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.

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.


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 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.


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).

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.


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.

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, Accessed 13 July 2020.

Felsenthal, Julia. “Is Now the Right Time for Louis C.K.’s Abortion Jokes?” Vogue, 4 April 2017.

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.

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.

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

“Terri Schiavo: The Musical.” Family Guy Wiki,

[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.


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).


European Abortion Novels: Documenting a Fidelity to the Milieu


          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]


          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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          Stop Telling Lies]. Opladen: F. Middelhauve, 1951.

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—. A Track to the Water’s Edge: the Olive Schreiner Reader. Ed.

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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).


“…We a people who give children life”: Pedagogic Concerns of the Aborted Abortion in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun

     “Would Mama be a member of the National Right to Life Committee?”  To stimulate discussion, as well as to guarantee that my students attend their classes, I assign daily writing assignments which consist of a ten-minute response to an often outrageous question anchored in some aspect of the play or poem assigned for that day.  This question greeted my students on one of the days when we discussed Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.  While I intend to focus on the woman most immediately concerned with the abortion subplot in the play, we must first acknowledge the affirmation-of-life framework established by the matriarch of the family.

     Mama’s life-affirming statements come in two categories: first, descriptions of the love which the deceased patriarch of the family had for children; and secondly, her own definitions regarding the black race’s role in preserving life.

     “He was one man to love his children…crazy ’bout his children!” she relates of Big Walter, the deceased patriarch (Hansberry, Raisin 29).  When she says this in act one, scene one, Mama is recalling the abject poverty into which she and her husband raised their family.  Mama narrates to Ruth how frequently Big Walter would come home from work and, after staring miserably at his poor surroundings, find solace in his children.

     At the pivotal moment when Ruth’s plans for having an abortion are revealed, Mama states emphatically in the very next segment of the play (act one, scene two), again using the royal plural, that “we a people who give children life, not who destroys them” (Hansberry, Raisin 63).  In this statement of black self-definition, Mama challenges not so much her daughter-in-law, over whom she appropriately seems to have no absolute control.  (Ruth is still, like her Old Testament namesake, a foreigner, an outsider, to the immediate Younger family).  Mama’s challenges are directed more to the thirty-five year old male who still apparently has not become a man: her son, Walter (note that he is a character handicapped by being contrasted against his father; often, Mama calls him “Brother”).  His reaction to his mother’s urging that he stand up in support of life like his father before him is typical of a man faced with an untimely pregnancy.  Able only to utter his wife’s name, Walter finds no other words to say; he walks out the door, symbolically abandoning both women (Ruth and his mother) who need him to affirm the human life whom he generated.

Ruth’s Statements

     The scant critical attention Ruth receives from literary critics is virtually always in connection with her causal effect (as opposed to any emotional affect) on Walter or as the stimulus for Mama’s bold initiative to purchase a house for the Younger family.  [1]  Ruth’s attitude toward abortion, if not an accurate assessment of her attitude toward her unborn child, positions her as one who is oppressed in two ways: being a woman, and being a black woman.  [2]  Much like mothers today who are faced with economic uncertainties, Ruth seems ineluctably drawn to abortion as a solution to the “problem” of an untimely pregnancy.

     And yet, she is terribly aware of what we would now identify as post-abortion syndrome, the symptoms of psychological, physical, and emotional distress which many women who have had abortions experience, if not immediately, then years after their abortions.  [3]  “Ain’t nothin’ can tear at you like losin’ your baby,” Ruth proclaims in sympathy as Mama relates the story of how she and Big Walter lost one of their already-born children, “little Claude.”  It would be unfortunate if our students did not realize that, behind the overt sympathy, Ruth may also be thinking about the abortionist’s curette tearing at her own baby.  [4]

     Moreover, similar to those who would contemplate suicide, or women who have had abortions who may be suicidal, Ruth’s initial, halting steps toward pursuing abortion function like a cry for help.  Psychoanalytical literary theorists can best address whether Ruth’s lapsus linguae was either intentional or a dramatic torque necessary to advance the abortion subplot.  Our students, however, should be encouraged to consider not only this slip of the tongue, but more importantly the ensuing mild interrogation which follows.  Ruth does not fight against the matriarch’s queries.  [5]  She is submissive to Mama’s probings.  Moreover, at the crucial moment closing act one when Walter tries to reassure more himself than his mother that “You don’t know Ruth, Mama, if you think she would do that,” Ruth herself returns to the stage and affirms the opposite, significantly in two sentences which combine the future possibility of the abortion with her past action of the down payment made to the abortionist: “Yes I would too, Walter.  I gave her a five-dollar down payment” (Hansberry, Raisin 62-3).

Life-Affirming Authorial Intention

     Conjecture about the life-affirming purposes of A Raisin in the Sun leads to the inevitable problem of determining with accuracy Hansberry’s position on the issue.  Was it Hansberry’s intention to present such a life-affirming drama?  Addressing this question can easily lead into a diatribe on the politics of abortion.  I will avoid such a confrontation and focus instead on the historical and literary evidence of Hansberry’s own words.

     First, of course, it is interesting to note that recent scholarship maintains that A Raisin in the Sun is in reaction to an earlier play which espoused a Marxist political approach to the problems of black America.  [6]  The play functions quite conservatively, seeking not only “to correct [black playwright Theodore] Ward’s representation of black women,” but also “sets as a goal for black America not the Marxist revolution proposed by Big White Fog but the attainment of equality in bourgeois America” (Barthelemy 770, 777).

     Several sources outside the play can attest to Hansberry’s intention of promoting the play’s life-affirming principles.  Hine states that “in this play [A Raisin in the Sun] and in her second produced play, Hansberry offered a strong opposing voice to the drama of despair.  She created characters who affirmed life in the face of brutality and defeat” (527).  [7]

     Textual evidence that the play is inherently life-affirming is most philosophically supportable by reviewing what I call Hansberry’s masterpiece of epideictic, The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality.  It is this book more than any other work by Hansberry which can demonstrate the practicality of using both cultural criticism and New Historicism approaches toward student appreciation of A Raisin in the Sun.  For example, what is most striking about the photographs in this book is that, while Hansberry fought against racial segregation, today’s pro-lifers are fighting an even deeper segregation, an artificial legal construction erected by Supreme Court cases which attempt to distinguish the rights of a “wanted” unborn child from those of an “unwanted” unborn child.

     Hansberry’s commentaries on what were, as of the printing of the book in 1964, “the devotions of our culture–traditional Christianity…and more recently, Islam” have echoes in today’s pro-life movement (Movement 46).  Today’s pro-lifers constitute another majority fighting for civil rights for a different class of oppressed people, a majority that votes for certain candidates, donates to pregnancy support groups, and participates in marches and demonstrations all quite legally, quite peacefully within their First Amendment rights.  Hansberry’s text surrounding a photo of a man teaching nonviolent tactics is similar to the methodology used by abortion protestors who, before the Freedom of Choice Act suppressed their demonstration rights, blocked abortion clinic doors (Movement 107).  Moreover, when Hansberry states that “it (the rise of Islam among Negroes and Muslim `separation’) is, nonetheless, an important indicator of the anguished frustrations of a people” (Movement 48), her words could very well be applied to those in the more militant sector of the pro-life movement who advocate less than peaceful means to stop abortion.  [8]

     Finally, since Hansberry made much of the 1963 March on Washington on 28 August, one wonders how she would have reacted to the fact that for every year since 1974, the first anniversary of the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton abortion decisions, tens of thousands of pro-lifers have gathered in Washington, D.C. every 22 January.  March For Life, the organization which coordinates the annual demonstrations, has estimated this year’s crowd to be “at over 100,000” (Andrusko 22).  In 1990, the National Right to Life Committee orchestrated a “Rally for Life.”  According to a Committee spokeswoman, “The National Park Service first estimated the crowd to be 60,000.  After hearings on the hill, they changed the number to 200,000” (Kelly).  If Hansberry thought it was significant to comment on the one march that sparked renewed interest in the fight for civil rights for blacks, what would she have said about that rally and the annual peaceful marches of pro-lifers every year on behalf of the first of the Declaration of Independence’s inalienable rights, the right to life?

Pedagogic Concerns

     My main focus continues to be the pedagogic concerns of teaching this play in the late 1990s.  We can begin our list of historical problems by informing our students that Hansberry was marginalized in her time for several reasons including a perceived reliance on “Jewish support.”  [9]

     More importantly, some did not immediately accept Hansberry as a playwright merely on the basis of their perception of the play’s quality, often evidenced by omitting her works from major compilations.  [10]  Suffering the ad hominem attacks of being “labeled old-fashioned, bourgeois, and assimilationist by various critics” (Logan 284), other critics were more focused in their negative criticism, reducing the play to one which “abounds in stock characters,” Ruth especially becoming merely Walter’s “exasperated and long-suffering wife” (Oliver 31).  J. Charles Washington documents another controversial opinion from Harold Cruse: “even more damaging and unsound is [his] evaluation…that the play is `the most cleverly written piece of glorified soap opera’ he has ever seen” (109-110).  While the 1950s and 1960s were historically crucial decades for African nations newly liberated from colonial powers, Keppel reports that “the African subtheme [was dismissed] as `impotent chatter'” (182).  [11]  Finally, some critics may have damned the play with the praise that it was merely another one of those which “conformed…to the story lines of previous ethnic dramas of arrival” (Keppel 182).

     Teaching A Raisin in the Sun thirty-eight years after its Broadway premiere presents specific contemporary pedagogic problems to the literature instructor, not the least being that the play may have lost some of its force for today’s students as an exercise in race relations.  The plight of a poor black family moving into a lily-white suburban community is not fraught with the same anxiety as it once was.  And yet, there must be something about the play which maintains popular interest to the point that at least one critic demarcates the play as a continental divide of sorts in black drama, asserting that the play maintained its dominance for at least thirty years:

          Not until Richard Wesley’s The Talented Tenth (1989) was there a significant follow-up to Lorraine Hansberry’s introduction into Black Experience drama of the theme of class and heritage as principal constituents of African American life. (Hay 48)

     The play has dramatic power beyond its historical situation and can address the most critical issue for today’s students, even though an entire generation of students exists whose lives are circumscribed by the historical fact that abortion is legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever. I cannot account for why the abortion subplot in A Raisin in the Sun was not discussed itself in 1959 and immediately after until, in the opinion of the experts, the play’s hegemony decreased around 1989.  [12]  Perhaps the silence surrounding discussion of this theme in the play stems from the fact that in 1959 abortion was not yet on the national agenda.  Bringing the awareness of abortion in the play to the attention of today’s students is our responsibility.

     We are confronted pedagogically with a more difficult philosophical problem in addressing this matter: whether or not Hansberry was herself a “feminist” as we in 1997 have had the word interpreted for us.  Wilkerson qualifies her affirmation that Hansberry would fit the modern definition: “were she writing today, she would be called a feminist.  The term, however, would merely obscure her special vision” (235).  Moreover, although Wilkerson does admit that “none of her plays focuses exclusively on issues of conflict between the sexes,” Hansberry’s feminism can be based on the fact that “the relationships between men and women are an important dynamic” in Hansberry’s dramas (238).

     Significantly, Wilkerson’s article does not address a keystone issue in the feminist movement.  The absence of the mention of abortion may either mean that more research is needed into Hansberry’s thought or that the playwright did not view the issue as a solution to the problems of African Americans.  That Hansberry may not have considered abortion as essential to the equality of women may be based on the character of Beneatha who scholars agree has

          traditionally been treated as Hansberry’s alter ego, the vehicle for the expression of her creator’s Pan-Africanism, and little else. However, Beneath [sic] also expresses Hansberry’s feminism–her frank questioning of traditional male-female sex roles and of the assumption, prevalent in the fifties, that a young woman’s first job was to “catch” a “good” husband and make a “good” marriage. (Keppel 293-294, footnote 57).

Other critics maintain that the passion for abortion in today’s feminism and, more importantly, Hansberry’s depiction of the issue facing one of her characters, immediately qualifies her to fit the feminist definition.  “With the growth of women’s theater and feminist criticism,” Hine writes:

          Hansberry has been rediscovered by a new generation of women in theater.  Indeed, a revisionist reading of her major plays reveals that she was a feminist long before the women’s movement surfaced…  Hansberry’s portrayal of Beneatha as a young Black woman with aspirations to be a doctor and her introduction of abortion as an issue for poor women in A Raisin in the Sun signaled early on Hansberry’s feminist attitudes. (528)

     Naturally, some who use feminist literary criticism openly admit their own feelings of discomfort on reading (or distorting) the life-affirming purpose of the play.  “More than a decade ago, when I first attempted to write about A Raisin in the Sun,” writes Helene Keyssar,

          I found myself in a struggle with the text…. Among those troublesome, marginalized issues, the pregnancy of Walter’s wife, Ruth, the topic of which is raised intermittently throughout the drama, is especially disconcerting.  Ruth does not, in the end, have an abortion, and her fierce declaration at the end of the play—“I’ll strap my baby on my back if I have to and scrub all the floors in America and wash all the sheets in America if I have to–but we got to move….  We got to get out of here”–serves as the dramatic resolution to her previous conflict.  But Hansberry has allowed Ruth to speak enough of her misgivings about bringing another black child into the world that in the festive ambiance of the play’s ending, it is Ruth whose utterances are least convincing of all the characters’. (230-231)

Of course, this is one person’s estimation that the words may be a version of paralipsis.  [13]  Someone who supports the choice which Ruth has made would conclude that her words are persuasive, finding Ruth’s decision entirely consistent with the ethic of affirming life.

     Moreover, to help appreciate that Ruth’s statements should not be interpreted as sites for the deconstruction of meaning, it would be helpful for our students to understand important new research regarding how women are presented on the stage.  Scolnikov’s work on women in the theater helps us understand not only the urgency behind Ruth’s desires to move, but also how such a seemingly disconnected, non-abortion-related matter in the plot can affect her abortion decision.  “In terms of the theatrical space, the house is clearly used as a spatial metaphor for the womb,” Scolnikov writes (44).  Although she uses her analysis of the house to explicate Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the following extract can approximate both Ruth’s and Lena’s concerns almost exactly: “the close association between woman and her house and its implication for the family group and for society at large form both the framework and the inner core of The Cherry Orchard” (116-117).  And, we can say, for A Raisin in the Sun.  Mama makes a down payment on the house expressly because

          We was going backwards ‘stead of forwards–talking ’bout killing babies and wishing each other was dead…When it gets like that in life–you just got to do something different, push on out and do something bigger….” (Hansberry, Raisin 87)

Ruth is insistent, almost maniacally, that the family move.  “Praise God!” is her first reaction to the possibility of moving out of their apartment (Hansberry, Raisin 83).  Then, towards the end of act two, scene one, Ruth’s exuberance becomes frenzied; Hansberry’s stage directions are, again, clear regarding how Ruth should perform her gyrations around the apartment:

          She laughs joyously, having practically destroyed the apartment, and flings her arms up and lets them come down happily, slowly, reflectively, over her abdomen, aware for the first time perhaps that the life therein pulses with happiness and not despair.  (Hansberry, Raisin 86)

     If abortion as a barometric reading of one’s feminism is the standard, then other critics cannot find evidence in the record to justify such a broadening of the term “feminist” for Hansberry.  Anne Cheney’s research into Hansberry’s early journalistic writing shows that “in her articles [in Freedom] about women, Lorraine Hansberry seemed a feminist only in the most general sense: she praised the accomplishments of women” (17).

     Barthelemy tries to address the issue of Hansberry’s feminism, directly basing his thinking on authorial intention:

          It may seem strange to say Hansberry’s intentions were feminist, if at the play’s end Lena seems to surrender and lovingly endorses the idea of patriarchy.  But the play endorses patriarchy not at the expense of female strength or female governance.  Manhood in A Raisin in the Sun is wholly compatible with feminism.  Lena does not surrender judgment to Walter simply because he is a man; she acquiesces because Walter is right.  Manhood cannot be achieved until Walter demonstrates the pride and dignity that the women already possess. (779)

     These examples show that whether Hansberry satisfies the politically-correct definition of a “feminist” is, therefore, still open to debate.

     Today’s instructor should also acknowledge a final pedagogic problem: Hansberry is a prophet crying in an African-American economic wilderness.  Hansberry’s hopes for the black race in America have not been fulfilled.

     Numerous facts of contemporary African-American life testify to the dream not having been fulfilled.  The numbers of abortions among African-American mothers surpasses their total numbers within the United States.  Reardon, a premiere researcher in post-abortion syndrome, reports that, while

          more than two-thirds of all abortions are done on white women…the remaining one-third which are performed on non-white women is a comparatively high figure, since non-whites constitute only about 13 percent of the total American population. (5-6)

Moreover, according to federal government research covering abortion statistics for the last year available (1991), the abortion rate for African-American mothers is 65.9% per thousand–more than three-and-a-half times larger than the rate of 17.9% for white mothers (U.S. Bureau of the Census 84).

     If viewing her as a prophet, today’s students should find that Hansberry’s hopes that African-American men will aid their wives and their children so that the black family can be as strong and unified as it should be are also not yet fulfilled.  The numbers of African-American men who assume responsibility for the care of the children they engender is staggeringly low contrasted with other racial groups in the population.  Research shows that the ratio of African-American men who reside with their wives and children remains much lower than for white men.  In 1980, nearly 40% of African-American children resided in one-parent matriarchal families (Chadwick 117).  By decade’s end, that number increased to 55.2% (Horton 345).  [14]

     How can I summarize my ideas that A Raisin in the Sun can still be as controversial for today’s students as it was in 1959? Perhaps it would be best to answer the first rhetorical questions posed: “Would Mama be a member of the National Right to Life Committee?”  The obvious answer is “yes.”  More importantly, however, Ruth, the woman who was most in danger of having an abortion, would also be a member of the Committee.  It is she who intimates most immediately the horror of abortion and the hope which springs from new life given the opportunity of a new environment.  Hopefully, our students will benefit from a discussion about the placement of a controversial and contemporary issue in one of our most beloved dramas of all time.

                          Works Cited

Andrusko, Dave. “H. Clinton, Gore Embrace NARAL Blocks from

     March for Life.” National Right to Life News 30 Jan. 1997:


Barksdale, Richard and Keneth Kinnamon. Black Writers of

     America: a Comprehensive Anthology. New York: Macmillan,


Barthelemy, Anthony. “Mother, Sister, Wife: A Dramatic

     Perspective.” The Southern Review 21 (summer 1985): 770‑789.

Carter, Steven R. Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment amid

     Complexity. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1991.

Chadwick, Bruce A. and Tim B. Heaton. Statistical Handbook

     on the American Family. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1992.

Cheney, Anne. Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Cooper, David O. “Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.”

     Explicator 52.1 (1993): 59‑61.

Hansberry, Lorraine. The Movement: Documentary of a

     Struggle for Equality. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.

—. “Original Prospectus for the John Brown Memorial

     Theatre of Harlem.” Black Scholar 10.10 (1979): 14‑15.

—. A Raisin in the Sun: a Drama in Three Acts. New York:

     Random, 1959.

Hay, Samuel A. African American Theatre: an Historical and

     Critical Analysis. New York: Cambridge U P, 1994.

Hine, Darlene Clark. Black Women in America: an Historical

     Encyclopedia. Brooklyn: Carlson, 1993.

Horton, Carrell Peterson, and Jessie Carney Smith, eds.

     Statistical Record of Black America. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale

     Research, 1993.

Kelly, Tracy. Email to the author. 10 Feb. 1997.

Keppel, Ben. The Work of Democracy : Ralph Bunche, Kenneth

     B. Clark, Lorraine Hansberry, and the Cultural Politics of

     Race. New York: Harvard U P, 1995.

Keyssar, Helene. “Rites and Responsibilities.” Ed. Enoch Brater.

     Feminine Focus: the New Women Playwrights. New York: Oxford U

     P, 1989.  226-240.

King, Martin Luther. “Declaration of Independence from the

     War in Vietnam.” Negotiating Difference: Cultural Case

     Studies for Composition. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce

     Herzberg. Boston: Bedford Books, 1996.  850-859.

Logan, Rayford W. and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary

     of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.

McKelly, James C. “Hymns of Sedition: Portraits of the

     Artist in Contemporary African‑American Drama.” Arizona

     Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and

     Theory 48.1 (1992): 87‑107.

Montgomery, Lori. “15% of black men lack right to vote:

     convictions change face of electorate.” Houston Chronicle 30

     Jan. 1997: 2A.

Nemiroff, Robert, and Charlotte Zaltzberg. Raisin. New

     York: Samuel French, 1978.

Oliver, Clinton F., and Stephanie Sills. Contemporary Black

     Drama: from A Raisin in the Sun to No Place To Be Somebody.

     New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Patterson, Lindsay. Black Theater: a 20th Century

     Collection of the Work of Its Best Playwrights. New York:

     Dodd, Mead, 1971.

Reardon, David C. Aborted Women: Silent No More.

     Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1987.

Sadoff, Dianne F. and William E. Cain. Teaching

     Contemporary Theory to Undergraduates. New York: Modern

     Language Association of America, 1994.

Scheader, Catherine. Lorraine Hansberry. Chicago: Campus

     Publications, 1978.

Scolnikov, Hanna. Woman’s Theatrical Space. New York:

     Cambridge U P, 1994.

Tal, Kali. Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of

     Trauma. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1996.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. Statistical Abstract of the US:

     1996. 116th ed. Washington: [GPO], 1996.

Washington, J. Charles. “A Raisin in the Sun Revisited.”

     Black American Literature Forum 22.1 (1988): 109‑124.

Wilkerson, Margaret B. “Lorraine Hansberry: The Complete

     Feminist.” Freedomways 19 (1979): 235‑45.

    [1]  Cheney’s biography of Hansberry demonstrates how Ruth’s characterization is intertwined with Walter’s.  Although admittedly one of the “three strong, human women” with which Hansberry has populated the drama, “at thirty, Ruth is caught between the ideas of the new and the old.  She is a full-time domestic, but she values her roles as a wife and mother” (60).  Furthermore:

          As exhausted as Ruth is from domestic work for whites, her pregnancy, and her tension with Walter Lee, she does not share Walter Lee’s monomania about money, business, and social position.  She would be satisfied with a peaceful home life and an adequate income.  But as she begins to understand the compulsion of Walter Lee’s dream, their relationship becomes closer.  Even Ruth’s unselfish willingness to have an abortion shows her understanding of Walter Lee’s plight: she does not want to add to the financial burden or to crowd the apartment with one more person. (70)

     Barthelemy’s otherwise comprehensive article treats Ruth quickly in one main page (775); there is, however, no reflection made on her possible abortion.

    [2]  Carter records a conversation Hansberry had which expands on her concern for the oppressed.  “As she noted in an interview with Studs Terkel: `Obviously the most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women, who are twice oppressed.  So I should imagine that they react accordingly: As oppression makes people more militant, women become twice militant, because they are twice oppressed'” (5).

    [3]  When discussing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Tal omits a vital new area of research connected with this feminist-inspired movement: that mothers who have had abortions react in the same ways as victims of sexual and war trauma.  Victims of post-abortion syndrome should be included with the “large percentages of traumatized populations, including Holocaust, Atomic bomb, rape, incest, prison camp, refugee camp, and natural disaster survivors” (119).  Since she omits the large numbers of mothers who have had abortions, readers must supplement Tal’s study of the “worlds of hurt” with Reardon’s exclusive work with post-abortion women.  It may be especially important to understand post-abortion syndrome in minority communities.  Reardon claims that, although

          racial minorities, and the poor in particular, were (and are) generally more accepting of unplanned pregnancies, and are more likely to be opposed to abortion on ethical grounds than is the population as a whole…minorities today are facing increased social and financial pressures to abort against their wills. (6)

    [4]  Since Hansberry herself thought that a solution to poverty was home ownership (stating in a 1963 interview “`I think housing is so important I wrote a play about it'”; Carter 48-9), it is significant that she did not consider abortion to be a solution to the “problem” of more black children.  Four years later Dr. Martin Luther King may have thought about how the experience of poverty can determine whether an unborn child will live or die when he compared the amount of money financing the Vietnam war to “some demonic, destructive suction tube” in his 1967 essay “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam” (851).  He goes on to say that he “was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such” (851)–much as Hansberry attacked poverty through her writings.  Moreover, we in 1997 must recall that the vocabulary describing the technology of abortion in the late 1950s was not as diverse as today.  The “curette” and “suction tube” were often metaphors for the one method which was synonymous with abortion, dilation and curettage.

    [5]  Some critics view Mama’s intercession on behalf of the unborn child purely negatively.  Wilkerson states that Mama “meddles in her daughter-in-law’s personal affairs by urging that she and Walter produce another baby” and that “she feels that another child for Ruth and Walter will heal their shaky marriage” (239).  Certain words in such criticism (“urging” and “produce” especially) may give the impression that Mama has more control over her daughter-in-law than is demonstrated in the play.

    [6]  The issue of Hansberry’s Marxism has been as slippery an issue for critics as her feminism.  “Hansberry herself,” writes Carter,

          although generally Marxist in her views on life and art, could never accept the more dogmatic Marxist argument that art should be used only as an instrument of the class struggle, just as she shunned the position that art existed for its own sake totally apart from social concerns. (89)

Some evidence, however, that Hansberry herself believed in a strict demarcation between political beliefs and artistic expression can be found in her strongly-worded “Original Prospectus for the John Brown Memorial Theatre of Harlem”:

          It [the Theatre] shall be bound by no orthodoxy…no beholden posture to the commercial theatre of its time, nor to the idle, impotent and obscurantist efforts of a mistaken avant garde. (15)

McKelly disputes that such a neutral position is possible, arguing that, while

          she [Hansberry] brings to light a fundamental tension between art and politics…this tension, as if it were not debilitating enough, is complicated by an additional catch-22 unique to minority artists whose work is in any way dependent upon the institutions or technologies of artistic production in a capitalist mass culture.  The degree to which their art receives its life-giving promotional attention and cultural exposure depends upon what the arbiters of commercial aesthetic culture estimate to be its potential acceptance in the dominant culture…. (89)

    [7]  Her drawing of a “Black Madonna” while still in college (depicting a woman holding a child) can be incorporated here as further evidence of her artistic fascination with the life-giving qualities of mothers (Scheader 29).

    [8]  Apparently, Hansberry’s views on activism were very close to those of pro-life activists today.

          She argued that blacks `must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent….they must harass, debate, petition, give money to court struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps–and shoot from their windows when the racists come cruising through their communities. (Carter 11)

    [9]  Tal reports that

          among his contemporaries, [black intellectual Harold] Cruse [whom Tal identifies as “certainly an antisemite”] criticized Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin for their alleged reliance on Jewish support [arguing] that the post-World War II American Jew bore no resemblance to the idealized Jews of black mythology [because] Jews have not suffered in the United States….  They have, in fact, done exceptionally well on every level of endeavor. (29-30)

    [10]  A striking example involves Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon’s 1972 work, Black Writers of America: a Comprehensive Anthology.  Many minor works were contained within the 917-page volume, yet neither the entire text of Hansberry’s most important contribution to American theater nor excerpts from her other works were included.  Sometimes even professional publications for English faculty omit discussion of this major playwright.  Hansberry is not considered in Dianne F. Sadoff and William E. Cain’s 265-page Teaching Contemporary Theory to Undergraduates (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1994).  None of her works are listed in the various “Works Cited” for any of the essays; her name does not appear among the estimated five hundred names in the “Index”.

    [11]  Just as I argue that the abortion subplot for students in 1997 can be more interesting than other subplots in the drama, others have had differing opinions about the more important scenes of the play throughout the years.  Cooper notes that “the penultimate scene between Asagai and Beneatha Younger [is] a scene that Robert Nemiroff, who produced and adapted many of Hansberry’s works, describes as capturing `the deeper statement of the play–and the ongoing struggle it portends'” (59).  Agreeing with Nemiroff’s estimation, Patterson notes in his Black Theater: a 20th Century Collection of the Work of Its Best Playwrights that, while “Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun [is] one of the most perfectly structured plays ever to appear on Broadway,” it is more significant in that it “presents among other innovations, the search and acceptance of the African heritage” (ix).

    [12]  Nor can I account for the fact that Nemiroff’s 1978 adaptation of the play as the Broadway musical Raisin does not include the abortion subplot–beyond the surmise, that is, that there never has been anything essentially funny, musical, or entertaining about abortion.

    [13]  The inability of some critics to connect with the text may be due perhaps to a development in theater which Scolnikov describes: “As woman has gradually lost her privileged position in the home, she has also freed herself from its confining space…hence the dwindling interest in the house and the room” (159).  Hansberry’s play goes against that modern dramatic trend.

     It should also be noted that Keyssar’s depreciation of Ruth’s rhapsody may be faultily predicated on the assumption that her words are to be spoken prima facie happily.  The stage directions for this particular episode in act three, scene one are clear: Ruth’s repetitious affirmations of her willingness to increase her work load are “words pouring out with urgency and desperation” (Hansberry, Raisin 129).  Nemiroff’s later adaptation of this scene in the Broadway musical Raisin specifies that Ruth “is near hysteria” (93).

    [14]  It would be interesting to conjecture what Hansberry would have thought about the following quote in the Houston Chronicle a couple of weeks ago: “A study released Wednesday found that 1.46 million black men–nearly one in seven of voting age–have lost their right to vote because they have been convicted of a crime” (Montgomery 2A).  Such men are as doubly-oppressed as the African-American woman, having lost not only economic, but also political power.


Men and Abortion: Twentieth Century Literary Examples and Their Application to Contemporary Men

            I have been speaking and writing about the right‑to‑life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia for academic audiences for about ten years now.  While most of my research primarily concerns abortion, I have also investigated infanticide and euthanasia since, in the American scheme of things, they are necessary consequents of having abortion legalized throughout the entire nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever.  I have discussed these issues as they are portrayed in twentieth‑century American literature, European literature, and science fiction and will consider, two months from now, how these issues are presented in film.

            Of all the perspectives from which one can view abortion, I have considered the woman’s (more correctly, the mother’s) view and the unborn child’s view, but I have never looked at the literary evidence of abortion from the man’s or the father’s view.  I was delighted, then, to see that this year’s conference of the American Men’s Studies Association could challenge me not only to investigate the literary evidence of men in American abortion fiction (restricted to major works of the twentieth century), but also to summarize what the literary evidence can suggest for men in this new, twenty‑first century.

            There are few literary examples of fathers overjoyed that their wives, girlfriends, or just plain lovers are pregnant and even fewer examples of fathers deeply in love with their unborn children.[1]  Instead of men who love their unborn children and the mothers who carry them, the opposite is the general archetype of the American man in fiction, an archetype which is consistent in canonical twentieth‑century American fiction which concerns abortion.

            Theodore Dreiser set the stage for the archetype of a young man concerned more with his sexual gratification than with his commitment to his lover and the child they created by giving us Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy (1925).  Interested in Roberta Alden only for the sexual opportunities that she presents, Clyde’s failed effort to seek an abortionist to “remedy” the situation for the couple ineluctably leads him to the crime for which he will be executed at novel’s end.  Clyde’s pursuit of an abortionist is followed by Ernest Hemingway who gives us the anonymous “American man” in “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927).  The American man tries his best to persuade Jig that abortion is a simple matter, expressed in the famous naive phrase that abortion is “just to let air in” (72).  That the uncertainty of the short story’s denouement has endured for nearly eighty years is a testament not only to Hemingway’s terse style, but also to the ambiguity which surrounds any abortion decision devoid of a moral compass.

            Progressing into the 1930s, John Dos Passos presents us with a variety of characters in his U.S.A. trilogy (1938), women whose pursuit of abortion is virtually never countered by the fathers.  There is, however, one noteworthy scene of opposition to abortion from a father in this novel.  When J. Ward Moorehouse hears about Annabelle Marie Strang’s abortion, he

                        stood beside the bed with his fists clenched without saying anything.  At length the nurse said to him that he was tiring madame and he went away.  When Annabelle came back from the hospital after four or five days announcing gaily that she was fit as a fiddle and was going to the south of France, he said nothing.  She got ready to go, taking it for granted that he was coming, but the day she left on the train to Nice he told her that he was going to stay on in Paris.  She looked at him sharply and then said with a laugh, “You’re turning me loose, are you?”

                                    “I have my business and you have your pleasure,” he said. (198)

While it would be an overgeneralization to say that this exchange typifies the masculine reaction to abortion in all cases, the anger and silence leading to abandonment of a loved one are stereotypical characteristics of men.

            The litany of men concerned with abortion continues with William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms (1939).  The novel juxtaposes the sexually free lifestyle in the “Wild Palms” half–which ends in abortion, death, and imprisonment–against the “Old Man” portion, wherein respect for the family–father, mother, and child–are suggested.  While Harry Rittenmeyer, the protagonist of the “Wild Palms” half, performs an abortion on his lover, the escaped prisoner in the “Old Man” section reveres the young mother and her newborn child.  Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971) advances the archetype by presenting us with the Librarian whose role in seeking abortion for his girlfriend has become the modern template for many other late twentieth-century fiction.[2]  Finally, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules (1985) continues the archetype of twentieth-century American men concerned with abortion.  Men in the novel are either abortionists like Wilbur Larch who consider the act comparable to life-giving divine power or young men like Homer Wells who are unable to recognize the humanity of the unborn child, even though they are aware of the fetological evidence.[3]

            The panoply of characters concerned with abortion now has an extensive history which can be reviewed.  What are the characteristics of the men involved in the abortion schemes of some of the major novels of the last century?  Do these characteristics comport with what the role of a man should be?  If what these novels teach young men is correct, what are the ramifications?  If what these novels teach is not correct, how can they be challenged?

Characteristics of men in the abortion novels

            Men in abortion novels display three obvious and consistent characteristics.  First, they are oblivious to the choices before them.  Granted, the men engaged in sex with their lovers for their own satisfaction and may view abortion as merely a means to eradicate the impediment to their continued sexual lifestyle.  However, virtually no male character in canonical fiction explores other choices as a solution to the untimely pregnancy, such as marrying the mother of his child, or staying single and supporting the mother and child.  Most twentieth-century American fiction presents us with men devoid of a paternal instinct.  The men in the canonical works do not conjecture what it would be like to be a father, to enjoy seeing a child mature, or to be satisfied with the status of fatherhood.  The emotional bond of father to child is missing.

            Even those fathers in American fiction who like their born children and who seem to be devoted to their unborn ones have something intellectually wrong with them.  For example, Sam Pollit, the father of six children in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (1940), loves his children as the title suggests, even to the point of masticating food and feeding it, like a bird, to his baby son.  However, Sam’s philosophy is confused at best, solidly eugenic at worst.  Sam’s idea is that “Monoman” will be accomplished after misfits and degenerates are “weeded out” “by means of the lethal chamber” or “euthanasia” (50).  His means of accomplishing such race perfection are specific: Sam sanctions suicide, eugenic murder, and gassing people to death, the latter consistent with his Aryan hope for the improvement of mankind.  Although he is outraged over news of a man who fathered his teenaged daughter’s unborn child, Sam lacks compassion for a deformed boy.[4]

            The second characteristic of men in abortion novels is that they are docile.  If the mother has decided to abort, then the father simply acquiesces.  There is little to no counterargument that aborting the child is a moral or religious wrong.  If a counterargument is offered, the mother’s response effectively settles the matter.  I have mentioned the Dos Passos selection earlier.  Another example, about thirty years after J. Ward Moorehouse, involves Frank Wheeler in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (1961).  Frank recognizes that abortion is “repugnant” and that having the baby “was clearly on the side of the angels” (217).  However, the argument that he would make on behalf of the child to his wife is clearly internal dialogue:

                        How much, he would ask her, would his prime of manhood be worth if it had to be made conditional on allowing her to commit a criminal mutilation of herself?  “Because that’s what you’d be doing, April; there’s no getting around it.  You’d be committing a crime against your own substance.  And mine.” (217‑8)

            Perhaps the prime example of a docile father is the Librarian character in Brautigan’s The Abortion.  There are four passages in the novel where Vida offers explicit reasons why she should have an abortion; in all four instances, the Librarian simply listens to the litany of reasons and does not counter them.  I argue that all four of the passages read not only as mere declarations of feeble reasons why Vida should have an abortion, but also as pleas for some response, some counter from the Librarian.  For example, in the second passage Vida talks about her sister’s abortion:

                        “My sister had an abortion last year in Sacramento, but before she had the abortion, she went to a doctor in Marin County who gave her some hormone shots, but they didn’t work because it was too late.  The shots work if you take them soon enough and they’re quite a bit cheaper than an abortion.” (72)

This passage could have been an opportunity to investigate her own abortion decision from a safer narratological perspective; that is, since Vida is speaking about someone else, the Librarian could have argued the matter as though it does not pertain to either of them.[5]

            The third characteristic of men in twentieth-century abortion fiction is that, when they acquiesce to the abortions of their children, other social problems emerge.  Much like research into post-abortion syndrome, which documents the effects of abortion on mothers years after the events, the fathers in fictional works manifest problems in their relationships with their lovers, their friends, and others in society.  All fathers in the canonical works lose their girlfriends, lovers, or wives.  Clyde Griffiths loses not only his first lover, the mother of his child, but also Sondra Finchley, the more vibrant and richer lover he pursued when his relationship with Roberta staled.  The American man in Hemingway’s short story loses Jig emotionally, and numerous critics have argued that the ending of the story may not be as ambiguous as it seems; I, too, argue that Jig will eventually leave him and carry the child to term.  J. Ward Moorehouse eventually divorces the mother of his aborted child.  The mother of Harry Rittenmeyer’s child dies after her abortion.  On returning from Mexico where the abortion was performed, the Librarian in Brautigan’s work loses not only his job, but also Vida, who develops a romance with Foster, the man who arranged the abortion.  Wilbur Larch dies after an accidental overdose of ether.  Homer’s assumption of the role of abortionist seems to be a happy ending in Irving’s narrative.  However, Homer’s imagining an idyllic time when abortions are legal is an unsatisfactory denouement for contemporary readers.  After all, while a minority may view the effects of over thirty years of legalized abortion as beneficial, the majority view them as a national tragedy.

Evaluation of the literary evidence

            How to account for this negative archetype of men in abortion novels?  What went wrong that the first thing in a man’s mind is not joy over his paternity, but anxiety? I believe that American men lost two cultural legacies–whether deliberately or due to negligence–which for millennia functioned as standards for male behavior: first, a proper view of sexuality and, second, a respect for paternity.

            For thousands of years “love” was defined as more than mere sex.  The ancient Greeks were well aware of the tripartite nature of what English collapses into the one word “love.”  While the ancient world understood love as either “agape” (love for mankind), “eros” (sexual love), or “philia” (the love existing between friends), contemporary society merges and thus distorts all three categories, and some commentary is needed here on all three manifestations of the verb.

            Agape is practically non‑existent in the popular culture, or, rather, the culture that we are expected to accept as broadcasted through the major elite media or those who style themselves trendsetters (for example, actors of whatever quality and media critics).

            Eros is probably the form of love that most Americans immediately understand, either in its Greek form or in English adjectival equivalents.  Citing the erotic component of each of the plot structures of the canonical abortion novels would be repetitive.

            And what about philia?  The most interesting recent example of philia gone wrong is Brokeback Mountain (DVD issued in 2006).  Even though the attention given to the film is waning now that the Academy Awards are over and it is already on DVD, the film not only helps to illustrate not only the consequences of moral laxity, but also (more to my purpose) how far society has distorted sexual tension in male friendships.  Undoubtedly, the friendship that two male friends could have for each other may cross not only into sexual musings but also into sexual activity, and male friends may approach their sexual interest in an embarrassed way.  The film My Own Private Idaho (1991) presents this embarrassed relationship between male friends much more effectively than Brokeback Mountain.  In one of the most poignant scenes illustrating the sexual tension which can exist in some male friendships, Mike, played by River Phoenix, and Scott, his fellow male prostitute, played by Keanu Reeves, are at a campfire when Mike queries his friend about what life would have been like if he had a normal family, what a father is, and what the nature of love is.  Towards the end of this fireside scene, Mike obviously becomes tortured as he attempts to express his sexual feelings toward his friend.  Scott, however, perceives Mike’s anxiety and simply commands Mike to come toward him.  Unlike Brokeback Mountain, this scene does not end in a violent and quick sodomization, but a tender embrace; Mike simply rests his head on Scott’s chest.[6]

            Brokeback Mountain, in contrast, presents to American men examples of tough guys who not only wrestle steer, but each other.  Does the film merely present an alternative view of male friendship?  The film could possibly sway the minds of those who suffer cultural amnesia or who have never learned the ancient distinction in the three forms of love by giving them an image of raw male sexual power, and no one needs a scholarly citation to know that it is the nature of the male to be aroused visually to help him with his sexual performance.  It will be interesting to see whether this film is able to persuade society that sodomization among men is as natural as heterosexual friendship.[7]

            On the second great cultural loss, respect for paternity, again the distinction I make could be lost in linguistics by those who accept contemporary sexual standards.  I do not mean “patriarchy”–that much derided and abused term which functions as the absolute response to any challenge of matriarchy or a perceived attack on women.  No doubt, certain categories of feminist critics will view the strength of the various men’s movements as deleterious, the usual formulation of the ad hominem attack being “backlash against women’s rights.”  However, other feminists view them, not as men’s efforts to regress to a period of patriarchal oppression, but as a restoration and an elaboration of a proper order of life in that men’s duties and privileges regarding treatment of women, respect for them when they are the mothers of their children, and respect for the unborn children whom they helped to procreate are enhanced.[8]

            While I do not mean “patriarchy,” I do mean “paternity,” the natural result of a proper view of sexuality which men have lost.  The literary evidence is astounding in its depiction of fathers who are meant to be despised by readers.  British fiction may have its wonderfully content fathers or father figures satisfied to raise either their own families or those of others.  One thinks of fathers like Nicholas Nickleby and that, “As time crept on, […] there came gradually about him a group of lovely children” (Dickens 932).  One also thinks of father figures like Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, eager to assist his nephew Fred now that he has reconciled himself to the world’s delight over Christmas, or of Pickwick who becomes godfather to the children of the men who accompanied him on his travels (Dickens 817).

            How do major works in American literature depict fathers?  John W. Lynch could easily apply the words “It was his life to be for Him / A father” (150) to St. Joseph, and the referent for the capitalized pronoun in the line of verse is Christ, but American literature is filled with examples of irresponsible, uncaring fathers who never seem to raise their eyes heavenward.  Proceeding chronologically, we have the following.[9]  Lena’s statement in Willa Cather’s My Antonia (1918) that men, once married, become “cranky old fathers” (291) is relatively innocuous and may have elicited a chuckle from the reading audience at the time, but the literary evidence against fathers accumulates quickly.  Hugh McVey, the main character in Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White (1920), at age ten searched for work like his drunken father.  Later in the novel it is explained that a mother had a child expressly to satisfy a father’s need “to do vulgar things” (299-300).  Clyde Griffiths’ father in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is a failure financially.  Clyde’s unmarried sister Esta is abandoned by the father of her child.  The father in Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited: a Novel of the 1930s (1933) is a fallen-away priest.  John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy presents several dismal portraits of fathers.  In The 42nd Parallel, the first volume of the trilogy, several characters either exemplify negative portrayals of fathers or illustrate negative father influences.  Mac abandons his pregnant girlfriend Maisie to avoid marriage, which he calls “selling out” (91).  Janey is raised in a racist and abusive home where her brother Joe is beaten by her father.  Charley Anderson’s father abandoned the family when he was born.  For some unknown reason, Eleanor Stoddard wanted to avoid her father and is fearful of men.  In Nineteen-Nineteen, the second volume of the trilogy, Richard Ellsworth Savage’s father abandoned the family.

            Connie abandons the pregnant Rose of Sharon in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939).  Although I am primarily concerned with fiction, the stature of the following drama is such that its abortion subplot must be mentioned here.  When faced with his wife’s untimely pregnancy, Little Walter in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun walks out of the apartment when he is challenged by his mother to be a man like his father, Big Walter.  An explicit envy and hatred of a father motivates characters in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963); another father in the novel had committed suicide, and even a stepfather’s power is despised.  The father of the abortionist Wilbur Larch in Irving’s The Cider House Rules brings his son to a whore so that he could experience life.  When he contracts venereal disease from the whore, Larch vows to abstain from sex permanently.  Larch’s negative view about sex helps to determine not only his later career as an abortionist but also his relationship with the orphan Homer Wells, whom he treats as a son.  Larch increases his ether addiction when he thinks he is becoming fatherly.  The affection tortures Homer as well: Homer cries when he receives “his first fatherly kisses” from Larch (135).  A character with the repetitive name of Rose Rose reveals wounds from her father’s beating; Rose Rose purposefully tries to fall off a bicycle to try to miscarry (she’s pregnant a second time by her father).  Another father in Irving’s novel commits incest with his daughter.

            Minor fiction continues the sorry depiction of fathers, especially when the father is involved in encouraging or procuring an abortion.  Jack, whose girlfriend undergoes an abortion in one of Eugene O’Neill’s “lost plays” dating from 1914, retorts that his father was not a “St. Anthony” (154), a reference to the chastity of the saint accosted by visions of women in the desert.  Allison MacKenzie, a main character in Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (1956), is a fatherless child, but she learns that her real father was married and that she was illegitimate.  Selena Cross, her friend, is raped by her father (it is Selena’s abortion that controls the ethical commentary of the second half of Peyton Place).  At first, the father in Jeannette Eyerly’s Bonnie Jo, Go Home (1972) refuses to cooperate in his daughter’s abortion.  By novel’s end, though, the father secures a notarized letter so that his teenaged daughter can abort.  Jack Broderick, the main character in John Gregory Dunne’s The Red White and Blue (1987), describes his father as “an elderly vegetable, a boiled potato” (36).  Jack’s father will later impregnate his wife, who will abort the child.  The father in Kimberly M. Ballard’s Light at Summer’s End (1991) wanted his daughter aborted.  The severe emotional and psychological consequences of a young woman’s abortion evidenced throughout Johnny Payne’s Kentuckiana (1997) can be attributed to a father’s secret action involving “Talia’s abortion, which her father had paid for at Talia’s request without her mother’s knowledge” (43).  A young woman on trial for murdering her child in Baby’s Breath (2000) by Lynne Hugo and Anna Tuttle Villegas testifies that the baby’s father wanted her to abort.  Cyd in Rachel Cohn’s Gingerbread (2002) requests money from her biological father for an abortion.[10]

            If he depended on literature to guide his moral values, then, given such illustrations, why would any young man want to be a father?

            Fortunately, the reality is different.  Perhaps the literary history of men concerned with abortion and fatherhood purposely highlights the negative so that we can learn how not to act as men in the world.  Thus, twentieth-century American literature on abortion functions as negation, a form of definition in which an author explains what something is not instead of what it is.  After all, unlike Irving’s abortionist, men still have sex, enjoy it, and thus chemically bond with the women with whom they have sex.  If the sexual act results in a child, many men still rejoice that they are fathers.  Although it is derided as patriarchal, if not patronizing to women, many men still do worry about providing for their families and paying the bills.  They work hard, often six days a week, perhaps at two jobs, for the express purpose of being the patriarchal provider.  For these men who work hard for their families, the work becomes a joy–an attribute lost in the contemporary world.

            If twentieth-century abortion literature illustrates a negational perspective on manhood and fatherhood, then where does one find an operational (and thus positive) definition of being a man or a father?  A purely secular perspective as illustrated in these novels does not enumerate characteristics for purely secular men to follow.  In contrast, the theological grounding for men involved in abortion is much stronger because it has a history in the Western world spanning five millennia and crossing two major religious traditions, Judaism and Christianity.  As I see it, men have little to gain from continued adherence to a view of sexuality and fatherhood exemplified by the docile, defeated men in twentieth-century abortion literature.  American men must turn to their own common sense view of fidelity to themselves, to their women, and to their unborn children to write positive works illustrating their masculinity and their fatherhood.

                                                                   Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Poor White. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1920.

Aristotle. The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Rev. ed. Trans. J. A. K.

            Thomson. Rev. ed. Hugh Tredennick. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1976.

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial, 1963.

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

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

            Schuster, 1971.

Brokeback Mountain. Dir. Ang Lee. Perf. Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Linda

            Cardellini, Anna Faris, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, and Randy Quaid.

            2006. Videorecording (DVD). Focus Features and River Road Entertainment,


Cather, Willa. My Antonia. 1918. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.

Cohn, Rachel. Gingerbread. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers,


Conroy, Jack. The Disinherited: A Novel of the 1930s. 1933. Columbia, MS: U of

            Missouri P, 1982.

Dawson, George E. The Right of the Child to Be Well Born. New York: Funk &

            Wagnalls, 1912.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Stories. New York: New

            American Library, 1984.

—. Nicholas Nickleby. 1838-9. Ed. Michael Slater. Penguin English Library.

            Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1978.

—. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. 1836-37. New York: Modern Library,


Dos Passos, John. U.S.A.: I. The 42nd Parallel; II. Nineteen-Nineteen; III. The Big

            Money. New York: Modern Library, 1937.

Dreiser, Theodore. An American Tragedy. 2 vols. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925.

Dunne, John Gregory. The Red White and Blue. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

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

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

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun: A Drama in Three Acts. New York: Random,


Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men Without Women. New York:

            Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927. 69-77.

Hugo, Lynne, and Anna Tuttle Villegas. Baby’s Breath. San Francisco: Synergistic P,


Irving, John. The Cider House Rules. New York: William Morrow, 1985.

Keller, Tsipi. Jackpot. New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2004.

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

Koloze, Jeff. An Ethical Analysis of the Portrayal of Abortion in American Fiction:

            Dreiser, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Brautigan, and Irving. Studies in

            American Literature 78. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen P, 2005.

Lynch, John W. A Woman Wrapped in Silence. 1941. New York: Paulist Press/Deus

            Book, 1968.

Metalious, Grace. Peyton Place. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.

Moore, Lorrie. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

My Own Private Idaho. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Perf. River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James

            Russo, William Richert, Rodney Harvey, Michael Parker, Flea, Chiara Caselli,

            and Udo Kier. 1991. DVD. New Line Home Cinema, 1991.

O’Neill, Eugene. Abortion. 1914. Ten “Lost” Plays. New York: Random House, 1964.


Orwell, George. Keep the Aspidistra Flying. 1936. Uniform ed. London: Secker &

            Warburg, 1954.

Payne, Johnny. Kentuckiana. Evanston, IL: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern UP, 1997.

Spivack, Kathleen. “The Sacrifice.” Eds. Lucinda Ebersole and Richard Peabody.

            Coming to Terms: A Literary Response to Abortion. New York: New Press, 1994.


Stead, Christina. The Man Who Loved Children. 1940. New York:: Holt, Rinehart and

            Winston, 1968.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939.

Thomas, Piri. Down These Mean Streets. New York: Vintage, 1967.

Voth, Ben. “Making the Best Argument for Unborn Life: Understanding the Racist and

            Sexist Assumptions of Abortion.” University Faculty for Life. 18 Apr. 2005. 18

            Apr. 2005 <>.

Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961. Westport, CN:

            Greenwood, 1971.

    [1]  While I do not intend to handle short stories in this paper (the exception being Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” which is a canonical abortion work), an interesting example in short fiction of the range of emotions that a father can feel is illustrated in Kathleen Spivack’s “The Sacrifice” (anthologized in 1994).  Peter, a married man, at first reflects the joy that Nancy, his lover, feels when she learns that she is pregnant.  Within a few pages, however, he responds that she should “work it out any way you want” and that “I just don’t want to know about it” (164-6).  Similarly, although he expresses affection for a child he may have fathered in his Down These Mean Streets (1967), Piri Thomas’ work is biographical and falls out of the realm of this study.

    [2]  Brautigan’s narrative strategy can be documented in two recent examples.  In both of these novels the abortion would not occur unless three characters are present: the pregnant woman to be aborted, a willing accomplice, and an “agent of transportation.”  Weaver Walquist, Kim Lundgren, and Ricky Lundgren (Kim’s brother) in Walter Kirn’s She Needed Me (1992) parallel the Librarian, Vida, and Foster in Brautigan’s novel respectively.  Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1995) also mimics this trinity of characters.  Sils is the fifteen‑year‑old to be aborted, Berie is her friend who steals money for her to obtain the abortion (both of whom conceal their plans from the father of the child), and Humphrey is the cab driver who transports the mother across state lines so that the abortion can be performed.

    [3]  Besides these canonical works, I have considered ethical considerations of minor fiction concerned with abortion in An Ethical Analysis of the Portrayal of Abortion, published by The Edwin Mellen Press in 2005.

    [4]  A father faced with an untimely pregnancy whose paternal instinct develops to the point where he loves his unborn child can be found, not in an American novel, but a British one.  George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) is primarily a novel criticizing the advertising bent of capitalism of his day.  Whatever political critique the novel has is intertwined with the romance between Gordon Comstock and Rosemary Waterlow.  Rosemary becomes pregnant, but considers having an abortion to solve the difficult economic circumstances in which the young couple find themselves.  This possibility leads to a significant change in Gordon’s character.  Gordon would prefer to follow his own desires, but “there was the baby to think about” (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.  The illustrations of unborn babies shock him: the pictures are ugly.  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” (286).

    [5]  I discuss these passages and the lack of effective counterarguments in greater detail in Ethical Analysis of the Portrayal of Abortion in American Fiction.

    [6]  While it can be conjectured that the two men perhaps engage in sex, the ending of the scene (Mike’s resting his head on his friend’s chest) does not support this possibility, especially since the rest of the film contains scenes where men are more sexually explicit.

    [7]  Aristotle’s commentary on perverse pleasures (which illustrates how the ancient world’s view of sexuality diverges from our own) can challenge not only the rhetorical, but also the political impact of the film even more, especially if that intent is to equate homosexual and heterosexual eroticism.  Aristotle writes in his Ethics (VII, v.):

                        Some things are naturally pleasant, and of these (a) some are pleasant absolutely and (b) others pleasant only to certain kinds of men and animals.  But there are other things that are not naturally pleasant but become so, either (a) through injury or (b) through habit or (c) through congenital depravity.  Now corresponding to each of these types of unnatural pleasures we can observe abnormal states of character. […] These states are brutish, but others result from disease […] and there are other morbid states that are the result of habit, like pulling out hairs and nail-biting, or eating coal and earth, and male homosexuality; because although these come naturally to some people, others acquire them from habit, e.g. those who have been victimized since childhood. (237-8)

    [8]  One of the most insightful comments I have read about how some have misapplied the term “patriarchy” vis-a-vis abortion comes from the work of Ben Voth:

                        Abortion is a reproductive technology that facilitates the female body as a means of sexual service for men [….]  In practice, abortions are often sought at the behest of male counterparts who do not want the looming responsibility of fatherhood or financial obligation that may come with the birth of a child [….]  Such pressures are intimately associated with the notions of “patriarchy” that are assailed by many an abortion rights activist. (179)

    [9]  While I intend to cover fiction, it is interesting that the idea of fatherhood itself came under intellectual scrutiny at the beginning of the twentieth century.  For George E. Dawson, writing in The Right of the Child to Be Well Born (1912), the question for man should not be if the unborn child deserves life, but if the man has the right to be a father (144).

    [10]  A recent minor work of fiction may present a positive image of fathers involved in abortion.  Maggie in Tsipi Keller’s Jackpot (2004) suffers severe father loss; she gets sentimental on at least two occasions seeing fathers either embrace or accompany their daughters, even though she had been assaulted by a friend’s father.  Her reaction to a televangelist’s exhortation on abortion is telling.  Did Maggie have an abortion and is the sentimentality towards fathers that permeates the novel evidence of–finally–a father willing to care for his daughter instead of merely cooperating in helping her to obtain one?  Unfortunately, the novel does not clarify this possibility.


Principles of American Life: an Archaeology of the Virus of Negation of Inalienable Rights and Its Antidote in American Literature

I.  Introduction.

     Like a viral infection, a powerful and vicious anti‑life “strain” is evident in the national literature of the United States from colonial times to the present, fatal only to those human beings who have been legislatively or judicially removed from the definition of human personhood.  Fortunately, however, while the United States has always been infected by an anti-life philosophy, there has also existed a pro‑life “antidote” to this anti‑life tendency.

     Structurally, this paper consists of the two main features of the American dehumanization process: the first, how animal metaphors were used to devalue Native Americans and slaves; the second, the role that race played in the process.  I will then illustrate how these two factors joined to permit an action whereby the United States came dangerously close to having Nazi-like death camps.  Finally, I will discuss the role that the Declaration of Independence played in civil rights movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

II.  Native Americans Dehumanized as “Beasts”

     To document the origin of the anti-life philosophy in the literature of the United States, we must begin with the archival evidence of the colonial period.  Continuously, the colonists likened Native Americans to animals, not only because of the Native Americans’ unique lifestyle, but also because it would be morally easier to possess as much of the new land as possible if the original inhabitants were not equal to the English.  As William Brennan documented in his Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives,

          Removal of individuals from membership in the human community and re-classifying them as animals has the effect of consigning them to a lower level of existence where their victimization can be more easily rationalized. (89)

The animal metaphor would become a constant factor in the American dehumanization process.

     This colonial disregard of the humanity of Native Americans is best illustrated in the account of the killing and butchering of the most famous Native American leader of the time, Metacomet (called “King Philip” by the colonists).  Metacomet orchestrated an uprising of the Wampanoag nation against British colonists in 1675.  Benjamin Church’s 1716 narrative of Metacomet’s killing and eventual butchering was meant to delight the colonists, who would, of course, be overjoyed that such an enemy to their way of life had been killed.  [1]

     Church’s description of the killing is worth examining in detail.

          Capt. Church ordered his body to be pull’d out of the mire on to the Upland, so some of Capt. Churches Indians took hold of him by his Stockings, and some by his small Breeches, (being otherwise naked) and drew him thro’ the Mud unto the Upland, and a doleful, great, naked, dirty beast, he look’d like.  Capt. Church then said, That for asmuch as he had caused many an English mans body to lye unburied and rot above ground, that not one of his bones should be buried.  And calling his old Indian Executioner, bid him behead and quarter him.  Accordingly, he came with his Hatchet and stood over him, but before he struck he made a small Speech directing it to Philip; and said, He had been a very great Man, and had made many a man afraid of him, but so big as he was he would now chop his Ass for him; and so went to work, and did as he was ordered.  (Slotkin and Folsom 451-2)  [2]

Church’s narrative continues, relating not only that Metacomet’s head but also his “remarkable hand” were shown to persons who would pay to see it.

     This one passage contains within it several elements of the dehumanizing tendency which would repeat themselves in the following centuries.  Metacomet is specifically dehumanized when he is equated with being a “beast”.  The string of adjectives further compounds the dehumanization.  Not only is Metacomet a mere beast; he is a “dirty” beast.  Since he had only the most essential clothing on, he is described as “naked” as an animal would be.  The fact that he is described as “great” pertains not to his stature within Native American society, but to his dimensions and further adds to the glory of his death as a sportswoman would marvel at the size of a wild animal she has trapped.  Finally, there would be no concern over the desecration of a corpse since the person whose body has been chopped to pieces has been likened to an animal.  Note, too, that Church records a speech in which the body is synecdochically reduced to the name of one of the least esteemed parts.

     Mary Rowlandson, a colonist whose captivity occurred during the war instigated by Metacomet, had this to say about her capture by the Native Americans:

          I had often before this said, that if the Indians should come, I should choose rather to be killed by them than be taken alive but when it came to the trial my mind changed; their glittering weapons so daunted my spirit, that I chose rather to go along with those (as I may say) ravenous beasts, than that moment to end my days….  (Slotkin and Folsom 325)  [3]

III. Slaves Dehumanized as “Critters”, “Swarms of Vagrants”, and “Locusts”

     As Native Americans were dehumanized with animal imagery, so also were the nineteenth century’s other victims of the anti-life philosophy, slaves.  A century and a half after the animal metaphor was used to dehumanize the subjugated Native Americans in New England, a slave trader in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictionalized account of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, suggests to Mr. Shelby, the original owner of Tom, that black slaves can overcome the emotional trauma of losing the sale of their children because “these critters an’t like white folks” (8).

     This fictional character may have been repeating a concept first clearly enunciated by one of the Founding Fathers of the nation.  In writing his famous Notes on the State of Virginia Thomas Jefferson describes slaves not as human beings, but as though they are subjects for his scientific examination.

          They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor….  They are more ardent after their female; but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation…. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.  To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labor.  An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous….  Religion, indeed, has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet.  The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.  (133, 135)

It is difficult to believe that the man who authored the famous inalienable rights and the absolute “all men are created equal” clauses of the Declaration of Independence would have harbored such opinions about African American slaves.  Not even Benjamin Banneker’s remonstrance with Jefferson, urging him to fully implement the words of the Declaration, persuaded the future president to alter his views on slavery or the black race.  [4]

     To further compound the animal imagery used to dehumanize slaves, pro-slavery writer Albert Taylor Bledsoe does double damage to African American slaves, hinting at criminality as well as animality when he compares the slaves in Virginia to “a swarm of vagrants more destructive than the locusts of Egypt” (Elliot 324).

     The resolution of the question regarding the political status of slaves contributed to a civil war.  Already we can see that the inalienable clause of the Declaration was used in the war of words which preceded the first gunfire.

IV.  The Factor of “Race” as a Dehumanizing Principle; or, “Wise Charity”, American Style

     The late nineteenth century United States saw burgeoning capitalism transform the nation into an economic powerhouse.  It is at this time that a change in philosophy can be documented toward the care of the poor.  Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 essay “Wealth” became a foundation document for the new view on charity toward the poor citizens.  No longer would mere charity be a goal; “wise” was prefixed to the noun enabling Americans of the last decades of the nineteenth century to distinguish between assistance to the justifiably needy poor and wasted donations to an unmerited underclass.  The poor were seen to lack four essential virtues to elevate themselves: courage, frugality, industry, and wise charity.  Bizzell and Herzberg summarize the philosophy well in one complex sentence: “If getting rich was the result of virtue, poverty must be the result of vice” (419).  [5]

     Carnegie’s essay makes several references to the term “race” which, viewed neutrally, can mean only a given class of human beings.  Viewed negatively, “race” assumes more its modern connotation of superiority of one ethnic group over another.  Carnegie is concerned with “the progress of the race,” how “the race is benefited”; what “is best for the race”; “essential for the future progress of the race”; and he denigrates certain economic theories by stating “the race has tried that” (Bizzell and Herzberg 451-4).

     We who are pro-life now know that the social Darwinism of the late nineteenth century contributed to the views of Margaret Sanger and others who thought that the economic lower classes, especially immigrants, were a different type of human being, almost subhuman.  I believe that the demarcation created between the deserving and the undeserving poor assisted in the dehumanization process of the United States, a process which would lead ultimately to an internment of an entire ethnic group.

V.   Internment of Japanese Aliens and Citizens of Japanese Ancestry: the Concentration Camps of the United States

     Before the era of legalized killing which began in 1973, perhaps no other activity perpetrated by the United States government is more shameful than the incarceration of Japanese aliens and American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II.  [6]  As Nazi Germany had its concentration camps, so too did the United States herd over 110,000 of its own people for the ostensible purpose of neutralizing the “Jap” threat against the western states.  [7]  The forced removal of the Issei (the term used to designate the original Japanese immigrants) and the Nisei (the term to denote their children) occurred despite the fact that both major groups of human beings of Japanese heritage had proved themselves to be not only respectful citizens, but also persons who had made the areas in which they settled highly productive.

     The concentration camps to which the Issei and Nisei were shuffled were comparable to those of Nazi Germany.  First, advocates of the internment used words which mirrored Nazi ingenuity in distorting language.  Mike Masaoka, leader of the Japanese American Citizens League during the internment, writes

          Sometime during the early part of February 1942, John H. Tolan, an obscure Democratic congressman from Oakland, California, announced formation of what was grandiosely called the Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration….  As it turned out, its primary function was not to investigate “migration” but to provide a platform for those advocating the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast.  (85).

     Similarly, the United States government used a variety of Nazi-like euphemisms for the internment camps themselves.  Michi Nishiura Weglyn, herself an internee whose work on the internment was one of the first written, provides several examples of this euphemistic language.

          A theme widely exploited by U.S. propaganda channels, including the Army’s own public relations setup, was that relocation centers were wartime “resettlement communities” and “havens of refuge,” so it is little wonder that the public–and even those who ended up in them–were easily misled.  Assembly center internees resentful of searchlights, machine-gun-manned watchtowers, and other repressive paraphernalia were generally reassured that it was all “a temporary measure,” that their freedom would be largely restored to them after the move to civilian-controlled “permanent camps” in the hinterland.  (89)

The very existence of the camps was based not on objective facts and verifiable military threats, but on logically-distorted suppositions and conjecture steeped in racist ideology.  Prominent early twentieth-century racist Montaville Flowers wrote in his 1917 book, The Japanese Conquest of American Opinion:

          Race mixture has been not only a fundamental cause of war, involving as it does internal convulsions and external complications, but the crossing of races has always resulted in a change of civilisation and lowering of the rank of higher civilisations.  (209-10)  [8]

This racism is echoed in the military’s justification for internment.  One of the documents contained within the U.S. Department of War’s Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 asserts emphatically that

          The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become “Americanized,” the racial strains are undiluted.  (Bizzell and Herzberg 640)  [9]

To respond to any doubt about the need for internment of the Japanese beyond racial concerns, and, after analyzing the population patterns of Japanese immigrants, the Department suggested the following as further justification for the internment:

          Such a distribution of the Japanese population appeared to manifest something more than coincidence.  In any case, it was certainly evident that the Japanese population of the Pacific Coast was, as a whole, ideally situated with reference to points of strategic importance, to carry into execution a tremendous program of sabotage on a mass scale should any considerable number of them have been inclined to do so.  (Bizzell and Herzberg 632)

The use of subjunctive constructions and ambiguous pronouns makes the justification for internment “certainly evident” that it was groundless.

     Ultimately, on the command of Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, the racist commanding officer of the Western Defense Command, with the approval of President Roosevelt, whose executive order 9066 authorized the internment, 110,000 human beings were herded into camps hastily built to accommodate the suspect race.  Besides receiving approval from the commander in chief, and encountering little opposition, DeWitt’s decision “was also supported by many citizens’ groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union” (Bizzell and Herzberg 613).

     The speed with which the Japanese were forced out of their homes and businesses is reminiscent of Nazi tactics to remove Jews from occupied countries.

          The army moved people out of their homes with no more than a few days’ notice, collected them in grimy “assembly centers” at such places as fairgrounds and racetracks, and then shipped them by train to shabby “relocation centers”–in reality detention camps–in desolate areas of California, Arizona, Utah, and other states” (Bizzell and Herzberg 614).

Like their Jewish victims, once the Japanese internees were at the camps they were identified not by their names, but by an administrative numbering system.  One survivor recalls that

          Someone tied a numbered tag to my collar and to [my] duffel bag (each family was given a number, and that became our official designation until the camps were closed)….  (Houston 13)

     Of course, such deportation to concentration camps could have only come about after a dehumanization process had been well established.  Threats of the “yellow peril” had been promoted by persons like Flowers for several decades before the internment.  Perhaps more importantly as a step toward the internment, as one survivor stated, “You cannot deport 110,000 people unless you have stopped seeing individuals” (Houston 114).  [10]

VI.  The Pro-Life Antidote: the Use of the Declaration

     A.  Nineteenth-Century Declarations

     Although an anti-life tendency has afflicted American literature since colonial times, over the course of the nation’s two centuries those who opposed the anti-life philosophy have advocated the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of all human beings by using a distinctively American contribution to the world’s political literature, the “declaration”.  The purposes of a declaration are several: first, it is used to recount abuses of an oppressive power; second, it is used to argue for justice–political, economic, or other; finally, it is used as a device to liberate the oppressed group from the tyranny of the oppressor.  Of course, Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” became the model for future declarations for the oppressed within United States society.  [11]

     Although Jefferson is credited with writing the Declaration of Independence for the ostensible political purpose of justifying the American colonies’ separation from British rule, other powerless individuals and groups used the declaration device as a means of stating their grievances against the government.  Specifically, the listing of inalienable rights has been retained by a diverse number of oppressed groups and has been the foundation for their pressure for equal rights.

     For example, one of the earliest abolitionist documents to rely on the inalienable rights listing is William Lloyd Garrison’s “Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Convention” of December 6, 1833.  Garrison’s version appropriately capitalizes the most significant word for which abolitionists fought:

          The corner-stone upon which [the signers of the Declaration] founded the Temple of Freedom was broadly this–“that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, LIBERTY, and the pursuit of happiness.”  (Bizzell and Herzberg 271)

Garrison was able to use accusatory as well as polite language  when referring to the chasm between the ideals of the Declaration and the nation’s slavery policy.  A month before the American Anti-Slavery Society adopted its Declaration, in a speech before the Great Anti-Colonization Meeting in London (November 9, 1833), Garrison used a long string of “I accuse” parallelism to indict the United States:

          I accuse her [the United States], before all the nations, of giving an open, deliberate and base denial to her boasted Declaration, that “all men are created equal; and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  (Nelson 74)

     Nineteen years later Frederick Douglass used the Declaration as his basis for his argument against slavery.  In his 1852 essay “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, one of the most famous in the “Fourth of July sermon” genre, Douglass sternly rebukes his listeners for permitting the intentional legal schizophrenia between a document which espouses that “all men are created equal” and a government which enslaves African Americans.

          [The Fourth of July] is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom.  This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God….  What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?  Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?  …  What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?  I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.  To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy–a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.  There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.  (Blassingame 360, 367, 371)

I have extensively quoted from this speech to illustrate two elements in it: first, reliance on the Declaration of Independence; and, secondly, the use of second-person pronouns at crucial points for the purpose of making the speech sound as accusatory as possible.  Such a fiery speech has validity for today: substitute “unborn child” for “slave” and the enumerated paradoxes and contradictions demonstrate that the ideals of the Declaration are still words in contention.  [12]

     As abolitionist demands increased, so too did demands for the other American slaves, women.  Nineteenth-century feminists used the Declaration as a model for their “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.  Its language would make the contemporary anti-life feminist uncomfortable, for, while it adds the word “women”, it maintains the listing of inalienable rights:

          We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness….  (Ravitch 83)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was not content to have the women merely proclaim their equality.  Much as Douglass chastised his audience, when Stanton spoke before the Judiciary Committee of the New York State legislature in 1860, she combined ancient rhetorical accumulation of questions with the tripartite nature of the inalienable rights clause:

          It is declared that every citizen has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Can woman be said to have a right to life, if all means of self-protection are denied her,–if, in case of life and death, she is not only denied the right of trial by a jury of her own peers, but has no voice in the choice of judge or juror, her consent has never been given to the criminal code by which she is judged?  Can she be said to have a right to liberty, when another citizen may have the legal custody of her person; the right to shut her up and administer moderate chastisement; to decide when and how she shall live, and what are the necessary means for her support?  Can any citizen be said to have a right to the pursuit of happiness, whose inalienable rights are denied; who is disenfranchised from all the privileges of citizenship; whose person is subject to the control and absolute will of another?  (Bizzell and Herzberg 359)

     In the late nineteenth century, the Declaration was often invoked tangentially to combat the growing divergence between rich and poor.  In his 1894 Wealth Against Commonwealth, Henry Demarest Lloyd uses a phrase at the end of the Declaration to advance his case:

          All follow self-interest to find that though they have created marvelous wealth it is not theirs.  We pledge “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to establish the rule of the majority, and end by finding that the minority–a minority in morals, money, and men–are our masters whichever way we turn.  (Bizzell and Herzberg 503).

Another writer opposed to the “Gospel of Wealth”, Henry George, writing in his 1879 Progress and Poverty used the explicit wording of the inalienable rights clause to argue against private ownership of land:

          All men to her [Nature] stand upon an equal footing and have equal rights….  The laws of nature are the decrees of the Creator….  The equal right of all men to the use of land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air–it is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence.  For we cannot suppose that some men have a right to be in this world and others no right.  If we are all here by the equal permission of the Creator, we are all here with an equal title to the enjoyment of his bounty–with an equal right to the use of all that nature so impartially offers.  This is a right which is natural and inalienable….  [He then proceeds in a footnote to blast Malthus’ philosophy.]  And so it has come to pass that the great republic of the modern world has adopted at the beginning of its career an institution that ruined the republics of antiquity; that a people who proclaim the inalienable rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have accepted without question a principle which, in denying the equal and inalienable right to the soil, finally denies the equal right to life and liberty; that a people who at the cost of a bloody war have abolished chattel slavery, yet permit slavery in a more widespread and dangerous form to take root.  (Bizzell and Herzberg 521, 523, 525)

     Toward the end of the nineteenth century, when capitalist oppression of workers reached fever pitch, the Workingmen’s Party of Illinois responded with its own version of the Declaration, also titled “Declaration of Independence” (July 4, 1876).  Although this Declaration omits references to the divine source of rights, it specifically retains the pro-life language of the inalienable rights clause:

          We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the full benefit of their labor.  (Foner 100)

     To summarize this section, what is most significant about nineteenth-century declarations is that the inalienable rights language is almost universally maintained, even though the various declarations may highlight a specific right.  This summary statement can be quite useful for the purposes of determining legislative history.  [13]

VI.  The Pro-Life Antidote: the Use of the Declaration

     B.  Twentieth-Century Declarations

     The twentieth century saw continued publication of declarations, most with an ostensibly political purpose, some serving a primarily didactic function.  Since the specific ones I will consider were generated by United States involvement in the Vietnam War, I will discuss how opposition to the war generated two important versions of the Declaration, one of which expressly retained the inalienable rights clause.  [14]  The “Declaration of Conscience Against the War in Vietnam” (1965) modifies the rights clause slightly:

          We believe that all peoples of the earth, including both Americans and non-Americans, have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the peaceful pursuit of happiness in their own way….  (Gettleman et al. 306).

     Except for the title, the other important version I would like to mention (Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1967 “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam”) bears little resemblance with Jefferson’s document.  [15]  King urged black Americans to disavow involvement in the Vietnam War.  As a further break against the rhetorical tradition of the Declaration, it is within this document that King utters what would in today’s post-abortion era vocabulary be an apparent pro-life reference.  He compares the amount of money financing the Vietnam war to “some demonic, destructive suction tube”; he continues his jeremiad, saying that he “was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such” (King 207).  Moreover, we in 1997 must recall that the vocabulary describing the technology of abortion in the late 1960s was not as diverse as today.  The “curette” and “suction tube” were often metonymies for the one method which was synonymous with abortion, dilation and curettage.  [16]

     As with their nineteenth-century counterparts, what is most significant about twentieth-century declarations is that the inalienable rights language is almost universally maintained, even though the various declarations can be concerned with issues not directly connected with the right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.  [17]

VII.  Conclusion

     Many strategies and means were used to fight the dehumanization which affected certain groups of people since the founding of the colonies over three centuries ago.  Perhaps no better antidote to the anti-life virus could have been found than a declaration affirming one of the contested inalienable rights.  And yet, although the historical record demonstrates that various oppressed groups have utilized and altered Jefferson’s words to accommodate their concerns, there is no declaration which summarizes the views of the American pro-life movement and which argues forcefully that attention must be given to the first of the inalienable rights, the right to life.  Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that pro-lifers have been too busy working for protective laws and supportive candidates.

     Perhaps this indicates that pro-lifers in the United States have made the fatal assumption that such a declaration is not needed, that it is a mere academic exercise and not important to advance the movement.

     Especially after the re-election of someone who made it into the White House on a plurality vote (again), today’s pro-lifers may feel as marginalized as three other groups: rap singers, “angry white males”, and ordinary voters.  Pro-lifers may feel as disgusted with American society as rap singers who sing about oppressive poverty and worthless government school education.  Pro-lifers may feel as oppressed as those who have been victimized by affirmative-action policies which have crippled their chances for employment.  Finally, pro-lifers may be as turned off by their government as the electorate in general, the size of which continues to diminish.  If the 1996 elections saw the lowest rate of voters since 1924, then the government of these United States is at a crisis point: it has lost the confidence of its people.  [18]

     Perhaps the dissolution of the current anti-life government is not far off; things get worse, supposedly, before they can get better.  Douglass’ nation of slavery of blacks collapsed after nearly a half-century of agitation induced by appealing to the ideals of the Declaration–and a civil war.  Stanton’s nation of slavery of women fell with the passage of the voting rights amendment.  Oppression of Native Americans may decrease as they discover that they can achieve something much more powerful than political power (economic power) by opening gambling casinos on their reservations.

     It is easy for pro-lifers to be just as angry at the United States as abolitionists and women’s suffrage activists were, and as Native American activists are.  It is easy to hope that the country would split apart so that the power of what Martin Luther King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” would dissipate (King 208).  It is, after all, not a necessary tenet of the pro-life movement that we must believe that the fifty states should continue as a unified nation in the next century.

     It is necessary, however, that we attack the anti-life, dehumanizing virus which has taken over the country, and we can do that by using the same strategies which were used by oppressed groups in the past.  We who are now nurtured in a nation which is the greatest threat to peace in the womb, peace in the nursery, and peace in the nursing home can restore the first inalienable right to life by following the examples of history.  And if the government does not change, then, as the Declaration asserts, “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government”.  Whether this means that the separatists of Texas, who are today’s outlaws, will be tomorrow’s heros; or whether this means that the United States will go the way of its former challenger to imperial hegemony, the Soviet Union; or whether this means that the nation will stay intact and not split apart like the former Soviet Union is our challenge for the twenty-first century.

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    [1]  It would be left to William Apess’ 1836 Eulogy on King Philip over a hundred and fifty years later to write a more balanced biography of Metacomet.

    [2]  The famous Puritan divine Increase Mather expressed the killing and butchering in similarly glowing language:

          Thereupon he [Metacomet] betook himself to flight, but as he was coming out of the Swamp, an English-man and an Indian endeavoured to fire at him, the English-man missed of his aime, but the Indian shot him through the heart, so as that he fell down dead….  This Wo was brought upon him that spoyled when he was not spoyled.  And in that very place where he first contrived and began his mischief, was he taken and destroyed, and there was he (Like as Agag was hewed in pieces before the Lord) cut into four quarters, and is now hanged up as a monument of revenging Justice, his head being cut off and carried away to Plymouth, his Hands were brought to Boston.  So let all thine Enemies perish, O Lord!  (Bizzell and Herzberg 61)

    [3]  A different printing of her autobiography states that Rowlandson used the word “Bears” to describe her captors (Rowlandson, Mary.  “A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.”  Classic American Autobiographies.  Ed. William L. Andrews.  New York: Penguin Books, 1992).  Whether this version is due to copyists’ or printers’ errors or not, Rowlandson’s devaluation of the Native Americans as human beings is obvious.

    [4]  Recent scholarship claims that Banneker “was a primary symbol of the self-evident truth that all men are created equal” (Kaplan and Kaplan 132).  More importantly, even though Banneker defended “black dignity against the aspersions of Thomas Jefferson” and had “achieved transatlantic fame…Jefferson never really forgave the sable scientist for speaking out” against slavery and refuting Jefferson’s charges about the inferiority of African Americans (Kaplan and Kaplan 132).

    [5]  Another element of dehumanization made possible in the whirling industrial development of the United States is the reduction of a human being to a synecdoche.  Elizabeth Stuart Phelps documents a prime example in her 1871 novel, The Silent Partner:

          If you are one of “the hands” in the Hayle and Kelso Mills–and again, in Hayle and Kelso,–you are so dully used to this classification, “the hands,” that you were never known to cultivate an objection to it, are scarcely found to notice its use or disuse.  Being surely neither head nor heart, what else remains? (71)

    [6]  Internment of persons who were viewed less than human seems to have been practiced early on in the founding of the United States.  During the time of Metacomet’s war against the English colonists in 1675, for example, Daniel Gookin reports that

          the Indians of Natick and other places, who had subjected themselves to the English government, were hurried down to Long Island in the harbour of Boston, where they remained all winter, and endured inexpressible hardships.  (88)

One can argue also that the numerous efforts to guarantee that Native Americans could have their own “reservations” were similar efforts to control where the population of an inferior or unwanted race would reside.

    [7]  A cursory glance over wartime documents reveals that only the Japanese were often designated by the pejorative abbreviation “Jap”.  In official government material Germans and Italians were not called any of the variety of derogatory names used to refer to their ethnicity (such as “kraut” or “dago”) as the Japanese were addressed by their pejorative term.

    [8]  Although a cause and effect relationship cannot be established between the two authors, a case for the similarity of racist ideas between Flowers and Hitler can be made.  These words in Hitler’s first volume of his Mein Kampf (published in 1925) approximate Flowers’ summary condemnation of the Japanese:

          The result of all racial crossing is therefore in brief always the following: (a) Lowering of the level of the higher race; (b) Physical and intellectual regression and hence the beginning of a slowly but surely progressing sickness.  To bring about such a development is, then, nothing else but to sin against the will of the eternal creator.  And as a sin this act is rewarded.  (286-287; typographical conventions merged into one quote).

    [9]  Cited as an appendix to the report, the title of the document is “Final Recommendation of the Commanding General, Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, Submitted to the Secretary of War.”

    [10]  Fortunately, the internment did not match the function of the Nazi death camps.  One example of how such subjugation of a race can make it easier to begin killing occurred only about twenty years after World War II.  One of the most horrifying examples of how the dehumanization process blinds the perpetrator to the humanity of another human being, especially if the victim is of a different race, occurred during the Vietnam war.  Documenting U.S. soldiers’ abuse of Vietnamese villagers, Harold Bryant, an African American soldier, describes how he and two of his fellow soldiers saw “three black pajama bodies start runnin’ away from us”; later, after the Vietnamese civilians are killed, one of the American soldiers, a white man, raped one of the dead women (Terry 29).

    [11]  As used throughout this paper, “Declaration” will be the abbreviation for Jefferson’s document which argued for political liberation from Great Britain.  When lower case, “declaration” refers to any manifesto which embodies the criteria for this American rhetorical trope.

    [12]  Pro-slavery writers were quick to demonstrate the inconsistencies of the Declaration’s universal assertions of rights and the practice of slavery in the new nation.  After discussing various arguments about the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” clause, pro-slavery writer Elliot argues that

          Mr. Jefferson was not only opposed to allowing the negroes the rights of citizenship, but that he was opposed to emancipation also, except on the condition that the freedmen should be removed from the country.  He could, therefore, have meant nothing more by the phrase, “all men are created equal,” which he employed in the Declaration of Independence, than the announcement of a general principle, which, in its application to the colonists, was intended most emphatically to assert their equality, before God and the world, with the imperious Englishmen who claimed the divine right of lording it over them.  This was undoubtedly the view held by Mr. Jefferson, and the extent to which he expected the language of the Declaration to be applied.  (44)

Elliot thus neutralizes the impact of scholarship which demonstrates that Jefferson adopted this principle from ancient Greek writings and Roman codification of natural law.  The ancient Romans, like the United States government, allowed slavery, but recognized that even the slave can claim that he is equal to his master according to natural law (Dumbauld 56-8).

     Similarly, another prominent pro-slavery writer, George Fitzhugh, directly challenged the ideals of the Declaration in his Sociology for the South saying

          It is, we believe, conceded on all hands, that men are not born physically, morally, or intellectually equal,–some are males, some females, some from birth, large, strong and healthy, others weak, small and sickly–some are naturally amiable, others prone to all kinds of wickednesses–some brave, others timid.  Their natural inequalities beget inequalities of rights.  The weak in mind or body require guidance, support and protection; they must obey and work for those who protect and guide them–they have a natural right to guardians, committees, teachers or masters.  Nature has made them slaves; all that law and government can do, is to regulate, modify and mitigate their slavery.  (177-8)

Immediately before this section justifying slavery, Fitzhugh accounts for the presence of the inalienable rights clause of the Declaration by saying that, since they were written in revolutionary times, “men’s minds were heated and blinded when they were written” (175).

    [13]  According to primary documents gathered by Philip S. Foner, other declarations of the period which retain all three of the inalienable rights include: “The Working Men’s Declaration of Independence” dated December 26, 1829 (48); “Declaration of Rights of the Trades’ Union of Boston and Vicinity” dated June 12, 1834 (53); “Declaration of Rights by Equal Rights Advocates and Anti-Monopolists of New York” dated September 1836 (57); Lewis Masquerier’s “Declaration of Independence of the Producing from the Non-Producing Class” dated September 28, 1844 (66); “Declaration of Rights of the Industrial Congress” dated June 21, 1845 (72); “A New Constitution for the United States of the World, Proposed by Victoria C. Woodhull For the Consideration of the Constructors of Our Future Government” dated February 1872 (181); “Declaration of Principles and Bill of Grievances of the Internationals of the United States of America” dated February 14, 1874 (85); “Declaration of the Rights of Man by the Rocky Mountain Division, International Working Men’s Association” dated April 12, 1884 (121); “The American Wage-Worker’s Declaration of Independence by the Federated Trades of the Pacific Coast” dated July 3, 1886 (131); and “A Declaration by the Representatives of the Wage-Workers of the United States of America in Congress Assembled” dated July 4, 1886 (137).

    [14]  Although the Communist version of the Declaration does not fit into this study of the foundation principles of American life, it is interesting that the avowed enemy of the United States during the war used Jefferson’s document to advance the cause of Vietnamese liberation from France.  In fact, Ho Chi Minh’s formulation of the “Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam” (September 2, 1945) begins by expressly quoting Jefferson’s crucial rights language almost verbatim:

          “All men are created equal.  They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776.  In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.  (Gettleman et al. 26-7)

As with the Rowlandson entry above, where “translation” of a difficult to read script is necessary, another edition of Ho’s Declaration has slightly different punctuation and terminology:

          “We hold truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  This immortal statement is extracted from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776.  Understood in the broader sense, this means: “All peoples on the earth are born equal; every person has the right to live to be happy and free.”  (Bizzell and Herzberg 804)

    [15]  The strongest parallel to Jefferson’s wording is embedded in King’s “deem(ing) it of signal importance to try to state clearly” (206) his reasons against the Vietnam War, an echo of Jefferson’s “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation”.

    [16]  In Charles J. McFadden’s 1967 Medical Ethics, sixth edition, the primary example given for abortion is the use of the curette:

          In cases of direct abortion, the very nature of the surgical or medical procedure is aimed at getting rid of the fetus (ex gr., curettage of the pregnant uterus).  (122; emphasis in original)

The dominance of the curette method of killing the unborn child reigned well into the decade after King’s declaration.  In 1977, Eugene F. Diamond documents still only three methods of abortion in his book This Curette for Hire:

          When abortion is done at twelve weeks, it is done by the method of dilitation (sic) and curettage….  Between the sixteenth and the twentieth week, the preferred abortion procedure would be hysterotomy….  Between twenty and twenty-four weeks gestation, the preferred method of abortion is by the saline amniocentesis or “salting out” method.  (77-78)

And, as today, so in the 1970s “most abortions [were] performed between the eighth and the twelfth week of pregnancy” (Diamond 77).

    [17]  Again, Foner’s collation shows that the following other declarations of the twentieth century retain all three of the inalienable rights: “A New Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress of Workers and Farmers” dated May 1933 (156); “Black Declaration of Independence by the National Committee of Black Churchmen” dated July 3, 1970 (164); “A Declaration of Independence: an American Response to New Global Imperatives by Henry Steele Commager for the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia” dated October 1975 (203-4); and “A Declaration of Economic Independence by the People’s Bicentennial Commission” dated 1975 (171).  Finally, the text of Russell Means’ “declaration of independence” for the Oglala Sioux Nation, while referred to in at least one Native American sourcebook, could not be obtained to determine if the inalienable rights language is maintained (cf. Deloria 77-8).

    [18]  A Congressional Quarterly article analyzing the last presidential election reports that

          Fewer than 96 million ballots were cast, according to an estimate by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE), which represented just 48.8 percent of the voting-age population.  It was the lowest turnout rate since 1924 and the second lowest since 1824….  The rate of presidential-year turnout has been on a steady decline since the closely fought election of 1960 … which drew 63 percent of the voting-age population to the polls.  The turnout rate stayed above 60 percent through the 1960s, before falling to 55 percent in 1972 ….  And it has continued to fall since then, with the exceptions of 1984 and 1992, when there were upticks in voter participation that proved only temporary.  (Cook 3194)


Resolution of a Controversial Issue in the Writing Class: Daedalus Software, Discussion, and Collaborative Writing on Abortion

Table of Contents

Introduction………………………………………………………………………………………… 1

Review of the Literature…………………………………………………………………………. 1

Basis of Composite Paper Work on Abortion……………………………………………… 7

Excerpts from Students’ First Drafts……………………………………………………… 10

Pedagogic Response to the First Drafts…………………………………………………… 12

Excerpts from Students’ Second Drafts………………………………………………….. 15

Utility of Daedalus Software…………………………………………………………………. 18

Students’ Final Position Papers…………………………………………………………….. 20

Summary Comments About the Composite Papers………………………………….. 24

Result of Composite Paper: Regression or Ambiguity?………………………………. 25

Conclusion………………………………………………………………………………………… 28

Works Cited……………………………………………………………………………………….. 29


          Question: How is a classroom like a shelter for battered people?

          Answer: It is, essentially, a safe place for the student struggling with controversial issues in his or her life.  It is a specific area of architecture where the student who may not have been introduced to opinions challenging his or her beliefs can come to see that ideas can be debated–if not pleasantly, then at least somewhat civilly, without resorting to machine guns.  This is not meant to be facetious or humorous: it is what I have come to believe as an instructor in community colleges and the university where lively debate has accompanied discussion of the logical fallacies embedded in essays on various controversial articles my students have read.  It seems appropriate, moreover, that I come from Kent State University, the site where the principle of the classroom as a safe place seems to have been proven wrong in 1970 when four of our students were killed.  Anyone can disagree with the political opinions expressed by the student demonstrators of the time, but no one agrees that our young people should not have had their first civil right to life protected.

          But I digress (not really).  Not only is the classroom a shelter for the battered student; it is also one for the battered instructor.  Anti-life politically-correct thinking continues to hemorrhage forth, especially from scholarly articles devoted to show how certain faculty can inculcate anti-life ideas and themes into their students.  The same strategies which anti-life faculty have used for the indoctrination of students to an anti-life thinking can be implemented by pro-life academics for the promotion of life-affirming principles.

          I here present research on some of the pedagogic techniques used in student writing involving abortion, based on my work with students in English at Kent State University.  I want to build on the literature which addresses the presentation of this controversial issue in the classroom from a pro‑life perspective. Specifically, I will demonstrate how students in the writing class can transform their positions on abortion from an anti‑life one to a pro‑life one.

Review of the Literature

          While the literature discussing controversial issues in the classroom is growing, the focus of such research seems to be mere statistical summarization of small samples.  [1]  For example, Ross and Kaplan, surveying 117 college students who completed the Life Ownership Orientation Questionnaire, merely came to the conclusion that those “participants classified as individual-oriented were found to be more accepting of abortion, suicide, and doctor-assisted suicide than were participants classified as God-oriented” (27).  Werner develops four categories of positions on abortion based on 119 responses (518).  Bryan and Freed surveyed 150 day students from a community college in the Boston area, 70% of whom “were raised Catholic,” 95% of whom were white, and 86% of whom were described as “sexually active” (1-6).  Although their research supports the common knowledge that abortion for “the hard reasons” (rape, danger to the mother’s life, and handicap in the unborn child) received much higher support than “the soft reasons” (that the family cannot afford more children, that the mother feels she has enough children, and that the mother is unmarried and does not want to marry the man) (6), their research paints either a dismal or a biased picture of the mental, physical, and social well being of pro-life students:

                    When just the anti-abortion females (N = 30) were compared, using chi-square analyses, with the pro-abortion females (N = 50), they reported significantly (p < .01) more hospitalizations, and a tendency (p < .10) toward a greater number of physical handicaps and more shyness.  When the anti-abortion males (N = 20) were compared with the pro-abortion males (N = 50), they reported significantly (p < .05) more problems with [being] overweight (over 40 pounds) and agoraphobia, and a tendency (p < .10) toward more convictions for a crime. (11-12)

A relatively large survey by Wright and Rogers (involving 840 students “enrolled in introductory psychology classes at a university in central Texas the week before the presidential election in 1984”) (517), derived summary statements essentially from responses to only four questions (whether an unmarried mother should be allowed to have an abortion; a mother of five who can’t afford another child; abortion of the child if he or she was conceived by rape; and life of the mother exception) (519).

          In some disciplines instructors have approached the abortion issue in courses quite extensively.  In a discussion of her ethics course at Utah Valley Community College, Elaine Englehardt mentioned that literary sources such as Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants” is very effective when covering the ethics of abortion, as is A.J. Cronin’s story, “Doctor, I Can’t, I Won’t Have a Baby.”  In fact, it is a more historical approach of the ethical development of abortion in Western thought, instead of its literary development, that is achieved, for she states that the “historical perspective is enhanced by readings from Linda Gordon’s book, A Social History of Birth Control.  Michael J. Gorman’s book, Abortion and the Early Church, is also helpful” (34).  [2]

          Dunn and Brown use the “Forced‑Choice Ladder” in health education to assist “individuals make choices from among competing alternatives and weigh the consequences of these choices” (178).  Moreover, they state that

                    This activity is intended to help students be aware of their own feelings regarding various reasons for abortion, to create lively student discussion, and to enable students to recognize the various reasons individuals might choose an abortion. (178)

Jones reports on her work using a mock trial to enable chemistry students understand the function and ethical issues of the abortifacient RU-486.  The abstract of her article states specifically that

                    The concept of a jury trial can be used to enhance students’ perception of the everyday relevance of science.  This concept was used as part of an activity undertaken in the honors section of general chemistry at Illinois State University in which students were asked to probe a current controversial drug, mifepristone, that is used in some parts of the world as an abortion‑inducing agent.  The students were told that a pregnant women [sic] returning from abroad had obtained the drug legally in a foreign country.  On returning to the U.S., she claimed the drug was for her own use and that she should have control over her own body and, therefore, possession of the drug was not a legal issue. The students were required to determine whether it is legal for her to have brought the drug into the U.S. The students were given roles and told to gather data from the literature to support their viewpoints on the situation. (537)

Graduate school students working with the Dual Language Middle School in New York used collaborative techniques to discuss some controversial issues with the younger students in “clubs” (Torres‑Guzman, Ivory, Lugo, Liu, Rodriguez, Rosado, and Willaum 196-204).  One such club headed by Lourdes “India” Ivory discussed “Teen Pregnancy and Sexuality–Rethinking Assumptions”.  Ivory expressed her ambivalence about her role in the club:

                    At first, I wondered what role I would play in assisting the students with this project.  After some deliberation, I decided to (a) maintain a balance between leading them and allowing them to lead themselves, (b) monitor their progress and maintain a sense of structure and clear guidelines as to what was expected, and (c) allow them to make a major contribution in terms of how the group functioned.  They played a major role in establishing the agenda and a schedule of events, and they took responsibility and pride in handing in excellent work by the due dates. Most importantly, the girls learned the importance of trying to understand others as opposed to judging them. (199)  [3]

Basis of Composite Paper Work on Abortion

          Greene’s work with abortion, although designed as an undergraduate course in psychology, comes closest to what I did at Kent in terms of pedagogy.  Her abstract approximates the pedagogy described in Negotiating Difference, the basis for my own work.  After introductory lectures, she says that “in the second phase, students read and discussed historical and legal writings on abortion.  In the third phase, students wrote analytical papers and gave group presentations” (202).

          I first used Patricia Bizzell’s and Bruce Herzberg’s wonderful text, Negotiating Differences: Cultural Case Studies for Composition, for students in an introductory college writing course at Kent during the fall 1996 semester.  By the fall 1997 semester, when I taught three sections of the course, I realized that something else needed to be added to the text; otherwise the complaint of several students–that the text was more a history than an English textbook–could be proven.  In fact, the editors themselves suggest that, although they “have not been able to explore every significant rhetorical moment in American history or to represent every group that has played a significant role in the development of American rhetoric” (viii), and further that “many readers may find that the social group to which they feel the closest allegiance is not represented” (viii), they insist that “every case study in Negotiating Difference concerns a cultural problem with relevance today” (vii).  Given that their text had a substantial gap of issues affecting the United States after the Vietnam War, I decided to determine if principles learned about oppression of Native Americans by Puritans, or black slaves by whites, or Japanese Americans by white racists could be applied similarly to oppression of the unborn by some of the born.

          Towards the end of the 1997 semester, therefore, I decided to supplement the text’s brilliant collection of essays with contemporary issues.  I reserved the last two weeks of the classes for group work on what I called a “composite paper”.  Unlike their essay writing during the balance of the course, the students would now be called upon to work together in groups to formulate a position statement on an issue of contemporary concern.  Their group’s statement would be the composite paper, a paper of consensus advocating one position of a current controversial issue.

          We began our discussion of contemporary controversial topics simply by listing them on the board.  I put all the letters of the alphabet on the board and asked students to mention issues about which they could write a composite paper.  It was easy to fill the board within five minutes with issues.  I then asked students to identify which three issues they would like to work on, stating that I would try to place them in a working group which they selected as number one.  Many students found the abortion topic interesting (the numbers before the names indicate the ranking which the student gave the issue):

            9:55 class            1:10 class           2:15 class
con: 1. Amy 1. Stacy 2. Alison 3. Marc   pro: 1. Scott Bo. 2. Jim 3. Jana 3. Jay   undecided: 1. Michelle 2. Ryancon: 1. Misty 2. Jenn H. 2. Trey 3. Scottcon: 1. Andy 1. Anthony 1. Heather M. 1. Jenni P. 1. Jenny M. 1. Nicole 2. Jessica   pro: 1. Todd 3. Ryan   undecided: 2. Amanda


          From these rankings it was relatively easy to assign students to various working groups.  While I tried to have no more than five students in any working group on any particular issue (to assure that a diversity of issues was being considered), sometimes that was not possible.  I was able to assign four working groups for each of the 9:55 and 2:15 classes, while the 1:10 class had three working groups; there was at least one abortion group per class.  These are how I eventually distributed students in the abortion groups.

            9:55 class            1:10 class           2:15 class
1. Amy (con) 1. Stacy (con) 2. Alison (con)                                      [5]1. Misty (con) 2. Jenn H. (con) 2. Trey (con)                                      [6]1. Andy (con) 1. Anthony (con) 1. Jenny M. (con) 1. Jenni P. (con) 1. Nicole (con) 2. Jessica (con)


          After looking at the final placement of students, it would seem that there would have been no problem for the three working groups to formulate a pro-life position statement on abortion.  [8]  After all, the students assigned for the working groups all specified the position they would like to take as against abortion and either listed it as an issue of highest or second-highest interest for them.  Should I have worried that my own biologically-correct position would have influenced my students unduly?  Should I have kept my morals and religious positions outside the classroom door?  I doubt that students, if they were anti-life, could have been so petrified of offending me and risking getting a low grade in the course thinking that I would retaliate against them that they would switch their own deeply-held beliefs on abortion just to satisfy the desires of their teacher.  Moreover, any student who felt so compelled to switch his or her deeply-held beliefs to accommodate an instructor’s position could have complained–even anonymously–to college or university administration.  I received no such complaints either from students or administration.  Finally, end-of-semester student evaluations recorded no such fear.

          Once the working groups were assembled, the next step in the writing process was having the members of the groups submit rough drafts of their positions on abortion not only to me (to count toward the grade) but also to their fellow committee members.  Here are some excerpts from the first drafts of the position papers.  I encourage you to take a few moments to, as some current literary theorists suggest, interrogate the following first drafts:  [9]

Excerpts from Students’ First Drafts

          In today’s society where sex is highly popularized women do not recognize the consequences of it.  Women of the 1990’s often find scapegoats and excuses for their irresponsible actions.  Abortion clinics are a place where women can terminate a human being because they feel that they cannot handle the responsibilities of motherhood.  Yet, if women are jumping into bed and having sex in the first place then they should be mature enough to take the responsibility of birth control.  Women often use the sick method of abortion as birth control.  Women are taking for granted the miracle of life.

          There are other options besides abortion such as birth control, and adoption.  Many women a year cannot get pregnant and are willing to be a loving mother to an unwanted child.


          Another main reason why you should not have an abortion is because most of the women who have them regret and remorse they ever did.  Many of the educational shows that I have seen about abortion show that women deal with abortions very difficultly, because they did not realize what they have done until they have seen the dead baby that they killed lying in the trash can next to them.  I have known a few girls that have had abortions and they have a very hard time talking about the incident.  They usually break down in tears when the subject is brought up.


          Abortion is wrong!!!!!  Abortion is the killing of an unborn child, who deserves the chance to live and have a life.  Abortion should be illegal because it is murder.  There are other options to think about besides abortion.  One other option is adoption.  If a mother is unable to care for her child or if the mother just does not want her child, then she can put her baby up for adoption.  There are many people out there who are unable to have children of their own.  These people are willing to adopt children, give them love, and care for that child just as if that child was his or her own.

          In my opinion, there are some exceptions to abortion.  One exception is rape.  I feel that abortion is an option for a woman who has been raped.  If a woman gets pregnant by rape, she has had her rights violated and it was under a circumstance that she had no control over.

          Many people may ask the question, “Why should a child have to suffer because of his or her father?”  Well, “Why should a mother have to suffer because of the child’s father?”  Rape is a very dramatic situation that causes many women to have emotional problems that may affect them for the rest of their lives.  Victims of rape will always have that neverending tragedy in the back of their minds that they cannot take back.

          One other exception is Mental Retardation.  Some women know ahead of time if their child will be born with any mental birth defects.  If they know for sure that their baby is mentally retarded, then they may choose abortion because they may feel it is the best option to take for both her and the child.  They know that their child would be unhappy in life and would probably only suffer.  Mental retardation is somewhat like rape because it is a tragedy that happens to women and they have no control at all over it.

          Overall, abortion is still wrong and is nothing but murder.


          An abortion should not be an easy way out for a girl who had a few minutes of pleasure.  I think a law should be passed that bans abortions.  From what I’ve seen the majority of women having abortions done are young teenage girls.  I truly believe that teenagers should not be having sex.  They are not ready for what it could bring upon them.  People shouldn’t be fooling around with sex until they are ready, both financially and mentally.  But there are exceptions to the rule.  If a woman was raped and got pregnant because of it, I think she should have the choice of keeping or aborting the child.  Also if the impregnated mother found out that her child was severely mentally/physically handicapped she could choose to abort it.  She might not be about to care for the child that right way or she might not want her child going through all the troubles of being that severely mentally/physically handicapped.  I know I’m contradicting myself when I’m saying there should be exceptions but that’s just how I feel.  I think most people would agree with those suggestions.


Pedagogic Response to the First Drafts

          After handing back the first drafts with grammatical and punctuation corrections only, the various groups reconvened to discuss the various positions.  I tried to be as vociferous as possible to the groups when criticizing their draft papers, using every means I could reasonably and professionally use to make students feel uncomfortable in adopting an anti- or pro-life viewpoint.

          Oxymoronically, I feel empowered to make students feel “safely uncomfortable” for two reasons.  First, the classroom is indeed a safe place, a site where emotional issues can be debated and argued sanely.  Secondly, I view the ethos of the instructor differently than many of my fellow faculty.  I state to my students that their moral positions, religious influences, and beliefs do not stop once they enter the classroom.  They are the same moral and religious, or immoral and irreligious, persons they were before entering the classroom.  I believe, though, that there is something ethically stifling about being in a classroom, especially the college classroom.  Many students with profound beliefs may feel as though they need to temper their beliefs lest they be perceived as radical right; after all, they are in college now, and college is the place to go to expand one’s mind, learn new things.  Unfortunately, many students think that learning a new thing means that one must adopt that new thing as equally valid as the belief held.  For example, learning that there are people who are strong in their anti-life beliefs may function in and of itself to persuade the student to think that anti-life opinions are as morally correct as pro-life ones.  The danger with broadening one’s intellectual horizons through college study is especially hampered if the instructor him- or herself is strident in his or her anti-life beliefs.

          To this end, when the classes met either in the classroom or in the pc lab, I moved from one committee to another, trying to interrogate the group within time constraints.  If a committee argued for an exception to a ban on abortion, I countered with an argument supporting the humanity of the child conceived by rape.  If a group argued for no exception, I tried to frustrate the group by asking how they could be so callous as to force a “woman” to carry “it” for nine months as though she should be punished for the rapist’s crime.  In the previous weeks, especially discussing other aspects of American rhetoric used to dehumanize various other groups of people, I made it clear what my personal positions were on contemporary political and biological questions.  My bantering first for an anti-life position and then for a pro-life position may have utterly confused some students.  This, I think, is entirely acceptable, for it is good to have a student so confused that he or she is not so much concerned with what to write to satisfy “the teacher,” but will write instead something which will satisfy him- or herself, especially when it concerns ethical positions.

          I disagree with the hesitancy of some in academia who seem to advocate a more passive approach regarding abortion discussion and writing.  One such author is Samuel W. Calhoun, who, at the time of his writing the article which made me think about my own pedagogic practice, states he was a pro-life law professor at Washington and Lee.  His article presents some excellent points to prepare the pro-life professor in guiding, if not leading, classroom discussion on abortion.  For example, he relates that a student “said that student participation would increase if I gave the students more control over each session.  He said to let them decide what they wanted to talk about” (369).  I implemented such a mechanism at the outset.  While I had privately hoped that there would be at least one abortion working group in each class, I let the students decide what issues were to be discussed in groups.  Also, after an initial written response to a packet of information, Calhoun’s students had to exchange papers and discuss their writings face-to-face; often this meant an anti-life student was paired with a pro-life one.  These conversations, Calhoun believes, “were invaluable in combatting student-to-student hostility.  It is not so easy to view as the enemy someone with whom you have talked face to face” (367).  I approximated this when the various working groups debated fine points of their abortion positions, particularly on the matter of exceptions for rape.  Finally, one of his better points, Calhoun declares that

                    I had a very hard time keeping quiet whenever [pro-life students] were unable to come up with a response to a pro-choice argument.  I often would jump in to bail out the pro-lifers.  My pro-choice student monitor encouraged me to be silent on these occasions.  If pro-life students couldn’t come up with an answer, I should be willing to let them go away troubled.  Doing so would force them to struggle with the issues rather than rely on me.  (370)

As will be seen towards the end of this paper, I too believe that feeling uncomfortable may be most beneficial for the pro-life student, even in the safety of the classroom.

          However, several points of Calhoun’s article conflict with my own philosophy of classroom management.  First, before his course began, he attempted “to allay any fears that I would be presenting only the pro-life position” and “prepared a memorandum to our student body” (368).  Such an effort strikes me as more “apologizing” for his pro-life views than making an effort to have students think he will be impartial.  [10]  Also, Calhoun contends that

                    I realize that it is the meat and potatoes of a professor’s job to stimulate thought by pressing students on virtually every point, even if doing so requires teachers to challenge a position with which they agree or defend a position with which they disagree.  I’m quite comfortable with this as a general proposition.  But it’s one thing to play devil’s advocate on a question, say, of statutory interpretation and quite a different thing when it is a life-and-death issue like abortion on which my feelings run so deep. (369-70)

I disagree with this because discussion in a classroom is merely an academic exercise.  While what is learned in the classroom about abortion (or what’s not learned in the classroom) will affect not only the students’ lives, but may also affect the lives of their unborn children, classroom discussion remains and should remain liberated from its connection with the world outside the classroom.  If the classroom were a counseling office for a pregnancy-support group, then Calhoun’s anxiety would be more justified.  [11]

          Although some students who submitted first drafts may not have submitted second drafts, Calhoun’s concerns did not prevent my students from writing extensively on abortion a second time.  After a few more days of ruminating on some qualifying statements from fellow committee members and from me, they presented the following second drafts.

Excerpts from Students’ Second Drafts

          I agree with all the views of the group.  We all have good arguments as to why we are against abortion.  Everyone has a unique way of expressing their reasons.  We all agree that every child born or unborn has a right to life, and that it is against God’s laws for if a child is not meant to be then the women will miscarry.  We all seem to agree that the fetus should be considered a child, or unborn child.  A very good point was made that any child born or unborn relies on their mother to meet their needs; one of those needs is the need to be safe, and abortion is murder against a helpless being.  I believe that anything God creates is a being in one form or another.  Nature does not have a heart beat but yet plants, trees, and etc. are considered to be alive so just because this being developing into an infant does not have a heart beat society considers it not to be alive?  The cells and tissue are, so I wonder what society considers to be alive.  Is the definition they would give be one to please their own conscience?


          Abortion is morally and sinfully wrong in all cases.  Young people are very unaware of the consequences that sex may bring.  If a couple is not planning on having a child, then they may want to reconsider having sex.  If the woman does happen to get pregnant for whatever reasons, she should then take the responsibility for the child.  She then may have the choice of putting the child up for adoption.  She should not be able to have the choice of an abortion.  The child has a right to live.

          There should be no exceptions to abortion.  Many people think rape is an exception.  The child should not have to suffer for the mistakes of his or her father.  If the woman decides not to keep the child after the pregnancy she then should be able to put the child up for adoption, which is completely understandable.  The woman should not have to be reminded of the man who had raped her, but the child still does have the right to live.

          Overall, I think that abortion is totally wrong.  I think the innocent child has all rights and should be able to live.  He or she should not have to suffer for the mistakes of their parents.

                                                                                                                Jenn H.

          Lastly, many people will consider rape an exception.  Even some people who regard themselves to be pro-life will make an exception with rape cases and say it is okay.  However, it is not. Although rape is an awful act of violence, a child was still conceived.  A child with a heart beat.  A child that deserves a chance at life.  I realize it would not be easy for a mother to carry this baby, for it would be a constant reminder of what happened.  However, killing the child is not going to make her forget what happened; it may even complicate things more.  For a woman to carry a child, who was conceived by a rapist, may be the hardest thing she has to go through in her life.  However, when the baby is born she can give it up for adoption.  Then, she can live the rest of her life knowing, although she had a horrible experience, she did the right thing by giving a person a chance at life.

                                                                                                                Jenni P.

          Abortion is not a woman’s choice of what to do with her body; it is a choice to kill a human being.  Many people say that the fetus is not a baby.  The word “baby” is a word that pro-lifers get shot down for using, but baby has three definitions.  The first is “small in comparison to others of the same kind.”  “Human being” is “member of the genus Homo and especially of the species Homo sapiens,” which is true of embryos, fetuses, teenagers, adults, etc.  Fetuses and embryos are small in comparison to other humans, so fetuses by this definition are babies.  The other definition of a baby is “a very young child.”  “Child” can be defined as “an unborn infant: a fetus.”  The third definition of a baby is “the youngest member of a family or group OR a very young animal.”  “Fetus,” a Latin word meaning “young one,” fits these two definitions almost exactly.  So, by all three of these definitions of a baby, a fetus is a baby.  So now it is not killing a fetus it is killing a baby.  The argument that babies inside the womb are not human beings because they are not entitled to rights as a citizen in this country under the Constitution is not a fair argument.  Just because a person is not a citizen of this country does not mean that if someone kills them then it is okay, so why is it okay to carelessly murder a helpless child?  If a woman is willing to make the choice to have sex in the first place she should take responsibility for her actions and not be allowed to have murder as an option.


          My opinions have recently changed since my last response on abortion.  I don’t believe in abortion and I still think it should be illegal because it is murder.  In my last response, I was against abortion, but I had a couple of exceptions.  I said that there should be exceptions for women who get pregnant by rape and for women who know ahead of time that their child is going to be born with birth defects.

          In class Friday, my group and I discussed the topic of abortion in more detail and came up with some more opinions and ideas on con-abortion.  As we discussed the topic more, I began to think more about my opinions toward abortion.  I now feel differently than I did in my last response.  My last response was more on the pro side than on the con side.  I realized that if I am against abortion, then I should be against all abortions and have no exceptions toward it.

          I now feel that if a woman gets pregnant by rape, that she should keep the baby anyway and not consider abortion.  Everything happens for a reason and if God feels that it was meant for a woman to get pregnant (no matter how) then she should still have the baby because it must be something that was meant to be for a reason.  After the woman has the baby and she still does not want her child, then she should consider adoption.

          My other exception was mental retardation.  Now I feel that even if a woman knows ahead of time that her baby will have mental problems, she should still have the child.  If we have abortions for every child that is going to be born with birth defects, look how many less people we would have in the world today.  It is not fair to keep the good and kill the bad.  All human beings are equal no matter what physical or mental defect he or she may have.

          We would not even have the Special Olympics for the mentally retarded today if we didn’t have the handicapped to make it possible.


          The rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, some do not have the choice.  Those with no choice are the unborn children.  No one should have a right to make a choice that involves killing another living creature, when there are so many other ways of coping with the situation.


          I still think abortion is wrong and should be banned but I’ve changed my stance on it.  On Friday we had our discussions which brought out a few good points.  “Why should a baby caused by a rape die?”  “Why punish the baby for the actions of the father?”  Those questions made some sense to me, well just enough to change my mind about having exceptions with abortions.  “Why should the baby suffer?” I thought to myself.  So now I feel that abortion should be banned while having no exceptions.  If a woman is raped then she should have the baby then give the child up for adoption if she wants to.  If a teenage girl gets pregnant then she should still have the baby and then decide to keep it or not.  There should not be any exceptions with abortion.  How can you be against abortion and still have exceptions to it?  You should be all for it or all against it; there shouldn’t be any exceptions.


Utility of Daedalus Software

          Since two of the three writing courses met in the pc lab only on Wednesdays, I determined to make at least one of the discussion days coincide with the use of one of the more practical features of the Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment, the InterChange feature.  [12]  This feature allows the students in the writing class to send and receive messages from fellow students within a “conference.”  For example, only the abortion working group members would be able to refine their positions among each other. Unless the instructor opens a session for all students, then only those who connect with the particular abortion group would communicate with their fellows.  Although it has been my experience that students (when they first use InterChange) tend to use it more as a toy for sending the proverbial one-liner to elicit the loudest laughs from fellow students, the feature does have the benefit of forcing students to realize that even position papers are produced one line at a time.  One student may throw out a general query to fellow students in his or her conference–for example, about the need for a rape exception.  This student will have the immediate benefit of several responses more immediately and better organized than spoken discourse.  The student will be able to review fellow student responses by scrolling within the transcript being produced.  [13]

          Of course, as in spoken speech, there are dangers even with such a new software toy in the writing class.  Just as students may argue vociferously in front of each other within a committee when the five or so chairs are gathered in a circle, students using InterChange will argue also.  In fact, the arguing on the InterChange may be more “flaming” than polite discourse.  Not being able to look a fellow student in the face to say that one disagrees with what is said may convince a student to be more brutal with a message sent in computer format.  [14]

          After less than two weeks of personal dialogue, InterChange communication, a first and second draft (and in some groups, meetings beyond the classroom at some local watering holes), students perfected their position papers on abortion.  By the end of the third class, students were sufficiently ready to “publish” their statements to the “world”–admittedly, the small world of their fellow students, but a decisive gesture showing that they could be as affirmative and unequivocal as writers on other controversial issues of previous generations.

          Students then elected one of their committee members to read their policy statements to the entire class and answer any questions which fellow students may have had.  This was perhaps the most frightening part–not so much the mere reading (the student with the best speaking voice was usually selected), but the broadcasting of a position which may have been mutually agreed upon and strongly supported within the group now being broadcast to the larger society (a society, the classroom, whose other members may not have shared the same pro-life position).

The following are the three final position papers.

Students’ Final Position Papers

          The rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are given to the people of the United States of America within the Constitution.  [15]  Abortion: the spontaneous or induced expulsion of a nonviable human fetus unjustifiably takes those rights away. The issue of abortion has been controversial in this country for many years, beginning with the Supreme Court case of Roe versus Wade.  With the Supreme Court ruling making abortion legal, women gained the right to mutilate and destroy a precious gift within their bodies.  The great victory for all women of all ages was a great loss for those unborn children without a say or voice whether to live or to die.  Abortion, to many people, tests such standards as religion and morals, responsibility, birth control, adoption, and the right to life.

          The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are denied to many.  Not everyone is granted these rights.  Those who are denied those rights would be unborn children.  When a mother gains the right to terminate her unborn child, she also takes away the rights of a precious gift within her, a child.  Everyone has a right to life, born or unborn.  Those words are stated within our very own Constitution.  Yet, there are laws we have created: to allow the destruction of life.  No one should have to make the choice that involved killing another human being, especially when there are so many other ways of preventing and coping with the situation of childbirth.

          In today’s society where sex is highly popularized, women do not recognize the major consequences of it.  Women of the 1990’s often find scapegoats and excuses for their irresponsible actions. Abortion clinics are a place where women can terminate a human being because they feel that they cannot handle the pressures of motherhood.  Yet, if women are jumping into bed and having sex in the first place, then they should also be mature enough to take on that pressure of responsibility by using birth control.  The first way to prevent pregnancy and to avoid any means of abortion is by birth control.  There are many forms of birth control such as the birth control pill, condoms, and abstinence.  All of these suggestions can be easily obtained at an inexpensive price.  Not to mention they can prevent the death of an unwanted child and the spread of infectious diseases.

          Since many women cannot accept responsibility for her actions, mistakes, or plain irresponsibility then there is another option that would save a life of that precious being that God gifted her with.  Adoption.  Adoption is a way to prevent the death of a helpless baby screaming to be loved.  Thousands of women daily are unable to conceive a child.  Most of these women would be more than willing to love and care for that baby.  Adoption is a life saving option opposed to the murderous action of abortion.  By giving up an unplanned child for adoption, the mother can save her own child and bless another woman with the gift of life.  Conception is part of that miracle and there is a purpose for everything and everyone: born or unborn.  But there are women who are unable to participate in this miracle.  Adoption allows these women to experience the life of a child and fully appreciate the miracle God has created.

          Religion plays a large role in many people’s decisions on the subject of sex and abortion.  A majority of religions in today’s society believes that the extermination of any life, born or unborn, is murder.  Therefore, religion justifies abortion as murder.  God has given women the miracle of life.  That miracle is often destroyed out of selfish behaviors.  God specifically stated in the Ten Commandments, “Thou shall not kill.”  People believe that God has a purpose for everything He has created.  By killing an unborn child there is an interruption and interference with God’s plan.  The interference is with the future life of a helpless child who God has created.  If God had known that helpless little children’s brains would be sucked out of their head by a needle, He probably would not have created them in the first place.

          Certain stages of abortion can be quite painful for the unborn child.  It said that the unborn baby is silently screaming in pain inside their mother’s womb.  Many women are unaware of the procedures during an abortion.  One of them commonly known as D&C (dilation and curettage) is done by inserting a loop steel knife in the uterus and cutting the baby and placenta into pieces then scraping them into a basin.  A totally inhumane procedure.  Other procedures include D&E.  Dilation and evacuation.  This procedure is done only after twelve weeks.  A plier-like instrument is needed to calcify [16] the baby’s bones and skull.  The abortionist places the instrument into the uterus then seizes a leg or other part of the body.  With a twisting motion the leg is torn off from the rest of the body.  After these procedures are completed the lifeless body of the child is thrown away in the trash.

          Many people try to rationalize this immoral conduct of abortion by making excuses for their behaviors.  From a religious aspect abortion simply is murder.  Women do not realize what damage they are doing to themselves and to their undelivered child.  For years people have tried to convince abortion doctors to stop these procedures and to save babies’ lives.  Women should open their eyes and face up to their irresponsibility.  Another human life could be saved with a small amount of love and education.  Abortion is an unjustifiable act and should not be accepted by anyone.

                                                                      Alison, Danielle, Rachel, and Stacy

                                                                                                     (the 9:55 class)

          Having an abortion is morally and sinfully wrong.  Abortions should be illegal because it is the killing of an unborn innocent child.  There shouldn’t be any exceptions when it comes to abortions, including rape, birth defects, and teenage sex.

          Most women who are getting abortions done are teenage girls. Young women are having unprotected sex and are unaware of the consequences it may bring.  If a teenage girl thinks she is ready to have sex, then she should be on birth control; besides it is much cheaper to pay birth control every month than to pay to have an abortion done.  If a woman gets pregnant, then she should be forced to have the baby and then have the choice to give the baby up for adoption.

          Many people think that rape is an exception.  The child should not have to suffer for the mistakes of his or her father.  If the woman decides not to keep the child after the pregnancy, she then should be able to put the child up for adoption which is completely understandable.  “Why should a baby caused by a rape die?”  “Why punish the baby for the actions of the father?”  “Why should the baby suffer?”  The child still has the right to live.  There are plenty of couples who are unable to have children and would be blessed at the opportunity to take in a baby from a young woman and care for the child as if the baby were their own.  Everything happens for a reason and if God feels that it was meant for a woman to get pregnant (no matter how) then she should still have the baby because it must be something that was meant to be.

          People also think that mental retardation is an excuse for abortion.  Even if a woman knows ahead of time that her baby will have mental problems, she should still have the child.  If we have abortions for every child that is going to be born with birth defects, look how many less people we would have in the world today.  It is not fair to keep the good and kill the bad.  All human beings are equal no matter what physical or mental defect he or she may have.  We wouldn’t even have the Special Olympics for the mentally retarded today if we didn’t have the handicapped to make it possible.

          The United States is behind on abortion laws compared to other countries.  Getting an abortion in El Salvador, as in most Latin American countries, has never been easy; until recently, it was illegal unless a woman’s life was at risk or in cases of rape or serious fetal anomaly.  A new law that will soon go into effect eliminates even those exceptions and makes abortion for any reason a crime.

          Overall, abortion is a touchy subject.  Innocent children have rights also and should be able to live.  Abortion is morally and sinfully wrong and should be illegal in very case.

                                                                Emily, Jenn H., Misty, Tracy, and Trey

                                                                                                     (the 1:10 class)

          Abortion is one of the most controversial issues in today’s society.  “Freedom of choice” has become the slogan for the pro-abortion activists.  However, abortion is not a woman’s choice.  The woman has no right to kill a fetus.  A mistake is being made, that a fetus is not a baby.  The word “baby” is a word that pro-lifers get shot down for using, but baby has three definitions.  The first is “small in comparison to others of the same kind.”  “Human being” is “a member of the genus Homo and especially of the species Homo sapiens,” which is true of embryos, fetuses, teenagers, adults, etc.  Fetuses and embryos are small in comparison to other humans, so fetuses by this definition are babies.  The other definition of a baby is “very young child.”  “Child” can be defined as “an unborn infant: a fetus.”  The third definition of a baby is “the youngest member of a family or group.”  “Fetus,” a Latin word meaning “young one,” fits these two definitions almost exactly.  By examining all three definitions, a baby and fetus are equivalent.  When a fetus is aborted, a human life is being murdered.

          The individual most affected by an abortion is the unborn child.  When the unborn child is in the mother’s womb, he or she is in continuous growth.  Two weeks after the egg is fertilized, the embryo has a developing brain and rudimentary heart.  Around the twenty-fifth day, the heart then begins to beat.  The baby’s developed systems are already separate from the mother’s, so it is no longer a part of her.  Brain waves are recorded at an average of forty days after conception.  By the eighth week, the embryo has ears, fingers, toes, and all the key body parts are developed or developing.  Then by two months, the baby can feel pain.  In the fifth month, the baby’s brain is able to think, dream, and learn.  However, even when the baby is fully developed, they are not protected under the Constitution.  After delivery is completed, babies are for the first time granted legal protection from murder.  Therefore, that is why the pro-life activists must fight for the baby’s right to life.

          An abortion not only hurts the unborn child, it also puts the mother in danger.  After the abortion has been performed, she can experience severe physical pain.  There have been situations where women are not able to have children after they have had an abortion.  In addition, many times a woman becomes emotionally scarred after having an abortion.  She often questions whether what she did was right, and usually ends up in therapy to help her deal with what she has done.  It is apparent that when the unborn child and mother are taken into consideration, that the right to life should be guaranteed to every human conceived.

          Aborting an unborn child is not the only solution.  When a mother is not able to raise her child, she has the option of giving her baby up for adoption.  There are numerous families on waiting lists to adopt unwanted children.  The mother can carry the baby to term, then give the child to a family that wants to raise and care for the baby as their own.  Adoption not only saves the life of the baby, but also saves the health of the mother.

          There are some instances where carrying the child to term would require a great deal of strength given by the mother.  One of these cases is rape.  Given that the child was conceived out of violence, some pro-lifers will give exceptions in this case.  A child is still a child, even if he or she was conceived out of violence.  However, aborting the baby would not solve the mother’s problems.  In some cases, it would complicate things more.  For a woman to carry a child to term that was conceived out of violence may be the hardest thing for her to do.  However, when the baby is born, she can give him or her up for adoption.  By choosing this option, the mother will not live with the guilt of killing an innocent child.  Although the mother had a horrible experience, she can live the rest of her life knowing she made the right choice by giving the child a chance at life.

          In order to save the lives of innocent children, it is crucial that the pro-life movement continue.  Until our country stands up for the life of an unborn child, the murdering will not cease.  Every human, including an unborn child, has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

                                       Andy, Anthony, Jenn M., Jenni P., Jessica, and Nicole

                                                                                                     (the 2:15 class)

Summary Comments About the Composite Papers

          Some summary comments should be made about these final statements.

1. Concern for Unborn Child Preeminent

          Students from all classes give unquestioned support for the unborn child’s rights, ranging from the declaration of the 9:55 class that the baby is “the miracle God has created” to the statement of the 1:10 class that abortion involves “the killing of an unborn innocent child” to the urgency of the 2:15 class as it provided fetological evidence of the unborn child’s humanity.

2. Adoption as a Solution

          There is a strong reliance on adoption as a better course of action than abortion in all three groups.  For the 1:10 class adoption is “completely understandable” as a solution for the child conceived by rape.

3. Choice Applies to Unborn Child

          All three groups comment on the idea of “choice,” sometimes rendering subtle verbal differences to the slogan word from what anti-lifers assert.  It is clear for the 9:55 class that “choice” does not involve “killing another human being.”  For the 1:10 class, choice becomes effective only after an anterior right is satisfied: the mother “should be forced to have the baby and then have the choice to give the baby up for adoption.”  The 2:15 class comments on “freedom of choice” as “the slogan for the pro-abortion activists.”  Also for this group, giving up for adoption a child conceived by rape is “the right choice.”

4. Birth Control as a Solution

          Two of the three groups highlighted birth control as a satisfactory way to prevent unplanned pregnancies, even to the point of listing various devices and methods available (as the 9:55 class did).

5. Ambivalent Views on Mothers Who Abort

          While some students were quick to condemn the mother for getting abortions, saying, as the 9:55 class did, that such mothers use “scapegoats and excuses for their irresponsible actions” (this class committee was entirely composed of young women), a complementary trend was to have sympathy for the mother.  While admitting that a woman who becomes a mother by rape “had a horrible experience,” the 2:15 class trusts that she would make the “right choice by giving the child a chance at life.”

          Some other ideas which can be culled from these extracts would involve a closer reading and better correlation with the previous drafts than what I have done here.

Result of Composite Paper: Regression or Ambiguity?

          Finally, I asked students at the end of the course to send me emails giving reactions to the position papers on abortion produced by the four groups, to the presentation of those position papers, or reactions to any other aspect of the process.  [17]  While they cannot be an accurate barometer measuring the qualitative adherence to the exception-free abortion position, such personal emails could either reinforce a previous opinion or at least give the student the last word.  Some comments were staunchly pro-life and supportive:

                    For the final group paper…we said that under no circumstances should a woman have an abortion.  Even if she found out that the child has a birth defect such as Down Syndrome.  Also we thought that it was wrong if the woman was raped because the child should not have to suffer because of the father’s wrath.  In my true opinion of abortion I agree whole‑heartedly with all of the statements that my group made in our paper.  I agree with it because even when the fetus is one day old, I still think of it as a child.  That child should not have to suffer from the mistakes that their mother and father made.  If the parents do not want it they can always give it up for adoption to parents who will love it. (Emily)

                    I respect your teaching skills when you approach different views.  You always tried to make us think about the other side’s argument. In regards to the composite paper, I enjoyed working on it.  I learned a lot more on the murdering of innocent children.  The only negative part about the paper was I don’t think everyone worked equally.  It seemed as though more of us worked on it than others.  I felt as if they were relying on me for the grade.  Take care and God bless.  (Jenni P.)

However, various emails showed that, while they may not have been permanently persuaded against exceptions, some students are deeply ambiguous about the morality of the standard exceptions proposed for abortion:

                    For the most part, I still do believe that abortion is morally and sinfully wrong.  I am a Catholic and believe that abortion is the killing of a young, innocent child.  Although, unlike what was said in our composite paper, I do have a few exceptions.  One exception is rape.  I believe that if a woman is raped she should not be forced to have the child.  Rape is a very traumatizing thing for a woman and I don’t think she should have to see the child and always be reminded of the man who had raped her.  Another exception I have on the topic of abortion is death of the mother during labor.  If the mother is having problems during labor, and she or the baby is about to die, I believe they should then save the mother instead of her baby.

                             I think all of the composites were interesting to discuss and talk about.  I learned a great deal from talking about them during class.  (Jenn H.)

                    My overall outlook on the group papers is very good.  I wish we would have done them soon just so I could have gotten the chance to meet more people in our class.  I like working in groups because you get to see what everyone else has to say on your topic. I personally liked my group; we got along very well and worked good as a team.  I thought our paper was pretty good although I didn’t agree with some of the comments.

                             To refresh your memory my topic was con‑abortion. I think abortion is wrong, except in certain situations.  Rape for one; if a woman is raped then she should not have to be reminded for 9 months about the attack. I basically think it is up to the woman; I mean if I were to get pregnant right now I am not 100% sure what I would do, I mean there are so many factors that go into making a decision as big as that. I didn’t really know how to defend our paper because I agreed with my classmates’ views. I think a person should do what makes them happy as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else along the way….

                             I liked how we had open conversation, that was great for everyone to express our thoughts on a topic.  I personally don’t like to talk much in a class where I really don’t know anyone.  That’s why I said I would have liked to have done our group papers earlier.  (Tracy)

                    Abortion, what an easy topic, so I thought.  You made it so much harder than it sounded!  Thank you so much.  You made me think about things I had never thought of.  Even though I helped write our paper I disagreed with some of the material we put in it.  We said there should not be any exceptions at all.  Well, I think that not having exceptions is cruel and wrong.  How could you make a woman carry the child of her rapist?  Personally I think that would be a terrible thing to do to someone.  On the other hand if they want to keep the child or give the baby up for adoption then they should by all means be able to.  I don’t understand how someone could have the child of their rapist though.

                             Our class presentation was horrible!  I could not believe how many comments we had from our classmates.  The worst part was that I could not respond to the questions and ridicule that we were getting because I believed everything that was said.  I did not expect that to happen to us at all.  I guess I learned first hand about how touchy of a subject abortion is.

                             As for our class: I had fun listening to everyone express themselves. Looking back now I wish I would have said more in our discussions.  I’m just too darn shy.  Although I did not put forth 100% into your class, I wish I would have.  I started having more fun as the semester wore down.   (Trey)


          I hope that the student writing contained in this paper will help you understand which aspects of the first right-to-life issue students identify with and how they formulate their positions on abortion.  Hopefully, also, the student writing contained herein will challenge you to incorporate some newer developments in pedagogic practice to influence students to either alter or affirm their abortion positions.  If the student writing which you may generate in your own classrooms shows that ambiguity or a questioning of the legal status quo has developed, then you will have accomplished a significant task to which we in the academy are called.  To question the distortion of rights called abortion is a mammoth effort.  We can demonstrate the cognitive dissonance which abortion has created in the United States, the world’s leading anti-life nation, quite easily.  Students are shocked to read that the founding document of the United States reads that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights; that among these are…life?”  Finally, since the first civil right to life was taken away in the United States by words in legal briefs and court opinions which led to two extremely tragic Supreme Court decisions, I am hopeful that the war of words over abortion will be waged by legal briefs, court opinions–and student writing.

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          Classroom: Problems and Possibilities. Ed. Patricia Meyer

          Spacks. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996. 365-71.

Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment for Windows Computers

          Version 5.3x Instructor’s Guide. November 30, 1997. Austin:

          Daedalus Group, 1997.

Dunn, Patricia C., and Kathy Brown. “Abortion Forced‑Choice

          Ladder Activity.” Journal of Health Education 28.3 (May/June

          1997): 178‑9.

Emily. Email to the author. 14 Dec. 1997.

Englehardt, Elaine Eliason. “A Core Approach to Teaching Ethics.”

          Community, Technical, and Junior College Journal 62.3

          (Dec.‑Jan. 1991‑92): 30‑4.

Gordon, Linda.  Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: a Social History of

          Birth Control in America. New York: Grossman, 1976.

Greene, Edith. “Teaching About Psychological Perspectives on

          Abortion.” Teaching of Psychology 22.3 (Oct. 1995): 202‑4.

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Jenni P. Email to the author. 17 Dec. 1997.

Jones, Marjorie A. “Use of a Classroom Jury Trial to Enhance

          Students’ Perception of Science as Part of Their Lives.”

          Journal of Chemical Education 74 (May 1997): 537.

Ross, Lisa Thomson, and Kalman J. Kaplan. “Life Ownership

          Orientation and Attitudes Toward Abortion, Suicide,

          Doctor‑Assisted Suicide, and Capital Punishment.” Omega:

          Journal of Death and Dying 28.1 (1993-94): 17‑30.

Shapiro, Marilyn. “What Do We Teach and How Do We Teach It?”

          ERIC. Online. Worldcat. 22 May 1998.

Torres‑Guzman, Maria E., with Lourdes I. Ivory, Marta Lugo,

          Keming Liu, Victoria Rodriguez, James Rosado, and Elizabeth

          Willaum. “Stories About Differences in a Collaborative with

          Middle School Students.” Theory into Practice 35.3 (summer

          1996): 196‑204.

Tracy. Email to the author. 15 Dec. 1997.

Trey. Email to the author. 14 Dec. 1997.

Werner, Paul D. “A Q‑Sort Measure of Beliefs About Abortion.”

          Educational and Psychological Measurement 53.2 (summer 1993):


Wright, Loyd S., and Robyn R. Rogers. “Variables Related to

          Pro‑Choice Attitudes Among Undergraduates.” Adolescence 22.87

          (fall 1987): 517‑24.

    [1]  The following quotes from abstracts of ERIC documents may also be of interest to the scholar who has both the financial resources and time to investigate the matter of college writing on abortion.  Marcia Baghban, “The Personal Past as Inspiration: Authors Honor Their Life Experiences in Their Stories” (ERIC ED401546), argues that Alice Walker’s “pregnancy and a subsequent abortion…were inspiration for Once, her first published book of poetry.”  Teresa Henning, “Resisting Ethical Paralysis: A Postmodern Critique of Ethics” (ERIC ED384038), attempts to prove that

                        in “After Virtue,” Alasdair MacIntyre shows how arguments about abortion are constructed in such a way as to preclude any discussion; the speaker either forces her audience to accept her premises or labels that audience immoral.

Marilyn Shapiro, “What Do We Teach and How Do We Teach It?” (ERIC ED348689), shows that

                        Students in a freshman composition course at Lawrence Technological University were asked to write responses to Ernest Hemingway’s story, “Hills Like White Elephants”….  [M]ale students did not “dominate” the text any more than females….  Midterm essay responses show that student response, both male and female, draws strongly on the teacher’s explication.  Researchers should focus on how students read both with and without the teacher’s help.

    [2]  Having read Gorman’s text for dissertation work, I find nothing objectionable about his scholarly presentation.  However, if the 1976 edition of Linda Gordon’s book (full title: Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: a Social History of Birth Control in America) is what Englehardt uses, I question how the “historical perspective is enhanced” in a 462-page book which reduces the entire right-to-life movement to the following:

                        In the United States in the 1970s two alternative views of reproductive control have emerged to challenge the liberating emphasis of birth control.  One is the opposition to abortion, the “right to life” movement.  The attribution of human rights to the fetus is not a new idea but repeats nineteenth-century anti-birth-control views which, revealingly, fused abortion with contraception.  Perhaps sperm and ova have rights too.  This is not to deny the existence of real moral issues about life or to deny the reasonableness of a position that fetuses ought not to be destroyed.  But right-to-life advocates do not usually fight for “life” in any systematic way.  As a social force the movement represents not Catholics in general but the threatened Church hierarchy and its right-wing supporters.  Right-to-life forces have generally opposed the kinds of social programs that would make abortion less frequent: child care, sex education, contraception, and so forth.  Right-to-lifers are not usually pacifists, though pacifism is the only over-all philosophy that could make their position on abortion honorable and consistent.  They oppose the specific forms of “killing” that amount to women’s self-defense.  They are reacting not merely to a “loosening of morals” but to the whole feminist struggle of the last century; they are fighting for male supremacy. Often they support it because it is the only system they know which can provide family and social stability, and many right-to-life supporters do not fully understand the implications of their views.  Yet many do understand, too, and even among Catholics many women have rejected the right-to-life position.  Opponents of abortion have been repeatedly defeated at the polls–in fact they have won no elections as of this writing.  Catholic women preponderately support legalized abortion–that is, they support women’s right to choose for themselves.  The right-to-life movement is not a mass movement and it cannot mobilize women in large numbers, particularly not working-class women who need and practice abortion in higher proportion than other women.  Although the antiabortion movement often appears strong in working-class neighborhoods, its leadership is always part of the top-down leadership structure administered through the Church and the political-party machines.  Furthermore, right-to-life groups nearly always line up behind other right-wing causes: support for the Vietnam war, for racist anti-school busing protests, for example.  The right to life is not the issue of abortion; the issue is women’s rights. (415-6)

The reader will have read this huge quote with patience and hopefully will approach today’s students with sympathy (after all, they are the ones who are exposed to such distortions of reality presented as evidence in an academic environment).

    [3]  There is a resentment against religious institutions and principles that can be detected in this article.  The subtle resentment can be found in this summary of the group discussing teenage pregnancy and sexuality:

                        They held assumptions that young girls who got pregnant were “wild” and “morally loose”.  They found out differently.  Their discussions were evidence of their traditional Catholic upbringing.  They held on to the ideas about being a virgin, not having sex before marriage, and wearing a white dress on their wedding day. (199)

A similar negativity to religious principles can be found in research by Biasco and Piotrowski.  Working with 538 college students at the University of West Florida (which they have identified as a “deep south” university), the researchers reiterate several times how surprising it is that students could support certain pro-abortion positions when the South is such a “Bible belt” area (194-7).  These same researchers make no note instead of some more important statistical contradictions, such as that 70.63% disagree with the statement that “abortion is an acceptable form of population control” and that 84.76% agree that “aborting a fetus simply because it is not the desired gender is wrong” (196).

    [4]  The other issues on which the students aligned themselves on that class day (1 December 1997) were: Affirmative action, Animal rights, Birth control, Capital punishment, Censorship, Ebonics, Environment, Euthanasia, Foreign relations, Gay rights, Gun control, Immigration, Ku Klux Klan, Legalizing marijuana, Marilyn Manson, North American Free Trade Agreement, Pornography, Promiscuity, Prostitution, Racism, Sex discrimination, Sweatshops, Welfare, and Women in the military.

    [5]  This group also obtained three other students who were not present on the original day of expressing their preferences: Anne Marie, Danielle, and Rachel.

    [6]  As with the 9:55 class, this group also obtained three other students who were not present on the original day of expressing their preferences: Emily, Patrick, and Tracy.

    [7]  Readers may be curious to know what other issues interested students.  The following other working groups were constituted.  For the 9:55 class, the other groups were: Capital punishment (pro) with seven members; Environmental issues (pro), five members; and Marijuana (pro), five members.  For the 1:10 class, the other groups were: Marijuana (pro), eight members; and Prostitution (pro), six members.  For the 2:15 class, the other groups were: Capital punishment (con), five members; Censorship (con), three members; and Marijuana (pro), four members.

    [8]  It should be stated explicitly that I encouraged students who designated an interest in abortion to further consider taking a viewpoint opposite their own not only for the sake of argument, but also for the purpose of adding further diversity to the position paper which would emerge from the group by playing devil’s advocate.  Not many students took advantage of this opportunity.  Moreover, some students who wanted to adopt an anti-life position listed abortion as a second or third choice and were better “fitted” with another issue.  For example, in the 1:10 class, all four of the students who originally selected abortion adopted a pro-life position which I later confirmed was their own personal position as well.  A similar situation controlled the 2:15 class; in fact, the most vociferous pro-life students of all three classes were those women in this class who selected abortion as their first priority and who themselves were strongly pro-life.

    [9]  I have here in this abbreviated and altered paper only those excerpts which were discussed before the audience at the University of Toronto; the full text of the paper would consume fifty-five pages if it were published.  DOS-rendered versions of all student drafts may be obtained by requesting them from the author at  Finally, although spelling errors and minor punctuation and diction errors have been cleaned up in all student drafts and emails, I have transcribed all student work from the original documents.

    [10]  It is interesting, though, that his written statement “I do not consider the course as a soapbox for me to proselytize about abortion” (368) almost verbatim repeats my own verbal statement to students that “My aim is not to proselytize you to my view on abortion.”

    [11]  As I wrote this complex sentence, I reflected on several occasions where students confided matters to me beyond the classroom.  Sometimes I feel as though I am playing the role of father confessor for my students.  While I can as a fellow human being urge students to seek help for their assorted troubles, I make it clear that my role in the classroom is to be an instructor in English grammar, rhetoric, literature, or business writing.

    [12]  Writing faculty may also find, as I have, that the prompts for the Invent and Respond features may assist students in developing topics for writing, especially by helping them understand the needs of the “audiences” for whom they are writing (themselves, the instructor, and their fellow students).

    [13]  An “official” transcript can be printed by the instructor or student after all members in the conference have logged off, thereby enabling students to see suitable language which can be incorporated in final texts their groups would produce.

    [14]  The Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment for Windows Computers Version 5.3x Instructor’s Guide recognizes the possibility of negative criticism easily turning into flaming when it suggests that

                        Group critique can be very valuable, especially in clarifying which responses are idiosyncratic and which are more widely shared, but it can also present some hard lessons: it’s rough on the ego when a whole group responds negatively to a draft.  There is considerable risk of ego-damage attendant upon using InterChange as a forum for critique, so it is vital both that students understand the necessity of commenting on the draft while respecting their classmates’ feelings and that they monitor their own discourse carefully.  (37)

This caution for “netiquette,” especially if a draft may concern what to some is a volatile issue, should be verbally reinforced by the instructor before any work in the feature is accomplished.

    [15]  Since the composite papers are solely the production of the students, I did not correct the factual error that this language is found in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

    [16]  Although this word is used, the students may have wanted to say “crushed.”

    [17]  Since most students did not specify that they would not object to having portions of their emails published in this paper, I will safeguard their anonymity and cite them in straight alphabetical order in the Works Cited by their abbreviated name as identified at the end of the email.

            One student, Amy, submitted a hardcopy statement, perhaps the most touching portion reading:

                        It is very hard for me to imagine myself or anyone else having an abortion.  My experience with the loss of my pregnancy though a miscarriage showed me how important life is, born or unborn; this is a painful experience mentally and physically.  I have a hard time understanding why someone would deliberately do this to their body.