexuality.” Through the Prism of Difference: Readings on Sex and Gender. Eds. Maxine Baca Zinn, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, and Michael A. Messner. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997. 173-85.

Weingarten, Violet. Mrs. Beneker. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

Wilcox, James. Plain and Normal. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. Electronic. Cuyahoga County Public Lib., OH. 3 May 1999.


    [1]  With language as similarly connotative as mine, the more scholarly literary critics Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray corroborate my extemporaneous definition when they define the Gothic novel as:

                        a romance typically written as a long prose horror narrative that exhibits the Gothic qualities of doom and gloom as well as an emphasis on chivalry and magic.  Dark, mysterious medieval castles chock full of secret passageways and (apparently) supernatural phenomena are common elements used to thrill the reader.  Gothic heroes and heroines tend to be equally mysterious, with dark histories and secrets of their own.  The Gothic hero is typically a man known more for his power and his charisma than for his personal goodness; the Gothic heroine’s challenge is to win his love without being destroyed in the process.  (149)

    [2]  That is, with all due respect to the (young?) man, Fabio before his aviary mishap.

    [3]  Again, Ross and Ray record the contemporary understanding of the romance novel not only as “a fictional account of passionate love prevailing against social, economic, or psychological odds, but any plot that revolves around love” (346).

    [4]  However, this conclusion was not the final one reached by the disproportionately large number of students who found this story so interesting that they culminated their final research project on an analysis of this short story.  Apparently, this story is resilient enough to withstand a feminist literary critical attack as much as it is malleable to a biographical or a masculinist interpretation.  What is most surprising is that many students were able to discover in the course of their research Stanley Renner’s fine critical article, which argues that, since the characters do not explicitly suggest that the abortion is definitely going to occur, an easy anti-life extrapolation of the plot of the story may be faulty–a position which refutes most students’ initial reading of the story.

            I would also like to point out that I presume that at least one student was painfully aware of the message of the story.  It was difficult for me during one class to press on with an explication of the story when one young woman became visibly upset while discussing it–to the point of needing to leave the room for the balance of the class time, a full forty minutes.  Granted, this is a subjective comment on my part and the student herself did not confide anything to me.  Unfortunately, however, we who are faculty can often gauge whether a student who becomes distressed over this one story and not others which might be more graphic, more sexual, or more politically-charged may have had an abortion and is now suffering the emotional symptoms of post-abortion syndrome.

    [5]  See especially his commentary on SAT scores (4-5) and the lack of “shared information” in American education (19-25).

    [6]  Sometimes, even the library community may not be helpful in collating titles on the subject of abortion.  Abortion as a subject entry does not appear in Spencer’s massive 692-page bibliographic compendium What Do Young Adults Read Next? A Reader’s Guide to Fiction for Young Adults (Detroit: Gale, 1997). Many authors who are considered in this paper, however, are featured as are other titles which they have written.

    [7]  Of course, I am aware that only a fraction of the total number of teens who are eligible to vote do so and that this lack of civic pride in electing quality candidates will remain at a plurality level when the teens become young adults in their twenties.  After all, this is the decade when the United States elected someone as president on a plurality vote not once, but twice in the span of four years.

    [8]  In the course of my reading I discovered two intertextual references to schemes or paradigms of teen abortion fiction.  Both passages ridicule the simplistic plot development of such fiction. The first passage, from A. M. Stephensen’s Unbirthday (1982), has the main character recount her analysis of the teen abortion fiction she has read when she herself must decide whether or not to have an abortion:

                        “I thought back on stories I’d read.  The ones I could remember were always about a girl who lost her head in the heat of passion and went all the way with some guy in the backseat of a car.  Usually at a drive-in.  Usually with a guy she really didn’t give a damn about.  Always without a contraceptive.  And–surprise!–she got pregnant.

                                    “Then she had the baby.  If she married the guy, she’d end up staying home, cooking supper, washing bottles, changing diapers, and waiting for her husband to return from a long day pumping gas, after which he’d take out his frustrations on her and the kid.  Or if she didn’t get married, she’d leave school and put the tyke up for adoption, and since she was known to one and all as a `bad girl,’ she’d move to another part of town and after much effort find a dead-end job answering phones or selling shoes.  Once in a while, she’d keep the baby.  Then she’d move in with her alcoholic mother and, after trying valiantly to support her child, end up on welfare.  And whiskey.

                                    “There was only one book I could remember where a girl got an abortion.  It was so badly botched she ended up puking blood all over the upholstery of her boyfriend’s car on the way home, and when she got into her house and puked more blood on the rug before collapsing to the floor, her exceptionally swift parents suddenly realized what was going on and virtually disowned her.”  (51-2)

            Another passage, in Norma Klein’s Beginners’ Love (1983), similarly reduces the simplistic plots of most teen abortion novels to set patterns.  The lead female character in Klein’s novel comments about teen abortion novels with her boyfriend, suggesting that a standard set of steps in plot development has made the classification trite:

                        “God, don’t you hate those books for teen-agers where they have to get married and she drops out of school and they live over a garage and he works in some used car lot.  And there’s always some scene where some girl who had an abortion comes to visit and she’s gone insane and becomes a Bowery bum, just in case you didn’t get the point.”

                                    “I never read a book like that,” I said.

                                    “You’re lucky….  Every other book I’ve read since I was ten is like that.  The girl’s a moron, the guy’s a moron, they never heard of birth control.  What I love are the scenes where the father takes the guy aside and says, `Son, if you marry Betsy, you’ll have to give up your football scholarship to Oklahoma State.’  They’re always going to some godforsaken place like Oklahoma State!  And the guy says, `But, Dad, I love her!’…  And then there’s a scene where the mother says, `Dear, you haven’t let him take advantage of you?  You know what boys are like.’  Quote unquote….  God, I think writers must be really dumb!  Or else they’re living in the Stone Age.”  (163-4)

    [9]  In the printed form of this paper, I will use the headers just mentioned to collate data from the novels.

    [10]  The argument that a pregnancy is better described as “untimely” instead of being a “problem” is more accurate in its specificity at least in the literary sense.  The novels I have considered show that the pregnancies which result from faulty or non-existent contraception or a hedonistic view towards sexuality are not problems to the young people involved.  The characters do not so much doubt the existence of the human entity over whose life they think they have jurisdiction, but rather are much more concerned with how to continue their lifestyles–their educational choices, their career choices, and their romantic or sexual choices.  The term “difficult” when used to refer to pregnancy, seems more proper when used in medical contexts.

    [11]  The study of transgendered characterizations may be helpful here, especially in the emerging branches of gender criticism called masculinist and queer theory.

    [12]  Interested persons may be interested in her Beyond Dreams: True-to-Life Series from Hamilton High (1995).  Moreover, they may find the performances of Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Jessica Alba in the video adaptation of the novel under analysis convincing.

    [13]  Bakerman and DeMarr have identified other titles which fall into this category of fiction written from the perspective of the mother who wants to give birth to her baby.  Readers may be interested in the following: I Want to Keep My Baby (1977) by Joanna Lee (92-3); Son of the Morning (1978) by Joyce Carol Oates (125); Emmeline (1980) by Judith Rossner (155); and Baby Love (1981) by Joyce Maynard (107).

    [14]  The situation of an abortion subplot in a larger adult-theme work does not dissolve after Roe, of course.  Carolyn Doty’s 1980 novel A Day Late uses the stereotype of a seventeen-year-old pregnant runaway to reflect (and deflect) the middle-aged crisis of Sam the protagonist.  A traveling salesman, Sam finds the youth of Katy, the mother, disturbing to the point that he becomes violent against her and the young man who had befriended her.  He also becomes violent against himself by spending a night with a whore.  The climax in the novel is not abortion-related at all: Sam “finds himself” by engaging in a male-bonding dance with his Greek friend.  The denouement, however, does return to the abortion subplot: Katy miscarries a malformed unborn child; this is considered “a blessing” (230).

    [15]  Ballard is one of the bold breed of writers who are clearly identified with the pro-life movement.  More importantly from a literary standpoint, her novel is not preachy or didactic which some critics of evangelical and pro-life fiction have claimed are dominant characteristics of such life-affirming material.  While there certainly are titles which are preachy if not hostile to religious diversity, Ballard’s book contains a few pages (by my estimation three) where one of the main characters, an elderly woman named Vellie, summarizes Christian principles for the other main character, fourteen-year-old Melissa (138-40).  It would be interesting to see how anti-life critics or critics hostile to evangelical or pro-life fiction would evaluate the final chapter of the book.  Melissa suggests holding a “service” for the aborted child which seems more pagan in liturgical setting than Christian: the service is to be conducted at dawn in the woods and, while she expresses her anger and sorrow, Melissa moves stones in certain formations (143-7).  Is this Wicca practice or Christian didacticism?  Perhaps this is the author’s intent: to frustrate those critics who would categorize her novel as merely “one of those” pro-life books.

    [16]  In fact, one could even argue that the title signals to the reader (the teen in the public library or the school library or in the bookstore) that the option of abortion is never entertained seriously: if unwed motherhood were so disastrous for the teen heroine, then it would be metaphorically described as a “halt” in her life, not a “detour”, which connotatively implies that, while one option has been closed, another option is available.

    [17]  At least one religious reference is nondenominational.  Mia in Beckman’s Mia Alone contrasts “the Christian’s talk” about sanctity of human life in contrast to her family’s ethics (106).

    [18]  Whatever her personal position regarding this abortion organization, the author is fair when she thanks “the staff of Planned Parenthood of San Diego and Riverside Counties” among others “for their help in understanding what it is like to be young and pregnant” (Cole; opposite title page).

    [19]  Consider the following analysis of interviews of teen girls’ regarding sex and related issues:

                        To be able to know their sexual feelings, to listen when their bodies speak about themselves and about their relationships, might enable these and other girls to identify and know more clearly the sources of oppression that press on their full personhood and their capacity for knowledge, joy, and connection….  Asking these girls to speak abut sexual desire, and listening and responding to their answers and also to their questions, proved to be an effective way to interrupt the standard “dire consequences” discourse adults usually employ when speaking at all to girls about their sexuality.  Knowing and speaking about the ways in which their sexuality continues to be unfairly constrained may interrupt the appearance of social equity that many adolescent girls (especially white, middle-class young women) naively and trustingly believe, thus leading them to reject feminism as unnecessary and mean-spirited and not relevant to their lives. As we know from the consciousness-raising activities that characterized the initial years of second-wave feminism, listening to the words of other girls and women can make it possible for girls to know and voice their experiences, their justified confusion and fears, their curiosities.  Through such relationships, we help ourselves and each other to live in our different female bodies with an awareness of danger, but also with a desire to feel the power of the erotic, to fine-tune our bodies and our psyches to what Audre Lord has called the “yes within ourselves”.  (Tolman 183-4)

Categories
Papers

Bizarre Fiction on the Right-to-Life Issues

          Several years ago, my wife and I would spend our Saturday nights watching one of those feeble horror movie programs–you know, the ones which showed low-budget horror flicks, something about an evil tomato that came from outer space and conquered Earth.  The show’s host was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.  Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (please note that whenever one says her name, one must say her appositive in as sinister a tone of voice as possible)…anyway, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, was thoroughly enjoyable–not so much for those features of her costume or anatomy for which she was known (she was, ah, rather, ah, buxom and had high hair).  No, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, was impressive for the tone with which she would comment about her low-budget films.  Everybody–from the producers of the show to the viewers to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, herself–everybody knew that the movies were supposed to be bad (some were quite well made).  Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, however, deliberately made fun of her movies.  And once, she pronounced a word in such a sarcastic tone of voice that it left a permanent impression on me.  Instead of saying the word spelled b-i-z-a-r-r-e “bi-zar” as the dictionary suggests, with the accent on the second syllable, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, said “bee-zar”, placing the accent on the first syllable and extending that syllable’s pronunciation.

          Beezar.  Bizarre.  No, beezar is a great metaphor for the fiction I encountered in preparation for this year’s paper.  The fictional works to be discussed represent some of the more beezar currents in abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia and are culled from my research work in right-to-life issues in American fiction of the past century.  I thought that it would be helpful, however, for us to examine three representative works from the last decade in greater detail to anticipate the trajectory that fiction concerned with the right-to-life issues might take in this twenty-first century.  The three works are Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream (1986), David Martin’s Bring Me Children (1992), and Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (1998).  Instead of mere criticism of these novels, I would like to give you the opportunity to review certain passages so that the literary value of works dealing with the right-to-life issues can be better evaluated.

          Kathy Acker’s 1986 novel Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream is a fascinating piece of transgender fiction which begins with the main character having an abortion.  Instead of ordinary abortion plots, where the mother undergoes the abortion and suffers delayed post-abortion syndrome, Don Quixote is bizarre in that the main character communicates her psychotic view of reality to the reader before she aborts.  This psychotic view only becomes worse as the novel progresses.

                    When she was finally crazy because she was about to have an abortion, she conceived of the most insane idea that any woman can think of.  Which is to love.  How can a woman love? By loving someone other than herself.  She would love another person.  By loving another person, she would right every manner of political, social, and individual wrong: she would put herself in those situations so perilous the glory of her name would resound. The abortion was about to take place.

                   From her neck to her knees she wore pale or puke green paper.  This was her armor.  She had chosen it specially, for she knew that this world’s conditions are so rough for any single person, even a rich person, that person has to make do with what she can find: this’s no world for idealism.  Example: the green paper would tear as soon as the abortion began.

                             They told her they were going to take her from the operating chair to her own bed in a wheeling chair.  The wheeling chair would be her transportation.  She went out to look at it.  It was dying.  It had once been a hack, the same as all the hacks on grub street; now, as all the hacks, was a full-time drunk, mumbled all the time about sex but now no longer not even never did it but didn’t have the wherewithal or equipment to do it, and hung around with the other bums.  That is, women who’re having abortions.

                   She decided that since she was setting out on the greatest adventure any person can take, that of the Holy Grail, she ought to have a name (identity).  She had to name herself. When a doctor sticks a steel catheter into you while you’re lying on your back and you do exactly what he and the nurses tell you to; finally, blessedly, you let go of your mind. (9)

          The tone of these few paragraphs approximates that of the entire novel. There are non sequiturs, combinations of verb forms which confuse the reader so that it is not clear which verb controls the sentence structure, and hallucinatory episodes.  Moreover, from this opening section it is apparent that Don Quixote is not merely a mother who will abort her unborn child; she considers herself a knight whose pursuit for an abortion is likened to the pursuit of the Holy Grail.  This deception is necessary, of course, to persuade her that what she is doing is not only noble, but perhaps even of a religious quality.  Don Quixote’s companion is no human Sancho Panza, but a dog which is variously called Saint Simeon and which (or is it who?) has anthropomorphic abilities.  The dog talks, is able to manifest itself as a human at times, and has quite an extensive vocabulary.  After her abortion Don Quixote and her canine companion roam the country battling oppression against women.

          While the entire novel is a good read (if you like sheer verbal play and not coherency in your fiction), one extremely disturbing feature permeates the novel: virulent ad hominem attacks against Catholics.  Don Quixote tells the dog “Go along muttering, as all Catholics do” (23).  Catholics “kidnap young women not cause [sic] they’re women but cause [sic] they look like boys” (24). Don Quixote further asserts that “I know Catholicism is really a secret order of assassins” (24).

          Often, the ad hominem attacks are blended with non sequiturs.  In one instance the bruises which are on Don Quixote’s body are blamed on Catholics.  The dog states that “These aren’t the marks of heterosexual love, but of Catholics.  Catholics, since they’re celibate, throw stones” (31).  The educated reader will perceive the double non sequitur immediately.  Celibacy is neither a direct nor an approximate cause for “throwing stones” whether the phrase is to be taken literally or figuratively.  The second non sequitur compounded within these few words obscures the origin of the marks and blames without justifiable cause Catholics.  [1]

          Don Quixote’s attitude towards the Virgin Mary especially shows how strident is her hatred of life and established religion.  She thinks the Virgin Mary is a captive of white men: “Religious white men hate women,” she says, “and so they make women into the image of the Virgin Mary” (178).  This idea, that the Virgin Mary was somehow the result of male power over women, is most elaborately explained by the Chicana lesbian feminist writer Gloria Anzaldua, in an essay which is frequently anthologized in college readers, titled “Entering into the Serpent”.  Anzaldua tries to account for the change in the perception of pagan deities by declaring that

                    After the Conquest, the Spaniards and their Church continued to split Tonantsi/Guadalupe. They desexed Guadalupe, taking Coatlalopeuh, the serpent/sexuality, out of her.  They completed the split begun by the Nahuas by making la Virgen de Guadalupe/Virgen Maria into chaste virgins and Tlazolteotl/Coatlicue/la Chingada into putas; into the Beauties and the Beasts.  They went even further; they made all Indian deities and religious practices the work of the devil.

                             Thus Tonantsi became Guadalupe, the chaste protective mother, the defender of the Mexican people. (25)

          While Anzaldua is clearly wrong about the cause and effect relationship she hopes to establish to advance her lesbian viewpoint, one must admire the semantic gymnastics she uses to ignore one of the most miraculous and life-affirming events in human history.  But then, the effort to return to pagan roots is an effort which has wide currency in certain anti-life sectors.  Although pro-life pagans like Jeannine Parvati Baker would disagree with such an estimation [2], ten years ago Ginette Paris stated that paganism was a suitable alternative to patriarchal monotheism.  Moreover, since abortion is a sacred act, Paris suggests that the goddess Artemis can help people to understand “a new allocation of life and death powers” (27), and that abortion is not only “a kind of sacrifice” (34), but also one which was most suitable “as a sacrifice to Artemis” (107).  [3]

          Perhaps the antagonism of the narrator and various characters in the novel can be attributed to a deeper ideology.  The narrator states that women drove a “stake through the red Heart of Jesus Christ…women don’t want anything to do with love” (28).  This vampiristic approach is a Marxist and feminist critic’s literary playground.  Not only are the women in this novel repudiating the spiritual love of the God-Man; they are also defining themselves out of the province of the most powerful, constructive, and life-affirming emotion in the world. Instead, the characters believe in a “love” which is defined at one point as “the unity of friendship and desire” (46).  The sophisticated reader would be able to find many flaws in this definition, most notably what is missing: a spiritual connection; and an adequate placement of the erotic as a means instead of an end to love.  The explicit sex scenes in the novel indicate that the characters have bought into the concept that love and sexual activity are necessarily devoid of moral values.

          If the beginning of the novel seemed tame, once Don Quixote has her abortion, things immediately degenerate into a fantasy one.  At the beginning the narrator states that abortion brings about insanity.  Don Quixote is sixty-six-years-old.  The reader may ask at this point: What?  Could a mother be so old and have an abortion?  Possibly, but still….  The text quickly becomes polyvocal, mixing strands of conversation which seem to have no relationship with what has just been said.  The reader must recall the subtitle of the novel: Which Was a Dream.  An insert which breaks the flow of the novel recommends Prince as United States president.  [4]  Another insert regards Arabs as liars.  These two unrelated inserts are eventually followed by Don Quixote addressing her aborted son in her will with an admonition to marry rich.  Don Quixote is renamed, avatar-like, as Lulu, a Pygmalion-type character, who considers herself an abortion.  Lulu becomes Don Quixote again as she dreams about abortions.  Even the dog dreams of abortion.

          And yet, even this novel, which seems to delight in verbal play around abortion and masochistic lesbianism, sends out signals which indicate that not all is well with the anti-life view of the world.  The reader, however, must bring not only traditional rhetorical skills to uncover some meaning from the psychotic ramblings, but also a skill at correcting logical fallacies.  Perhaps deconstruction would elucidate the novel, for, if deconstruction aims to demonstrate how a text subverts itself from within, then the wild statements of the various characters can be corrupted not from without–by, for example, a pro-life reader–but from within, by the speakers themselves.  Thus, the cry “let me be alive!” (77) spoken by the prince character shows what priority life has over death.  Don Quixote acknowledges abortions are “unnatural means [to regain] the proper balance of human power” (178).  [5]  Don Quixote rejects suicide as a solution to her own problems because her mother committed suicide and left “a legacy of anger and fear” (190).  Thinking that she is beyond love, and therefore beyond being human, implies that Don Quixote must have an idea of what true love is as well as an idea of what it means to be human.

          Similar rhetorical and logical approaches could be used to explicate the religious positions of the main character.  Don Quixote considers the prayers of religious persons as no communication.  What is left out in this traditional negation is what Don Quixote does consider the prayers of religious persons to be.  Finally, quite oddly, like a deus ex machina in traditional drama, God tells Don Quixote that He is imperfect and that she should believe in herself; the novel ends soon after this “revelation”.  Even here, with this final comment (or attack?) on a believing world, the reader could ask if Don Quixote will become intelligent enough to discern whether this is a true revelation from the Almighty or not.  But that is a step beyond what the author may have intended.  After all, what is most significant is that Don Quixote received a divine message at all.  This presumes that even Don Quixote, the mother who suffers through the psychosis surrounding her abortion, has not yet gone beyond God’s reach.

          The next novel to be considered as most representative of bizarre infanticide fiction certainly must be David Martin’s 1992 book, Bring Me Children.  Set in contemporary West Virginia, the novel begins with a gripping narrative of infanticide.

                   In the center of this cavern is a crevice twenty feet wide, twice that long, a hundred feet deep.  The man has dropped rocks down that crevice and knows what’s at the bottom–an underground lake, perpetually cold and home to blind, white fish.

                   …

                   Because the baby is hungry and because the hard, round top of the rock is uncomfortable, her crying quickly elevates to an angry shrieking.  She is trying to roll over on her stomach, the bundle of blankets slipping as she squirms.

                             Having stepped off the bridge, standing well back from the crevice’s edge, the man cannot see the infant in the blackness of this cave, but he knows precisely where he left her, knows how many inches she has to maneuver.

                             The louder she shrieks, the angrier he becomes.  His hands have tightened into fists.  Rage is causing him to tremble.

                   Then from his right fist he sticks out a stiff thumb and jabs it into the dark above his head–as if trying to thumb someone in the eye.  “Well?” he asks.

                             Then shouts it. “Well?

                             He’s waiting for an answer as the baby continues screaming from the top of that rounded boulder in the center of that narrow path in the middle of that deep crevice.

                   But the only answer he gets is the one he supplies himself.

                             “Nothing!” the man shrieks.  He repeats it again and again–“Nothing!  NOTHING!”–with his head thrown back, both fisted hands in the air, his outraged howling competing for volume with the baby’s crying until the two of them are joined in a single awful, echoing crescendo.

                             He’s muttering all during the return trip, pausing only when he’s near enough to the cave’s entrance to feel the outside weather, pausing to listen.  He can still hear her.  She’s lasted much longer than any of the others.  He continues on to the entrance and stops there, waiting.  Then her crying abruptly ends and the cave resumes its silence…. (4-6)

          Although Martin’s book lacks the comprehensive anti-Catholic bigotry of Acker’s novel, most evident here is the anti-religious bias of the main character, Dr. Mason Quinndell.  [6]  Quinndell’s opposite is John Lyon, a steeled television anchor who sobs uncontrollably when he reads a news story about the numbers of children who are murdered each year.  It is this intense compassion which motivates a catalyst character in the beginning of the novel, Claire Cept, to contact him with her suspicions about who is responsible for the infanticides.  Quinndell is called “Doctor Death” and a “monster”, and the narrator assures the reader that this is “not a figure of speech” (26).  On first seeing Quinndell, Lyon’s reaction is that he sees a “monstrous form” that “nature is supposed to ensure it is aborted before it can be carried to term” (68).

          What makes this novel especially unique is the barbaric delight which Quinndell takes in satisfying inordinate sexual desires.  Quinndell, who is blind, is the epitome of the eugenicist: he thinks his quality of life is more important than a bum’s and he blames God for his blindness.  With the cooperation of a policeman, Quinndell regularly has vagabonds brought to his house where, after having the individuals tied to a gurney, he delights in amputating various body parts with “Mr. Gigli”, a surgical wire that Quinndell uses so that his victims suffer excruciating pain before they die.  The sadism which Quinndell inflicts is necessary for his sexual abuse of his secretary, whom he regularly sodomizes.

          Even this novel, however, poses some interesting religious questions.  When Quinndell asks “Well?” after depositing the newborn on the precarious subterranean ledge, he may be illustrating a late twentieth-century effort to determine whether God exists.  A direct challenge like this presented to the Almighty may merely be the secular person’s effort to, so to speak, smoke God out of the cave.  Would God Himself tolerate an evil happening to a purely innocent human being?  If Quinndell succeeds in having God reveal Himself to right this obvious wrong, then perhaps he could ask God why he, a brilliant doctor, suffers from blindness.  Though he is a “monster” as we are assured by the narrator, perhaps this infanticide novel is Quinndell qua Jacob, wrestling with the divine.

          The winner for the most bizarre euthanasia novel may not seem all that bizarre.  Ian McEwan’s 1998 novel Amsterdam concerns events in the lives of two main characters, Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday, both of whom not only were lovers of a deceased woman named Molly, but are now best friends.  Set in Britain in 1996, Clive is a composer who has been commissioned to write a symphony for the millennium.  Vernon is the editor of a newspaper called the Judge.  Both of the men are political opponents of the foreign secretary, Julian Garmony.  Vernon’s ability to dehumanize is evident when he compares Garmony to a “cancer from the organs of the body politic” (121).  Vernon thinks that exposing Garmony’s secret fantasies of dressing in women’s clothes will help defeat his bid for prime minister.  Garmony’s wife defuses the embarrassing situation surrounding her husband by going public with the photos in a televised interview, thus affirming the Christian principle that “love was a greater force than spite” (135).

          While the political side of the novel is thus resolved, the more important theme is the attitude towards euthanasia conveyed by the characters.  Both main characters have interesting definitions of what it means to be human.

          Clive cannot tolerate the ordinariness of human life.  His attitude is based on his religious principle that there was something “wrong with the world for which neither God nor His absence could be blamed” (5).  When talking about the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s on Molly, Clive does not merely state that he would have killed her had he been her husband.  He also specifies the process by which he would have killed her–with an overdose of sleeping pills.  Clive is an aesthetic person.  Clive loves abstract beauty more than ordinary life and considers an appreciation of music a special quality of humanness.  For Clive, being fully alive is experiencing the outdoors.  In fact, while walking through England’s Lake District, Clive is so delighted in the beauty surrounding him that he thinks he “heard the music he had been looking for” to complete his millennial symphony (90).  However, on the same walk Clive may be a witness to a man attacking a woman, but he doesn’t interfere.  Later in the novel, when he is called upon by the police to identify a possible rape suspect, Clive is unable to face the human reality brought into the police station.  The passage which follows this episode, written in the best Dickensian tradition, shows Clive’s revulsion toward ordinary humanity.

                    He was allowed to go through to the heart of the station, where people were charged.  In the early evening, while he was waiting to go over his statement again, he witnessed a scuffle in front of the duty sergeant; a big, sweating teenager with a shaved head had been picked up hiding in a back garden with bolt cutters, master keys, a pad saw, and a sledgehammer concealed beneath his coat.  He was not a burglar, he insisted, and no way was he going in the cells.  When the sergeant told him he was, the boy hit a constable in the face and was wrestled to the floor by two other constables, who put handcuffs on him and led him away.  No one seemed much bothered, not even the policeman with the split lip, but Clive put a restraining hand over his leaping heart and was obliged to sit down.  Later a patrolman carried in a white-faced, silent four-year-old boy who had been found wandering about the car park of a derelict pub.  Later still, a tearful Irish family came to claim him.  Two hair-chewing girls, twin daughters of a violent father, came in for their own protection and were treated with joky familiarity.  A woman with a bleeding face lodged a complaint against her husband.  A very ancient black lady whom osteoporosis had folded double had been thrown out of her room by her daughter-in-law and had nowhere to go.  Social workers came and went, and most of them looked as criminally inclined, or as unfortunate, as their clients.  Everybody smoked.  In the fluorescent light everybody looked ill.  There was a lot of scorching tea in plastic cups, and there was a lot of shouting, and routine, uncolorful swearing, and clenched-fist threats that no one took seriously.  It was one huge unhappy family with domestic problems that were of their nature insoluble. This was the family living room.  Clive shrank behind his brick-red tea.  In his world it was rare for someone to raise his voice, and he found himself all evening in a state of exhausted excitement.  Practically every member of the public who came in, voluntarily or not, was down-at-heel, and it seemed to Clive that the main business of the police was to deal with the numerous and unpredictable consequences of poverty, which they did with far more patience and less squeamishness than he ever could. (165-6)

          Given such a revulsion toward ordinary humans, when he develops a pain in his left hand, as Molly did when she first began to deteriorate from Alzheimer’s, Clive thinks that he may suffer the same end.  He asks Vernon to kill him if he becomes debilitated.  (Vernon later writes Clive that he would kill him if necessary.) Eventually, Clive’s nervousness about his own physical health persuades him to consider suicide.  Clive enumerates his symptoms: “unpredictable, bizarre, and extremely antisocial behavior, a complete loss of reason.  Destructive tendencies, delusions of omnipotence.  A disintegrated personality” (169).

          What the reader should note significantly is that there is really no justification for such an enumeration.  Unpredictable? Possibly.  But then aren’t all artsy people supposed to be unpredictable, especially when the various muses inspire them?  Bizarre?  No previous action on Clive’s part could possibly be construed as bizarre.  The most bizarre act in the entire novel leading up to this enumeration of symptoms is Garmony’s wearing women’s dresses.  Clive may be a loner, but he is not antisocial. His desire to write the “Nessun dorma” for the new century is a noble ambition and therefore could neither be a delusion nor a symptom of omnipotence.  As far as having a disintegrated personality, Clive’s friend Vernon seems to fit that criterion better.  Although his view on human life is not as elaborated as Clive’s, Vernon’s definition of humanness is, if not neurotic, then certainly unique.  Because so many people depend on him for answers in his publishing office, Vernon sometimes thinks that he himself does not exist and that he is fragmented among other people.  However, while Clive strives for the fantastic and the abstract, Vernon feels alive from the thrill of the reality around him.

          Since life is so unbearable for Clive and since he is so angry at his friend for wanting to publish the Garmony pictures, Clive goes to Amsterdam, ostensibly to oversee the performance of his millennial symphony, but also to arrange that he and Vernon would be killed together.  Clive laces Vernon’s drink with poison.  In the hotel where they are staying, a willing Dutch doctor and his nurse kill both of them after they are drugged.

          These two euthanasia episodes are pathos-inspiring; the reader sees the hopes and potential of the two protagonists dashed as the needles are thrust into their arms.  Even though euthanasia is legal in Holland, their deaths are called mutual murders.  While the euthanasia situation in the Netherlands is only casually mentioned throughout the novel, the negative connotation of the practice comes through clearly.  The first mention of Dutch euthanasia is denoted as doctors in Holland “exploiting the suicide laws” (40).  “The Dutch medical scandal” is mentioned several times throughout the novel, but only as an ancillary motif until the final murders of Clive and Vernon.  After his arrival at Schiphol airport, Clive exclaims in epideictic of praise:

                    What a calm and civilized city Amsterdam was….  Such a tolerant, openminded, grown-up sort of place: the beautiful brick and carved timber warehouses converted into tasteful apartments, the modest van Gogh bridges, the understated street furniture, the intelligent, unstuffy-looking Dutch on their bikes with their level-headed children sitting behind.  Even the shopkeepers looked like professors, the street sweepers like jazz musicians.  There was never a city more rationally ordered. (168)

          Of course, as with most epideictic, the hyperbole should become evident for the reader.  [7]  After the murders, Garmony exclaims in the opposing form of epideictic, that of censure.  On their mission to return the bodies to Britain, Garmony says to George (Molly’s husband) quite simply: “Turns out there are these rogue doctors here, pushing the euthanasia laws to limits.  Mostly they get paid for bumping off people’s elderly relatives” (191).  It seems a fitting counterpoint when Garmony balances Clive’s praise for the rational Dutch with a comment of his own about their rationality:

                             “Ah,” he [George] sighed at last.  “The Dutch and their reasonable laws.”

                             “Quite,” Garmony said, “When it comes to being reasonable, they rather go over the top.” (192)

Even the narrator can’t seem to restrain from implying that not all is well in the Dutch paradise.  Before the above snippet of conversation between George and Garmony, the narrator reports that “On the corner was a spruce little coffeehouse, probably selling drugs” (192).

          What can be said about these novels that may indicate the trajectory that twenty-first century fiction on the right-to-life issues may take?  At least three factors can be located on a calculus of increasing disrespect for life.

          A first prophecy for future fiction would be that we must prepare ourselves to see more fiction as bizarre as Acker’s novel.  Note that, since abortion is a common item in the culture, the traditional storyline of a young mother in anguish over what to do regarding an untimely pregnancy has been supplanted by newer fictional representations.  Acker’s book is an instance of the fictional extremes which an author would take trying to establish a new perspective on abortion fiction.  Inject some lesbianism here, some polyvocal characterizations there, add a healthy dose of masochism, and thus we have a new recipe for abortion fiction.

          Note also that the extremes are only now being reached in infanticide fiction. Infanticide is still a reprehensible matter in the popular culture; that is, few people except Peter Singer and assorted other intellectuals have bought the philosophy that handicapped newborns should have their lives killed on the scale of unborn children through abortion.  Infanticide fiction still follows the traditional plot that abortion had two decades ago–either the plot line of a family struggling with what to do with someone who does not meet the standard of American perfection regarding human life or the plot line that a health care professional has decided to take matters into his or her own hands, killing the infant who is deemed as less than perfect.  There are exceptions, however, and David Martin’s novel is one indication that ordinary infanticide may not hold the reading public’s attention as much as a novel with bizarre means of killing infants as well as varied masochistic and sexually explicit content.

          A second prophecy is that twenty-first century fiction will continue to be devoid of ethical values, either by making no overt reference to values outside the world of fiction or by having characters who do not argue the ethical merits of the right-to-life issues at all.  All of the novels discussed here do not address the ethical foundations of the right-to-life issues. No fictional character cares about how Judaism’s view on abortion differs from Roman Catholic Christianity’s, just as no character cares that there are some in the culture who advocate that handicapped newborns should not have their right to life legally recognized.  In fact, what is noteworthy is the attack against religion in the abortion novel.  Acker’s characters are similar to standard American bigots who, if they cannot attack the beliefs of Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians, do the next best thing and attack the religious people themselves.

          I predict that the ad hominem attacks will become worse.  If Catholics can tolerate being victims–even if only in fiction, which really doesn’t mean anything, anyway (right?)–then fundamentalist Christians can be picked on next.  Maybe even Orthodox Jews after them; maybe even….  The list of future targets of abuse in fiction can expand as long as one group suffers silently.

          Third, the works discussed herein do not allow for good old-fashioned catharsis.  Don Quixote ends in a limbo regarding her spiritual welfare.  Though Quinndell is killed at novel’s end, the lives of the handicapped newborns are not properly mourned because they were, after all, “defective” anyway.  Vernon is killed by his best friend and unfortunately will have his reputation tainted as one who was involved in a double murder–a euthanasia murder at that, in the Netherlands of all places, the euthanasia capital of the world.

          What are the emotional benefits to be derived from such fiction?  Why should I read novels which make me depressed about the life-denying state of society?  What do I get out of reading about a post-abortion mother who is delusional, or reading about babies falling into a chasm, or reading about a paranoid man who would take the slightest symptom of being human and convert it into a justification to end his own life?  What satisfaction possibly accrues from reading novels with these plots?

          Perhaps this is the ultimate rhetorical point of such life-denying fiction.  The meaning of Horace’s famous dictum “aut prodesse aut delectare” is often obscured by the Latinized correlative conjunctions.  Literature has two purposes: to teach and to delight.  Perhaps these novels can entertain me in some way, but, more importantly, they can teach me something about the value of human life.  Perhaps I can use these novels as a barometer against which the social pressure for killing various other classes of human beings can be measured.  Perhaps their warped views of human life can challenge me to be a prophet to this twenty-first century, to warn the world.  Perhaps, finally, what these novels can teach is that I should do my best to see that real life never becomes so bizarre.

                                                     Works Cited

Acker, Kathy. Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream. New York: Grove, 1986.

Anzaldua, Gloria. “Entering into the Serpent.” Ways of Reading: an Anthology for Writers. Eds. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 22-35.

Baker, Jeannine Parvati. “The Sword Was Not with the Goddess: a Spiritual Midwife Addresses the Need to Heal Abortion.” 22 May 2000. http://www.fnsa.org/fall98/baker1.html.

Martin, David. Bring Me Children. New York: Random House, 1992.

McEwan, Ian. Amsterdam. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Paris, Ginette. The Sacrament of Abortion. Trans. Joanna Mott. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1992. Trans. of L’Enfant, l’Amour, la Mort. Quebec: Editions Nuits Blanches, 1990.


    [1]  Of course, Catholics are not the only ones who suffer at the hands of anti-life lesbians in Acker’s novel.  Fundamentalist Christians are persecuted primarily because of their stance on abortion.  The characters mix religious faith with racism freely, as when Don Quixote says that such fundamentalist Christians are “Born-Agains who were murdering women who tried to get abortions in the United States” (177; capitalization in original).

    [2]  See, for example, Baker’s online essay “The Sword Was Not with the Goddess: a Spiritual Midwife Addresses the Need to Heal Abortion”.  Baker asserts:

                        I have had pagans and yogis alike tell me that motherhood archetypically contains both the loving as well as the rejecting mother and to be “whole” we need to express both.  Abortion seen in that light is but an extension of the natural “weaning mother.”  This argument is absurd…. The source of confusion is calling killing “weaning” or a “natural process”–dying is a natural process, killing other humans is not part of a natural religious path.

    [3]  The circumstances of the abortion in Acker’s novel are clearly pagan and devoid of any traditional Judaeo-Christian ethics.  Another mother who will abort, described as “Irish”, prays to the Moon.  This is significant if only because the adjective “Irish” resonates with the religion most vociferously identified with the pro-life position, Roman Catholicism.  Moreover, perhaps this is Acker’s way of helping the reader understand that the mothers who are aborting are pagan.  Just as Paris promotes worship of Artemis, Acker is indicating here that the Irish mother has abandoned her traditional religious roots and has gone over not necessarily to Goddess, but to Artemis worship (the moon is, after all, symbolic of Artemis, or, in the ancient Roman deity, Diana).

    [4]  For some reason, although the characters are vicious towards the Catholic Church, Prince is described as “a good Catholic” (22).

    [5]  This is in opposition to Paris’ thinking that the goddess Artemis can help people understand “a new allocation of life and death powers” (27) and that abortion is merely “another way of choosing death over life” (51; italics in original).

    [6]  In fact, several characters demonstrate various degrees of devotion to Catholicism.  Claire Cept, the woman who first directs the protagonist, John Lyon, to the infanticides, is an African-American Catholic.  Her granddaughter of the same name will assist the protagonist in solving the crimes.  This granddaughter, who had an abortion and thinks she cannot have normal relationships with men, in one episode moans before a statue of the Virgin Mary from which the Jesus figure has been chipped away.  As she prays before the statue, Claire says “I’m sorry” (200-2).  At novel’s end, however, Lyon is happily married with Claire, and they have children.

    [7]  Helping readers discover this hyperbole may be a task for the academy.  One of the benefits of presenting papers at University Faculty for Life conferences is that we academics can learn suitable terminology to best express trends in literature and other sciences which may help not only us as we read difficult or politically-challenging texts but also our students as they struggle to negotiate the value of a text on a first reading.  Thus, besides calling this passage an exercise in hyperbole or misplaced epideictic of praise, I can also label it as an instance of “disordered sentiment” which Dr. Frank Zapatka identified as a central concern of Walker Percy, that great twentieth-century writer whose works are more prophetic than they are humorous or philosophical.  Dr. Zapatka summarized Percy’s impressions that the Germans were the “nicest” people in the 1930s–the same decade when they attacked the civil rights of Jews and when they began thinking of the killing efforts which would occur in the next decade.  Similarly, Percy chastised Americans for being so generous and, well, golly, just the “nicest” people around–this, even while they have abortion legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy, and while their respect for the handicapped and the elderly is comparable to Quinndell’s and Clive’s.  The superlative form of the adjective used to describe both the Nazi German of the 1930s and 1940s and the American of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first century is, as Zapatka identified in his paper presentation, striking.

Categories
Papers

Breaking the Linguistic Permafrost of Current American Anti-Life Fiction: A Guide for Students of Literature

          Recently, I presented a paper at a medieval conference at McMaster University wherein I noted that many women in Thomas Malory’s tales of King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table are often not the sweet virginal creatures denoted by the term “damsels.”  I noted further that, since the term is popularly joined to the prepositional phrase “in distress,” the combination phrase (“damsels in distress”) was an example of how some words have become frozen in a “linguistic permafrost.”

          Contemporary American fiction, shackled by a corrupted anti-life feminist literary theory and by the oppression of nine-month legalized abortion, presents few works of fiction where women characters can be in any way denoted as “damsels in distress.”   As I pronounced those words to my audience then, I had two thoughts.  First, what a, as our students would say, “cool” idea to enunciate.  Secondly, I thought that, regarding the presentation of the right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia in contemporary American fiction, there is a similar linguistic permafrost perpetually freezing terms such as “abortion,” “choice,” and “rights” in anti-life writing.

          There is a summer, however, even in Siberia.  I believe that the linguistic permafrost which has enveloped contemporary fiction will eventually shatter, for there are fissures in the surface of the ice now.  You can hear the subterranean rumbling.  It will be my task to present evidence of the breaking of the linguistic permafrost for you so that it will be obvious not only to ourselves, but also to our students that the literature of the United States–even now, as it is being churned out in these nightmare decades of legal killing of the unborn child, the handicapped newborn, and the elderly–even now, our literature supports life-affirming principles.

          The first half of this paper will focus on current fiction titles which primarily present an anti-life theme.  [1]  What are some defining features of current anti-life fiction?  Faulty characterization of pro-lifers tops the list of attributes of anti-life fiction, followed closely by a corollary point, a blindness to the pro-life viewpoint.  On a secondary level, anti-life fiction frequently suffers from poor diction and historical inaccuracy.  Finally, in at least one noticeable case, spelling, grammatical, and even typographical errors abound in one work of anti-life fiction.

          I will focus on Sue Robinson’s The Amendment (1990), Walter Kirn’s She Needed Me (1992), and Mary Logue’s Still Explosion (1993).

          The plot of Sue Robinson’s The Amendment (1990) is unique in its boldness to “solve” what the author presents as a future “problem”: how to bypass a constitutional amendment which restores the first civil right to life.  Once the Human Life Amendment has been ratified, Robinson’s characters engage in guerrilla-warfare tactics to enable mothers to have abortions.  Underground abortion clinics spring up around the country to do their killing work.  Frances Foster is an elderly woman who lost not only her grandchild, but also her daughter in a botched abortion in one of these illegal underground abortion clinics.  She is resolved to guarantee that mothers continue to have the right to kill their unborn children.  She suggests to her accomplices that they can frustrate the protection of the Human Life Amendment by kidnapping the head of the pro-life movement, First Lady Mary Morgan.  Unlike our unfortunate real First Lady, Mary Morgan is the force behind the national pro-life organization which brought about ratification of the Human Life Amendment, the Rights for the Unborn League.  This kidnapping is a plausible feature of the plot because Foster has documentary evidence that it was Frances Foster’s secret-abortionist father who aborted the future First Lady’s child.

          In Robinson’s fictive world, the strategy works; a blow is struck against the protection of the Human Life Amendment.  The First Lady and pro-life groups are forced to deposit $100 million dollars into a Swiss bank account so that Frances Foster and her pro-abortion gang can open an abortion clinic in Sweden which would cater to the killing needs of the mothers who come to them.

          The plot of the novel can be torn apart with one stroke of  deconstruction.  One statement by a minor character can be deconstructed enormously.  At the University Faculty for Life conference last year, I suggested that, as current literary theories have been used to distort and contort texts into versions foreign to the author’s intention, or at least what has been considered the canonical reading for decades or centuries, these same literary theories can be used to valorize pro-life readings of texts.  While many academics may argue over the profound philosophical assault which deconstruction makes on substantive readings, the theory can be used in the case of this novel to unravel its anti-life rhetoric.

          Just before she is abducted, the First Lady’s hairdresser exclaims, “I want to live” (188).  Note that the character does not say merely “Oh” or “What’s happening?”  This spontaneous life-affirming exclamation is an odd statement to admit into a novel ostensibly concerned with declaring the acceptability of killing. The statement should immediately enable students to polarize themselves around two camps: those for the right to life and those against it.  Here is a character, blacking out from the application of chloroform, whose last thought before losing consciousness is life affirming.  Immediately, the case can be made that any human being automatically responds to the threat of death by declaring the opposite, perhaps because this automatic response is that innate right to life with which we are endowed by the Creator.  Since J. Hillis Miller asserts that deconstruction is not nihilistic, once the polarities of life and death are established, students can deconstruct the anti-life intent of the novel and replace it with a life-affirming criticism (9).

          Moreover, pro-life academics and students will be struck by the vengeance dominating the anti-life characters in the book.  Note that, instead of working legislatively to overturn the constitutional amendment restoring the first civil right to life, Frances Foster and her pro-abortion gang resort to illegal activities: kidnapping, threatening government officials, and deliberately breaking a national constitutional law.  What is the paramount emotion directing Frances’ and other characters’ behavior?  Hatred: of the First Lady, who is reduced either to a “little bitch” (162) or a “pricey little bitch” (205); hatred of the pro-life movement, which is called by one anti-life character as “an organization she detested with a pure hot loathing that made her tremble with fury” (93).  Hatred: of individual pro-lifers; the same anti-life character trembles with hatred again as she dehumanizes a pro-life character by calling him “the loathsome creature from the Rights for the Unborn League” (93).  Frances Foster similarly voices her violent thoughts.  At one point, looking at another pro-life character, Thomas B. Tuttle, she feels the urge “to grab Mr. Thomas B. Tuttle by his skinny neck and wring it until he was dead” (141).  She reduces his humanity to a synecdoche; he is part of a larger “monster,” the Rights for the Unborn League (141).  Specifically, Frances Foster reduces the pro-life man to being only “a curling fingernail, a piece of dirt under its claw” (141).

          Of course, such dehumanization should be typical.  If anti-lifers do not respect human life in the flesh, why should they respect fictional human life on the printed page?

          Walter Kirn’s She Needed Me (1992) is another boiler-plate anti-life novel.  The main characters are the descriptively-named Weaver Walquist, pro-life activist, and Kim Lindgren, with whom he has a sexual relationship.  [2]  There is also a pro-lifer named Lucas Boone, who is the leader of the Conscience Squad, an Operation Rescue-type activist organization.

          Walter’s bossy mother eventually helps Kim obtain an abortion.  Using a cultural criticism approach, pro-life academics and students are able to note the absences of pro-life educational groups and positive pregnancy support centers in the novel.

          The trio of Weaver, Kim, and her brother Ricky (perhaps even Lucas in substitution for Ricky) is reminiscent of the characters in Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (the Librarian, Vida, and Foster), all of whom collaborate in securing the killing of Vida’s unborn child.

          As is typical with anti-life fiction, Kirn’s novel contains some faulty legal citation.  A reference to state law is questionable:

                    If all Kim does for the next four weeks is watch TV and eat, she’ll have to keep the baby.  At the end of the first trimester, state law will tie her hands.  (88, all italics in original to show that this is what Weaver is thinking)

Perhaps it would be too shocking for Kirn to acknowledge that in the reader’s real world abortion is legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy and that, even if a state were to outlaw abortions, federal law in its abortion distortion dominates the will of the people at the state level.

          Again, as is typical of most anti-life novels I have read, the baby, unfortunately, is aborted at the end of the novel.  The reader is left with the distinct impression at closure, however, that Weaver’s and Kim’s romantic/sexual relationship has ended.  Moreover, Kim, the aborted mother, hints at what pro-life academics and students would recognize as Post Abortion Syndrome. Weaver relates that “Kim said it sometimes after sex, in the dark: `I can still be a mother someday'” (227).

          In any respect, Kirn’s book is tame contrasted with the more invidious Still Explosion by Mary Logue.  The cover of Still Explosion, a 1993 work, has the following quote from Nancy Pickard:  “The best I’ve read in a long time.”  Apparently, Pickard hasn’t been reading very much lately.  Critical reviews of the novel have been equally faulty.  [3]

          The plot is stereotypically anti-life.  An abortion clinic is bombed; pro-lifers are “obviously” suspect.  Anti-life journalist Laura Malloy solves the crime with little police help.  All is saved so that the abortion clinic can continue to kill unborn babies, harm their mothers, and estrange the fathers of the aborted children from their former lovers.  In essence, Still Explosion has such a predictable plot that anybody could write it.

          The characters are not only typically rendered by someone who probably is an anti-lifer; they are stereotypically rendered.  Pro-life activists are described either as devout Roman Catholics or fundamentalist Christians.  Furthermore, pro-life people are portrayed as chauvinists.  The leading pro-life activist, Tom Chasen, treats his wife as an inferior.  Another pro-life character, Paul Jameson, is portrayed not only as one who suffers from the abortion of his own child, but also as someone who resents women.

          Another character, who “got pregnant when she was in high school” and decided to give birth to her unborn child, is described gratuitously as a young woman who “said there was no way she could have had an abortion.  Catholic and all” (136).

          Pro-lifers know that many talented people contribute to this, our civil rights movement of the 1990s.  Pro-lifers are liberal and conservative, religious and atheist, Christian and Jewish, Democrat and Republican.  There is even, reportedly, a pro-life homosexual group.  The diversity of the pro-life movement is something which certain anti-life writers cannot understand.

          By novel’s end, the major pro-life characters are taken away (as in “by the police”) or blown away (as in “by a bomb”).  Perhaps this is Logue’s subliminal desire to “solve” the “problem” of pro-lifers.  [4]

          In fact, the most engaging “character” in the novel is Fabiola, Laura Malloy’s pet ferret.  (Gee, I wonder if, unlike her owner, Fabiola is pro-life?  Maybe that’s why the heroine keeps poor Fabiola in a closet.)

          Immediately, the pro-life reader is hit with one of the favorite assumptions proclaimed by anti-lifers.  Malloy wonders about the mothers going for abortions and wants to “find out what had brought them to this point in their lives and how they would feel if this right were taken away from them” (3).  What “right”? Abortion is a wrong, not a right.

          The moral blindness on abortion from which all anti-lifers suffer is evident in several passages.  One in particular is quintessential anti-life rhetoric.  Malloy enumerates the following as sufferings in the world which greatly disturb her:

                    AIDS killing babies and otters caught in oil spills.  The otters always got to me, I could picture them so clearly just swimming along like they had done all their lives and then this black, smelly, gluey stuff would get in their eyes and noses, cover their bodies and they would drown.  (27)

Pro-lifers immediately would query how someone could be more sensitive to the needs of the world’s seals than to the needs of the unborn.  In fact, we who are pro-life academics can use the above passage as an assignment for either an old-fashioned in-class writing exercise or a new-fashioned reader-response revision by having our students “translate” the passage into “pro-life”:

                    Abortionists killing babies in saline abortions.  The babies always got to me.  I could picture them so clearly just swimming along like they had done all their unborn lives and then this burning, saline solution would get in their eyes and noses, and burn their lungs and the skin of their unborn bodies and they would drown in a saline ocean.  [5]

          Again, Malloy must be either ignorant of fetology or unwilling to accept the truth enunciated by the pro-life movement when she states to pro-lifer Tom Chasen, “Well, for one thing, it isn’t a child.  And for another when a couple decide to use birth control, they are making a decision together about whether they want her to get pregnant” (125).  First, if the unborn child is not a child, what is he or she?  A rock?  A clump of cells from the mother’s body which magically–poof!–becomes a unique human being?  A car?  Second, birth control is either contraception or other non-artificial means of reproductive control.  What does that have to do with the fact that after fertilization a human life exists?

          Quick: a test.  Take out your pens and put all books under your desk.  Circle whatever might be incorrect with this next passage while I hum to myself the tune played during the final Jeopardy question:

                    I remembered when some members of a militant pro-life organization called Pro-Life Action Ministries raided a dumpster behind a family planning clinic in Robinsdale and found twelve “aborted babies.”  …  The legislature had passed a “fetal disposal law” and even though Planned Parenthood sought an injunction on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, the law was finally made official.  It asked that the “human remains of an aborted or miscarried fetus be disposed of in a dignified manner, either burial or cremation.”  (149)

          What’s wrong with the above passage?  Right, Alex!  When not quoting someone or introducing a word used in a different and unique manner, the use of quotation marks around certain terms diminishes the importance of those terms.  It is as though the “being” of the term or phrase is lessened.  Why are there quotes around “aborted babies”?  Either the pro-life activists (note that they are gratuitously called followers of a “militant” pro-life group) actually did find babies who were aborted or they found objects which they purported to be babies which (not “who’, since that pronoun denotes humanity) were aborted.  Which one is it?  Of course, an anti-life author would not want her readers to sympathize with pro-lifers in this matter.  Finding bodies of aborted babies in a dumpster is gruesome and could sway some people who are undecided on abortion closer to the pro-life side.  [6]  Why, too, is it necessary to use quotes around “fetal disposal law”?  The same line of reasoning can assert that the words are used correctly and need not be called into question with quotation marks.

          Malloy speaks a fundamental dishonesty about the theological issue of when the soul enters the human body when she states “that was the crux of all the controversy.  When did the soul come into the body?  At conception, at quickening, at birth?” (185).  Today’s anti-lifers can be respected for at least one thing: when they advocate the killing of an unborn child, they do not consider this theological argument.  Permit me to make more sweeping generalizations.  Anti-lifers do not care about the theology of abortion.  They demand taxpayer funding of abortions.  They demand censorship of pro-lifers.  They know human life begins at fertilization, but so what?  Women must be able to kill their unborn children if they so desire.  An anti-life author shows great disrespect for the intellectual underpinnings of the abortion wrongs movement, and lowers his or her own credibility within that community, when he or she classifies abortion as a theological issue.

          When “pro-life” Paul Jameson recounts his girlfriend’s abortion to Laura Malloy, he states, “OK, I know it’s not a baby, it’s a fetus, but in my mind it was a baby” (224).  Logue reduces with one prepositional phrase the entire war between pro-lifers and anti-lifers as a version of the phenomenalistic argument: it’s all in your mind.  If you think it’s a baby, then it’s a baby; if you think it’s only a choice, then it’s a choice.

          Similarly, when another mother describes her abortion to Malloy, she states that the abortionist told her

                    the fetus was too little to see, but I didn’t believe him.  Not that I wanted to see it (sic).  I think about it (sic) a lot.  It (sic) would’ve been a baby.  Right before the abortion, I tried to tell it (sic) it was nothing personal.  That at another time I would have felt different.  (112)

Note the extensive use of the impersonal pronoun for a child who was either a “he” or a “she.”  The use of the impersonal pronoun presents another problem to readers who support the first civil right: the necessary correction which such readers must make (as evidenced by the numerous “sic”s which I introduced into the passage quoted) impedes the progression of the text.  Thus, the comprehension of the anti-life intent of the passage is severely hampered.

          As the opening pages of the novel hits pro-lifers with an assault of anti-life rhetoric, so does the last page, which attempts to summarize the functions of the characters and to bring closure to the book:

                    Christine’s reasons for having an abortion, Tom Chasen’s fears of women using it as a means of birth control, Sandy Chasen’s religious fervor, Donna Asman’s [the abortion clinic director] commitment to providing women of all income brackets with a choice, Meg Jameson’s Catholic views, and Sheila Langstrom’s desire to have a baby, coloring her attitude on abortion, and Paul’s question of where do men fit into the decision.  (234)

Note that in the above litany, the anti-life characters are described positively.  It is a definite good being communicated to the reader that Donna Asman, responsible for the deaths of thousands of unborn children, has her career of violation of the first civil right to life as a “commitment”–itself a powerfully positive word–“providing women of all income brackets with a choice.”  This positive description of Asman’s abortorium work needs to be translated by pro-lifers into something more accurate, such as:

                    Donna Asman’s obsession with lowering the population, especially of poor minority women, and making sure that they understand that killing their unborn children is their only choice and that they owe it to society not to bring more of their kind–African American, Hispanic, Vietnamese–into the world.

          Logue’s diction makes the main character obviously anti-life, a fatal flaw for a newspaperwoman who admits her bias to the reader.  Bemoaning the fact that she “had to cross the street and brave the cluster of protestors who were handing out pamphlets,” the seasoned pro-lifer will halt at Laura Malloy’s scorchingly negative continuation, “harassing the women who entered the clinic” (1).  This first page example of slapping pro-lifers continues throughout the book.

          Prepositions show relationships between nouns and pronouns (a very positive and pro-life thing for a part of speech to do).  An overuse of prepositions, however, can considerably slow down the reading and comprehension of a passage:

                    After I had been parked in front of the bondmen’s offices across the street from the station for five minutes, I saw Tennison walk in the main doors of the station.  I sat in my car for a few minutes to give him some time alone, then walked past the bronze Father of the Waters in the foyer of the building and down a long narrow hallway to his office.  (21; emphasis added)

Despite the use of “for” in adverbial phrases, all of the above underlined words “read” to the eye (as does the “to” in the verb infinitive “to give”) as prepositions and can distract the reader from the more important work of deciphering what the author tries to convey.  The same can be said for the use of “down,” although this is a truncation of the parallelism in the verb forms “walked past” and “walked down.”

          On several occasions Laura Malloy’s comments read more as intrusions than as reminiscences or clarifying thoughts.  Speaking about a fountain of which she is particularly fond, Malloy describes how she

                    went and stood by the fountain and watched the water squirt out of the fishes’ mouths in a ring around the nymphet.  Over the years, she had turned a light blue streaked-bronze color and seemed happy.  It was nice to see women’s art celebrating women in a public place.  (172)

Malloy’s comment about women’s art being celebrated in public does nothing more to enhance her character; the reader is quite aware that Malloy is an anti-life feminist.  It does, however, intrude a feminist political position unnecessarily.

          Of lesser importance, yet annoying, are the numerous grammatical, historical, and typographical errors in the novel.  Usually, readers are tolerant of such mistakes.  Sometimes, however, when a novel contains numerous errors, the quality of the work as a whole suffers.

          Two instances of grammatical errors cannot be attributed to the poor linguistic skills of the characters.  It is Laura Malloy, supposedly a professional newspaperwoman, who states “the business and editorial office of the Twin Cities Times were on University Avenue, quite close to the dividing point between Minneapolis and St. Paul” (54).  The principle of subject-verb agreement dictates that the sentence should either be “business and editorial offices … were” or “office … is on University Avenue.”  The other grammatical error is contained in a statement by the leading pro-life activist in the book, Tom Chasen: “One thing that is sacred to my wife and I is our time alone together” (67).  We ain’t got no ambiguity here.  The sentence should read “sacred to my wife and me.”

          Is “analyzation” a word, as used in “Well, if I may do a little Malloy analyzation here, you don’t give yourself a break” (136) or does Logue mean to say “analysis”?

          An example of an historical error in the book is Saint Thomas Aquinas’ statement, oft-repeated by anti-lifers, about when the soul enters the human body, which is mistakenly attributed to Saint Augustine: “But the quote that affected me the most … was by St. Augustine from 1140: `He is not a murderer who brings about abortion before the soul is in the body'” (185).  Saint Augustine died in the year 430 A.D.  Perhaps Malloy got confused; after all, anti-lifers are very confused people.  “Augustine” sounds a lot like “Aquinas” … much like “abortion” sounds like “reproductive choice.”

          Another historical inaccuracy occurs in Malloy’s brief history of abortion (cited by Kuda in her review):

                    –In 1812, the first abortion case in the United States was heard and the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was legal with the woman’s consent if it was done before quickening, which is when the woman feels the fetus move within her, usually near the mid-point of gestation….  At this time abortion was often called “menstrual regulation.”  (185)

I will stand–and even sit–corrected on this if need be, but a search of law databases using the terms “abortion” or “menstrual regulation” shows no such case decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1812.

          Finally, the abortion clinic has a variety of names.  This can confuse the reader into thinking that there are several abortion clinics involved in bombings.  The abortorium is named the “Lakewood Family Planning Clinic” on page 1, “Family Planning Clinic” (capital letters) on page 206, and “family planning clinic” (lower case letters) elsewhere.  Finally, on page 234 it is called “Lakeview Clinic.”  Which one is it?

          Is dwelling on such minor points justifiable?  Isn’t this merely an ad hominem attack on an anti-life character, or, at the least, evidence that the author exercised her freedom of choice by choosing a poor printer?  No.  When the quality of an anti-life work suffers in so many areas, maybe this is evidence that the writer, having no respect for the unborn child, has subconsciously demonstrated her lack of respect for the born reader.

          But wait, the book is so bad … maybe Laura Malloy is, like her pet ferret Fabiola, a closet pro-lifer?  Maybe this book is written so poorly from an anti-life perspective that people will see through the anti-life rhetoric and become pro-lifers?

          The three novels which I have highlighted all have a dominant anti-life them.  I will now consider how certain novels which present a pro-life viewpoint contrast against these anti-life novels.  These are novels which are forcing cracks in the linguistic permafrost of anti-life writing.  I will change my presentation order, starting with Lois Lowry’s The Giver, published in 1993, and then proceed to Carlos Fuentes’ Christopher Unborn, which was published in 1989.

          There are few recent novels which primarily present a pro-life theme on infanticide and euthanasia.  [7]  Lois Lowry’s The Giver is one novel which incorporates infanticide and euthanasia themes and combines the two issues from a thematically pro-life perspective.

          In writing The Giver, Lowry has written a testament for respect for human life and thus qualifies as a hallmark of pro-life fiction.  It is a vision of the future, a utopia which is frighteningly possible.

          By definition utopian literature has the capability not only of depicting a futuristic society, but also of commenting on contemporary society.  Utopian literature may also serve to warn contemporary society of what frightening changes may occur in the future.  Consider this book a masterpiece along with B.F. Skinner’s Walden II–another American novel of a utopia gone wrong.  The Giver presents us with the utopia of American society gone wrong, where quality of life becomes the overriding concern versus the fact that human life, in whatever imperfect state it exists, is worth protecting.

          Set in a time when it will have been possible to eradicate emotions, Jonas, the twelve-year-old hero of the story, is selected by the “Community” in which he lives to be the “Receiver” of memories.  A corresponding character, the “Giver,” is an older man who imparts to the boy all his memories.  These memories include life as it once existed before the Community adopted stringent controls; they also include memories of emotions, especially the most powerful emotion–love.

          Pro-lifers immediately know to be alert to certain words.  When a novelist mentions the word “release,” pro-lifers think immediately that the book they are reading will concern itself with euthanasia.  In Lowry’s dystopia, however, the one term “release” applies not only to the killing of defective newborns, but also to the elderly, who have only a set number of years to be alive in the Community.

          One infanticide scene in The Giver is especially graphic.  In the following scene, Jonas’ father, whose job in the Community is that of “Nurturer,” decides to release a newborn baby, called a “newchild,” who hasn’t met the Community’s standards regarding birth weight.  Jonas is watching this on videotape.

                    [Jonas’] father began very carefully to direct the needle into the top of newchild’s forehead, puncturing the place where the fragile skin pulsed.  The newborn squirmed, and wailed faintly.  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.  Now he cleans him up and makes him comfy, Jonas said to himself….  The newchild, no longer crying, moved his arms and legs in a jerking motion.  Then he went limp.  He (sic) head fell to one 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.  (149-150)

          No doubt, anti-lifers will want to ban the book from high school libraries.  Cuyahoga County Public Library, which serves the metropolitan Cleveland area, rightfully catalogs this title as a work of juvenile fiction–rightfully, because it is appropriate that our young people should come to realize how close to practicing euthanasia our nation has come.

          Where Lowry’s The Giver is bold enough to tackle infanticide and euthanasia, Carlos Fuentes’ Christopher Unborn (1989) directly assaults the anti-life distortion of abortion.  Christopher Unborn may not qualify for inclusion in this study since it is, first, not an “American” (that is, North American) work of fiction.  If it is necessary to affix any label to it, then it is a Latin American work, a work of fiction by a Mexican author.  [8]  Fortunately for me, Fuentes’ novel has been translated into English and has made a stunning impact on critics in the United States.  [9]

          Fuentes himself is enigmatic; his political positions can be expressed in a series of complex sentences.  Fuentes, who is called a leftist, supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, yet he thinks that Cuba needs more democracy.  Although his novels are replete with the Roman Catholic fascinations of politics, sex, and religion, he has ridiculed what he has called the Catholic Church’s “repression” of sex.  Finally, although he states that he has found “stability” after being married and having children with his wife Sylvia, feminist critics think that Fuentes has a fear of women (Crossing Borders).

          Given these skeletal biographical facts, how could such a person write Christopher Unborn, which has such a profoundly dominant pro-life theme?  While he may have been thinking immediately of the holocausts which are universally known, Fuentes once declared that “Everybody is capable of violence in the twentieth century” (Crossing Borders).  Thus, pro-life academics and students can demonstrate successfully that even a so-called leftist author like Carlos Fuentes acknowledges that not even the womb is as safe as it once was.

          The plot of the novel is ultimately simple.  Christopher, an unborn child, recounts in vivid, omniscient narrator mode, the circumstances of his conception, his fertilization, and the nine months of his gestation in his mother’s womb.  Christopher realizes that he has been conceived mainly because his parents want to win the Christopher Contest, sponsored by the government of Mexico in celebration of the founding of the New World by Columbus.  This is the ostensible reason for the child’s existence.

          Fuentes has done in fiction what The Silent Scream does in video educational efforts: the unborn child is given a voice.  It is difficult to ignore a narrator as he describes how half of him was shot out of his father during his fertilization.  [10]  It is difficult to ignore a narrator who engages in frequent fetological descriptions according to the stages of his gestation, such as “I, Christopher, was a cluster of well-organized cells, with defined functions, learning the classic lesson, innocent that I was, about the unity of my person” (220).

          Later, Christopher enumerates a wide variety of activities which he calls “essential”:

                    My hands, for example, have grown more rapidly than the arms they’re attached to, they first appear with the fingers looking like buds; the last phalanx has emerged from the palms of my hands, my fingertips have formed, little tiny nails have appeared on all my fingers and toes, and the transparent and cartilaginous skeleton I had in my first four months is now bone and I move my arms and legs energetically; I have little accidents, I scratch my face with my nails unintentionally; I have pleasures: I suck my thumb incessantly; I make discoveries: I can touch my face.  (408)

          It is difficult to ignore a narrator who describes how his life seems threatened by other characters in the novel who may want him dead.  It is difficult to ignore a narrator who depicts from the unique perspective of one who resides in what should be a safe womb how assaulted he felt when his mother was violently raped.  Moreover, it is difficult not to personalize a narrator, an unborn child, who, in the reverse of apostrophe, directly addresses an absent character who becomes a character by virtue of his willing it so: the “Reader.”  [11]

          Finally, with the exception of the other thematically pro-life work I have discussed (Lowry’s The Giver), Christopher Unborn can give to the reader for his or her patient efforts to plow through 531 pages of sometimes incomprehensible word-play a satisfaction which is absent at the conclusion of the other thematically anti-life novels.  It is like the joy of being at a birth.  Does anybody not at least have a tear in his or her eye when a baby is born?  Or, considering the polar opposite, does anybody cry for joy as the parts of an unborn child are dragged piecemeal from the mother’s womb, sucked through the vacuum aspiration tube?  Can anyone imagine future fiction where characters proclaim with rapture, “Oh look, there’s the left arm!  Why, look at those pieces there!  That’s the head!  That’s the head of the fetus we’re aborting!”  Of course not.  While abortion may be sanitized as an abstract right in anti-life fiction, the birth of an unborn child still engenders happiness.

          In fact, what happens to Baby Ba is an added treat for the patient reader.  More importantly, the epiphany of Baby Ba is truly a surprise.  Do you want to know what happens to Baby Ba?  Do you want to know who Baby Ba is?

          I won’t tell you.  You’ll have to read the book.

          Listen.

          Listen carefully.

          Let us tell our students also to listen, to listen carefully, to the cracking of the ice, the fissures in the permafrost.

          Let us tell our students to listen for the voices of unborn children and comatose persons in our literature.  They are there, trapped beneath the massive weight of a decades-long linguistic permafrost.  Fortunately, the love we show the unborn and others who have been marginalized in American fiction may warm the surface of the frozen ground and may melt just enough of the ice so that these nightmare decades of living without our first civil right to life may soon come to a close.

                                                     Works Cited

Brautigan, Richard. The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.

Christian, S. Rickly. The Woodland Hills Tragedy. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1985.

Crossing Borders: the Journey of Carlos Fuentes. Written by Stephen Talbot. Readings by Carlos Fuentes. Directed and edited by Joan Saffa. Produced by Novel Productions in association with KQED, Inc. Videocassette. [N.p.]: Novel Productions, 1989.

Fuentes, Carlos. Christopher Unborn. Trans. Alfred MacAdam and the author. New York: Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 1989. Trans. of Cristobal Nonato. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1987.

Gill, Gillian. Rev. of Still Explosion, by Mary Logue. Women’s Review of Books 10 (July 1993): 40.

Grusa, Jiri. The Questionnaire: or, Prayer for a Town and a Friend. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982

King, John. Rev. of Christopher Unborn, by Carlos Fuentes. Times Literary Supplement (Dec. 15, 1989): 1386.

Kirn, Walter. She Needed Me. New York: Pocket Books, 1992.

Klett, Rex E. Rev. of Still Explosion, by Mary Logue. Library Journal 118 (Apr. 1, 1993): 135.

Kuda, Marie. Rev. of Still Explosion, by Mary Logue. Booklist 89 (Apr. 1, 1993): 1415.

Logue, Mary. Still Explosion. Seattle: Seal Press, 1993.

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

Miller, J. Hillis. The Ethics of Reading: Kant, deMan, Eliot, Trollope, James, and Benjamin. New York: Columbia U P, 1987.

Robinson, Sue. The Amendment: a Novel. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1990.

Ruta, Suzanne. Rev. of Christopher Unborn, by Carlos Fuentes. New York Times Book Review (Aug. 20, 1989): 1.

Smith, Donald S. The Silent Scream: the Complete Text of the Documentary Film with an Authoritative Response to the Critics. Anaheim, CA: American Portrait Films Books, 1985.


    [1]        Thus, while numerous other novels may contain characters who have had abortions, they will not be considered here since these novels are usually only tangentially concerned with the first right-to-life issue.

    [2]        It is significant that the main character in this Minnesota-locale novel is not named a strongly-masculine “Mitch Viking” or “Todd Icelander.”  The name “Weaver Walquist” is particularly descriptive since it combines several items from the popular culture.  “Weaver” resonates with the associations “wimp” and one who is uncertain about where he or she is to go, someone who literally “weaves” from one position to another.  “Walquist” similarly resonates with at least one association, “quisling.”  In Kirn’s prose, Weaver can indeed be a traitor not only to his girlfriend, but also to his purported pro-life views.

    [3]        Not many reviewers have the conciseness of Rex E. Klett, a reviewer for Library Journal.  Designed with the needs of the librarian working in a public library in mind, Klett’s review can be condensed to an abstract of a simple sentence: “A workable prose, plot, and issue make this appropriate for larger collections” (135).  At the other extreme, consider Marie Kuda’s abstracted review for Booklist:

                        As (Laura Malloy, the main character in the novel) goes after both the bombing and the abortion story that led her to it, Logue develops both major sides of the abortion issue and includes a capsule history of abortion.  Then, what appears to be a bloody fetus is left on the doorstep of Bobby’s grieving girlfriend, and the pace accelerates to an explosive ending.  (1415)

Then, there is the ridiculously-biased and intellectually dishonest abstracted review which appeared in the Women’s Review of Books:

                        Malloy is a sympathetic and persuasive detective, cast in many ways in the mold of the old detective hero as eulogized by Raymond Chandler‑‑a tall loner (Malloy is five‑ten) who searches for social justice in the city streets. . . . From the first tragic explosion that destroys a beautiful young man, Logue holds our attention and gives us the kind of excitement we expect from detective‑thrillers. The violence is never gratuitous, however, as Logue wants not merely to entertain but to make some statement about abortion. . . . The pro‑choice politics are upfront, expressed even more forcefully by the plot line and the characterization than in the journalistic conclusions written up by the fictional detective.  (Gill 40)

    [4]        Perhaps, too, it was a Loguesque person who tried to kill one of the nation’s most effective lobbyists for the pro-life movement.  Ms. Jan Folger, Legislative Director for the Ohio Right to Life Society, recently had her car bombed.  Presumably perpetrated by anti-lifers, the car bombing is a compliment to Ms. Folger’s effectiveness with Ohio’s representatives, senators, and governor.  Whether the anti-life person responsible for the bombing thought of the idea on his or her own or was inspired to it by reading Logue’s novel is an intriguing question, but one which I cannot answer at this time.

    [5]        Of course, the revision would be purely to allow students to understand the contrast between an anti-life character and a pro-life one; we would never use the revision process to proselytize as anti-life feminist literary critics have done.

    [6]        Readers interested in one of the more well-known cases of unborn children’s bodies found in a dumpster may wish to read S. Rickly Christian’s account in The Woodland Hills Tragedy (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1985).

    [7]        We who study literature are, of course, all engaged in an archaeological effort: digging beneath accretions of anti-life criticism to get at the intent of a work which is essentially life-affirming.  Instances of pro-life literature abound; stories which are thematically pro-life are being “discovered” continuously.  For example, a literature discussion in one of my research paper classes excavated a thematic function behind Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors.”  I must thank a student in the course, Rob Poelking, for first pointing out what should have been obvious: the story can be interpreted in pro-life terms to be a story of euthanasia.  In Greene’s story, a centuries-old house in London, a house which survived natural catastrophes as well as the human-made holocaust of World War II, is destroyed from within by a gang of British youths who seem to have nothing better to do than to destroy artifacts of their society.  My student’s insight, that the story could have euthanasia overtones, was, I think, strikingly brilliant.  The centuries-old house could be compared to an elderly person of today: both are unwanted by some in society who see no value in either.  The societal solution to the problem of old folks (and old buildings) which go nowhere and do nothing and do not contribute to the cash flow of the society is obvious: get rid of them both.

    [8]        There is another reason to justify the inclusion of this novel in the study.  Now that we are more aware than ever of the “inclusion” principle which is working to expand the canon, especially to include those works from non-Western writers, it is only appropriate that we acknowledge the importance of such a cosmopolitan author like Carlos Fuentes.

            Another conference participant informed me last night that a Czech novelist, Jiri Grusa, included in his novel The Questionnaire: or, Prayer for a Town and a Friend (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982) a passage written from the perspective of the unborn child also.  In the light of Ms. Mercedes Wilson’s remarks about the oppression of the Third World by the anti-life First World nations, it is interesting and noteworthy that Second and Third World writers like Grusa and Fuentes are writing for the First World novels which are thematically pro-life.

    [9]        Some reviewers, however, seem to have missed the pro-life point of the novel completely, arguing that it is more concerned with criticizing the Reagan years in the United States than it is with criticizing certain social policies of the United States and the deleterious effects of those policies on a nation such as Mexico.  One reviewer’s abstract reaches the generic conclusion that

                        Five hundred years after the discovery and conquest of Latin America, the utopia has become dystopia. . . . Only caustic, corrosive humour, it seems . . . can release new energies from the dead hand of history and state power. . . . (King 1386)

Another reviewer’s abstract reads more as prophecy than literature review:

                        (Fuentes) has given an unborn babe the power of speech in order to bring the “odious eighties” to account. . . . Until American novelists take it upon themselves to muckrake the Reagan years with equal vigor, Carlos Fuentes, with this book, must rank as our leading North American political satirist. (Ruta 1)

    [10]       Another tangential thought about Christopher Unborn.  If the theme of the novel does not attract attention, then the playful and sometimes raunchy sexual scenes should.

    [11]       In several instances, Christopher addresses the reader as though he or she is a judge, of what judicial authority is uncertain.  The questions can then be begged of Christopher: are you on trial? what for? why are you on trial and not your parents? what will happen to you if you are found guilty?  The reader of the novel is addressed as “your honor” (178), “your worship the reader” (210), or “your worships” (249).  Does the Reader have the power merely to stop reading the book or does the Reader, especially by doing so, have the power to end Christopher’s life? In several instances, Christopher engages in word play with the quasi-judicial Reader, begging “mercy” from the Readers as though they were judges.

Categories
Papers

Cinematic Treatment of Abortion: Alfie (1965) and The Cider House Rules (1999)

          The icons of contemporary culture are cinematic.  Certainly, for example, the famous still photograph of the young woman kneeling and shrieking over the dead body of her fellow Kent State student is iconic.  Contemporary icons, however, demonstrate a kinetic quality not only to be merely enjoyed in a theater or at home, but also to be worthy of continued critical discussion.  The scene of epiphany between the tramp and the young woman whose sight he helped to restore in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights is as poignant today as it was in 1931.  Kim Novak’s slow and sensual walk towards Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is as iconic as Gloria Swanson’s final walk towards the camera in Sunset Boulevard (1950) or the famous shower scene in Psycho (1960).  Moreover, films occupy an important part of contemporary culture.  Fiction, music, and poetry are not ignored in contemporary culture, but neither of these art forms has the glamour encapsulated in the phrase “Hollywood production”—a production which combines all of the previously mentioned art forms.

          This paper, however, is not concerned with the claims of film studies per se as it is with an evaluation of what films have to say on one of the most urgent issues of our culture, the right-to-life issue of abortion.  Time constraints and the quantity of material available on the first life issue do not allow a comprehensive examination of the other two life issues (infanticide and euthanasia).[1]  Thus, I will focus on two major abortion films, Alfie (1965) and The Cider House Rules (1999).  More importantly, what right-to-life criticism can say about these films is substantial and can indicate how other films on the life issues can be reviewed.

          While there has been some scholarly examination of abortion in late twentieth-century films,[2] much more has been written about documentary films on the life issues, and most of that academic writing can be classified as anti-life attempts to cope with the growth and success of the movement towards the reestablishment of the first civil right to life.  For example, although he struggles to account for the conversions of famous abortionists like Bernard Nathanson to the pro-life movement in narratological speculation about conversion rhetoric, Robert James Branham uses typical anti-life language to describe the impact of pro-life documentaries, saying that “Documentary films and videos have played a particularly crucial role in the campaign to limit abortion rights” (407).  He dismisses The Silent Scream and Eclipse of Reason, assigning unfounded and sinister motives behind the pro-life purpose of the films, ending his discussion with an apparent attempt at verbal irony, thus:

                    In their use of the convert tale to denigrate women’s rational capacities and diminish their moral responsibility, The Silent Scream and Eclipse of Reason seek to legitimize the prohibitive intervention of judicial and legislative agencies “on her behalf.”  By portraying women as ignorant, irrational, and gullible in order to deny them the ability to choose, the films themselves eclipse reason. (423)[3]

          Sometimes criticism of films from entrenched academically correct literary perspectives, especially if they are classified as “feminist” and meant to advance an anti-life agenda, can lead to, if not academic babble, then inflated or incredible claims loaded with all the politically correct terms from an anti-life feminist lexicon.  Consider the following passage from Karyn Valerius: “I argue that the gothicization of bourgeois, white pregnancy enacted by Rosemary’s Baby contests the essentialist conflation of women with maternity and the paternalistic medical and legal restrictions on women’s access to abortion prior to Roe v. Wade (1973), which enforced that conflation in practice” (119).  Maybe the problem is one of academic diction involving layers of subordination.  Isn’t there a simpler way of claiming that some films advance abortion?[4]

          Struggling to understand the academic discussion of contemporary films on the first right-to-life issue of abortion led to this year’s paper.  What does this art form have to say about abortion that is broadcasted to the public for their cultural consumption?  How should the public not only understand, but also respond to images which show the demeaning and destruction of human life?

Alfie (1965)

          The subject of this 1965 film (that it would be interesting to follow a sexual libertine as he goes from one woman to another) may no longer be as exciting as it once was, especially since films since the sixties are often raunchier in ways that were not possible for the sixties audience.  However, interest in Alfie can be renewed because of its two abortion sequences.

          The plot of the film (and both the stage version and the novel) is simple.  Set in Britain in the sixties, the film highlights Alfie Elkins, a sexual libertine who is adept in the ways of women.  The opening scenes show Alfie’s romantic control over Gilda, who sincerely loves him.  When she becomes pregnant and decides to keep the baby, Alfie is content to be a weekend father; while he genuinely loves Malcolm, his son, Alfie cannot accept the daily responsibilities of being a husband and father.  Gilda eventually asserts herself, telling Alfie that she no longer respects him and that Humphrey, another man who has loved her while she knew Alfie, wants to marry her and be a real father to Malcolm.  Alfie leaves Gilda and picks up Annie, known for being scrupulous about cleaning everything in his apartment.  When Alfie reads her diary, Annie leaves him for this breach of privacy.  Soon after this, Alfie develops tuberculosis and stays at a sanatorium where he meets Lily Clamacraft, the wife of his hospital roommate.  Alfie has a sexual interlude with an older woman, Ruby, while he is pursuing Lily.  Alfie and Lily have a quick adulterous affair, she becomes pregnant, and Alfie arranges to have an abortionist come to his apartment.  After the abortion is induced, Lily returns to her husband and children, and Alfie returns to his sexual libertinism.

          Stylistically, all three texts (the original drama and the novel written by Bill Naughton, and then later the film) have two important narratorial features.  First, Alfie communicates his wisdom about women and life to the audience in second-person language.  The second feature, an annoying consequence of the first, is that, when Alfie’s direct address of the reader and the audience occurs, we are to presume that the other characters in the background do not hear him address us.  Using second-person in the novel may have been an ordinary narratorial technique, especially since the reader cannot see the persons around the narrator; moreover, lower class people, such as Alfie, will often use second-person address to get their point across.  However, its use in the film, which is meant to shorten the distance between Alfie and the reader, contributes instead to a sense not only that Alfie is trying too hard to communicate his moral axioms, but also that his moral quips are as insincere as the possibility that people around him will not hear him as he speaks.  The use of second-person language has another important rhetorical element in Lily’s abortion episode that I will elaborate later. 

          Moreover, an important character aspect must be mentioned here before the abortion episode can be examined.  Alfie’s religious situation is just as vapid as his lifestyle.  Although the novel has an interesting few sentences about religion, Alfie’s carpe diem attitude toward life reduces religious principles to an aesthetic concern.  While the stage production and the film mention them briefly, the novel elaborates the religious elements more.  When Alfie happens to witness the baptism of the new child that Gilda had with Humphrey, now her husband, Alfie asserts:

                    I quite liked that little bit about the devil and God.  I think the sooner you get all that into a kid’s head the sooner he’ll know where he stands.  After all, each one of us, we need somebody to turn to in this life. I mean it’s not so much whether you do right or wrong, in my opinion, but that you know the difference between them. (185)[5]

          Although there are slight differences between the stage production and the novel, there are several important cinematic differences involving the two abortion discussions in the film, Alfie’s discussion with Gilda about her pregnancy and Lily’s abortion episode.  The first sequence involves only discussion of abortion; Alfie has made his girlfriend Gilda pregnant, and they review choices available to them.  The second episode actually involves the choice to kill the unborn child, although Lily’s abortion is technically an induction of abortion (the abortionist makes this clear in the film).

          It is easy to see that Gilda is an example of how a young woman who becomes pregnant should handle the matter of an untimely pregnancy.  Although the text of the drama makes it clear that she has tried abortifacients (10), once she realizes that she is a mother, Gilda asserts herself and decides to keep the baby.  Gilda has a community of women who help her after the baby is born, and, although she intends to work hard as a single mother and to raise her son, her situation persuades Humphrey to propose marriage.  They will marry, and towards the end of all three texts, Gilda and Humphrey are happily baptizing another child.

          In contrast, Lily’s abortion episode illustrates how a woman should not resolve the complications surrounding an untimely pregnancy, and the complications are serious.  Before her abortion, the novel clarifies that Lily’s family, especially her mother-in-law, would know that she had an adulterous affair and that the child she carries is not her husband’s.  After the abortion, Lily disappears from the action, presumably having gone back to her husband and her children and out of Alfie’s life.[6]

          The cinematic rendering of Lily’s abortion episode–about eighteen minutes, or nearly 15% of the entire film–is striking in six noteworthy respects, three of which seem relatively minor until they are examined in greater detail.  First, it is filmed almost entirely without the jaunty jazz music that accompanies Alfie on his other sexual excursions and daily events.  Music returns to the film only when Lily and Alfie leave the apartment, but it is notably subdued.  Second, the setting, the interior of Alfie’s apartment, is cluttered, not only because his former lover, Annie (the immaculate one who cleaned everything), has left, but also because the scene gives the viewer the unconscious perception that Alfie is as careless and out of order as the abortion itself.  Third, the scene is filmed in low light.  Either it is late afternoon or early evening outside, and the opening shot shows rain falling on the kitchen window, so the lighting inside the apartment is darker than normal–certainly much darker than the brightly lit room of Gilda, his former lover who chose to carry her child to term, get married, and live happily with her new husband and family. 

          Fourth, the absence of color in the abortion sequence is particularly noteworthy.  Even though many scenes are filmed in industrial areas of London where the weather contributes to the drabness of the background, other scenes in the film are bright with color.  Gilda’s final scene with Alfie, when she tells him that she does not respect him as much as she respects Humphrey, is bright with white diapers hanging to dry and colorful clothes surrounding them.  Humphrey discusses marriage with Gilda on a bench in a quiet London park during lunch, and the emotional resonance of the scene is positive, even though the background is industrial.  Alfie’s romantic interlude in another lover’s apartment (that of Ruby, an older, richer woman) is surrounded by fine furniture and sensual red and gold items.  Lily’s abortion scene in Alfie’s apartment, in contrast, is drab.  The dominant color is gray, and the emotional resonance of this color is common knowledge.[7]

          Fifth, Lily’s abortion scene is one of only few instances where language seems to disintegrate, an aspect vitally important for character development.  Language is often halted and truncated.  When Lily states, “You’re the man who–,” her voice trails off as though the words which would complete the sentence (“will perform the abortion” or “is the abortionist”) are unutterable.  Alfie illustrates an extreme disintegration of language; he silently weeps when he sees the body of his unborn child, and the silence continues for nearly a minute, a significant amount of time in a film, equivalent to the idea of “dead air” in radio.

          Finally, the sixth cinematic feature involves camera angles, which are significantly altered in the abortion episode.  After the initial view of rain outside the window, the camera shows us Lily’s feet, trudging up the stairs to Alfie’s apartment.  The camera angle is sometimes below the eye level of the characters, a move designed to make persons in the film seem more important than they are.  There are significant panoramic views of Alfie’s apartment.  The camera often follows characters as they move around the apartment, in contrast to other portions of the film where characters move in and out of the stationary camera position.  In one shot the camera presents Alfie’s back to the viewer so that we cannot read his face; the viewer sees Alfie only through a reflection in a mirror.  The inability to read Alfie’s facial expression changes, however, when he enters the kitchen where the abortion has occurred; the close-up as he views his unborn child shows just how tortured he is by the realization that he is responsible for having killed his child.[8]  After a cut to Lily, resting on a sofa in the other room of the apartment, the camera returns to Alfie, whom we see behind the glass of the side window of the kitchen, wiping away his tears.  The compilation of the details of these camera angles suggests that Lily’s abortion has generated excruciating sorrow and hopelessness instead of the security of her reputation that was the reason for the abortion in the first place.

          The film seems to give final commentary on the abortion episode when the sequence is merged with the baptism scene of Gilda’s new child by Humphrey.  The baptism is obviously joyous for Gilda and her family.  For Alfie, however, the baptism is a symbolic abortion; he has lost Malcolm to the perfected family of a stable father and mother, just as Lily and he have lost their child through abortion.

The Cider House Rules (1999)

          If Alfie was the British version of an abortion film, then The Cider House Rules (1999) is its American counterpart.[9]  The plot of the film is much simpler than that of the novel on which it is based.  The six hundred pages of the novel are reduced to less than two hundred in the screenplay, and, of course, the number of pages is reduced further because each page of the screenplay has less than one-third the quantity of words that a normal book would have.  Moreover, numerous scenes of John Irving’s effort to sound Dickensian were eliminated for the American film audience.

          Set at an orphanage in St. Cloud’s, Maine during World War II, the film depicts the lives of the orphan Homer Wells and Wilbur Larch, who not only births babies of unwed mothers who come to the orphanage, but also performs abortions for those mothers who request them.  Homer grows up in the orphanage and at first disassociates himself from Larch’s abortion practice.  Homer leaves the orphanage with a young couple, Wally and Candy, who had their child aborted there, and secures a job as an apple picker on the estate of Wally’s mother.  When Wally goes off to war, Homer falls in love with Candy.  During one apple picking season, Mr. Rose, the leader of the migrant apple pickers, impregnates his daughter, and Homer aborts her.  After performing this abortion, Homer decides to return to the orphanage where he assumes the role of the abortionist Larch, who had died by an accidental overdose of ether.

          When the text of Irving’s novel is contrasted against that of the screenplay and then the film itself, the omissions are significant.  In the novel Homer experiences several conflicts about Larch’s abortion practice. Although Homer is not identified as having come from any religious background, his moral qualms about assisting Larch with abortions are covered in several passages.  In one such passage, Homer recounts fetological evidence:

                    Homer Wells had seen the products of conception in many stages of development: in rather whole form, on occasion, and in such partial form as to be barely recognizable, too.  Why the old black-and-white drawings should have affected him so strongly, he could not say.  In Gray’s [Anatomy] there was the profile view of the head of a human embryo, estimated at twenty-seven days old.  Not quick, as Dr. Larch would be quick to point out, and not recognizably human, either: what would be the spine was cocked, like a wrist, and where the knuckles of the fist (above the wrist) would be, there was the ill-formed face of a fish (the kind that lives below light, is never caught, could give you nightmares).  The undersurface of the head of the embryo gaped like an eel—the eyes were at the sides of the head, as if they could protect the creature from an attack from any direction.  In eight weeks, though still not quick, the fetus has a nose and a mouth; it has an expression, thought Homer Wells.  And with this discovery—that a fetus, as early as eight weeks, has an expression—Homer Wells felt in the presence of what others call a soul. (168; emphasis in original)

After this speculation, Homer recognizes the humanity of the unborn child and decides not to perform abortions.[10]

          Homer’s position against killing the unborn quickly changes, however, for several reasons.  Besides the fact that Irving himself was stridently anti-life when he wrote the novel,[11] Homer’s abortion of the baby created by incest coalesces his principle moral belief that he should be “of use” in the world.[12]  Homer is a typical “lost boy”—one who has no moral compass besides the utilitarian perspective of being “of use” on which to base his decisions, as this passage in the novel illustrates:

                    But what he already knew, he knew, was near-perfect obstetrical procedure and the far easier procedure—the one that was against the rules.

                             He thought about rules.  The sailor with the slashed hand had not been in a knife fight that was according to anyone’s rules.  In a fight with Mr. Rose, there would be Mr. Rose’s own rules, whatever they were.  A knife fight with Mr. Rose would be like being pecked to death by a small bird, thought Homer Wells.  Mr. Rose was an artist—he would take just the tip of a nose, just a button or a nipple.  The real cider house rules were Mr. Rose’s.

                             And what were the rules at St. Cloud’s?  What were Larch’s rules?  Which rules did Dr. Larch observe, which ones did he break, or replace—and with what confidence?  Clearly Candy was observing some rules, but whose?  And did Wally know what the rules were?  And Melony—did Melony obey any rules? wondered Homer Wells. (379; emphasis in original)

          In the film, however, and the companion screenplay, these moral musings are reduced to quick one-word and one-line ruminations, poorly expressed and even more poorly dramatized.  In one scene, when Homer and Candy have sex, even though she is attached to Wally, they emerge from the woods, blandly claiming that their having sex was “right” (114).[13]  Similarly, the only instance where the profundity of “rules” is discussed is a scene where the rules of the cider house are read to the migrant workers.  Mr. Rose exclaims, “Somebody who don’t live here made them rules.  Them rules ain’t for usWe the ones who make up them rules.  We makin’ our own rules, every day.  Ain’t that right, Homer?” (152; italics in original).  Mr. Rose’s feeble assertion of the inapplicability of the few rules pertaining to the cider house is supposed to transfer to the viewer as commentary about moral and ethical rules in real life.  That the transference is, at best, limp is the supreme fault of Irving’s overly preachy novel.[14]

          Chapter eight is one of two crucial scenes in the film.  Titled “She Died of Ignorance,” in this sequence a young woman who had come to the orphanage after a botched abortion presents Larch with an opportunity to confront Homer about his opposition to abortion.  Larch emphatically asks Homer what he would have done if the young woman came to him a few months earlier, and one must think deeply to recognize the inherent either/or fallacy of the question.  Homer could have ignored the young woman’s request for an abortion or could have performed one on her. However, a third option was possible: she could have given birth to the child, which exercise of her freedom of reproductive choice could have led to two other choices (either raising the child herself or getting married and having her husband help her in raising the child).  Although the bulk of this sequence is didactic, the ending imagery is particularly so; the viewer sees Larch standing with a sunset behind him, whose rays seem to emanate from him, while Homer and another boy from the orphanage are digging the young woman’s grave.  Throughout the digging, Larch’s badgering continues.

          Chapter thirty‑one is the second of the two crucial abortion episodes in the film, and, cinematically, the abortion episode in The Cider House Rules parallels that in Alfie.  In this sequence Homer decides to abort Rose Rose’s child created by an incestuous relationship with her father.  It is remarkable that, in contrast to the abortion scene in Alfie (nearly eighteen minutes), this one takes all of three and a half, or a little over 2% of the entire film.  Like Alfie’s opening image, the abortion in Cider House Rules shows the viewer a window with rain falling outside.  The rain accentuates the darkness of night.  There is little dialogue between characters, and the action is slow paced.  There is weak or no music throughout the abortion scene, except at the end; like Alfie, even this emergence of the familiar theme is slow and soft.  Close-ups are the dominant camera angle, although a couple significant deviations occur: first, the camera is at eye level when Homer is laying out his surgical instruments, Rose Rose sitting in the background; second, at the end of the sequence Mr. Rose is filmed from a distance (he has left the building where the abortion occurred and is moving spasmodically in the rain as he screams his anguish).

          It is interesting, though, that Homer’s actions appear sacerdotal in at least two respects—a quality that is evident in the novel more so than in the screenplay.  Irving’s intention (comparing abortion to a divine attribute) was made clear in the novel.  Irving writes about Rose’s abortion in such a way that the sacerdotal role that Homer plays is clear:

                    He chose the curette of the correct size.  After the first one, thought Homer Wells, this might get easier.  Because he knew now that he couldn’t play God in the worst sense; if he could operate on Rose Rose, how could he refuse to help a stranger?  How could he refuse anyone?  Only a god makes that kind of decision.  I’ll just give them what they want, he thought.  An orphan or an abortion.

                             Homer Wells breathed slowly and regularly; the steadiness of his hand surprised him.  He did not even blink when he felt the curette make contact; he did not divert his eye from witnessing the miracle. (568)

The divine/sacerdotal functions of abortion at the orphanage are stated explicitly by Homer when he writes to Larch, saying, “I know what you have to do—you have to play God” (123; italics in original).[15]

          Although wearing all-white surgical clothing is not as significant or extraordinary as it may seem at first, coupled with other items in the sequence, the cumulative effect is that Homer’s character is assuming that of a priest or minister approaching an altar where divine power resides.  Homer deliberately announces the name of each surgical instrument, sotto voce, as though he is performing some rite before the actual abortion, much like a priest would utter certain prayers before the act of consecration.

          The second sacerdotal aspect of the abortion scene is that, once the abortion has begun, the rite which Homer is enacting requires that only he should be present.  Homer had earlier admonished Mr. Rose that he could stay to witness the abortion as long as he made himself “of use”—the pet mantra of the Larch-Wells abortion axis.  Thus, unlike a Mass or other religious service where the community is drawn into the ritual, Homer’s action parallels the esoteric pagan rituals which could only be performed by qualified ministers.

          Thus, the entire abortion sequence—solemn, somber, silent—seems like a corruption of a Catholic Mass, but, then, that would be appropriate for an activity that kills human life.

A Right-to-Life Criticism of the Films

          Critiquing what are called masterworks in the popular culture requires courage.  For example, The Cider House Rules was hailed as an American “classic” and won a couple of Academy Awards.  The DVD cover sickeningly states that the film “tells a compelling and heartwarming story about how far a young man must travel to find the place where he truly belongs!”—a marketing statement which not only avoids the more sordid fact that Irving’s novel is about abortion as much as it skirts the real issue of the film so that people buying DVDs would not get upset by the controversial issue it concerns and possibly boycott the company.  The abortion subplot in Alfie is equally avoided.  The closest that the film’s DVD cover comes to mentioning the abortion subplot occurs in these words: “For those who want more, there is beneath the surface a lingering tragedy, simply and poignantly told, about the taker and the taken.”

          Pro-life academics, however, must courageously view the films for what they are, not so much stories about love between the characters, but about abortion.  Fortunately, once we have learned the vocabulary of specific fields (in this case, film studies) we can review the items in the culture for their right-to-life content and determine whether they are lacking a balanced viewpoint.

          Following this principle, although both can be classified as films worthy of pro-life study, in my estimation Alfie scores much higher than Cider House Rules.  Alfie himself is a static character, but the persons with whom he interacts are dynamic.  Gilda becomes a liberated woman and mother.  Humphrey is the real hero of the production, rising to the occasion to help a single mother in her time of need.  The happy resolution of Gilda’s untimely pregnancy is balanced by the disaster of Lily’s abortion, and the cinematic rendering of the abortion is honest to human emotion.

          Characters in The Cider House Rules are just the opposite: Larch is a preachy, confrontational aging abortionist who cannot understand why a young man like Homer would not want to do abortions; Homer is a vapid youth whose interest in discovering the benefits of the rules by which human life develops is cursory, if not flip.  If given a choice, which characters in which film do you think our students would want to emulate?

Works Cited

Alfie. Dir. Lewis Gilbert. Perf. Michael Caine, Shelley Winters, Millicent Martin, Julia Foster, Jane Asher, Shirley Anne Field, Vivien Merchant, and Eleanor Bron. 1965. DVD. Paramount, 2000.

Boggs, Joseph M., and Dennis W. Petrie. The Art of Watching Films. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Branham, Robert James. “The Role of the Convert in Eclipse of Reason and The Silent Scream.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 77 (1991): 407-26.

Burleigh, Michael. “Euthanasia and the Third Reich.” History Today 40.2 (1990): 11-6.

Campbell, Josie P. John Irving: a Critical Companion. Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers. Westport, CN: Greenwood, 1998.

The Cider House Rules. Dir. Lasse Hallstrom. Perf. Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd, and Michael Caine. 1999. DVD. Miramax, 1999.

Dreher, Rod. “‘Cider House’s’ Abortion: Right vs. What Works.” Rev. of The Cider House Rules, by John Irving. Christian Science Monitor 7 Feb. 2000: 11.

Givner, Jessie. “Reproducing Reproductive Discourse: Optical Technologies in The Silent Scream and Eclipse of Reason.” Journal of Popular Culture 28:3 (1994): 229‑44.

Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. John Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Irving, John. The Cider House Rules. Toronto: Bantam, 1985.

—. The Cider House Rules: A Screenplay. New York: Hyperion, 1999.

—. My Movie Business: a Memoir. New York: Random House, 1999.

—. Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. New York: Arcade, 1996.

Naughton, Bill. Alfie. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.

—. Alfie: A Play in Three Acts. London: Samuel French, 1963.

Paris, Ginette. The Sacrament of Abortion. Trans. Joanna Mott. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1992. Trans. of L’Enfant, l’Amour, la Mort. Quebec: Editions Nuits Blanches, 1990.

Pernick, Martin S. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Pickering, Barbara A. “Women’s Voices as Evidence: Personal Testimony Is [sic] Pro-Choice Films.” Argumentation & Advocacy: The Journal of the American Forensic Association 40 (summer 2003): 1-22.

Valerius, Karyn. “Rosemary’s Baby, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects.” College Literature 32.3 (summer 2005): 116-35.

                                                 Works Consulted

Cora Unashamed. Dir. Deborah M. Pratt. Perf. Regina Taylor, and Cherry Jones. 2000. DVD. PBS Pictures, 2000.

Lake, Randall, and Barbara A. Pickering. “Argumentation, the Visual, and the Possibility of Refutation: An Exploration.” Argumentation 12 (198): 79-93.

McFarland-Icke, Bronwyn. Rev. of Medical Films, Ethics, and Euthanasia in Nazi Germany: The History of Medical Research and Teaching Films of the Reich Office for Educational Films/Reich Institute for Films in Science and Education, 1933-1945, by Ulf Schmidt. ISIS: Journal of the History of Science in Society 4.4 (2003): 757-8.


    [1]  Some scholars have already begun to address the other life issues.  See, for example, Michael Burleigh’s analysis of Nazi films—not only documentaries, but also fictional accounts—meant to persuade the public to adopt euthanasia, such as Ich klage an [I Accuse] (1941), and Martin S. Pernick’s work on The Black Stork (1917), an infanticide and euthanasia film by the American eugenicist Harry Haiselden.

    [2]  For discussion of The Cider House Rules I particularly recommend Josie P. Campbell’s John Irving: a Critical Companion (Greenwood, 1998), Rod Dreher’s “‘Cider House’s’ Abortion: Right vs. What Works” (a review in The Christian Science Monitor), and Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson’s John Irving (Twayne, 1986).

    [3]  Other critics attempt to revile these pro-films using terminology that borders on ad hominem.  Consider, for example, Jessie Givner’s analysis of the importance of the unborn child in The Silent Scream, paraphrasing concepts from several critics:

                        If the fetus is placed in a sacred, holy sphere the technologies which image the fetus are similarly associated with that sacred realm.  [….]  The notion of the sacred fetus and the sacred high-tech image of the fetus belongs to a whole fantasy of immaculate conception. (235)

    [4]  Of course, not all anti-life criticism should be ignored, especially when it can be used by pro-life theorists as well.  For example, besides stating that “Argument scholars must recognize the value of [personal testimonies of mothers who aborted],” Barbara A. Pickering also suggests that “incorporating the subjective realm of personal testimony as an acceptable form of proof is crucial to building a model of argument theory which embraces feminist thought” (20).  Thus, for Pickering,

                        Personal experience in the form of women’s voices must be incorporated as a legitimate form of proof if argumentation theory is to expand beyond its traditional parameters to a more inclusive theory which values the contributions that feminist theories can make to our understanding of argument in public policy discourse. (21)

Since the majority of women are pro-life, and since being feminist necessarily means supporting the first civil right to life, applying Pickering’s principles would greatly help to validate the voices of pro-life women who support the first civil right to life when they express their desire for pro-life legislation.

    [5]  The only other reference to religious principles in the novel is a casual one about purgatory and heaven.  In his typically skewered sense of life, Alfie assets that

                        When you get down to it, the average man must know in his own heart what a rotten bleeder he is[;] he don’t want someone good around to keep reminding him of it.  That’s why a good bloke will always prefer to marry a real bitch.  It means he’s doing his purgatory on earth.  Every time she does the dirty on him he’s got another reason for looking up to heaven. (153)

    [6]  The film almost exactly matches the original drama of 1963.  While the abortion episode summarized above is followed closely in all three texts, there are some differences in the film.  As if to convey to the audience that he isn’t such a bad character after all as to arrange for an abortionist, Alfie restores the twenty-five quid that Lily paid to the abortionist by secreting the money in her purse.  In the stage production, Alfie quibbles with Lily over how much to pay to the abortionist and does not return the money to her.  Another difference is that, immediately after he sees the body of his aborted child, Alfie runs out of his apartment and needs to confide in a male friend, an episode missing from the other texts.

    [7]  Boggs and Petrie discuss the emotional reactions to various colors in chapter seven of their The Art of Watching Films (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

    [8]  The novel states Alfie’s anguish more emphatically:

                        Then I think how he had been quite perfect, and the thought crossed my mind: “You know what you did, Alfie, you murdered him.”  I mean what a stroke for the mind to come out with, a thing like that.  “Yes, mate, you set it all up and for thirty nicker you had him done to death.”  And then it struck me that the main idea in my head had been how to get it done a fiver cheaper. (207; italics in original)

    [9]  It is probably purely coincidental that Michael Caine, who, in the role of Alfie, arranged the abortion in the earlier film, becomes the abortionist himself in this later film.

    [10]  Homer does not, however, have any moral qualms about being complicit in abortion.  Chapter three of the DVD shows Homer carrying aborted remains to the incinerator outside the orphanage.

    [11]  Consider, for example, the following excerpt, where Irving’s hostility toward right-to-lifers is evident by the use of derogatory terminology and ad hominem:

                        Think of the Right-to-Life movement today.  It is fueled by something stronger than a concern for the rights of the unborn.  (Proponents of the Right-to-Life position show very little concern for children once they’re born.)  What underlies the Right-to-Life message is a part of this country’s fundamental sexual puritanism.  Right-to-Lifers believe that what they perceive as promiscuity should not go unpunished; girls who get pregnant should pay the piper [….]  Let doctors practice medicine.  Let religious zealots practice their religion, but let them keep their religion to themselves. (My Movie 38-9; emphasis in original)

Moreover, in an essay titled “My Dinner at the White House”, Irving admits that he “gave a rousing speech in favor of abortion rights, and lambasting [President] George Bush—from an exclusively Planned Parenthood perspective, mind you” (Trying 166).

    [12]  Chapter two on the DVD version of the film contains the key philosophical foundation of this abortion movie.  It is here that the abortionist Larch utters his belief that people should be “of use.”

    [13]  This scene is chapter twenty-four of the DVD.

    [14]  This scene is chapter thirty-two of the DVD.  The use of the many italicized terms suggests that Mr. Rose’s words should be pronounced forcefully.  However, the actor recites the words in a dejected, quiet tone.  Perhaps this is not so much bad acting as evidence that the father is so demoralized after committing incest with his daughter and then having an abortion performed on her that he cannot even assert himself regarding a set of relatively innocuous rules.

    [15]  The idea that abortion could serve a sacerdotal or divine function was explicitly formulated about five years after the novel was published by the anti-life author Ginette Paris, whose 1992 work The Sacrament of Abortion considers abortion a sacred act (8), “a kind of sacrifice” (34), merely “another way of choosing death over life” (51; italics in original), and, finally, “a sacrifice to Artemis” (107).

Categories
Papers Presentations

Making Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia Funny: An Analysis of Anti-Life Humor on the Life Issues and the Pro-Life Responses to Desperate Attempts to Make Killing Comedic

This paper and accompanying PowerPoint was presented at the fiftieth annual convention of the National Right to Life Committee on Saturday, 26 June 2021.

Abstract:  How can killing human beings in any way be funny?  This workshop explores that question.  Specifically, attendees will be treated not only to a little bit of scholarship on what constitutes comedy, but also a series of examples from anti-life comedians who try—and fail—to make the killing of human beings humorous.

Most importantly, this workshop will provide attendees with the intellectual tools to combat attacks on human life made through comedy.  Suitable for high school, college, and university students (especially if they are writing controversial papers or rhetorical analyses for various courses), the general public will find the workshop helpful to counter comedians who are anything but funny when they misuse humor to support abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

          [slide 2]  The ubiquitous “Why did the chicken cross the road?” jokes are an enduring feature of childhood and beyond, and the delight engendered by the jokes transcends one’s chronological development.  A child’s punchline to “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (“To get to the other side”) is easy.  An adult being asked, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” may be met with a political punchline (“Because North Korea’s long range missiles can’t reach that far”) or a severely metaphysical reply, such as “Why am I crossing the road?”  Whether designed for a child or an adult, the chicken-crossing-the-road jokes persist in our sophisticated culture because they are not only simple (they involve a question-and-answer format which is easily remembered), but also innocent.  Although there are some versions of the joke format online which may not be suitable for some, the dominant impression that a chicken-crossing-the-road joke leaves is that it is a category that all ages can enjoy.

          How then did the culture get to the point where comedy includes something much less innocent (indecent, vulgar, or offensive), like Michelle Wolf’s relatively flaccid abortion joke [slide 3]: “Mike Pence is very anti-choice.  He thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don’t knock it til you try it.  And when you do try it, really knock it.  You’ve got to get that baby out of there” (qtd. in Romm)?  [slide 4]  Even more flaccid and utterly feeble is the following abortion joke reported in National Right to Life News:

People are like, “How can you make jokes about abortion?”  I’m like, “Because it’s just—I make jokes about any procedure I had [….]  Like this guy one time said to me, “How many abortions have you had?”  I’m like, “I don’t know, I don’t save receipts.”  (qtd. in Andrusko)

[slide 5]  Similarly, how does one account for the following more aggressive abortion joke by Louis C.K.?[1]  [slide 6]

I think you should not get an abortion unless you need one.  In which case you better get one.  […]  I mean, seriously: If you need an abortion, you better get one.  Don’t BEEP around.  And hurry!  Not getting an abortion that you need is like not taking a BEEP [;] that’s how bad that is.  It’s like not taking a BEEP.  That’s what I think.  I think abortion is exactly like taking a BEEP.  It’s one hundred percent the exact same thing as not taking a BEEP.  Or it isn’t.  It is or it isn’t.  It’s either taking a BEEP or it’s killing a baby.  It’s only one of those two things.  It’s no other things [sic].  So if you didn’t like hearing that it’s like taking a BEEP, you think it’s like killing a baby.  That’s the only other one you get to have.  (qtd. in Felsenthal)

The above are only three examples of attempts at humor involving the first life issue of abortion.  A quick Internet search will identify not only many more attempts to make abortion comedic, but also jokes involving the remaining two life issues, infanticide and euthanasia.  For brevity’s sake, only three jokes, one in each of the categories of the life issues, will be considered thoroughly in this presentation.

          For now, though, the astute reader and auditor of these attempts at comedy would wonder how these quotes qualify as examples of comedy.  Pro-life people would find these feeble attempts at humor offensive and not worthy of the designation of joke at all.  Any interest in comedy and the life issues, therefore, should begin with two areas of research: first, ascertaining what constitutes comedy per se and, second, determining whether contemporary comedy on the life issues comports with millennia-accepted standards and definitions of this ancient mode of literature.

          What, then, are the essential features of comedy that separates it from its companion genre of literature, tragedy?  Answering this question involves a study of comedy from ancient times to the present.  Although this presentation is not meant to be an exhaustive compendium of comedic literary critical texts through the millennia, the history and the essential characteristics of that genre have been documented and can be easily ascertained.  Once these essential characteristics or principles are identified, determining whether specific contemporary attempts at humor involving the life issues are successful or not will be relatively easy.

          [slide 7]  Thus, my presentation follows this structure.  First, I will identify principles of comedy from ancient Greek and other sources.  Next, I will analyze sample anti-life jokes and provide pro-life responses in each of the three categories of the life issues: Louis C. K.’s abortion joke, the dead baby infanticide jokes, and Family Guy’s Teri Schiavo euthanasia episode.  Finally, the audience will have time to ask questions, which I will answer either with rational replies or utterly hopeless deer-in-the-headlight stares from me.

Principles of Comedy from Ancient Greece

          Comedy can boast of a history two and a half millennia old; scholars have identified comedy as an art form which evolved simultaneously with tragedy, whose origin “came into being sometime during the sixth century B.C.” (Casson 3).  Contemporary research continues to provide similar generalizations of the history of comedy.  Lionel Casson notes that “Crude comic performances that formed part of rustic festivals very likely go back to society’s earliest history” (3).  F. L. Lucas writes that, while “The origins of Attic comedy were already obscure to Aristotle[,] he supposed it to have arisen from phallic processions and dances.  But, until the fifth century opens, comedy has left even dimmer traces of its growth than tragedy” (364).

While Aristotle may seem to have little to say about the principles behind comedy, there is sufficient commentary over the last two millennia from other theorists to identify major principles of this significant area of literature.  One scholarly consensus, for example, is that ancient Greek culture established comedy as an important element of human life, separate from tragedy, and the effort to determine comedy’s chronology acknowledges not only its secular, but also its religious practice.

[slide 8]  Lucas identifies two other constituent principles of ancient Greek comedy, the first being the ability to attack an individual verbally with impunity: “One curious result of the ritual element in Old Comedy is the unequalled license it enjoyed in personal abuse.  […]  At all events the Athenian Demos must be allowed to laugh at its leaders; even if it re-elected them to-morrow” (364-5).  This verbal attack was not meant to be mere ad hominem, but was used for the express purpose of political commentary with the expectation of some effect or change in policy.

Oates and Murphy do not merely confirm this ability to attack in their earlier research (“Besides this liberty of personal abuse, early comedy assumed for itself the right to discuss and comment on all aspects of civic life, including politics, education, and art”).  They also extrapolate it as a universal principle of comedy: “Early comedy is filled with outspoken abuse and satire of prominent individuals; it is, of course, characteristic of comedy in all ages to ridicule those who deviate from accepted social standards or who unjustifiably exult themselves above their fellows” (383).

Scholars of comedy identify one activity of human life which is often the basis for much ancient (and contemporary) humor, sexuality.  [slide 9]  Moses Hadas asserts that “About the early history of comedy we know little—mainly because Aristotle did not like comedy and scanted it in his Poetics—but there can be no doubt that its origins are to be connected with a fertility cult, in which the element of sex would naturally be central” (5).  Similarly, Lucas writes that “Where the tragic actor was heightened and padded to heroic size, his comic counterpart in the fifth century was made grotesque, not only by his mask, but also by an exaggerated belly and rump, often with phallus as well” (366).  Where Lucas suggests by the use of the adverb “often” that the phallus was optional, Casson asserts that its inclusion was essential: “The actors of comedy, in addition, were grotesquely padded about the belly and buttocks, and, of course, wore the phallic symbol” (6; emphasis added).

          [slide 10]  Hadas notes a final “important difference between comedy and tragedy”, which defines comedy’s essence and accounts for its popular appeal:

The personages of tragedy do indeed grieve and rejoice as men everywhere and always have done, else their stories would be unprofitable and indeed meaningless to us.  [….]  Laughter is more direct and more universal than the emotions of tragedy.

The figures of tragedy are sometimes little more than symbols to illustrate some permanent principle of morality; those of comedy have to do with simpler but more immediate problems of making peace, running a school, writing a play.  In comedy alone do men drop the rigid poses they are given in graver kinds of writing and walk and talk on a level with their fellow citizens.  ([1]-2)

It is no wonder, then, that comedy became more popular over the centuries than tragedy, summarized in the following historical note by Casson: by the advent of New Comedy in the fourth century BC, comedy’s “purpose was entertainment, its subject was people, its chief source of humor gentle mockery of the manners of men.  It swiftly became enormously popular [….] New Comedy in a very real way is still alive on stage and screen” (66).

          [slide 11]  To recapitulate, the following are five principles which shall form the basis of this presentation’s analyses of representative attempts at comedy on the three life issues:

  1. Comedy is distinct from tragedy, with which it was born as one of the two major categories of literature.
  2. Comedy allows great liberty in examining and commenting on ordinary matters in human life, ranging from bodily functions and employment to other simple concerns of daily life.
  3. A corollary of the above yet distinct enough to merit being a separate principle, comedy is often bawdy, erotic, naughty, or obscene since sexual topics are freely discussed within the genre.
  4. Comedy often contains a civic or social element, allowing the comedian to criticize politicians and events with great freedom for the purpose of effecting change.
  5. Most importantly, the intent of all comedy is to produce humor, to make one laugh.[2]

Now that some key principles of what constitutes comedy have been identified, the task remaining for this study is determining whether contemporary comedy on the life issues, manifested most succinctly in jokes, meets the criteria suggested by those principles.  Louis C.K.’s joke will be considered as an attempt at abortion comedy, five of the dead baby jokes will be reviewed as attempts at infanticide comedy, and the episode involving Teri Schiavo in the Family Guy television series will be analyzed as an attempt at euthanasia humor.

Louis C.K.’s Joke as an Attempt at Abortion Comedy

          Louis C.K.’s joke has been criticized for its stark and offensive treatment of abortion, yet, if one were to watch the joke on a streaming device, one finds that audiences laugh at his humor.  Here again is the joke as recorded by Felsenthal:  [slide 12]

I think you should not get an abortion unless you need one.  In which case you better get one.  […]  I mean, seriously: If you need an abortion, you better get one.  Don’t BEEP around.  And hurry!  Not getting an abortion that you need is like not taking a BEEP[;] that’s how bad that is.  It’s like not taking a BEEP.  That’s what I think.  I think abortion is exactly like taking a BEEP.  It’s one hundred percent the exact same thing as not taking a BEEP.  Or it isn’t.  It is or it isn’t.  It’s either taking a BEEP or it’s killing a baby.  It’s only one of those two things.  It’s no other things [sic].  So if you didn’t like hearing that it’s like taking a BEEP, you think it’s like killing a baby.  That’s the only other one you get to have.

          Tackling Louis C.K.’s joke according to the ancient principles may be difficult because one is struck immediately by logical fallacies obvious throughout the joke.  The multiple negations in the joke, from the first line (“should not get an abortion unless”) to the simpler “It is or it isn’t”, impede the understanding of the attempt’s possible humor.  Also impeding an easy understanding of the meaning behind the joke is the vulgarity throughout.  Louis C.K. does not use the low register term for marital sexual activity to denote that sexual activity; instead, he uses it as an alternative to “hesitate”, where “Don’t BEEP around” means more “Don’t wait” than the sexual denotation of the term.  Similarly, Louis C.K. uses the low register term that denotes defecation merely for shock value.

          These initial objections aside, considering whether the five principles apply to this joke is relatively easy.  First, the joke falters on an essential point of not distinguishing between the tragedy of abortion and anything which could be comic.  Certainly, some people may find abortion funny; the comedians considered here attest to that.  However, even their attempts at making abortion comedic fail because there is always something which manifests the inherent tragedy of abortion.  Louis C.K.’s joke itself recognizes the inherent tragedy of abortion.  Admitting that one alternative way of thinking about abortion is explicitly naming it “killing a baby” should give even the most jaundiced pro-abortion audience pause.  The term “killing” still maintains its negative connotation, even after nearly five decades of Roe v. Wade’s anti-life ideological attempt to force the positive sounding “pro-choice” linguistic distortion on the nation.

          On the second principle, Louis C.K.’s joke does cover a common bodily function, and one can admit that there could be much humor in the activity.  (Anyone who changes a baby’s diaper will ineluctably find humor in the situation to erase the displeasure of the activity itself.)  However, the purpose of Louis C.K.’s joke is not to comment on the normal bodily activity of defecation, but to compare it with the killing of a human being.  Louis C.K.’s choices offered to the audience are clear: “I think abortion is exactly like taking a BEEP.”  If the use of the low register term was intended to generate the desire to laugh, then the ability to move from generating the desire to laugh to laughing outright falters.  The bodily function of excreting is not comparable with killing a human being; both cannot be combined in the abstract category of excretion or elimination.  The activities occur in different categories because one is truly a bodily function; the other is a violent act perpetrated on a body.

          Discussing the cognitive dissonance between bodily function and the act of killing a human being which Louis C.K. confuses in his joke leads to an evaluation of the third principle from ancient comedy: the naughtiness of the joke itself.  Here, too, the joke fails.  Is the intent of anything in the joke either “bawdy, erotic, naughty, or obscene”?  Of course, the effectiveness of the power of the terms is not obvious in their alphabetical listing.  Something which is “naughty” is relatively innocent, but something “obscene” is the polar opposite; what constitutes bawdiness or eroticism as items between those poles would occupy much more space than is required here.  It is sufficient to say that there is nothing in the joke which is bawdy, inducing to eroticism, which should be the proper quality to encourage sexual activity between a husband and a wife.  Also, while the act of excretion could be naughty, it is not obscene since it is a necessary bodily function.  The obscenity of the joke resides in connecting a natural bodily function with killing a human being.

          Beyond the obvious (that his joke concerns the contemporary issue of abortion), whether Louis C.K. intended to comment on contemporary political persons or to effect change is unclear.  Perhaps Louis C.K. is arguing that abortion should remain legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever (current US law) since, “If you need an abortion, you better get one.”  Using “better get” suggests that the legality of abortion is tenuous and that the mother who wants to have the child killed should do so before the first civil right to life is reestablished.  However, absent outside evidence, Louis C.K.’s intention cannot be determined based on the words themselves.  Therefore, Louis C.K. fails to meet the fourth principle of ancient Greek comedy.

Finally, although this paragraph of commentary may seem redundant (repeating the first principle), it is important to note that, if the intent of all comedy is to produce humor, then it is not possible to read or to hear Louis C.K.’s joke and laugh.  There must be something funny about the joke, a judicious reader may ask.  Perhaps.  The indecisiveness of the speaker could be comical.  The hesitation between asserting one choice over another can be laughable.  The humor in the joke, therefore, is not about abortion itself, but the dramatic effect of the presentation of the joke.  Can anything else be humorous about the joke?  Answering that question must be relegated to others whose ability to deconstruct pro-abortion nonsense and agitprop is better than mine.


Dead Baby Jokes as Attempts at Infanticide Comedy

          Alan Dundes’ research on dead baby jokes is noteworthy not only for having collected several popular jokes in the cycle, but also for providing commentary on the sociology behind such jokes.  Dundes notes that the jokes are delivered as riddles, often beginning with the interrogative “what”, as in that example which he identifies as “probably the most common dead baby joke […] What’s red and sits in a corner?  A baby chewing (teething on, eating, sucking on)[3] razor blades” (151).  Gruesomeness is characteristic of these jokes, as in the following example, which aligns itself with the innocuous joke which began this presentation: “How did the dead baby cross the road?  He was stapled to a chicken” (Dundes 152).

          Sociologically, Dundes tries to attribute the popularity of such jokes as a reaction to “the visual reporting of the Vietnam war with its unending pictures of carnage and death” or to “the growing fear of technology” (153).  [slide 13]  “But the most obvious interpretation of the cycle,” Dundes argues,

would seem to be a protest against babies in general.  The attempt to legalize abortion and the increased availability of improved means of contraception, e.g., the pill, have brought the debate about the purpose of sexual activity into the public arena  [….]  Women’s liberation ideology may have contributed too by insisting that women’s place was not necessarily in the home and that motherhood was not the only career open to women.  More and more, babies were perceived as a perfidious male plot to keep women subjugated.  “Keep ‘em barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen” is a folk dictum expressing this male chauvinistic point of view.  Thus for women to be liberated, they need to keep from getting pregnant, or if they become pregnant, they might wish to consider abortion as a means of retaining their newly found freedom.  (154)

Dundes’ conclusion about the dead baby jokes is trenchant: “Folklore is always a reflection of the age in which it flourishes and so whether we like it or not, the dead baby cycle is a reflection of American culture in the 1960s and 1970s.  If we do not like the image, we should not blame the mirror.  If anything is sick, it is the society which produces such humor” (155).  It is not anachronistic, but prophetic to say that this statement applies to the culture of 2021 as much as it did to the culture of 1979 when his research was first published.  [slide 14]  Dundes’ final sentence of his research is just as prophetic: “Having sexual relations without wishing to have babies or even the very knowledge of the fact that abortion clinics are a part of modern society has provided a source of anxiety which I believe is clearly a factor in the generation and transmission of dead baby jokes” (157).

          [slide 15]  The following are five jokes discussed by Dundes which will be evaluated according to the five principles derived from ancient Greek comedy.  For easy reference, the jokes are arranged in alphabetical order:

How did the dead baby cross the road?  He was stapled to a chicken.

What’s harder to unload, a truck full of bowling balls or a truck full of dead babies?  A truck full of bowling balls because you can’t use a pitchfork.[4]

What’s more fun than nailing a dead baby to a wall?  Ripping it off again.

What’s red and sits in a corner?  A baby chewing razor blades.

What’s red and swings?  A baby on a meathook.  (Dundes 151-2)

The first matter to address regarding the above sample dead baby jokes is that they are not entirely about infanticide since they concern mutilation of corpses of newborns.  The first three jokes meet this criterion while the remaining two properly involve a born child being killed or in the act of dying; whether the narrator is a participant in the killing is irrelevant.  Thus, on the first principle from ancient Greek comedy, it could be correct to place the jokes in the category of comedy instead of tragedy since the death of the human being, the newborn child, has already occurred.  That is, it is “safe” to find humor when the person who might suffer from the attempt at humor is no longer living.  The ability to classify these jokes as comedy is enhanced because, like many abortion jokes, the dead babies are not named.  That is, the joke does not involve the threat to the life of an actual human being named Miroslav when he plays with razor blades or to the dying or dead body of an actual human being who is or was once named Catherine which is impaled on a meathook, but a nondescript, unnamed baby, identified only by either the definite or the indefinite article.  Even with such tortured rationalization, however, abuse of a corpse is inherently a tragic and not a comedic act.  (Think of the ancient Greek drama Antigone by Sophocles, involving the desecration of her brother’s corpse.)

The dead baby jokes nuance the second principle (commenting on ordinary matters in human life) since they invariably place ordinary objects in extraordinary situations.  This juxtaposition is a typical comedic strategy, where the expected use of an object becomes unexpected and therefore humorous.  For example, the many uses of a whipped cream pie include displaying it in a bakery window, eating it, or having it stored in the refrigerator for later feasting.  Comedy results when such a pie is not being eaten but thrown into the face of one of the Three Stooges.  In dead baby jokes, however, things like staples, bowling balls, pitchforks, nails used to affix things to walls, razor blades, and meathooks are not found within their ordinary and customary uses, but in extraordinary situations.

          While the dead baby examples are not bawdy, erotic, or naughty, they are gruesome like contemporary horror films which do not hesitate to show the act of killing or blood gushing from a victim’s body.  In this way, dead baby jokes fit the designation of obscene in the etymological sense.  In the ancient Greek theater, anything “obscene” was, literally, “off stage”, unlike the contemporary denotation of the term which restricts it to pornography.  An obscene event was something which occurred off stage and was related on stage by a messenger or servant.  Think, for example, of the servant in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, who relates not only how Jocasta hanged herself, but also how Oedipus gouged out his eyes using the brooches from his mother’s dress.  In the ancient Greek mind, these horrifying events could not be performed on the stage; one hopes that contemporary viewers would not desire to see these bloodthirsty events occur on stage, on their televisions, or on their streaming devices.

Similarly, the dead baby jokes involve actions on the babies’ bodies which should never be shown on stage, on televisions, or on streaming devices.  Stapling a baby’s body, thrusting a pitchfork into a baby’s body, nailing a baby’s body to a wall, or meathooking a baby’s body are actions which are irredeemably gruesome and horrifying—in short, obscene.

          Determining the implicit “civic or social element” of the fourth principle should be left to scholars like Dundes, but some commentary can be provided about the political intentions of the dead baby jokes from a pro-life perspective.  For example, although many, including Dundes, might see the jokes as manifestations of feminist ideology gone awry or a greater need for artificial contraception to prevent babies being born in the first place, I suggest that the dead baby jokes give those who read them a perception of infanticide killers that they never would have entertained.  That is, what person is so cruel that he or she would staple a baby’s body, or thrust a pitchfork into it, or not only nail a baby’s body to a wall once but then delight in extracting it from its nailed condition, or, worst of all, meathook a baby’s body as though the body of that child were equal with an animal’s?  The reader of the jokes would rightfully conclude that the unnamed actors of the dead baby jokes, the agents who perform the infanticides or mutilations of the corpses, should be condemned, ostracized, imprisoned, or institutionalized for the criminally insane.  Such psychopaths do not have a place in a life-affirming society.

          Finally, regarding the fifth principle, the question asked of the abortion jokes generates a significant reply here regarding infanticide.  Is there anything funny about the dead baby jokes?  Can the jokes induce one to laugh?  While a direct answer is no, quite possibly, the dead baby jokes illustrate how easily comedy can be frustrated.  That is, with the exception of the first three sample jokes which explicitly mention “dead baby” in the interrogative portion of the riddles, the jokes follow the expectation that such riddles will be amusing and clever, so the auditor or the reader is already predisposed to finding the joke humorous.  However, the second portion of the dead baby jokes deflates the expectation of humor since the punchline is anything but comical; as was explained above, the gruesome actions against the bodies of the babies do not merit humor or even the slightest snicker, let alone laugh.  If this interpretation is accurate, then the essential cathartic value of comedy is frustrated, and the dead baby jokes become unfulfilled opportunities either to effect change or to delight readers with humor.  The dead baby jokes can fulfill one goal, however, and that is that they are documentary evidence justifying Dundes’ claim that, “If anything is sick, it is the society which produces such humor” (155).

The Teri Schiavo Episode in Family Guy as an Attempt at Euthanasia Comedy

          The episode on the television comedy Family Guy which mocks Teri Schiavo is now infamous in the litany of broadcast media attacking pro-lifers and those who are victims of the euthanasia movement.  The visual component of the attempt at humor in the episode is as important as the verbal, just as, no doubt, the performance of the comedians cited above as they joked about abortion may have contributed to the reception of the joke.

Although the visual rhetoric of the show must be relegated to future research, since this presentation is focused on determining if the five principles culled from ancient Greek comedy apply to this contemporary example of euthanasia humor, considering the linguistic component only must suffice.  [slide 16]  The following is a transcription of the opening sequence of the episode:[5]

Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): Hi Doctor, it’s me, Michael Schiavo.  How’s my wife doing?

Child 2 (Doctor): She’s a vegetable.

Child 3 (Doctor): I hate vegetables.

(laughter)

Child 2 (Doctor): Don’t worry about her, Mr. Schiavo.  She’s being kept alive by medical science.

Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): Gee, look at all this stuff.  How does it all work?

Child 2 (Doctor): Well, I’ll tell you.

This one keeps her liver clean.

This one checks her pee.

Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): How about this one over here?

Child 2 (Doctor): Oh, that’s just the TV.

Chorus: Ha ha ha

[slide 17]  [Child 2 (Doctor):] This one checks her heart rate.

This one checks her veins.

And this dispenses gravy for her mashed potato brains.

Chorus: Oh oh oh

Terri Schiavo is kind of alive-o.

What a lively little bugger.

Bass child doctor: Maybe we should just unplug her.

Chorus: Terri Schiavo is kind of alive-o.

The most expensive plant you’ll ever see.

[….]

Child 1 (Michael Schiavo): There’s only one solution.

It’s in the Constitution.

We’ve got to pull the plug!  (“Terri Schiavo: The Musical”)

          [slide 18]  Whereas it might be possible to classify the dead baby jokes as comedy because the dead babies were not named, the attempt to classify this example as euthanasia comedy fails significantly, for the person dishonored in the joke was a real human being who was starved to death.  Even the depiction of Schiavo as a cartoon character does not enable one to classify the joke in the category of comedy; the audience sees a cartoon character, but the audience also knows from common knowledge that the cartoon is based on a real human being.  Thus, regarding the first principle, this attempt at euthanasia humor exists not in the genre of comedy, but of tragedy; nothing comic can be said about the starvation and dehydration death of Schiavo.

          The episode violates the second principle of trying to create humor in two ways: first, Schiavo is simply reduced to an entity whose bodily functions are monitored by medical equipment; second, Schiavo’s medical condition is such that the machines used to assist her were viewed not as ancillary means of supporting her physical life, but as crucial instruments of her being.  Therefore, although medical technology often intervenes in the ordinary lives of ordinary people, the severity of Schiavo’s situation does not fall within the realm of humor; if anything, a respectful attitude towards the seriousness of her medical condition is warranted.

Also, while some bodily functions can generate humor, the impossibility of humor in this situation is predicated on the disrespect towards the integrity of the person at the center of the joke.  That is, no human being is merely an entity on whom a machine works to “keep her liver clean”, “check her pee”, or “check her veins.”  The ultimate insult against Schiavo’s humanity precedes all these technological assertions when the cartoon character of Schiavo’s husband reduces her to a “vegetable” (to which the audience in the episode eventually laughs).  Dehumanizing Schiavo with the vegetable metaphor continues when the doctor describes a machine which “dispenses gravy for her mashed potato brains.”  A final consideration for this second principle is that Schiavo is recognized not as a human being endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, but as “The most expensive plant you’ll ever see”, an additional dehumanization, varying the vegetable metaphor.

          The same opportunity to designate the dead baby jokes as obscene, a term used in the third principle, occurs in the Schiavo episode as well with an important qualification.  The Schiavo segment aired on national television on 21 March 2010, so the audience knew that Schiavo was starved and dehydrated to death five years earlier.  Unlike the dead baby jokes, where unnamed babies either were dying or were killed, this circumstance clearly identifies an actual human being who was starved to death and whose legal situation was debated and broadcast continuously on American media.  In a sense, then, even though she was imprisoned in the seclusion of a tightly guarded nursing home room, Schiavo’s killing was obscene in that it was not committed “off stage” (the etymological sense of “obscene”), but “on stage”, if one considers that television and streaming services provided immediate communication of Schiavo’s condition and conflicts between protesters for and against her killing.  There was nothing private about the starvation and dehydration which Schiavo endured, and the joke does nothing but add to the tragedy of her killing.

          The fourth principle derived from ancient Greek comedy suggests that this attempt at humor does indeed “comment on current political persons and events with great freedom for the purpose of effecting change” in a significant way.  However, the political criticism of the joke affects the cartoon character of Schiavo’s husband, Michael, and condemns him for his sheer ignorance.  Towards the end of the song, Michael ignorantly claims that “There’s only one solution. / It’s in the Constitution. / We’ve got to pull the plug!”  Michael’s character is blissfully unaware that he is engaged in an either/or logical fallacy, thinking that his wife’s medical condition warrants only the two choices of either “pulling the plug” or not.  Factually, of course, the US Constitution does not contain a provision of allowing the starvation and dehydration of human beings, yet Michael thinks that he has the constitutional authority to exercise control over his wife to the point of securing judicial approval of her killing.

          Regarding the fifth principle derived from ancient Greek comedy, is it possible that the attempt at euthanasia humor in the Schiavo episode could produce enough humor to the point of making people laugh?  I argue that this is not possible because what could have been humorous is deflected in every case.  A doctor’s response to Michael’s question about Schiavo’s condition contains the commonly misinterpreted and medically inappropriate abbreviation of “persistent vegetative state” to “She’s a vegetable”; this reply then becomes another doctor’s petulant declaration, “I hate vegetables.”  Why is it necessary to deflect Schiavo’s medical state to a declaration of another person’s distaste of a food group?  Further in the song, a doctor replies to Michael’s question about the function of a medical device with the casual “Oh, that’s just the TV.”  Confusing a medical CRT screen with a television is possible, but how likely is it that a presumably intelligent adult like Michael Schiavo, who had been around medical equipment to assist his wife for a long time, could confuse the two?  A final example from the song involves another machine which “dispenses gravy for her mashed potato brains.”  That a doctor would utter such an admittedly illogical statement and try to pass it off as a joke in a serious medical environment is not humorous, but reprehensible.

          I trust that this examination of attempts at humor on the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia by contemporary comedians shows that their efforts fail miserably.  How can we account for such comedic failures?

Perhaps contemporary comedians are simply ignorant of what constitutes comedy.  If so, then modern comedians need to study the fundamental principles of their profession.  [slide 19]  They could begin their ascent from leftist indoctrination by reviewing the cartoons of Wayne Stayskal, cartoonist of the life issues extraordinaire, especially those found in his “—Till Euthanasia Do You Part?”: Cartoons,  [slide 20]  or the cartoons of Gary Varvel, whose trenchant cartoons are not only courageous in countering anti-life lunacy, but also works of art.  Modern comedians could also learn from pro-life groups like Secular Pro-Life, which counters the feeble attempt at humor and lack of biological knowledge of anti-life memes.  [slide 21] For example, this response cogently illustrates David Mills’ commentary about Secular Pro-Life’s ability to counter anti-life idiocy: “One pro-choice [sic] meme runs: ‘If the fetus you save is gay, will [you] still fight for its rights?’  This seems to be meant to accuse pro-lifers of being bigots.  The SPLers turn it around on the pro-choicers. Boom again.”   [slide 22]  [slide 23]  Modern comedians could also learn from the master humorist and social media critic Mark Dice, who is courageous in his expose of anti-life attacks, especially from the abortion business Planned Parenthood.

Perhaps contemporary comedians are simply hack partisans in a life-denying movement which believes that adherence to leftist ideology devoid of respect for human life replaces established principles of comedy and logic in the creation of literary items meant to create laughter.  If this is the case, then modern comedians need to abandon their illogical anti-life positions and support the lives of their fellow human beings—which is the existential purpose of all great literature, in either category of tragedy or comedy.

          I would conclude with this recommendation.  If someone asks you why anti-life attempts at humor on the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are not funny, you, the vibrant pro-life activist that you are, can immediately jump on social media (Facebook, Gab, LinkedIn, Parler, and Twitter, among others) and proudly say that these anti-life efforts fail for five reasons.  First, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are tragedies, not comedies.  Second, these efforts do not concern the simple pleasures of human life, but human life itself, which is of paramount value and must be respected, not destroyed.  Third, anti-life attempts at comedy on the life issues are not merely naughty, but more often distortions of bawdiness and eroticism and just plain obscene.  Fourth, anti-life comedians (so-called) do not use their humor to make important changes in social life, such as promoting the pro-life movement or otherwise working to restore the first civil right, the right to life; instead, they use their talents (so-called) to make fun of people who die at the hands of abortionists, infanticide doctors, or euthanasia proponents and other medical killers.  Finally, anti-life comedians miserably fail to satisfy the essential criterion of comedy: we don’t laugh over their feeble attempts to justify the killing of the unborn, the handicapped newborn, or the elderly or medically vulnerable.  [slide 24]

Works Cited

Andrusko, Dave. “Pro-Abortion ‘Comedy’: ‘How Many Abortions Have You Had?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t save receipts.’” NRL News Today, 1 June 2021. https://www.nationalrighttolifenews.org/2021/06/pro-abortion-comedy-how-many-abortions-have-you-had-im-like-i-dont-know-i-dont-save-receipts-2/.

Casson, Lionel. Masters of Ancient Comedy: Selections from Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, Terence. Minerva Press, 1960.

Dundes, Alan. “The Dead Baby Joke Cycle.” Western Folklore, vol. 38, no. 3, 1979, pp. 145–157. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1499238. Accessed 13 July 2020.

Felsenthal, Julia. “Is Now the Right Time for Louis C.K.’s Abortion Jokes?” Vogue, 4 April 2017. https://www.vogue.com/article/louis-ck-2017-netflix-special-abortion-jokes.

Hadas, Moses, editor. The Complete Plays of Aristophanes. Bantam Books, 1962.

Lucas, F. L. Greek Tragedy and Comedy. Viking Press, 1967.

Mills, David. “How to Defeat Dumb Pro-Choice Memes: The High-Spirited Gang at Secular Pro-Life Does It for You.” The Stream, 9 June 2021. https://stream.org/how-to-defeat-dumb-pro-choice-memes/.

Oates, Whitney Jennings, and Charles Theophilus Murphy, editors. Perseus Digital Library: Greek Literature in Translation. Longmans, Green, 1944.

Romm, Cari. “How to Make an Abortion Joke.” The Cut, 2 May 2018. www.thecut.com/2018/05/how-to-analyze-michelle-wolfs-whcd-abortion-joke.html.

Stayskal, Wayne. “—Till Euthanasia Do You Part?”: Cartoons. Baker Book House, 1993.

“Terri Schiavo: The Musical.” Family Guy Wiki, familyguy.fandom.com/wiki/Terri_Schiavo:_The_Musical.


[1] Since the audience hearing this presentation at the fiftieth convention of the National Right to Life Committee may include minors, the vulgarity used by Louis C.K. (Louis Székely) in the joke has been replaced by the word “BEEP” not only to make the presentation age appropriate, but also, comporting with the subject matter of the presentation, to create humor.

[2] While this research focuses on ancient Greek principles of comedy applied to contemporary comedic attempts at humor on the life issues, comedic theorists in the mediaeval and early modern periods (including Dante, Sir Philip Sidney, Samuel Johnson, George Meredith, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Northrop Frye) support and elaborate the ancient principles.

[3] These parenthetical variations are provided by Dundes.

[4] This joke is especially repugnant for pro-lifers who are familiar with the Woodland Hills tragedy, where thousands of aborted babies’ bodies were discarded in a dumpster.

[5] Lines from the website have been retained, errors in capitalization and direct address have been corrected, and terminal punctuation for each line has been supplied.

Categories
Book reviews

Dr. Glenn Siniscalchi’s Retrieving Apologetics (Pickwick, 2016)

Note: Amazon recently deleted the following review of Dr. Siniscalchi’s excellent book; I am reposting it here to publicize his work.  Since Amazon collaborates with cancel culture zealots and bans books with which it disagrees, I recommend not buying this book on Amazon.  (Why give your hard-earned dollars to a company that censors books?)  Instead, buy this book directly from the publisher: https://wipfandstock.com/9781498228435/retrieving-apologetics/.

Cogent, inspiring, lucid, mellifluous, scholarly: these are adjectives which describe my reading of Dr. Glenn Siniscalchi’s effort to restore apologetics to its proper place in Catholic life.

Siniscalchi’s book is wonderfully succinct, the 274 easy-to-read pages covering major aspects of Thomistic thought on belief in God, the significant contribution which Christianity brought to a pagan world (that every human life is worthy of respect), the importance of using one’s intellect to affirm faith, and the rationality of belief in a benevolent God Who wishes not only to communicate with His creatures, but also to offer them eternal life.

          Thoroughly footnoted with a twelve-page bibliography to encourage further reading, Siniscalchi’s book is scholarly yet designed for popular reading, as the divisions into five parts and fifteen chapters suggest.  Thus, the book is a one-stop course in a variety of disciplines.  The cultural significance of Catholic Christianity—specifically of the crucial role that Catholic institutions such as charities, hospitals, and universities have played over the past two millennia—is simply inspiring and makes one proud to be part of a universal faith based, not on terror or pessimism, but love and hope.

          Catholic Christians of any rite (Byzantine, Melkite, Maronite, Roman, etc.) have always appreciated the inherent beauty of the faith.  What impresses the reader on finishing Siniscalchi’s book is how logical the Catholic faith is.  Siniscalchi destroys atheist claims skillfully and with grace; after all, as he mentions several times, apologetics involves not merely pointing out another’s errors, but doing so in an appropriate and Christ-like manner.

Siniscalchi is a master of identifying logical fallacies in atheist or heterodox opinions, and he addresses those errors in thinking without engaging in ad hominem attacks.  The reader can easily understand the deep philosophical ideas being presented because Siniscalchi’s style is, as affirmed above, cogent and lucid, flowing smoothly from one idea to the next (the meaning of the adjective “mellifluous”).

It is no wonder, then, that virtually every page of my copy has been marked with an annotation of something important to remember, something worthy of future discussion, or something simply interesting to investigate in the future.

          Two areas in the book’s production need to be addressed.  The second edition should correct some annoying typographic errors.  Also, although the content of the fifteen chapters is evident from their titles, an index should be created to assist the reader in locating specific terms quickly.

These minor matters aside, I highly recommend Siniscalchi’s work for all, especially high school and college students.  In fact, I can see how this book can be the basis for a series of broadcasts on EWTN, videos on YouTube, or a masterly online course (one chapter each week in a fifteen-week course).  Siniscalchi should pursue these opportunities to promote his excellent work.

Don’t have time to read St. Thomas Aquinas’ massive works?  Can’t get to the entire body of Vatican II documents?  Don’t have the energy or the eyesight to plow through the Catholic Encyclopedia?  Read Siniscalchi’s book instead.  A subtitle for the book could be “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Faith but Were Afraid to Ask.”

Categories
Papers

Death Scenes in Literature from the Nineteenth Century to Current Fiction

Abstract:  This paper considers five elements found in the nineteenth-century depiction of death scenes.  Dying characters have the benefit of being in a comforting place before they die, and they have contact with a caring human being.  Removal of pain of the individual dying is a significant concern; material goods, in contrast, are insignificant to the dying.  Finally, spiritual solace can be found in the death scenes.  After showing how these elements are depicted in significant passages in Dickens novels, the paper then documents how the elements can be discovered in early twentieth-century novels; by century’s end, however, the elements were almost completely absent.  The paper examines contemporary twenty-first century novels whose death scenes include the five elements and suggests that future research is needed before a literary trend of novels rediscovering the nineteenth-century standard can be established.

            Fiction readers who wish to satisfy their desire not so much to be educated by the literature they read as much as entertained by it would do well to focus on nineteenth-century novels.  Almost every such work written in this century which saw the rise of the novel as the dominant means of prose expression can rise to the stature of a “good read.”  This can be attributed to the tendency that nineteenth-century novels have of generally following the four-part plot structure (exposition, crisis, climax, and denouement), which gives readers, not necessarily a happy ending, but a sense of completion or fulfillment, a practice which endured until realism and other literary movements at the end of the nineteenth century encouraged fiction writers to alter the model that had worked well since the late eighteenth century.  However, while they may not be concerned with the didactic value of such novels if their intent is to enjoy the writing, what do readers do when they encounter many death scenes of significant characters in these novels—death being an unpleasant topic in literature that disturbs the idea of a “good read”?

            By “death scenes” I mean those scenes in fictional works which depict a human being at the last stage of living, one who is dying naturally and not because of judicial decree or military activity.  Perhaps the presence of numerous death scenes in the masterworks of nineteenth-century fiction indicates that authors used them as vehicles to express the most sentimentality out of their works.  Perhaps the death scenes illustrate social protest in a manner befitting a non-didactic mode of nineteenth-century novels.  If it would have been preachy for a novelist to write, “It is not right that the poor should die as they do in an environment where industrial development is eradicating the agrarian society from which they have come.  It is not right that the rich should not care for their poor brothers and sisters,” then the death scenes in nineteenth-century novels convey the ideas of the preceding two quotes much more effectively by giving readers enduring images and powerful vocabulary to prove their merit.

            Twentieth-century literature may have lost the bearings of its ancestor.  While dying characters in nineteenth-century novels were treated with respect, the dying in twentieth-century works are dehumanized, belittled, and reduced to entities which could benefit from euthanasia.  What the twenty-first century has to offer is still in formation, but some commentary about recent works can be provided.  Examining death scenes in all literature in all genres is beyond the scope of this paper, so I would like to restrict my field of study to American and British literature, beginning from the nineteenth century.

I.  Nineteenth-century death scenes

            Of all the nineteenth-century British authors one can select, the reader naturally gravitates to Charles Dickens—“naturally” because there are many enduring images of characters at the moment of death in Dickens’ work, so many that a reader may not be able to conclude which character’s death is the most poignant.  Focusing on some of the more famous episodes in his fiction will suffice to document certain elements which compel the reader to remember the scenes, to linger over the details of the characters’ dying moments, and, perhaps, to learn how the deaths of fictional characters can apply to his or her own life.  I will consider the deaths of characters spanning Dickens’ career: Smike in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9), Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1), Richard Carstone (and, in contrast, Lady Dedlock) in Bleak House (1852-3), Mr. Dorrit in Little Dorrit (1855-7), and Johnny in Our Mutual Friend (1865).  All of these episodes include five elements which appear to be essential for reader appreciation of the death scenes: a comforting place to die, contact with a caring human being, removal of pain of the individual dying, insignificant concern about material goods, and spiritual solace.  [1]

A.  A comforting place to die

The first element common to the major death scenes is that the dying characters occupy a comforting place to breathe their last moments.  The setting for Smike’s death is idyllic:

On a fine, mild autumn day, when all was tranquil and at peace, when the soft sweet air crept in at the open window of the quiet room, and not a sound was heard but the gentle rustling of the leaves, Nicholas sat in his old place by the bedside, and knew that the time was nearly come.  So very still it was, that every now and then he bent down his ear to listen for the breathing of him who lay asleep, as if to assure himself that life was still there, and that he had not fallen into that deep slumber from which on earth there is no waking.  (862-3)

Nell’s death occurs in the abandoned abbey church where she and her grandfather eventually dwell after an extensive journey across England.  For over a hundred pages before her death Dickens describes how much Nell loved to be in the former abbey buildings, to wander in the graveyard adjacent the church, and to reflect on the buildings’ former ecclesiastical use.  Her death is described as reverentially as the environs are:

There, upon her little bed, she lay at rest. The solemn stillness was no marvel now.  [….]  Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour.  “When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.” (542)

Two death scenes in Bleak House are worthy of discussion regarding dying characters’ need to have a comfortable place to die because of the contrasts they provide at the moment of death.  Lady Dedlock, trying to flee the ignominy of having given birth to Esther Summerson out of wedlock, is discovered not in a comfortable place, but “on the step at the gate [of the graveyard], drenched in the fearful wet of such a place, which oozed and splashed down everywhere” (756).[2]  In contrast, Richard Carstone, the young man whose obsession over the Jarndyce and Jarndyce will led to his demise, is “lying on a sofa [….]  There were restoratives on the table; the room was made as airy as possible and was darkened, and was very orderly and quiet” (806).  Even though her father’s death occurs in luxurious surroundings, Mr. Dorrit imagines himself back in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, the place where he was most happy.  Johnny finds rest at the Children’s Hospital in the last of Dickens’ finished novels, Our Mutual Friend.  Despite the fears of the woman in whose care he had been entrusted, Johnny wakes “to find himself lying in a little quiet bed,” surrounded by toys designed to make the little child comfortable, such as a “Noah’s ark, the noble steed, and the yellow bird, with the officer in the Guards doing duty over the whole” (367).

B.  Contact with a caring human being

The second element common to the death scenes, contact with a caring human being, is crucial—not only for the person dying, but also for the reader to extract as much emotion and didactic value out of the scene as possible.  Nicholas Nickleby witnesses the death of Smike, who was “the partner of his poverty, and the sharer of his better fortune” (862).  Smike’s estimation of Nicholas is clear.  His death imminent, since Nicholas has told him that they “shall meet again,” Smike affirms that he “can even bear to part from you” (863).  Just before the moment of death, “They embraced, and kissed each other on the cheek” (864).  Nell’s death is tragic in that the person whom she loved the most in the world, her grandfather, is not present at the moment that her death is first conveyed to the reader.  Perhaps this is dramatic justice for the sake of the reader, for it is her grandfather’s gambling habit that led them to dire straits; having him present at the death of so reverent and self-sacrificing a young woman would be sacrilegious.  [3]  Richard in Bleak House is surrounded by all of his beloved: his wife Ada; Esther; Esther’s future husband who was Richard’s stalwart friend; and Ada’s, Esther’s, and Richard’s guardian.  Having the guardian present was most important because Richard had become hostile towards him, presuming that he was blocking his inheritance from the Jarndyce will.  Mr. Dorrit dies with the satisfaction of having not only his Little Dorrit around him, but also his brother Frederick, with whom he became reconciled.  Doctors and hospital staff care for Johnny in his last days at the Children’s Hospital, but also present is Mrs. Boffin, who cares for the little boy as though he were her own son.

C.  Removal of pain of the individual dying

Third, most scenes of characters’ dying moments involve or mention the removal of pain; the pain is often physical, but many scenes depict the removal of mental pain or anxiety.  While “there was no rallying, no effort, no struggle for life,” Smike’s death occurs in the context of “little pain, little uneasiness” (862).  The absence of pain at Nell’s death is one of three constituent superlatives used to describe her on her deathbed: “No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon” (542).  Richard experiences extreme anguish in Bleak House for having offended his benefactor, who can only reply to the confession by uttering “well” five times—said for the express purpose of removing his mental anguish (of “comforting him” 807).  The narrator makes it a point to state that Mr. Dorrit “had been sinking in this painless way for two or three days” (712).  Johnny asks whether the other children in the hospital ward are there so that their pain can be removed, and such is the little boy’s selflessness that he understands “that the reply included himself” but only after they “made him understand” (367).

D.  Insignificant concern about material goods

            Fourth, there is little concern at the moment of death about material goods.  Smike’s death qualifies this element immediately in that the only material good that he possesses at the moment of his death (a lock of his beloved’s hair, wrapped in “two slight ribands”) will be restored to him once he dies.  Smike asks Nicholas to remove them once he is dead “so that no eyes but his might see it” and then to replace it around his neck “that it might rest with him in the grave” (864).  Throughout The Old Curiosity Shop Nell treasures not any material good, whether in the curiosity shop where they first lived or on the road as they fled from London and those who would torment them, but her grandfather himself.  Even when he steals money from her to satisfy his gambling obsession, Nell cannot accuse her grandfather, so much does she love him and so constant is her devotion.  Richard reduces the hundreds of pages of his anxiety over the Jarndyce will at the moment of his death in Bleak House to an interrogative:

“It was a troubled dream?” said Richard, clasping both my guardian’s hands, eagerly.

“Nothing more, Rick; nothing more.”  (808)

During his last days Mr. Dorrit slowly eliminates the extraneous items his wealth had purchased.  Little Dorrit helps him to sell “a pompous gold watch” and “his sleeve-buttons and finger-rings [….]  and it is as likely as not that he was kept alive for so many days by the satisfaction of sending them, piece by piece, to an imaginary pawnbroker’s” (712).  Johnny’s only possessions are the toys that greeted him when he first came to the hospital; he gives them to a child with a broken leg.  After giving these toys away, as well as ”a kiss for the boofer lady [Mrs. Boffin],” “Having now bequeathed all he had to dispose of, and arranged his affairs in this world, Johnny, thus speaking, left it” (369).

E.  Spiritual solace

            Finally, many scenes either offer spiritual solace to the dying individual or, if spirituality were not essentially linked with the character, then the spiritual solace is expressly stated for the reader.  The account of Smike’s death contains two spiritual references.  In the first instance Smike recalls Nicholas’ affirmation that they would see each other again.  The second reference occurs while Smike is dying.  He sees “beautiful gardens, which […] were filled with figures of men, women, and many children, all with light upon their faces; then whispered that it was Eden—and so died” (864).  The description of Nell at the moment of death reverses the chronological order of the created world: “She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death” (542).  Nell is so transformed after death that the narrator first proclaims that, as she was known in life, “So shall we know the angels in their majesty, after death.”  The schoolmaster who befriended Nell and her grandfather closes the chapter, reflecting on heavenly justice, and asks the rhetorical question, “If one deliberate wish expressed in solemn terms above this bed could call her back to life, which of us would utter it!” (543).  Richard’s protracted death scene ends with his plea for forgiveness for having “married [his wife] to poverty and trouble[;] I have scattered your means to the winds.”  Forgiveness must be obtained, he asserts, “before I begin the world” (808)—this last dependent clause having become a metaphor for his death.  At his brother’s death, Frederick Dorrit directly invokes God to vow that he would take care of Little Dorrit.  Within that same night, “The two brothers were before their Father; far beyond the twilight judgment of this world; high above its mists and obscurities” (715).  Johnny’s limited religious experience is illustrated by two incidents.  Above his bed in the Children’s Hospital “was a coloured picture beautiful to see, representing as it were another Johnny seated on the knee of some Angel surely who loved little children” (367).  The possible allusion to Christ escapes him as does the cause (man’s inhumanity to man) of his being in the hospital in the first place; Johnny later asks the doctors if the children were all brought to the hospital by God.

II.  Twentieth-century death scenes

            Twentieth-century literature, in contrast, offers many examples of characters whose last moments either continue or lack the elements discussed in the memorable death scenes above.  A passage from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) will illustrate that a continuity with the nineteenth-century standard of depicting death scenes was still functional.  However, passages in two of James T. Farrell’s works (New Year’s Eve/1929, published in 1967, and his The Death of Nora Ryan, published in 1978) clearly suggest that, while some of the nineteenth-century elements can be identified in these works, most are significantly altered or absent.  [4]

            An important death scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) involves Lord Marchmain, the patriarch of the family whose history the narrator relates.  Lord Marchmain has the satisfaction of being in his home when his last moments occur, and he receives exemplary medical care during his final hours.  His family surround him, and he has the benefit of “the simple, genial” Father Mackay to provide the last sacrament for this ostensibly fallen-away Catholic (339).  Although the family is in financial peril (174-5), there is no concern about this expressed at the moment of Lord Marchmain’s death.

            Two items in the nineteenth-century catalog of elements in death scenes are interconnected in this case.  Although no physical pain is expressed in the scene, Lord Marchmain’s spiritual solace and anxiety over his sins are intertwined.

            “Now,” said the priest, “I know you are sorry for all the sins of your life, aren’t you?  Make a sign, if you can.  You’re sorry, aren’t you?”  But there was no sign.  “Try and remember your sins; tell God you are sorry.”  […]

            I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman I loved, who knelt in front of me, praying, I knew, for a sign.  […]

            Suddenly Lord Marchmain moved his hand to his forehead; I thought he had felt the touch of the chrism and was wiping it away.  “O God,” I prayed, “don’t let him do that.” But there was no need for fear; the hand moved slowly down his breast, then to his shoulder, and Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross.  (338)

            Farrell’s New Year’s Eve/1929 depicts the life of Beatrice Burns, a sensuous young woman whose goal is to spend New Year’s Eve at a party.  This attempt to enjoy life masks the futility of overcoming tuberculosis.  Although there is no specific death scene in the novel, one can argue that the entire novel is a prolongation of Beatrice’s dying.  She loses a connection with her father (he leaves her apartment in the initial pages, and the reader does not see him again).  She is unable to reciprocate the affection of a man who sincerely loves her (she loses him by page 25).  Her desire to have sex is unfulfilled by the end of the book.

            At novel’s end, the reader finds Beatrice on New Year’s Day with all of the five elements of the nineteenth-century standard for death scenes unmet.  Instead of a comforting place to die, Beatrice surveys “her unmade bed.  She had slept all day, and now it was dark outside.  The first day of this New Year was gone.  She ran her hand through her uncombed hair, and let the sight of her unmade bed depress her” (139).  Instead of contact with caring people, she bemoans that a friend of hers “hadn’t shown up, and he should have come by now.  He knew that she’d expect him to come so that they could talk over last night’s party” (139).  The end of the novel is replete with instances of her emotional distress, thus negating the element of removal of pain.  Beatrice “didn’t have the will power to make up her mind and decide what she would do.  It was even too much of an effort to get dressed” (139).  Beatrice’s anxiety and concern about material things is expressed in the penultimate paragraph of the novel.  When “Beatrice opened her eyes, and looked at the bare, whitish-grayish ceiling” and realized “That, she told herself, was her life,” her emotional reaction is swift: “She collapsed into tears.  She shook with sobs, rolled over on the bed, and, with her face sunken into the soiled pillow slip, she continued to sob” (144).  Finally, being agnostic, there is no spiritual solace for Beatrice.  The novel ends with the pitiful thought, “I don’t want to die, she told herself like a frightened little girl” (144).

            Set in 1946, The Death of Nora Ryan is another Farrell novel in which few of the nineteenth-century standards can be identified.  The novel considers the effects that a debilitating stroke has on Nora Ryan, the matriarch of a Chicago family.  Nora Ryan will not recover from the stroke, and so her children arrive from across the country to spend their last days with her.  However, the children do everything but spend time being in Nora’s presence.  While she rests comfortably in her bedroom in a daughter’s house, her children are almost always depicted in another room.  (One daughter does enter Nora’s bedroom when she is already in a coma.)  The only contact Nora has with caring people are her attending physician and two nurses called in especially to care for her.  While several characters wonder whether Nora is in pain, they make no effort to try to read their mother’s face, or to ask her directly (although the effort may be futile, since Nora has lost the capacity to speak).  Nora herself is unconcerned with material goods; she is a devout Roman Catholic and prays not for her children’s financial or professional success as much as she prays that that those of her children who have lost their faith will return to it.  The children, however, are concerned about material goods, specifically, the costs associated not only with maintaining everybody in the house during her final illness, but also the financial costs of Nora’s care if her dying becomes prolonged.

            One paragraph in the four hundred page novel is solely devoted to Nora’s perspective, and her thoughts show just how removed from the nineteenth-century elements, except for spiritual solace, her own death scene is:

Nora Ryan could only see part of the room.  Sometimes something looked familiar, a face, an object, something.  But it didn’t look the way it used to.  The space of her world had changed.  She could hear talking; she heard the doctor saying that her right side was paralyzed and that she could not feel anything on that side.  But she had dreams of pain there.  As she lay with one eye open, seeing and watching, the world stopped.  On the right of her, there was nothing.  It was as if there were a wall in the room blocking out everything on that side.  She was helpless, as helpless as a baby.  But she had no mother.  She dreamed one night that she was a baby and she recognized her mother in the dreams.  Was her mother dead?  Her mind was too weak and tired to try to remember.  An automatic acceptance was imposed upon her by her condition.  She was living from one minute to another.  The only thing she knew was that she was dying.  God was calling her but she could do nothing but lie here helpless until He called her for the last time.  (350)

III.  Late twentieth-century and contemporary fiction

            Late twentieth-century fiction bifurcates, consistent with the two approaches towards the dying evident in society: one which is life-denying and one which is life-affirming.  Life-denying novels follow the trend of earlier novels, largely disregarding the nineteenth-century elements and stripping away sentimentality and human compassion in death scenes.  Life-affirming ones contain the five elements, incorporating them with significant changes (most notably, a more realistic approach towards dying and an absence of sentimentalism).

            The life-denying approach is illustrated in three contemporary novels, two by British authors Ann Widdecombe and Tony Sullivan and the third by the American author Laurie Blauner.  Ann Widdecombe’s The Clematis Tree (2000) describes the tribulations of the Wellings family as they care for their handicapped son who was struck down by a drunken driver at age four.  Now eleven, Jeremy is wheelchair-bound and unable to communicate except by grunting (often loudly in public to the embarrassment of his parents) and is slowly losing his ability to swallow food so that the family and his caregivers must use feeding tubes.

            Jeremy’s death scene manifests several of the nineteenth-century elements.  In a way, his death occurs in a comfortable place; he is at home, sitting in his wheelchair “in the shade of the lilacs at the top of the slope on the other side of their back yard.”  He has his family members around him—his mother and father and his attentive Aunt Isobel.  Even the next door neighbor trimming his hedges has affection for Jeremy.  When Jeremy’s wheelchair rolls down the slope, advancing towards the stream at its base, his father realizes what is happening and struggles to catch up with the chair.  Jeremy eventually rolls into the water, where his father “went on staring, unwilling to disturb his son’s peace” (268).  The seconds lost at this moment guarantee that Jeremy will die by drowning.

            Involving a futuristic view of life in Britain under legalized euthanasia, Tony Sullivan’s The Virtues of Volanasia (2005) contains one death scene which poignantly describes the final moments of a ninety-nine year old woman whose granddaughter had applied on the woman’s behalf for “volanasia” (voluntary euthanasia).  The “gerry-house” in which the woman resides is far from a comforting place to die:

The place was thick with bodies[;] it was a swamp of aged flesh.  The air was clamorous with voices, drenched with the nauseating stink of ordure and disinfectant, topped off with the sickly sweetness of an air-freshener.  The light was gluey as though we were underground.  (158-9)

The absence of any compassionate person is described just as depressingly:

At first we could not find an attendant; everyone we came across was an inmate, appallingly old.  Some wandered about distractedly, others sat abandoned in wheelchairs, calling out weakly for assistance [….]  and had I not been so appalled and sickened I might have noted that in the midst of this loathsome chaos they often created a little oasis of human warmth and kindness for themselves [….]  (159)

When asked whether any other family members cared for the woman, the granddaughter retorts, “They all cleared off long ago and left her on my hands.  Bleeding nerve!  How am I supposed to afford it?” (160).  Her response perfectly summarizes the concern for material goods element, a significant one for the granddaughter, not the old woman who remains silent throughout the episode.  Shortly after the granddaughter’s statement, the old woman signs the suicide note which requests that she be put to death.  The actual killing of the elderly woman, which is not depicted, is reduced to the demonstrative pronoun “this,” embedded in another character’s solicitousness of the narrator, who finds the scene sickening, but not in any moral sense, only a physical one.  “Are you all right?”  the narrator’s companion in the volanasia activity asks.  “Why don’t you leave?  I’ll finish this off then meet you in the car park” (160).

            Laurie Blauner’s Infinite Kindness (2007) follows Ann Russell, a nurse in the Crimean War, as she readjusts to life in London.  Ann lost her fiancée in the war, and, at age thirty-two, she seems to be interested only in continuing the inspiring work of Florence Nightingale.  Ann is convinced that she has chosen the correct career after she receives a message from God to “Continue” her own work in a London hospital (141).  However, unlike Nightingale’s efforts to alleviate pain, Ann interprets the divine command as an affirmation of the killing that she has already accomplished at the hospital.  The killings for which Ann is responsible begin indirectly.  For example, a patient commits suicide by overdosing on drugs which Ann left at her bedside, and the moral objection of this suicide cannot be traced to Ann because, after all, the patient took the pills herself.  Her move towards active killing occurs when she thinks that she could “help” (in quotations in the original) an abandoned newborn named Carrot (106).  Just before her command from God, Ann has progressed to the killing of two patients.

            Consistent with her interpretation of nursing as a desire “to end the needless suffering” (142), a definition of nursing which she formulates immediately after the divine command, Ann begins her killing career in earnest.  She kills a blind old man who asks to be killed; she asserts that Florence Nightingale, the nurse exemplar, had killed two soldiers, severing their arteries (this claim is asserted twice, on 204 and 211); her benefactress’ death is called a “release” (213); she strangles and then shoots two Abyssinian soldiers (229-30).  Paradoxically, she feels more alive after the killings (233).

            In contrast, the life-affirming approach towards the dying can be represented by two contemporary American novels.  These authors’ novels not only hearken to the characteristics found in nineteenth-century works, but also, absent that century’s sentimentality, provide the reader with much more linguistic play and dramatic power.

            Janice Thompson’s Duty to Die (2001) begins with a death scene typical of fiction which illustrates a life-denying perspective.  Ashley Cooper is being euthanized under the provisions of the newly-enacted Duty to Die federal law which allows the active killing of persons suffering from incurable illness, later defined as illnesses which pose a “financial burden to society” (17).  What would be a comforting place to die, a sanitary hospital room, is a location that only increases her anxiety.  The only person in the room attending her death is a nurse whose consoling words are, “It’s only a matter of time”—said while she was “yawning impatiently” (19).  Ashley reviews her life as a successful corporate executive, but the italicized words “Help me!” and “Daddy?” suggest that what is occupying her mind even more is a need to connect with the nurturing love of her family.  An agnostic, her only religious thought is the recollection of an aunt chastising her for lying.  The repetition of “It was almost over now, almost over….” at the end of this scene indicates that she will soon die.

            Of course, she will not succumb to the euthanasia drip.  She is saved by a  representative of an outlaw band of medical personnel who use “intervention” as a way to rescue persons about to be euthanized.  Dramatic torque continues until the end of the novel with what appears to be a repeat death scene just as gloomily reported as the opening scene: “Drip, drip, drip…  Ashley gazed at the IV bag to her right” (237).  What first reads as an act of euthanasia, however, is transformed into a life-affirming event:

            The pain was overwhelming.  But it was almost over now, almost over.  The inevitable was upon her.  She was lost in a fog, a haze, drifting…

            Then words of a young doctor rang out, shattering the darkness: “It’s a girl.”  (238).

            The larger plot of Jane St. Clair’s Walk Me to Midnight (2007) concerns Susan Rutledge’s fight against a murderous suicide physician named Alexis Hedeon.  A significant subplot in the narrative concerns an AIDS patient who considers using Dr. Hedeon’s suicide method.  St. Clair’s novel is the latest in contemporary fiction which illustrates a death scene in a life-affirming manner.  Receiving hospice care, Kyle is able to spend his last moments in his own home, surrounded by his wife Lorie; daughter Erica; pastor; and Charlotte, a hospice nurse who is not only compassionate, but also realistic about what duties must be performed to aid the dying man in his last moments.  Unlike Dickens’ characters whose pain is specifically removed at the time of their deaths, St. Clair does not mask the unpleasantness of Kyle’s last moments.

            About a half hour later he began to struggle, gasp, and gurgle as he breathed.

            “Cheynestokes breathing,” Charlotte explained.  “Loud and rapid intakes followed by no breaths, sometimes for longer than thirty seconds.”

            “Can you do something about it?” Susan demanded.

            “Gurgling is caused by congestion,” she replied.  “If I suction it out, it’ll make him even more uncomfortable.  We’ll raise his head up a little, and play some more music to drown out the noise.  Most families freak out when they hear Cheynestokes.”

            Kyle’s mouth was now hanging open, and the irregularity and noise of his death rattle was disconcerting.  It sounded like a very loud coffee percolator—a noise so loud it penetrated walls.  (166)

While the purpose of the preceding dialogue about Cheynestokes may be to educate the reading public about the physiological events that naturally occur at the moment of death, unpleasant though they may be, [5] the last moments of Kyle’s life balances these negatives with strong positive images which provide spiritual solace not only for Kyle and his family, but for the reader who has probably been disturbed by the intensity of the Cheynestokes description.  Kyle speaks with his grandfather, who has been dead for eight years and who is apparently in his grandson’s presence.  Erica asks her mother, “Why is that angel and Jesus standing by Daddy?” (166).  Kyle’s last words are, “Lorie, it’s beautiful here” (167).  Earlier, the pastor and the hospice nurse recognize that the dying think they see their deceased relatives coming to greet them at the moment of death.  The pastor acknowledges that dying persons experience “the tunnel and the light thing [….]  That’s pretty universal and cross-cultural.”  The hospice nurse responds with, “’Also the dead relative on the other side,’ Charlotte added.  ‘There’s nearly always someone they know to greet them when they cross over’” (163).  The pastor’s use of the simple word “thing” and the nurse’s presumed emphasis of the word “always” could suggest that their comments may be interpreted as dismissive.  This rhetorical ploy counters the charge that such a passage would remain maudlin if Kyle’s words were not considered from a secular perspective.  The explicitly religious elements of Kyle’s last moments, especially when uttered by the characters themselves and not the narrator, should strike the reader as being more compelling than a narrator’s mere mention of a spiritual value to the death.  In this way, contemporary life-affirming fiction improves the Dickensian formula.

            The examples cited above can support three claims: that nineteenth-century fiction set the standard for the depiction of death scenes; that twentieth-century authors altered that standard by altering or eliminating certain elements; and that late twentieth-century and twenty-first century authors may be revisiting the nineteenth-century standard either to restore their work to the older standard or to develop aspects of death scenes which have lain dormant for a century.

Two qualifications need to be made.  First, the corpus of works consulted in this study is relatively small; more research is needed to determine not only whether other twentieth century works abandoned the nineteenth-century elements, but also whether twenty-first century authors are reexamining the five elements.  Second, perhaps some elements have been missed in the exploration of the samples.  If literature can be compared to an archaeological dig, then some items within the literary works or artifacts surrounding those works may have been completely overlooked.  More research needs to be conducted in this area as well.

Despite these objections, some conjectures can be made about what appears to be a changing, if not growing, literary trend.  Perhaps twentieth-century authors abandoned the nineteenth-century standard in the interest of pursuing artistic freedom—abandoning not so much the five elements of the death scenes, but what they may have considered as a too facile plot structure in favor of what were new fictional styles at the turn of the twentieth century; the sentimentality found in nineteenth-century novels where the problems are resolved in the denouement would not fit well in a twentieth-century novel where alienation and an unsatisfactory and often unhappy ending is the norm.  Alternatively, if twentieth-century authors abandoned the nineteenth-century standard because they had a vested interest to dehumanize the dying and to open the culture to the idea of eliminating not so much the suffering, but the persons experiencing suffering themselves, then future research must be conducted using biographical and Marxist criticism to determine the forces at work in the authors’ lives.

Similarly, twenty-first century authors may be reacting against the twentieth-century trend by restoring literature to its foundation of respect for the dying—a balance that was destroyed when the twentieth century disregarded those elements that should feature in every dying person’s experience.  This restoration may be attributed either to contemporary authors’ own life-affirming values, to their sense of being advocates on a philosophical level of the rights of the dying to be treated as human beings, or to a desire to produce meaningful works of literary merit—neither of which are mutually exclusive.

Finally, only the addition of more works over perhaps one more decade can determine whether a literary trend is occurring.  Death is not a pleasant topic for literary discussion, and authors’ and critics’ discussion of it could easily veer towards the morbid.  However, if the trend to produce more meaningful fictional works faithful to the literary heritage of the nineteenth century continues over the next decade, death and dying may become a fascinating and a life-affirming topic for literary studies.

Works Cited

Ashton, Karl. Illegal Nurse. New York: Godwin, 1936.

Blauner, Laurie. Infinite Kindness. Seattle: Black Heron P, 2007.

Bleak House. 1985. Perf.  Diana Rigg, Denholm Elliott, Philip Franks, T.P. McKenna,

Brian Deacon, Robert Urquhart. Videodisc. Warner Home Video, 2005.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1852-3. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005.

—. Little Dorrit. 1855-7. Ed. John Holloway. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth,

            England: Penguin Books, 1967.

—. Nicholas Nickleby. 1838-9. Ed. Michael Slater. Penguin English Library.

            Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1978.

—. The Old Curiosity Shop. 1840-1. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1943.

—. Our Mutual Friend. 1865. New York: NAL, 1964.

Dos Passos, John. U.S.A.: I. The 42nd Parallel; II. Nineteen-Nineteen; III. The Big Money.

            New York: Modern Library, 1937.

Farrell, James T. The Death of Nora Ryan. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978.

—. New Year’s Eve/1929. [n.p.]: The Smith, 1967.

Hardy, Thomas. The Mayor of Casterbridge. 1886. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth

            Classics, 1995.

Herrick, Robert. Sometime. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1933.

James, Henry. The Bostonians. 1886. New York: Modern Library, 1956.

O’Brien, Michael D. Strangers and Sojourners. San Francisco: Ignatius P, 1997.

Schreiner, Olive. Undine. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928.

St. Clair, Jane. Walk Me to Midnight. Waterford, VA: Capstone Fiction, 2007.

Sullivan, Tony. The Virtues of Volanasia. Lewes, England: Book Guild, 2005.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. 1847-8. Great Illustrated Classics. 1864.

            New York: Dodd, Mead, 1943.

Thompson, Janice. Duty to Die. Uhrichsville, OH: Promise P, 2001.

Tindall, Gillian. The Youngest. London: Secker & Warburg, 1967.

Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain

            Charles Ryder. 1945. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

Widdecombe, Ann. The Clematis Tree. London: Phoenix, 2000.

Works Consulted

Coughlin, William Jeremiah. Her Honor. New York: New American Library, 1987.

Picoult, Jodi. Mercy. New York: Pocket Books, 2001.

Snodgrass, Steven. Lethal Dose. Orlando, FL: ICAM, 1996.

Trueman, Terry. Stuck in Neutral. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

White, Stephen. Kill Me.  New York: Dutton, 2006.


[1]           Some death scenes in nineteenth-century literature are mentioned briefly in major works, primarily for the sake of character development, and need not be discussed here.  Such is the case with William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-8), where the pitiful state of Sir Pitt is reduced to “For this was all that was left after more than seventy years of cunning and struggling, and drinking and scheming, and sin and selfishness—a whimpering old idiot put in and out of bed and cleaned and fed like a baby!” (444), this followed immediately by a notation of his death.  Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) can be included here as well; the final words of Susan Henchard are relayed by another character at great length to illustrate that she was a fine woman (93).

[2]           The 1985 BBC dramatization of the novel enhances the sentimental value of this scene, but is unfaithful to the narrative.  There is no communication between mother and daughter in the novel as there is in the video adaptation; the novel makes this clear when Esther affirms that the figure reclined on the step “was my mother cold and dead” (756).  The film version, however, provides Lady Dedlock with an opportunity, haltingly rendered by Lady Diana Rigg, to indicate that she is there because her deceased lover, Esther’s father, is buried beyond the locked gate of the cemetery.

[3]           Two pages later, however, it is obvious that “they” (her friends and, presumably, her grandfather) were around Nell when her death occurred two days earlier:  “They had read and talked to her in the earlier portion of the night, but as the hours crept on, she sank to sleep” (544).

[4]           As mentioned above regarding nineteenth-century works, some characters’ deaths in twentieth-century novels, while important in helping the reader to understand the personalities of other characters, are too brief for study here.  Such is the case in major works such as Henry James’ The Bostonians (1886), where Miss Birdseye’s death extends over two independent clauses: “Miss Chancellor and Miss Tarrant had sat by her there, without moving, each of her hands in theirs, and she had just melted away, toward eight o’clock.  It was a lovely death” (413).  The Big Money portion of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy (1937) contains a brief passage where Mary French’s father died alone and in great pain (“His face, rough with the grey stubble, was twisted and strangled, eyes open” 124).  Zhivago in Pasternak’s masterpiece (1958) suffers great pain during his heart attack, and the narrative describing his death increases the alienation of his character in its final moments.  The film adaptation makes it seem as though Zhivago suffered the heart attack on the trolley because he thought he saw his beloved Lara walking down the street; however, there is no cause for his sudden heart attack in the novel, thus increasing the sense of futility of life expressed in his death scene.

            Non-canonical works which include or disregard many of the five elements include Olive Schreiner’s Undine (1928), whose main character dies at novel’s end; Robert Herrick’s Sometime (1933), whose depiction of Felix’ death ends the novel; Karl Ashton’s Illegal Nurse (1936), where the death scene is an infanticide which is only suggested by the barest of narratorial detail; Gillian Tindall’s The Youngest (1967); and Michael D. O’Brien’s Strangers and Sojourners (1997).  The death scene in O’Brien’s work contains all five elements: Anne dies in her home, in the presence of her aged husband, and has spiritual solace from a beloved priest; there is no concern over material things at her death.  Although she is dying of cancer, no pain is mentioned; in fact, whatever fear or anxiety she experienced is eliminated: “I want you to know that the shadows went away.  They’ve gone forever.  I’m not afraid anymore” (545).

[5]           The starkness of this scene contrasts against a contemporary novel which tries to mimic this condition.  Describing her mother’s death in Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing (1994), the narrator conveys the difficulty of her mother’s breathing with a repetition of the onomatopoeic “eh” for each breath taken (185).

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European Abortion Novels: Documenting a Fidelity to the Milieu

Introduction

          Reading anti-life novels produced in the United States can be emotionally debilitating.  Forcing oneself to read works of fiction where one knows that the mother will abort and that her lover (rarely a husband) encourages her in the killing makes the goal of reaching the last page (usually well into page four hundred plus) an enervating, masochistic assignment.  Moreover, dragging oneself through American infanticide and euthanasia novels where handicapped newborns or the elderly are consigned to a hypodermic death is similarly depressing.

          However, plodding through such anti-life works is necessary if I am to make the study of right-to-life issues in fiction my life work.  To compensate for the emotional drain, over the past year I developed a mechanism for coping with such negative fiction.  When I would finish an anti-life work, I would then read some life-affirming text.  Thus, for example, when I finished Paula Sharp’s four-hundred page I Loved You All (2000), I shook off the negativity of that novel’s world by reading Charles Dickens’ eight-hundred page The Pickwick Papers (1836-7).  [1]

          After completing Dickens’ novel, I realized that something was missing from Sharp’s novel which was evident by the concluding chapter of The Pickwick Papers. Perhaps it is what I suggested at last year’s conference: a sense of a satisfactory conclusion, a catharsis of emotions, or what Formalist critics have called the principle that the literary work has achieved a sense of unity.  Wouldn’t it be great if all novels end like one of the nineteenth-century masters?  If at the novel’s conclusion, all problems are resolved; where the men are happily married–with women, by the way, or vice versa; and where a Pickwickian character spends the remainder of his or her days enjoying the children of those whom he has loved throughout his life?  A Formalist critic’s delight!

          Then, I noticed something else about the list of authors whose works I enjoyed.  Dickens is British.  Other authors I have enjoyed, such as Carlos Fuentes who wrote Christopher Unborn (1987) or Graham Swift who wrote Waterland (1983), are foreign, that is, not American.  These authors–and others yet to be identified–write fictional works on abortion which, although the plots do not necessarily end “happy”, do offer the reader not only a sense that the plot has ended satisfactorily, but also that the abortion plot fits into the milieu of the society in which the abortion episode is to take place.  This respect or, even, fidelity to the milieu is striking in many of the novels, as I will demonstrate later.  I define milieu as broadly as historical (and even New Historicist) critics would.  Milieu combines the cultural, economic, ethical, historical, political, and religious forces which constitute a society at any given time.

          Since I have written about American fiction on abortion many times previously, for this year’s paper I had decided to investigate whether and to what degree international fiction on abortion (that is, fiction not produced in the United States) differs from abortion fiction written by American authors.  That focus was much too broad.  I quickly discovered that most of the international abortion fiction I encountered was written by Europeans.  [2]  I thus decided to refine my investigation and focus on what makes European fiction on abortion more appealing.

          I think the appeal that European abortion fiction has can be attributed not so much to the writer’s style or the tone in which the abortion plot is narrated or even the use of highly connotative terms or other stylistic devices.  I think that what makes European novels on abortion different from their American counterparts is the incorporation of major historical events which have shaped the writers’ countries.  In other words, European writers on abortion are faithful to the milieux in which the works are written.

          A further claim must be addressed here.  If the matter of fidelity to the milieu has serious implications, then its absence likewise has serious consequences for the fiction.  I think that the absence of a sense of history has two effects: the historical conditioning of the European novels on abortion not only raise their literary value, but also relegate their American counterparts to an inferior position.  Hopefully, the claims I will make about the inherent historical fidelity of European abortion fiction can generate two reactions from you, the readers.  First, someone reading this can become inspired to investigate further the qualities which make European fiction on abortion more substantial than American fiction.  This further research may thus corroborate my view that European abortion novels have more literary value than American works.  Alternatively, my thoughts may inspire someone to refute my claims–an easy thing to do, since the sample of fiction under review is relatively limited–by demonstrating that European fiction is just as depraved as American fiction on abortion.

          I have followed three criteria for this study.  First, I will concentrate only on abortion fiction which has been translated into English.  This criterion is not meant to demonstrate ethnocentrism as much as it admits my ignorance of a thorough knowledge of other languages.  Second, the works to be discussed are canonical novels; that is, they are credited with having been major accomplishments in the lives of the individual authors.  At necessary portions of this paper, however, I will reference minor works which show how abortion has developed and continues to develop as a theme in European fiction.  Third, I have tried to assemble representative fictional works on abortion from a variety of cultures within the European community.  The items gathered here have been collated under two constraints–time, as well as my relatively average research skills using various catalogs and databases such as the Library of Congress, NoveList, and Ohiolink.

          Despite the drawbacks of insufficient time and research, I have isolated several representative European works on abortion. The abortion novels to be considered here include: Journey to the End of the Night (1932) by the French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine; The Book of Hrabal (originally published 1990) by the Hungarian author Peter Esterhazy; Hannah’s Diary (1998) by the Belgian-French author Louise L. Lambrichs; Nothing Grows by Moonlight (1947) by the Norwegian author Torborg Nedreaas; Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) by George Orwell; Waterland (1983) by the Englishman Graham Swift; and, finally, Young Woman of 1914 (1931) by the German author Arnold Zweig.  While not all of these works are considered major for purposes of their abortion content, all will be considered in some degree.  Although this list has been alphabetized by author’s surname, the presentation of the novels will follow a chronological order.  Towards the end of this paper I will also address how some European novels have become “Americanized”, that is, have lost a fidelity to their milieux.  Finally, I will offer some summary comments.

Chronological Review of Abortion as a Theme in European Novels

          For purposes of this paper a retrospective of abortion as treated in European literature must be brief.  As early as 1729 Jonathan Swift’s ironic “A Modest Proposal” obscures a more serious purpose.  Eating the one-year-old babies of poor Irish may not be a serious proposal, but one of the reasons offered for such an outrageous recommendation to alleviate the poverty in Ireland is explicitly pro-life.  Swift writes:

                    There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast. (493; italics in original)

Although his proposal is not classified as fiction, the explicit reason for Swift’s proposal does show that a concern for fighting against the causes of abortion may be a relatively modern development in European literature.

          According to citations in the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, for the next several centuries “abortion” maintained its more medical definition of a premature birth, or the expulsion of an unborn child not capable of surviving outside his or her mother.  Often it was used metaphorically in this same sense.  It would take developments of the late nineteenth century for abortion to be argued in any sense other than the medical.  Often, the term was confused with infanticide.

          Recent research has demonstrated that abortion was often a subject of concern to some now rediscovered, late nineteenth and early twentieth century women authors.  For example, Helen Bradford has discovered a dramatic continuity of an abortion theme in the novels of Olive Schreiner, the white British South African author who wrote Undine (1929).  Bradford writes that

                    At a time when the word was taboo, she planned to include it in a subtitle.  She included abortion motifs in her texts.  One or more references to an induced miscarriage occurs in every novel.  She provided at least eleven re-enactments of a woman or a man either wanting a pregnancy terminated, or symbolically or actually doing so. (639)

Perhaps Schreiner’s obsession with abortion can be attributed to what we would now identify as post-abortion syndrome.  Bradford further writes that, while “there is at least as much circumstantial evidence for a miscarriage to which she believed she had contributed,” Schreiner’s fascination with abortion was an effort “to exorcize her own hidden agony, a perceived abortion that occurred when she was seventeen, in 1872” (641).  Such biographical criticism may help to excavate more abortion-related episodes in literature.

          However, despite the casual reference here or allusion there, European fiction seriously addressed abortion simultaneous with the economic catastrophe which spread throughout the world during the 1930s.  The decade must have been a fertile one (no pun intended) for authors to investigate abortion as a theme in their novels; three works by major authors can be isolated from this time.

          The first major Depression-era novel to address abortion is Arnold Zweig’s Young Woman of 1914 which was published in 1931.  Although the action of the novel takes place during the First World War, and although it is essentially the love story of Werner Bertin and Lenore Wahl, Young Woman of 1914 can be considered the first full-length fiction work devoted to the effects of abortion on a romantic relationship.  The abortion that Lenore considers after the first fifty pages of the novel culminates in the actual abortion fifty pages later.  Fifty pages after this, when Bertin has been sent to the war, Lenore resents that his letters to her say nothing about her abortion.  Seventy pages later Lenore’s abortion is called “her little ‘affair'” (226)–and Zweig calls attention to the term by enclosing it in quotation marks.  A hundred pages later, at their wedding, Bertin and Lenore realize that “it [the abortion] was fifty weeks ago to the very day” (330).  That’s odd, isn’t it?  To think about an abortion when you are marrying your beloved?  When Bertin’s leave from his war duties ends, Lenore’s goal of having something said about the abortion itself ends abortively: she never broaches the subject again.

          Surrounding the abortion theme in this novel is an acute awareness of historical developments.  Bertin is twenty-six when the novel opens in April 1915.  Bertin and others in the novel think, as most Europeans did at the time, that the war would be over within a year.  Lenore is a typical woman of her historical circumstances; she “thought the time had come when, by the passionate worship of beauty, by art and literature, humanity had been raised to a higher level” (Zweig 63). Although both Bertin and Lenore are ostensibly Jewish, Lenore’s religious apathy is indicated more identifiably by the statement “for her there was no comforter, no faith, only the empty heaven of the ordered universe” (68).  Bertin’s faith is just as materialistic; he believes in “the bewildering physical facts that first made possible the existence of life upon the earth” (131).  Much later in the novel Zweig derides the superpatriots who determined the bases of the war in three episodes.

          Perhaps the attention given to the anti-Semitism and superpatriotism of the Prussian ruling classes can be attributed to Zweig himself.  Born to a Jewish middle class family, Zweig fled Germany during the Hitler years and lived in Palestine.  He returned to East Berlin in 1948.  What better person to document the coming horror than the Jewish writer deemed a non-person?  Zweig was able to chastise his society by showing the futility of such a catastrophic war.  Since the Nazi concentration camps were not operating when the novel was written, the full horror of the effects of such a war and the philosophical foundation of German superiority are shown through the abortion of one child.

          The second major novel from the Depression-era to address abortion is the 1932 work by the French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Journey to the End of the Night.  This work is one of the first to include economic reasons for abortion, a feature which later fiction writers will repeat.  Celine includes an abortion episode which spans, in the copy I am using, ten pages.  At one point in the novel the main character, Bardamu, opens his medical practice in a village distant from Paris.  The entire chapter is devoted to exploring the conditions under which French women would undergo abortions.  Bardamu describes the stench of his tenement, which is, appropriately, an aperture into a minor character’s discourse about the need for abortion.  Madame Cezanne, a concierge in the apartment complex, says:

                    “Personally,” she advised me, “if I were in your place, I’d get pregnant women out of their difficulties….  On the quiet like.  There are some women in this neighborhood who live–you’ve no idea what a life they live!  And there is nothing they’d like better than to give you work….  It’s a fact.  There’s more to that than attending to tupenny-ha’penny little clerks with varicose veins….  Especially as it means good pay.” (Celine 266)

          Another novel which mimics the reasons which Madame Cezanne provides for abortion is Nothing Grows by Moonlight by the Norwegian author Torborg Nedreaas, originally published in 1947, fifteen years after Celine’s novel.  The unnamed narrator who tells her abortion story describes what happens to women with an unexpected pregnancy:

                    “I wonder if any man can understand what a woman feels while in such a doctor’s office, the first time she sits in the waiting room with that particular errand.  There she sits, a double offender, quite alone.  Yes, a double offender.  She has sinned, that’s number one.  And then she wants the doctor to help her commit another offense.  It is really an offense….  If she’s a maid she risks being fired.  If she works in a factory she has to be off work because there is no one to properly care for little children.  So women prefer to have it removed, and there are so many women who have to get rid of it you wouldn’t believe it.” (97-8; italics in original)

          The third and final major work from the Depression era addressing abortion is George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936).  Orwell’s novel is unlike the first two novels for two reasons.  First, Celine’s and Zweig’s novels are inherently serious not only in their prime subject matter (depicting the disillusionment of a young man in post-World War I France or the disillusionment of a young couple in the Kaiser’s Germany), but also in the matter of abortion.  Admittedly, the abortion motif in Zweig’s novel is certainly not secondary, but there is still a seriousness attached to the abortion episode and its consequences.

          Orwell’s novel, in contrast to these other Depression-era abortion novels, is primarily a novel criticizing the advertising bent of capitalism of his day, and this criticism is often quite humorous.  Whatever political critique the novel has is intertwined with the romance between Gordon Comstock and Rosemary Waterlow.  Gordon is a frustrated poet; only one hundred and fifty-three of his books have been sold.  Gordon is well aware of political currents of his time and considers as reprehensive the only two alternatives to socialism, “suicide and the Catholic Church” (Orwell 110).  Gordon, or at least Orwell the narrator, is quite knowledgeable about literature.  At one point Gordon realizes that “Time’s winged chariot was hurrying near” (262), an appropriate reference to Marvell’s seventeenth-century poem “To His Coy Mistress” (appropriate because Rosemary will not “prove” her love for Gordon by having sex with him until they are married).  Like Marvell’s coy mistress, Rosemary surrenders to Gordon’s pressure; she becomes pregnant.  Gordon renounces his Marxist principles and hatred of facile advertising slogans when he accepts his paternity and marries Rosemary.  With such weighty evidence of political ideology in the novel, it is easy to see that abortion is distinctly a secondary element of the plot.

          However, it is the possibility of abortion that leads to the traditional climax of the novel.  Rosemary considers having an abortion to solve the difficult economic circumstances in which the young couple find themselves.  This possibility leads to the significant change in Gordon’s character.  Once Gordon identifies with his unborn child, he is literally transformed.  Gordon would prefer to follow his own desires, but “there was the baby to think about” (Orwell 283).  Immediately on hearing that he is a father, Gordon does peculiar things.  He investigates what an unborn child looks like by studying depictions of the fetus in obstetrics books.  Interestingly, the illustrations of unborn babies shock him: the pictures are ugly.  Unlike an anti-life character, however, Gordon does not use the ugliness of the fetological development as an argument against the humanity of the unborn child.  Instead, Orwell writes that “their ugliness made them more credible and therefore more moving” (Orwell 286). When he renounces his anti-money views and becomes a part of the world again, the narrator reports that Gordon felt simple “relief” (290).  Gordon marries Rosemary, they settle into a rather blissful middle-class life, and he is now content writing advertisements for foot odor products.  [3]

          Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983) is perhaps the most historically conscious European novel on abortion from recent decades.  The abortion which fifteen-year-old Mary undergoes is surrounded by the narrator’s reflections on the meaning of history, of life, and of his place in the world.  The actual abortion which Mary undergoes at the hands of Martha Clay, a reputed witch and abortionist, is not described.  What is described throughout the novel is the sense of history interweaving with the events in the lives of the young people.  Tom, the narrator, delights in correlating aspects of the French Revolution with what is happening in his life.  The historical framing of the abortion in this novel occurs at the very beginning: the Latin word historia is defined for the reader.  Tom, later a history teacher, recalls how his mother used to tell him stories at bedtime.  From this beginning Tom realizes that history is essentially narrative.  The New Historicist tenet that all history is merely a revision of past narratives seems appropriate to account for the novel’s writing and rewriting of past events.  Often the reader will wonder if the novel is indeed the narration of events in the lives of two English teenagers or a deconstructionist’s effort at just having fun–jouissance, which Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray define as the “attitude of pleasurable playfulness with which practitioners of deconstruction approach literary texts” (184).

          Addressing his students, Tom argues:

                    Children, there’s something which revolutionaries and prophets of new worlds and even humble champions of Progress…can’t abide.  Natural history, human nature.  Those weird and wonderful commodities, those unsolved mysteries of mysteries.  Because just supposing–but don’t let the cat out of the bag–this natural stuff is always getting the better of the artificial stuff.  Just supposing–but don’t whisper it too much abroad–this unfathomable stuff we’re made from, this stuff that we’re always coming back to–our love of life, children, our love of life–is more anarchic, more subversive than any Tennis Court Oath ever was.  That’s why these revolutions always have a whiff of the death-wish about them.  That’s why there’s always a Terror waiting round the corner. (178)

Later, towards the end of the novel, again addressing the children in his school, Tom recapitulates the importance of the French Revolution:

                    When the children of the French Revolution threw off their tyrannical father Louis XVI and their wicked step-mother Marie Antoinette (who, as it turned out, were only like figures in a puppet show, you could pull off their heads, just like that), they thought they were free.  But after a while they discovered that they were orphans, and the world which they thought was theirs was really bare and comfortless.  So they went running to their foster-father Napoleon Bonaparte, who was waiting by the old puppet theatre; who’d dreamed up for them a new drama based on old themes and who promised them an empire, a purpose, a destiny–a future.

                             Children, there’s this thing called civilisation.  It’s built of hopes and dreams.  It’s only an idea.  It’s not real.  It’s artificial.  No one ever said it was real.  It’s not natural, no one ever said it was natural.  It’s built by the learning process; by trial and error.  It breaks easily.  No one ever said it couldn’t fall to bits.  And no one ever said it would last forever. (290-1)

          What does all this facetious, fairy-tale style rumination on the French Revolution have to do with Tom’s telling us the story of his girlfriend’s abortion?  Perhaps a major plot development that I left out should be stated here.  Although moving in medias res (from present time to past events in an English village in the 1930s and 1940s and to the present again), Tom’s narration mostly occurs in present time when he is fifty-three years old.  His girlfriend Mary became his wife.  Since they could not have children (Mary became sterile after her abortion), she does the next best thing and kidnaps a baby.  His teaching career is ruined with all the adverse publicity because…because why?  Did they not learn a key lesson from history: that negative actions performed in the past can come back to haunt one?  Just as the French revolutionists did not succeed with their cataclysmic overthrow of authority, is this novel which can only come out of Europe teaching us that the negative act of abortion will come back to haunt us?

          Moving into the 1990s, examples of the interconnection between historical commentary and abortion include two recent European works: Peter Esterhazy’s The Book of Hrabal (originally published 1990) and Louise L. Lambrichs’ Hannah’s Diary (1998).

          Esterhazy’s polyvocal The Book of Hrabal concerns Anna, the wife of a Hungarian writer and mother of three children, who is pregnant with a fourth, unplanned child.  God sends two angels to earth to try to stop the abortion.  Determining whether they succeed or not is difficult, probably because the narration is provided by an omniscient narrator, by Anna, by God Himself, by the angels, and also by a limited narrator (perhaps a personification of the author).  However confusing the material becomes, while the omniscient narrator comments on the characters or develops one of numerous tangential ideas, he or she also interjects passages narrating episodes from recent Hungarian history.  This fidelity to the milieu grounds the abortion question in the novel to historical events of which Americans are largely ignorant: the fall of Hungary to the Communists, the violent crushing of the 1956 rebellion, and subsequent repression of the Hungarian people until democracy was restored.

          One example of Esterhazy’s difficult prose can reflect not only the torture of the Hungarian people about whom he writes, but also his fidelity to the milieu of Hungarian society:

                    If, for instance, we were to count how many among Anna’s and the writer’s parents and grandparents were beaten by state forces, say since 1919 (to obtain a “more historical” perspective than, say, since 1945), and if we count as a beating the severe police chastisement suffered by the writer’s mother in 1957 (shadow punches thrown, being called a whore–a still-life with two spiteful, tired men in a little grey room), we’d end up with six Hungarian individuals who were beaten out of a possible twelve (one parent, and two grandparents on each side), which makes fifty per cent.  So then, there are some who were beaten, and some who were not. They beat up everyone, every family; there is no street, no house in Hungary they did not hit….  If this much horror and infamy was [sic] visited upon one family (“Your uncle was executed today”), then how many went down in all?  And who keeps count?  I do, said the writer, resolved to be emotional, for it was his lot to recall everything and everyone; his mother’s memory was in his keeping, and so was his father’s, whether he wanted it or not, and his brother’s, all…. (20-1)

A similarly critical and lengthy paragraph about Communist corruption and violence against persons occurs a mere twenty pages later.

          As with Graham Swift’s extensive rumination on the French Revolution, what does this excursion into historical criticism of Hungarian society have to do with abortion?  Why does it frame the debate which Anna has with herself about whether to abort this fourth child?  I can only venture this guess: that the abortion which Anna contemplates is as abusive as what Hungarian political powers–whether post-World War I or after the Communist takeover of the country–committed against the people.  Does she have the abortion?  Does the novel end “happy”?  Granted, Anne seems ambivalent about the abortion.  At one point she wants “to abort this baby, just a little” (116; italics in original).  However, there is evidence that Anna has learned something about the tragedy from Hungarian history.  When she meets with a near-deaf doctor for the purpose of seeking an abortion, he misinterprets her desire.  She in turn interprets this miscommunication by saying, “We have received the sign, and oh, what joy in our humble abode!  The old, deaf doc, that’s the sign.  The one we’ve been waiting for.  In which case it’s all right.  It’s OK.  We have been shown.  Shown the way.  The Word cited” (123).  One of the angels whom God sends to earth to evaluate this situation states near the novel’s end that “The infanticide, you should excuse the expression, she just barely avoided (with a little help)” (139).

          The second of the more contemporary European abortion novels from the 1990s, and the final one I will discuss in this section, is Lambrichs’ Hannah’s Diary, which consists solely of diary entries.  This novel concerns an abortion which the diarist, Hannah Perier, had in 1943, the psychological effects of which lasted until shortly before her death.  The story of Hannah’s aborted baby girl does not end with her abortion: Hannah dreams of her throughout the years.  Hannah “raises” her through the stages of girlhood and adolescence.  Hannah states: “I have worked out that each time my dream showed her at the exact age she would have been if she had lived” (Lambrichs 49).  Louise (is it coincidence that the name of the aborted child is the same as the author’s?) does all the normal things that a little girl and teenager would: she has birthday parties; she goes to school; she gets sick.  Hannah keeps the existence of Louise secret, even from her husband.  One effect of the abortion is that Hannah is unable to sleep soundly; she sees numerous doctors to try to cure her sleep disorder.  One doctor finally does cure her rather simply, just by letting her talk.  Hannah confesses not only her abortion, but also Louise’s existence to him.  Immediately on this confession, Hannah’s psychological health is restored and she no longer needs to dream about Louise.

          This novel would be an ordinary one about what we would identify as post-abortion syndrome of a French mother were the novel not interlaced with commentary about the historical situation in France from the Second World War to 1981 when Hannah dies.  It is because the novel is, as I claim, faithful to its milieu that Hannah’s Diary is not merely another abortion novel, this time with some interspersed French vocabulary.  Hannah gives us much evidence to show that she is faithful to the milieu.  Originally, her husband Robert cites the milieu of occupied France as sufficient reason for an abortion.  After the abortion, however, Hannah questions the validity of such a claim: “What sort of a world are we living in…if men can voluntarily turn into the butchers of their own children?” (17).  She reflects on the importance of what one should learn from history:

                    One would learn not to trust political speeches that claim to be based on history instead of on moral values.  Hitler would never have come to power if someone had cut out of his speeches all the so-called historical arguments he stuffed them with. (52)

Hannah’s abortion becomes a basis for questioning her own life: “Can something as commonplace as an abortion really change a women’s [sic] life for good?  What then can one say about the war, the atrocities that everyone around me has been through?” (99).  Perhaps the most philosophical statement in the book occurs when Hannah reflects that

                    People do not kill because they hate other people[;] they kill to avoid killing themselves, because they hate themselves.  Murder, in mankind, in every nation, is the last defence against suicide.  But the more they kill, the less they can bear themselves, and that is how wars carry on and never stop. (144)

This reflection written in her diary in 1948 stems directly from her ruminations on the abortion she had five years earlier.  I cannot imagine any statement from an American novel on abortion which could be as grand philosophically as Hannah’s insight.

“Americanization” of European Abortion Fiction

          European fiction seems to exist within a framework counter that within which American literature exists: a sense of history. Certainly, this is no substantial historical epiphany for literary critics. [4]  “Europe” is an accumulation of ethnic groups which traversed a land area approximating the contiguous United States for three millennia.  However, where the combined history called Europe is calculated in millennia, the history of the United States is marked merely in centuries. The European invasion of North America began in the fifteenth century, but increased greatly only in the sixteenth; thus, American history can at best consider five centuries of activity from the seventeenth.  Europe has a history six times that.

          Since I am in a chronological mood, consider the further analogy. If the twentieth century was American, the time in which the American empire rose to worldwide prominence, then the century of American dominance occupied only 3.3% of Europe’s history. (If one argues that only the second half of the century witnessed the rise of the United States as a postwar world power, then the percentage drops to 1.6%.)

          The above excursion into mathematics could relate to my view of European novels on abortion if I use it as a cultural warrant for a larger claim of value.  Since Europe has such an extensive history, fiction from Europe has much more to draw on to stimulate the reader’s imagination and to build the author’s case.  If this principle is true, then a negation could also be true.  That is, since America does not have as substantial a history, then fiction from America has less to draw on to stimulate the reader’s imagination and to build the author’s case.

          This generalization may account for what I perceive is an “Americanization” of some European abortion fiction.  This Americanization accounts for a substantial ethical gap, based in part on ignorance of one’s national history.  American fiction on abortion ignores traditional ethical elements in favor of a view of sexuality divorced from religious principles.  The twentieth century substituted one of the inalienable rights as listed in the Declaration of Independence, the right “to pursue happiness”, with the “right” to obtain the highest happiness, a mere reduction to sexuality.  When the pleasure of sex “fails” and leads to pregnancy, the corollary “right” to abortion must be affirmed.  The “contributions” of this American development can be seen in certain postwar novels.  This generalization may not hold in all genres and subjects; however, there are some representative European texts which show an Americanization at work.

          Alan Frank Keele has an especially perceptive view that the abortion plots in several postwar German novels illustrate the ethical wasteland of their milieux.  [5]  In terms which resemble the universal reach of the definition of milieu, Keele writes that

                    In [Martin] Walser whatever the logical, ethical, moral, historical, environmental, geopolitical or legal considerations, abortion remains for the heart and soul of human beings, even those without so much as a fragmented ethical code, a primeval form of murder. (233-4)

          Keele’s general observation is apparent in a German novel I want to investigate which shows Americanization at work: Martin Walser’s 1957 abortion novel Marriage in Philippsburg.  At age twenty-four Hans Beumann is a rising star in the Philippsburg community: he is hired by a wealthy industrialist to be the public relations man to promote radio and television interests in the metropolitan area.  His secretary is Anne Volkmann, who happens to be the industrialist’s only child.  When Anne discovers that her period is two months late, they decide on abortion.  Here are crucial lines describing Anne’s abortion:

                    The doctor’s wife gave her injections.  The doctor began to cut out the foetus.  Anne screamed.  The anesthetic did not work.

                             “It will be all right in a minute,” the doctor said.  “We have given you a stiff shot.”  He was now wearing a dark rubber apron.  For three hours he cut and tore about inside her with knives and forceps, bringing out pieces of bloody flesh which he threw into a big white bowl.  Now and again he called his wife, who was holding Anne’s head, over to him, showed her a piece of flesh, whispered to her, asked her something or other.  She shrugged her shoulders and came back to Anne’s head while he went on with the massacre.  If Anne closed her eyes for a second the doctor’s wife would give her a violent slap in the face and say: “What’s the matter with you?  Hey you, open your eyes!”  She appeared to be very frightened.  Then Anne realized that she had not been given an anesthetic at all, that she had to go through it all fully conscious. (Walser 118)

          As grotesque as this abortion scene is, it really does not differ from any other typical American abortion scene.  What is missing from this novel to make it other than an American production is its fidelity to the milieu which surrounds Germany in the postwar period.  Is it proper to interpret authorial intention like this, to say that the author deliberately intended not to include the milieu in his work?  I believe so, because there are several examples of missed opportunities to incorporate explicitly historical elements in the novel.  (Remember that the novel was written in 1957.)

          Early in the novel the narrator intrudes with the following statement: “Fifty years ago people had been as reserved, as taciturn as Anne on the ticklish problems of early life which were yet so very important.  And we knew where that had led….” (Walser 23).  Moving from “fifty years ago” to “where that had led” would position the reader within the height of Nazi political power, but no mention of that is made. When thinking about the offer of a job with the industrialist, Hans contrasts nineteenth-century revolutionary thought with contemporary life. It is interesting that the first half of the twentieth century is missing.  Giving in to Volkmann’s offer of financial security “was a life story familiar enough in central Europe” (57).  This is perhaps the nearest allusion to the political compromise which characterized the pre-war environment.  The promotion of television among the populace is seen as an effort to prevent “worse political catastrophes” (79).  One of the worst political catastrophes to face Germany, Europe, and the world–Nazism–is not named.  A character by the name of Professor Mirkenreuth plays tapes of his radio accounts of war activities with obvious satisfaction.  The author notes that “toward the end of the war his reports had been banned and he was transferred to routine duties” (112). Using the passive voice for the verbs hides the agency of the banning, the Nazi military.  Finally, Hans reads the notebooks of a suicide victim who talks about the postwar years, but only in the most innocuous terms.  Perhaps the omission of these historical elements is what Walser wanted to do, either for the purpose of making the reader work harder to explicate some meaning from the text, or for the purpose of writing as contemporary a novel as possible.  In doing so, however, Marriage in Philippsburg would be no different than Marriage in Massachusetts or Marriage in Milwaukee.  By omitting the milieu of this novel, Walser gives us a German version of an Americanized novel on abortion which merely contains another grotesque abortion scene.

          Certainly, American fiction on abortion does address the past in that the past is usually the time period in which the plot is situated.  However, I find it interesting that many American abortion novels are futuristic, as though they must manufacture a sense of history.  Of course, we know that the history of abortion in the United States cannot affirm what the Supreme Court did to attack the right to life in 1973.  Thus, American fiction writers on abortion have had to use a futuristic setting for their novels, especially if they wanted to attack the right-to-life movement.  This may account for the futuristic settings (and wildly biased actions and plots against right-to-lifers) in some anti-life novels, such as Lucy Ferriss’ The Misconceiver (1997), which is set late in this century, or Sue Robinson’s The Amendment (1990) and Howard Fast’s The Trial of Abigail Goodman (1993), both of which are set in an undetermined future.  [6]

Summary

          In a short story originally published in 1948, “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon”, African-(expatriate) American writer James Baldwin has a main character, an older French man, say:

                    “I have never really understood Americans; I am an old man now, and I suppose I never will.  There is something very nice about them, something very winning, but they seem so ignorant–so ignorant of life.  Perhaps it is strange, but the only people from your country with whom I have ever made contact are black people….  Perhaps it is because we in Europe, whatever else we do not know, or have forgotten, know about suffering.  We have suffered here.  You have suffered, too. But most Americans do not yet know what anguish is.  It is too bad, because the life of the West is in their hands.” (243)  [7]

That may have been true in 1948, when the United States was the bastion of democratic freedom.  But now?  When the United States is the bastion of anti-life forces?  What was first proclaimed as unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this city over two hundred years ago has been convoluted to an enumeration which omits the first right, amplifies the second, and glorifies the third when it is equated with sexuality.

          Perhaps, then, what European fiction on abortion can teach the world is that the fragility of civilization depends on not forgetting the past.  If any European abortion fiction work is faithful to its milieu, then we as readers should be able to progress to a higher level of civilization.  We can learn from the historical catastrophes and events which have shaped our world and can then apply what we have learned to our own lives, ostensibly to prevent, if not as great a disaster, then the beginnings of one.  Unfortunately, American novels on abortion do not have the historical breadth of their European counterparts.

          European fiction has much to teach this country which is still fledgling by contrast with Europe.  A first principle it could learn is to rediscover its past: a past which protected human life, from the moment of fertilization; a past founded on Judeo-Christian articles of faith; a past which corrected abuse against blacks, against women, against Native Americans, and someday against the unborn who had–until five men revoked it in 1973–a right which was guaranteed here in Philadelphia in 1776.

          A second principle American writers could learn is that life-affirming events can be incorporated into their fiction.  Why should one be ashamed of the efforts of pro-life activists who have set up pregnancy support groups throughout the country? I have only read about pro-lifers protesting in front of abortion clinics.  I have never read a favorable narrative about pro-lifers who work hard every day in pregnancy support centers to help mothers, fathers, and their children.  Why should one be ashamed of congressional efforts to restore protection of a discriminated group of people who happen to be unborn?  Prohibiting funds from going to the abortion group Planned Parenthood is viewed as reactionary by some.  Why isn’t it seen for what it is, an effort by concerned citizens to prevent hard-earned tax money from going to an organization that supports abortion around the world?

          Finally, if European fiction dwells on disastrous historical events which have shaped that continent’s history, then American writers will someday have to face a similar disaster which hit their nation: the Roe v. Wade decision of 22 January 1973.  Up to now, many anti-life American authors have viewed the Roe decision as a blessing.  Baldwin says that “most Americans do not yet know what anguish is”.  What can generate anguish?  An economic disaster?  A catastrophic war?  How unfortunate it would be if these were the only ways that American writers would come to realize how great a disaster the Roe decision was.

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    [1]  Sometimes this strategy of balancing a life-affirming work against a life-negating one, or, rather, trying to escape abortion altogether, does not work.  I thought that British author Rumer Godden’s In this House of Brede (1969) was to have been one of those “easy” reading texts where abortion would not intrude into a novel discussing the glories of the monastic life of Benedictine choir nuns.  I was wrong.  The abortion episode occupies all of three pages, but its presence in this novel is striking.  Penny, one of the former employees of the main character, Dame Philippa, announces that she is pregnant and that she is ambivalent about carrying the baby to term.  Philippa firmly asserts the humanity and right of the unborn child to be born: “Doctors don’t like doing it, even when there are strong reasons.  Here there’s no reason” (233); “babies do [“upset everything” as Penny says], because they are people from the very beginning” (234).  Despite such encouraging efforts from her former employer, Penny aborts.  Later, Penny’s husband affirms “‘It isn’t as if it had been a hole-and-corner business,’ said Donald.  ‘I do take care of her.  It was a proper doctor and a nursing home and I took her there myself,’ said Donald virtuously” (235).

    [2]  For the North American continent, since the United States was ruled out of this study, I only had one Canadian abortion title–Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986).  For Africa, I only had one Nigerian novel, Buchi Emecheta’s Kehinde (1994).  I was misled into thinking that the 1928 novel by South African writer Olive Schreiner, Undine, concerned abortion when it depicts a miscarriage and death of newborns.  As for Asian abortion fiction, I understand from Timothy D. Engles, a colleague who has done work on Fae Myenne Ng’s novel Bone (1993), that Li Ang’s The Butcher’s Wife (1995) “MAY have included this issue somehow”.  The novel does address abortion only in that the butcher slaughters a sow which is pregnant.  Apparently, definite knowledge about the subject matter of abortion in international fiction is rare.

    [3]  Gordon’s respectful attitude toward his “ugly” unborn child contrasts markedly with most anti-life American fiction.  For example, an abortion clinic worker in Norma Rosen’s At the Center (1982) eradicates serious thinking on the humanity of the unborn child when she explains to another clinic worker how it was that Eve had the first abortion:

                   “The first baby we know was Cain.  No spiritual giant.  My guess is Eve aborted him before full term, upset as she was by the move from Eden….  So poor Eve was made to feel guilty, and she aborted, probably.  Interruption of the eighteen-month term.  And who knows what forms it might take?  First it’s a fish and then a frog or a bird or a reptile or any of those early forms before it’s what we call a baby.  Well, then, maybe after it’s a baby it’s meant in its next nine months of development to turn angel (the bearer would feel lighter!).  Then after wing-molt, maybe Devil–red-hot and sharp-tailed.  A mother might have bad heartburn in the thirteenth month.  Then saint.  Empathy and floods of tears for suffering humanity.  The mother urinates like crazy.  Then it’s ready to come out.  It’s been scalded, flooded, a soul burned into it.” (139-40)

Similarly, Belly, a character in Mary Burnett Smith’s Miss Ophelia (1997), is disgusted that the unborn child in her friend Teeny is moving “like a tadpole” (26).  A character in Paula Sharp’s I Loved You All (2000) chastises Isabel Flood, the admittedly radical pro-life character, for not having pictures of “earlier term fetuses, who would look more like tadpoles” (302).

          The “tadpole” dehumanizing term for the unborn child is not relegated only to American fiction.  The male character at the beginning of Sue Townsend’s Ghost Children (1997) calls the mothers who abort at an English clinic “tadpole carriers” (7).  This character, whose duty is to remove the “garbage” from the clinic, further states that “killing tadpoles was fucking good business” (7).

    [4]  In fact, while I was casually reading a collection of European short stories, the editors of the collection asserted much the same claim as I will here: American fiction per se is still too young in contrast against European fiction.  Edward and Elizabeth Huberman, editors of Fifty Great European Short Stories (1971) go on to say that

                   …We see that what European stories have, which ours do not, is simply the weight of time and history….  When Edwin Muir, the Scottish poet and critic, visited the United States for a year in 1955, to give the Charles Eliot Norton letters [sic] at Harvard, he told his wife that he could not feel at home here because he had too keen a “sense of the human past.”  He needed land “that had been patiently tilled and worked over for generations”; and it is precisely that feeling of immemorial human living that in one way or another informs so many of these European stories and gives them a quality American stories naturally cannot possess….  [I]t derives most often simply from the inherent historical perspective, from the implicit suggestion of ancient events, customs and traditions…. (x)

    [5]  Commenting on another German work, Paul Schalluck’s Wenn man aufhoren konnte zu lugen [If One Could Stop Telling Lies] (1951), Keele documents a “chain” of disrespect for life:

                   Feticide, the first link in the chain thus forged, is also its lowest common denominator–killing in its most primal form. Anyone who can kill a fetus can kill him- or herself, or other humans or the whole human race.  And…he can also murder God. (233)

    [6]  Even the Canadian Margaret Atwood, too, has become Americanized in her abortion plots.  Her The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) is set in the futuristic Republic of Gilead, where the action of the novel was supposed to have taken place around 2045 AD.  The novel is supposed to be a “partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” held at the University of Denay, Nunavit 25 June 2195 (Atwood 299).  While the political intent of the novel is clear (the United States may cease to exist as an entity of several states), the abortion message of the novel is equally clear: if fundamentalist Christians have their way, then not only will abortion be made illegal again, but women themselves will be held in slavery to men.  Thus, Atwood’s abortion manifesto is no better than other  American anti-life authors.

    [7]  Reading this passage reminds me of a quote from Louis Hemon’s Maria Chapdelaine: a Tale of the Lake St. John Country (1921).  Although French, Hemon wrote what is credited as one of the finest Canadian novels in praise of the French settlers in Canada.  The novel ends with “the voice of Quebec” saying “Three hundred years ago we came, and we have remained …  They who led us hither might return among us without knowing shame or sorrow, for if it be true that we have little learned, most surely nothing is forgot” (184).  Lest it be assumed that retrospection is a dominantly European quality and that American writers are more prospective, Hemon, too, is concerned with the future.  The voice of Quebec continues her epideictic: “Concerning ourselves and our destiny but one duty have we clearly understood: that we should hold fast–should endure.  And we have held fast, so that, it may be, many centuries hence the world will look upon us and say:–These people are of a race that knows not how to perish…We are a testimony” (185).