Right to Life in Literary Theory: the Silence Screams

          Recently, at Kent State University, I had the pleasure of being introduced to a foreign language.  Well, not really a foreign language, but an alien language: English literary theory.  I will be the first to confess publicly–as the other students in the literary criticism class thought–that most of the material discussed was irrelevant, obscure, or offensive.

          However, I came away from the course thinking how grand it is that now I know something of the critical vocabulary needed to tear apart anti-life writing and to bolster the status of pro-life writing.

          Certainly, given the hostility most literary critics have towards the pro-life movement, one would think that established literary criticism would use whatever tools are at hand to promote an anti-life agenda.

          This may indeed be the case.  Literary theorists bring their various approaches to the study of literature to argue for the inclusion of women’s experiences–except that the unborn woman is excluded.  Literary theorists bring their approaches to literature to validate the experiences of marginalized groups in society such as homosexual men, lesbians, minorities, non-Western authors, etc.–a good thing to do, basically.  But pro-lifers who are marginalized by an anti-life media or an anti-life academic power need not apply.

          Pro-lifers, their viewpoints, their writings are left out of the discussion.  The silence that literary theorists heap on our views offended me then when I had to read their works.  The silence burying our issues offends me now.  And now it is time for us to, in true feminist literary critical fashion, speak out.

          While there is a pervasive silence in current literary theories regarding the right to life issues, each of the major contemporary literary theories can be utilized to explicate pro-life truths embodied in our literature.

          I will discuss pertinent aspects of these literary theories and interweave the applicability of the theory to the discussion of pro-life issues in literature.  Since the theories will be presented in alphabetical order, I ask that you think of the acronym CDFMNRS.  Senseless and meaningless, I know…as senseless and meaningless as why theorists would exclude the pro-life view from our literature.

          In the final portion of this paper, I will document specific instances in literature where a pro-life viewpoint can be excavated (a word which I selected after great deliberation).  Moreover, I believe that there is an emerging body of as yet noncanonical pro-life literature.

C is for Cultural Criticism

          The history of Cultural Criticism as a literary theory began with research among the working classes of Britain after the Second World War.  In essence, Cultural Criticism attempts to incorporate surrounding aspects of a work of literature into its appreciation.  While books as textual artifacts are an important element of the culture to be studied, other items in the culture to be studied include videos, photographs, print advertisements, televised commercials, political publications, etc.

          The appreciation of elements in one’s culture is not meant to be a static study.  Regarding Cultural Criticism, the Right to Life movement may have been given its marching orders with the following statement by Jonathan Culler in his essay “Literary Theory”:

                    The desire of many critics and theorists [is] to make literary and cultural criticism politically progressive.  This desire has stimulated work on noncanonical writings, especially those by members of groups that have been oppressed by or within Western cultures….  (217)

I think immediately of Jean Blackwood, who is certainly not part of the official canon–yet, that is, since Blackwood is a pro-life poet, one of those writers who have been marginalized by fellow feminists who, unlike her, are anti-life in philosophy.  Blackwood’s understanding of the forces behind abortion makes us aware of who is oppressed–and who oppresses–within Western cultures.

          Taking a cultural studies approach, we can immediately justify the use of pro-life videos and pictures, as well as written texts, in the study of literature.  All of these texts function to help the student understand a particular work.  The photograph of the nearly 750,000 people who marched on Washington in 1990 should be as iconic as that of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington.  Similarly, The Silent Scream should be as iconic as the famous photograph of the mother who died from her illegal abortion.

          Equally important, the pro-life student reading a particular work which may be hostile to pro-lifers can incorporate into her critique of the work her own cultural artifacts which may disprove the anti-life intent of the author.  An author who tries to convey an image of pro-lifers as uncaring or ultraconservative will have the rhetorical effect of his or her intention frustrated by a student who knows that the opposite is true.  More forcefully, the suasive effect of anti-life writing can be frustrated by the pro-life student who can demonstrate that there are items in the catalog of the culture which show that pro-lifers are caring and may not necessarily all be stereotyped as uncaring political conservatives.

D is for Deconstruction

          To put us in the right frame to understand this theory, let me quote literary theorist Stephen Bonnycastle who claims that “You don’t need deconstruction unless you are feeling oppressed” (90).

          Deconstruction maintains that nothing expressed in language can be absolutely true (Bonnycastle 93).  While deconstruction as a literary theory should not be reduced to mere word play, it does aim to demonstrate how the substantiation and fixed meaning of any term in a text can be replaced by a term in a subordinate position.  Thomas Fink in a recent essay states

                    Deconstruction seeks whatever latent rhetorical or other power may exist in the marginalized term, and this power almost always subverts the centrality of the previously privileged term.  (241)

          The rhetorical games which deconstructionist authors may play in their works conceal a profoundly serious philosophical goal.  Deconstruction wishes to achieve nothing more than the obliteration of presence in Western metaphysics.  Sharon Crowley summarizes Jacques Derrida’s contention by saying that “the metaphysics of presence is a myth, a fiction, a linguistic construct….  In other words, he de-constructs the fiction that is metaphysics” (6).  This is an important mission, without which deconstruction’s further goal of displacing and replacing the objective meaning of specific terms is futile (x).  In opposition to reader-response theories, deconstruction stresses the importance of the text over that of the author.

          Deconstruction seems to me to be a great paralipsis.  If deconstruction is a system where the text is shown to say “something other than what it appears to say”, then this is a contortion of language which leads to paralipsis.  Is this methodology a reading into the text?  Possibly.  However, if deconstruction questions the veracity and stability of each and every word in a text, then we who are pro-life can apply the same methodology to current texts dealing with the life issues.

          Was an author correct in using one word instead of another when describing pro-lifers?  Is the pejorative term used by an anti-life author to describe pro-lifers or a pro-life activity actually the superior term which commands our respect?  Is “picketing”, for example, such an inferior term?  Why?  Why is the woman seeking an abortion not correctly called what she is–mother to an unborn child?

          Finally, if deconstruction aims to subvert the privileged term of binary opposites, then we can work with the privileged terms of the anti-life movement to frustrate the political intent of those terms.  Why should abortion necessarily be linked with “rights” when “wrongs” would be more proper?  Why should the term “fetus” be used negatively as though designating a non-human entity, when it represents merely a stage in a human being’s development?  Our students can be empowered through deconstructive techniques to replace the privileged terms of an anti-life media or literature with the subversive (and correct) pro-life ones.

F is for Feminist literary criticism

          It is this theory which would seem to be the most fertile area in which pro-life academics could argue their case that literature conveys essential pro-life themes.  Those who read feminist literary tracts are, of course, disappointed that protection of the unborn child is not included in the agenda of feminist activists.  It is understandable, however, when one considers that feminist literary theory strives primarily for the validation of women’s experiences, previously neglected by what was perceived as a male-dominated (strictly patriarchal) mode of viewing the world.

          Currently, it seems, the venom spewed forth comes from women who have been oppressed by men and who think that abortion is a means toward their liberation.  Pro-life women are only now having their voices heard.

          Despite efforts to show how feminist studies will aid men in understanding their role in society, an anti-male bias still pervades the theory, evidenced by the extreme concern with not merely sexist stereotypes, but the dominance of patriarchy (which is always considered negatively) in women’s lives.  In fact, Naomi Schor emphatically reiterates this distrust of patriarchy in a recent essay when she shows that research in homosexual male studies “collaborates in feminism’s unveiling of the phallus and the hierarchies it underwrites” (264).  This gives new meaning to the phrase “Hey, fella, your zipper’s down!”

          Schor further argues that “the crime of rape has occupied a central place in feminist theory” (272).  The pro-life professor would ask why abortion, which is at the center of the political hurricane of anti-life feminism, is not as aggressively mentioned as rape of women or rape of the environment (which feminism also chastises in its promotion of environmentally correct principles).

          However, despite some objections to the explication of feminist viewpoints, pro-lifers can utilize specific aspects of the theory.  A Feminist Dictionary can inspire us to create a pro-life dictionary, where words are truly inclusive of all viewpoints, including our own.

          Feminist literary criticism can be used to validate the experiences of pro-life women.  Much of feminism’s experiences are anecdotal and are justified as literature–and correctly so.  Everybody has a story.  Everybody has a right to live.  Everybody has something to say–including pro-life women.

          Therefore, pro-life women should document their experiences and create a body of literature equally potent with (in fact, superior to) anti-life experiences.

          What is it like for a pro-life woman to march outside an abortion clinic knowing that her sisters are passing her by, going inside?

          What is it like for the mother losing a baby by miscarriage to receive a phone call from somebody asking for help to persuade another young mother not to willfully have an abortion?

          I think that the anecdotes of mothers suffering from Post-Abortion Syndrome qualify immediately as vital new forces in the pro-life feminist canon.  The stories of these women may be ignored by social scientists who may have political reasons not to admit that the performance of an abortion has consequences on the body and the psyche of the mother.  These women’s stories, however, cannot be ignored by other women, even anti-life women, because they are real.  Since we pro-lifers have not ignored the accounts of abortions perpetrated by greedy and unsanitary abortionists, then all women–especially anti-life women–should give PAS mothers an equal respect.

          Finally, adopting the view that the right to life position is as liberatory as feminist thinking will eclipse the power of the anti-life faction within feminism.  It is empowering for a student to know that her pro-life beliefs are important.  It is empowering for a student to know that her beliefs have been transmitted through literature for centuries.

M is for Marxist literary theory

          Terry Eagleton, the premier Marxist literary critic, states that

                    Marxism is a scientific theory of human societies and of the practice of transforming them; and what that means, rather more concretely, is that the narrative Marxism has to deliver is the story of the struggles of men and women to free themselves from certain forms of exploitation and oppression.  (vii)

          Marxist literary theory strives for opening one’s consciousness so that modes of production become evident in literature.  Marxist literary theory can assist pro-lifers by helping us explicate what circumstances could possibly operate to permit some mothers to think of abortion as an “option”.  In fact, a pro-life analysis of the means of production within society can help a student understand how some mothers are forced to consider abortion as the only option forced on them.

          Moreover, pro-life faculty can demonstrate another aspect of the anti-life movement, which embraces all three issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.  To what degree do economic motives operate in literature for the killing of an unborn child, a handicapped child, or an elderly person?  We do not need to whip out references in the Wall Street Journal to have our students recognize that abortion is big business.  Carol Everett will tell us that.  We similarly do not need to refer to the Journal to document how the killing of a Down Syndrome child alleviates not so much the physical pain of the child, but the embarrassment of the parents who don’t want to be burdened with a less-than-perfect child.  Of course, our students will understand that the use of the term “burden”, in a Marxist literary sense, always implies a financial aspect.  It does cost money to care for a handicapped child or an elderly person.

          Furthermore, Marxist literary theory focuses on the dominant ideology operating within a work and how the reader can free him- or herself from that ideology.  A point which is frequent in discussion of contemporary literary theory is especially enunciated in Marxist literary criticism.  Often it is what is not said in a work which indicates the dominant ideology which it embodies.  “A work is tied to ideology” Eagleton writes

                    not so much by what it says as by what it does not say.  It is in the significant silences of a text, in its gaps and absences, that the presence of ideology can be most positively felt.  (34)

We can find ample evidence of what is not said on behalf of the pro-life viewpoint in contemporary literature.  More importantly, we can use Eagleton’s words in the above quote almost verbatim to represent the struggle we pro-lifers must engage.

          The key word for Marxism is struggle.  We must struggle to have our pro-life voices heard.  We must struggle to include our pro-life writings for discussion.  It is this theory, with its emphasis on struggle, which I think has the most potential for pro-life literature.  I’m willing to stand or sit corrected on this one.

N is for New Historicism

          In a recent essay, Brook Thomas appropriates a quote from Christopher Lasch who argues that the problem with American culture is not narcissism, but amnesia.  The inability to recall the past history of one’s culture “is a precondition for what has been called a New Historicism” (86).  This theory attempts to reintegrate historical study with explication of literary passages, two elements which were separated by New Critical pedagogy.  This separation, Thomas further argues, “did not provide more solid ground for judgment but led to the deconstruction of all ground for judgment” (99).

          A New Critical approach can be useful; it is certainly fun to have a student squirm over the meaning of a poem without knowing its historical context.  It is the approach of New Historicism, however, which will make our students’ appreciation of literature even richer.

          Thus, if explicating Blackwood’s poem “Generation”, we who are pro-life academics are empowered to parallel the civil rights movement with the first civil right movement.  I will defer specifics of this approach until we examine Blackwood’s poem later.

R is for Reader-response criticism

          As Richard Beach argues, reader-response theories share “a concern with how readers make meaning from their experience with the text” (1).  While Romanticism seemed preoccupied with the status of the author, and New Criticism seemed preoccupied with the text, literary critics are now concerned with how that text “works” for the reader.  Reader-response theories can work for a student, can affect him or her, in five modes: the textual, the experiential, the psychological, the social, and the cultural.

          Those who read Beach’s work will be turned off by his demeaning patriarchal values, his seeming to find sexist meanings everywhere, and his apologetics for being a male, but his thoughts are interesting, especially because they can be useful for pro-life educators.

          This shift in focus to the individual reader is itself a very pro-life concept.  It is appropriate that we affirm the right of the individual to an interpretation of literature.  To emphasize the individual once again is important for another reason.  Within feminist literary discourse, for example, it is proper to speak of a feminist “subject” as opposed to the feminist “woman”.  The feminist “subject” is a combination of the representation of “women” (essence) and “woman” as an historical being.  Similarly, the homosexual “subject” as opposed to the homosexual “man” or “woman” is a construction of the representation of “homosexuality” (essence) and the homosexual “man” or “woman” as an historical being.

          Many of us will not be satisfied with considering our students as “subjects”, the current term which is used by literary theorists in place of the human being who reads a text.  I teach the particular subject of English to particular human beings named John, Laura, Leslie, Omar, Pat, and Scott.  I do not teach the subject of English to other subjects.

          Another aspect of reader-response theories should serve the pro-life movement well.  In discussing Jane Austen’s Emma, Beach considers that which is missing from literary works.  Readers can take issue with Austen’s portrayal of genteel English life at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries in that the lower classes, the ones who work to support the English aristocracy, are rarely presented.  Pro-lifers can similarly ask from a contemporary work, especially if it is anti-life: what’s missing?  Why does Mary Logue omit favorable characterizations of pro-lifers in her anti-life novel, Still Explosion?  Why is no pro-life character sympathetically portrayed?  Why should the pro-life activists in her diatribe be involved in bombing abortion mills instead of, like real-life activists, working for pregnancy support groups?

S is for Structuralism

          As developed from the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralism defines language “as a system that offers you a set of categories for understanding the world” (Bonnycastle 61).

          The first function of structuralism is to designate the polarities operating within a text.  Its attention to paradigmatic elements demonstrates that a work will reference an overriding paradigm; attention to syntagmatic elements in a work helps the reader understand why a particular term in the series of the grammatical construct was used instead of any other.

          Bonnycastle in his In Search for Authority points out that literature has undergone a paradigm shift over the last few decades, much like those discussed by Thomas Kuhn in his work with scientific paradigms.  Dr. Nigel M. de S. Cameron, in his work with medical ethics, demonstrated last night how a shift in the appreciation in and application of the Hippocratic Oath similarly occurred only recently in human history.  Unfortunately, all three shifts have brought about the present situation in academia where absolute truths are doubted.  Bonnycastle asserts

                    Once you become aware of the existence of paradigms and how they influence the way people think about the world, you can see that the `truths’ about the world–about religion, politics, and even science–are not absolute truths; they depend on particular paradigms.  (42)

          The application of structuralist principles can be liberating for the pro-life professor.  No longer are we bound to adopt an anti-life interpretation of a literary text, if we understand the paradigm being used in its formation.  If an author uses a paradigm of a world where women have an absolute right to kill their unborn children, or a world where the elderly have an absolute right to have themselves killed by assisted-suicide, then we can question the literary work which espouses these actions since the absence of absolute rules, according to anti-lifers, do not apply.

Pro-life elements in the canon

          While literary theorists have formed and based their theories on certain works and trends in literature, there should be recognized also the emergence of an increasing pro-life canon.

          The canon of pro-life literature can–indeed must–be constructed archaeologically.  Our work as pro-life educators is truly an excavation: we must first sift through the various theoretical layers covering a text, much like archaeologists uncover an ancient city.  Having sifted through the various theoretical layers, our task is to reaffirm the importance of a literary work.  Literary archaeology is not new.  Naomi Schor states that

                    Woolf undertook through an archaeology of women’s writing to theorize and valorize a specifically female subjectivity and textuality, and that specificity was bound up with the maternal.  (266)

As feminist literary theory was compelled to dig into past literary works to show that women’s writing was not only being produced, but important, so we who are pro-life educators must archaeologically recapture our literature.


          James Fenmore Cooper’s Deerslayer can be viewed by the student as just a weighty novel written in thick nineteenth century language depicting life on the frontier of colonial New York.  It is also a battleground of values concerning what constitutes valued life.  Hetty, described negatively as a “feeble-witted” woman, is further described as one who has been “struck by God’s power” (14-15).  The striking is apparently positive, for Hetty refines the way other characters view life.


          Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter may be viewed in contemporary terms as a prototype of the dysfunctional family, modeled on contemporary sexual values.  A pro-life reader-response application of this novel, however, would have our students identify with Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth as actors in the great drama of a woman who chose a pro-life course of action: giving her baby life in the face of obstacles from her lover, her husband, and her community.  After all, the relief promised and often performed by characters like Mistress Hibbins (a follower of the Black Prince) was available to Hester.  True to a reader-response methodology, our students’ own experiences with single parenthood are validated by the actions of these characters.

          While I am unfamiliar with characteristics of your student populations, I can comment on those of students at Cuyahoga Community College.  According to statistics generated by the College’s Office of Academic and Student Affairs, most students usually entered the college between the ages of 20-24: in 1994, 6,876 students.  The second highest age category is the 25-29 year old age group: for 1994, 4,153 students.  The average age of the CCC student, dominantly a woman, is, due to the general aging of our population, increasing towards the age of twenty-nine years.

          These young women who are either unmarried with children, or divorced, or who have been abandoned by their boyfriends/husbands/lovers can identify with Hester’s situation.  They can come to intellectually understand and, perhaps more importantly, to feel the significance of Hester’s pro-life action.


          George Eliot’s Adam Bede addresses the pro-life issue of infanticide.  Hetty Sorrel is accused of “a great crime–the murder of her child” (389).


          Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy was well aware that in killing his lover, Roberta Alden, he would be responsible for “the death of that unborn child, too!!” (477).  I think that Dreiser’s punctuation was an extra signal to the reader.  Why use that seemingly superfluous exclamation mark?  Of course, the pro-life mind suggests that the exclamation marks represent Roberta and her unborn child.


          Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” does not favor an anti-life position, as though abortion is a positive value in the relationship between the man and the woman.  On the contrary, the abortion is devastating to their relationship.


          John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. similarly depicts abortion as a factor which contributes substantially to the failed relationships not only between union activists Ben and Mary, but also assorted other characters.


          Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion: an Historical Romance 1966 is another text which does not ultimately seem favorable to abortion, since the confusion of the text replicates the confusion in the minds of the characters regarding whether the main character, Vida, should have the abortion.


          Walker Percy’s Father Simon in Thanatos Syndrome is a character with whom all pro-lifers can sympathize.  Set in the future, the world of Thanatos Syndrome has legalized abortion, infanticide (called “pedeuthanasia”; see 333), and euthanasia.  Maybe the best thing to do in such a world is to move beyond political action, beyond education, and, like the good priest given the appropriately-generic name, Smith, hole yourself up in a tower and wait.  Waiting for what is the mystery of Percy’s novel.

Our own additions to the canon

          Moreover, the pro-life canon can be constructed by additions from our own people.

          I think immediately of Stephen Freind’s narratives.  Freind’s God’s Children is a fictionalized account of the passage of the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act.  The copies of the handout you have (page 263 and following) can be a useful tool in the literature classroom.  In this section of the novel, Freind has his main character, Kevin Murray, debate an anti-lifer.  This section relies on ancient rhetorical redefinition to assist the reader in understanding how anti-life terminology has corrupted a language which formerly was pro-life.  This passage illustrates a Marxist literary application of the struggle between a pro-lifer and an anti-lifer extremely well.

          I was fortunate to discover another pro-life author here at this conference.  Carl Winderl of Eastern Nazarene College is able not to compose, but to construct poems on the theme of the right to live.  Besides its mastery of onomatopoeia, I think that “Dead in the Water” can be analyzed from the structuralist perspective quite well.

          I remember when I presented Jean Blackwood’s “Generation” before my fellow students in a Recent American Poetry course.  I wanted to present “a pro-life poem” for this show-and-tell portion of our seminar, hoping to excite substantial discussion not only about the poem, but also the issue.  Of course, except for one openly pro-life fellow student who advocated it, the poem was attacked as either being deaf to the concerns of women who wanted abortion or, in the opinion of the professor, not even “good poetry” after all.  The poem aroused no anger.  Despite the strong opinion of the professor, the supposed discussion which I had hoped would bring out the animal in all my fellow students never materialized.

          Here is Blackwood’s poem which did, however, “generate” silence:

                   Is this the generation

                   That Marched in Birmingham and Selma?

                   That spoke for free speech in Berkeley?

                   That sang of love in San Francisco?

                   That swelled the Peace Corps ranks?

                   Whose hearts responded when he cried,

                   “I have a dream!”

                   Is this the generation?

                   Are these the flower children

                   Who called for peace in Vietnam,

                   For justice for the Indian nation,

                   An end to hatred, prejudice, and war?

                   Are these the flower children?

                   Does it mean the freedom ride is over,

                   When the dream is half fulfilled and half forgotten?

                   When we trade songs for screams and love for violence,

                   Where does the ride take us now?

                   When we put away the agent orange

                   to brandish prostoglandins (sic);

                   When scalpels replace the bayonette,

                   And People’s Park has no children left to play in it…

                   Then, old friends,

                   You are indeed past thirty,

                   Not to be trusted again.

                   Guess I’ll throw in my lot

                   With another generation.  (12)

          While it is beyond me that some in academia schizophrenically advocate certain humanitarian and animal rights causes yet ignore the first civil right to life, Blackwood’s poem is a litany of questionings of an activist of the 1960s who sees through such schizophrenia.  The persona looks at the paradigm presented by his or her own experience of rights and finds that it does not compare with current history; it contrasts.

          I think this poem would most immediately benefit from a New Historicist approach.  Our students, as is supposed to be typical of American students, may not be familiar with things which happened in ancient times–that is, thirty years ago.  Certain elements of the poem’s contrasts will need to be explained (“People’s Park” and “agent orange” for example).

          After settling these historical concerns, students may be made aware of the power of the pro-life message in the poem through a Marxist or a Cultural Criticism approach: the former to delineate the power structures operating in society now, and the latter to encourage questioning regarding why the deplorable situation of killing babies is tolerated when it contradicts civil rights.

          Finally, the pro-life canon can be constructed by the emergence of a pro-life faculty.  Let’s see.  If I finish Ph.D. coursework this summer, learn a foreign language in autumn, take comps in winter, then I’ll be one of those ABDs and can get me a job at a college or university, teaching students about the glories of the pro-life perspective in, on, and through literature.

          Seriously, though, just as the current crop of literature professors reached their positions carrying their anti-life baggage with them, so future professors of English–especially those who are pro-life–will have a chance to apply the archaeological method of pro-life work to literature.  Such pro-life future professors need to be encouraged, certainly; more importantly, they need to be hired.

          Henry Louis Gates, Jr., premiere advocate of African-American signification in literature, recalls that he was once asked, quite seriously, “Tell me, sir, … what is black literature?”  As a partial response to that, Gates stated:

                    It is a thing of wonder to behold the various ways in which our specialties have moved, if not from the margins to the center of the profession, at least from defensive postures to a generally accepted validity.  (289)

We who are pro-life in the academy must ask and answer a similar question: what is a pro-life literature?  The future of our students and the fate of our culture depend on our answer.  If we in the humanities cannot find evidence for the pro-life viewpoint, then what justification can we provide that we are a people who have exercised freedom of choice and chose life?

          Think of the analogy with legislative history and its importance in judicial decisionmaking.  Often courts will not only refer, but defer to legislative histories created while a law was progressing through a legislature.  How much more important is it for us to emphasize the pro-lifeness of our literature?

          I look forward to that time when a pro-life perspective on the canonical works will be as valid an approach as a feminist or a Marxist one.  I look forward even more to the inclusion of what are now noncanonical works by our own poets and authors.

                                                     Works Cited

Beach, Richard. A Teacher’s Introduction to Reader-Response Theories. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993.

Blackwood, Jean. Beyond Beginning and Other Poems. Rolla, Mo.: Low-Key Press, 1982.

Bonnycastle, Stephen. In Search of Authority. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 1991.

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

Cooper, James Fenmore. The Deerslayer. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith, [n.d.].

Crowley, Sharon. A Teacher’s Introduction to Deconstruction. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of  Teachers of English, 1989.

Culler, Jonathan. “Literary Theory.” Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992.

Dos Passos, John. U.S.A. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

Dreiser, Theodore. An American Tragedy. Robert Bentley: Cambridge, Mass., 1978.

Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976.

Eliot, George. Adam Bede. New York: New American Library, 1961.

Fink, Thomas. “Reading Deconstructively in the Two-Year College Introductory Literature Classroom.” Practicing Theory in Introductory College Literature Courses. Eds. James M. Cahalan and David B. Downing. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1991.

Freind, Stephen. God’s Children. New York: Morrow, 1987.

Gates, Henry Louis. “`Ethnic and Minority Studies’.” Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” In Men Without Women. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1944.

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

Percy, Walker. The Thanatos Syndrome. New York: Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 1987.

Schor, Naomi. “Feminist and Gender Studies.” Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992.

Silent Scream, The: an American Portrait Films Educational Presentation. Prod. and dir. Jack Duane Dabner. Narr. Bernard N. Nathanson. Videocassette. Anaheim, CA: American Portrait Films, 1984.

Thomas, Brook. “The Historical Necessity for–and Difficulties with–New Historical Analysis in Introductory Literature Classes.” Practicing Theory in Introductory College Literature Courses. Eds. James M. Cahalan and David B. Downing. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1991.


Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Literature and the Right to Life Issues of Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia

Abstract: This paper identifies six common themes in twentieth-century science-fiction literature concerned with abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.  The paper first identifies abortion references in the various works, most of which are tied to explicitly stated attitudes towards children.  It then examines episodes with reference to infanticide and euthanasia.  The paper analyzes the desacralization of science fiction societies and the tragic endings that occur in the majority of the science-fiction works.  The paper also treats the hope for a better future that these works suggest, often predicated on a need to restore religious values.  Data from the science fiction works are collated in chronological order.

            Exploring how the right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are treated in science fiction literature is a monumental task for two reasons.  First, while science fiction as a genre has now existed technically only for about a century (some scholars date works within the early nineteenth century as falling under the science fiction category), reviewing the number of science fiction works published in the past century alone would make the task burdensome.  Second, science fiction is often catalogued and indexed as works concerned with other traditional categories: alien ventures like Wells’ War of the Worlds, stories involving Earth’s inner space like those of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and space narratives like Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Index entries on the topics of “abortion,”  “infanticide,” and “euthanasia” in standard reference works are rare since compilers may have felt obligated to collate the three categories most familiar to science fiction readers.  [1]

            Moreover, literary critics themselves have sometimes offered anti-life positions which would baffle ordinary readers’ interpretations that the science fiction they purchase or borrow from libraries is more than just “a good read.”  Jessie Givner writes, “In her study of science fiction films, Vivian Sobchak notes that astronomy in popular science fiction narratives is figured through metaphors of birth.  The virginal astronauts of science fiction films are a sign of birth, of impregnation without women” (236).  The political implications are clear; by the end of the article, Givner concludes that “Women and the ways their bodies have historically been controlled constitute the context of the abortion debate.  Women’s bodies are the raw material on which anti-abortion narratives progress and yet that material which those narratives repress” (241).  Similarly, Patricia S. Mann cites “Donna Haraway [who] has suggested that we borrow from science fiction the cyborg image of ‘creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted,’ as a means of portraying some of the peculiarities of women’s lived experiences in the late twentieth century” (138).  The purpose of such appropriation, of course, is ineluctably anti-life:

                        I think a cyborgean understanding of reproduction makes a lot of sense today, and I do not see any other way to secure the ethical confidence of women who choose to have abortions than to adopt this postmodern view of procreation [….]  A cyborgean paradigm of motherhood will provide women with the discursive grounds for ethical confidence in choosing abortion [….] (141, 148)  [2]

            Despite these cataloging, classification, and critical review problems, I claim that a right-to-life perspective on the science fiction genre can help us not only to appreciate the literature more but also to document attacks against humanity in twentieth-century science fiction works.

            While many science fiction titles casually mention the three right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, I will comment on those works which not only mention either one or all of the life issues, but which also portray a larger milieu of an anti-life perspective.  [3]  That is, since it would be anachronistic to say that a novel from 1899 concerns what we would customarily call one of the life issues, what is most important for purposes of this study is whether the creative work illustrates the effects of a view of life where personhood is disrespected.  I phrase it negatively since virtually all science fiction concerned with the life issues do not present a positive view of human life–a world where the unborn are all welcomed, the handicapped newborn are all assisted, or the elderly are all cared for without hesitation.  Granted, literature depicting such worlds where human life is respected may fall more in the category of utopian literature.  Often, even these works which seem to prophesy a utopian world convey a negative view of human life and are thus correctly labelled dystopias.  The line between utopian and science fiction literature is ambiguous since many if not most science fiction works are futuristic.

            Eight science fiction works whose attributes can be discussed in this brief study meet the essential criterion that they present a larger milieu of an anti-life perspective.  Proceeding chronologically, these works span the twentieth century.

            Two of these works date from the penultimate year of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century.  H. G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) depicts the life of Graham, a nineteenth-century man who falls into a coma-like state for two centuries.  Eventually, the Sleeper, as he is called, awakes from his limbo state.  In the twenty-first century Graham finds himself the effective owner of half the world, thanks to wise investment strategies of those who looked after his property.  Unfortunately, the Council which ruled the world in his name has become oligarchic, and Ostrog, a rebel leader, fights with Graham to restore the rights of the lower classes.  E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909) [4] concerns a futuristic society where humans have become subterranean dwellers.  “The Machine” controls everything about the world, but, when Kuno learns that the machine is “stopping,” havoc ensues. 

            Two novels date from the thirties.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) concerns events six hundred years in the future (“After Ford”) when human life is apparently fully mechanized: people are created in test tubes and processed through an assembly line where their traits can be determined to fit the needs of a consumption-based society.  Sexual restraints are eliminated, and the drug soma is available to cure any discontent.  Robert Herrick’s Sometime (1933) involves a society a thousand years into the future which has been depopulated after a twentieth-century ice age.  Society has learned to control reproduction so that only those with permits are enabled to procreate.  Heavily didactic, since it merely reports the pronouncements of Felix, the main character, that the new world of 2998 AD is vastly superior to the twentieth-century world, the novel traces the rediscovery of the major cities and indigenous populations of what was the United States.

            Two science fiction works span the time from World War II to the 1960s.  James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958) narrates events in the life of Fr. Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, who is part of an expedition to the planet Lithia.  The members of the expedition must decide whether the planet can become a port of embarkation for ships from Earth.  William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run (1967) involves a futuristic society run by the Thinker where one must succumb to be euthanized to control population pressures.  One of those destined to be killed is Logan, who, although he hunts those who try to flee their destiny, tries to escape when he himself must surrender his life.

            The final two novels I have selected come from the 1990s.  Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993) involves the adventures of a young man who discovers that the “release” that handicapped newborns and the elderly are given from his “community” involves their deaths.  Mike Resnick’s Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia (1998) describes a futuristic society where Kenyans who desire to live by ancient tribal rules are given their own planet which replicates life on Earth.

            All of these titles address six common themes.  While I will discuss the abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia content of the works (three of the subdivisions which follow), three important philosophical foundations for the events in the plots must also be considered.  I will first discuss the abortion episodes in the various works, most of which are tied to explicitly stated attitudes towards children.  I will then examine the second and third categories, infanticide and euthanasia episodes.  One can argue that the fourth common theme, the desacralization of science fiction societies, would have been a necessary prerequisite before any attack on the inalienable right to life could be made, so I will consider the loss and distortion of religious values next in this presentation.  Doing so helps to establish the fifth common theme, that such desacralization accounts for the tragic endings which occur in the majority of the science fiction works.  The sixth and final common theme concerns the hope for a better future that these works suggest, often predicated on a need to restore religious values.  The subdivisions which follow will collate data from the science fiction works in chronological order.

I.  Abortion and Attitudes Toward Children

            Abortion as a topic seems to be rarely mentioned in science fiction literature.  [5]  However, the instances where it is mentioned are significant, especially since they are couched in larger passages summarizing the attitudes that a particular society has towards children.

            Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes is the first novel to suggest not so much abortion, but the underlying anti-child bias which emerged at the end of the nineteenth century.  Speaking of the aristocratic people of his time, Ostrog says that they only engage in “Vice and pleasure!  They have no children” (199).  Perhaps Wells is commenting on the emerging contraceptive mentality of the late nineteenth century in his fiction instead of discussing abortion.

            Huxley’s Brave New World has one explicit reference to abortion.  The mother of John, one of the main characters, asks Lenina if the “Abortion Centre” is still “down in Chelsea” (102).  The text surrounding this passage presents a more involved attitude toward children.  At this point in the novel, Linda (John’s mother), who had been abandoned by her lover, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, states that having a child was a hardship, but she admits that John “was a great comfort” (104; italics in original).  Of course, throughout the novel (in fact, from the very first page) the reader knows that the “viviparous” way is excoriated in the world of 632 AF (After Ford).  Children are no longer produced with loving mothers and fathers, but from scientific apparatuses which move along their reproductive assembly lines.

            One science fiction work explicitly refers to an extraterrestrial people who may have a positive attitude towards offspring.  Blish writes in A Case of Conscience that the Lithians do not want birth control but fertility control (71).  Even more striking is the finding that even aliens recognize that life begins at fertilization.  Chtexa, the alien who befriends the main character, states that Egtverchi, his child, began “his independent life, as a zygote or fertilized egg” (85).  The attitude of the alien contrasts even more strikingly when a human countess is defined as one with “no children” (120).

            Of course, every population control effort mentioned in science fiction should be interrogated thoroughly not only as expressions of women’s control over their reproductive freedom, but also as evidence that children themselves have been devalued because sexual activity per se has increased in value.  Population control efforts in Logan’s Run reverse such thinking, however, since population control efforts are expressly predicated on the devaluation of the elderly which occurred in that futuristic society.  (It must be remembered that the novel was written in the 1960s, when the youth “revolution” seemed to threaten social stability.)  What is more appropriate for this section, however, is that, except for the most casual reference to “children” who can be frightened by “a story” of “the world’s oldest man” (28), despite the dominance of the young in future culture, there is no significant instance of a baby or child in the novel.

            By the time of the futuristic society in Lowry’s The Giver, social strictures on population have settled the number of children allowed to be born, anticipating Communist China’s forced abortion policy.  The rule is that there should be “two children–one male, one female–to each family unit.  It was written very clearly in the rules” (8).

            Resnick’s Kirinyaga presents an interesting commentary on attitudes toward children.  While the people on the planet of Kirinyaga practice infanticide, the narrator notes that Wanda, one of the immigrants to the planet from the real Kenya on Earth, does not want to have children (120).  This fact of her reproductive choice clearly not only upsets but also shocks the mundumugu, the tribal leader of the planet, who “determines what is right and what is wrong” (167‑8).  It is also a schizophrenic moral outrage to profess, for it is the mundumugu who performs the infanticides.  [6]

II.  Infanticide

            As with abortion, infanticide is not a major topic in most science fiction literature.  Some of the instances where it is mentioned, however, are significant not only for their shock value, but also for vehicles to express the cultural devaluation of newborns which results from the lack of respect for prenatal life.

            Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes alludes to Victorian infanticide.  The striking thing about this allusion, though, is that in the world to which the Sleeper has awakened, the practice of infanticide has been “remedied” not by caring for mothers faced with untimely pregnancies or by correcting economic conditions which would have motivated mothers to kill their newborns.  The twenty-second century’s cure for infanticide is automated nursing (214-5).

            Forster’s “The Machine Stops” reverses the historical rationale by which infanticide has traditionally been justified.  In fact, the work specifically refers to the practice of ancient Spartans who abandoned infants not strong enough to survive on their own, but counters ancient practice by killing those infants who are muscular at birth.  They are killed because muscular infants would not have been happy in the life deigned for them by the Machine.  Significantly, even as late as this work (1947), the vocabulary either had not yet been discriminated or the author himself chose not to: the infanticide of such infants is called “Euthanasia” (100).

            While abortion is not mentioned at all in Herrick’s Sometime, there are infanticide episodes affecting abortion policy in the world of 2998 AD which can more properly be discussed here.  In this future world a permit is necessary for childbearing; in fact, children are loved more because of their rarity.  However, children born of mothers who have not received their childbearing permit are “stillborn” (69); the presumption is that they are all born dead since they are defective genetically or that they are killed before birth.  Thus, while “everybody [is] allowed to be born” (123), “defective births” are killed “painlessly” (126).  If this is true, then the world that Felix claims is vastly superior to twentieth-century life is either patriarchal or severely uneconomical.  Why be squeamish about mentioning abortion when the novel is not squeamish about discussing euthanasia or forced sterilizations?  Logically speaking, why should mothers be forced to bear children who will be stillborn when they could easily abort them?  These errors could be attributed either to the didactic tone of most of the novel or to an obvious logical error on the author’s part.

            The infanticide passages in Lowry’s The Giver are explicit.  Jonas, the main character, is aware that “those who were released–even as newchildren–were sent Elsewhere and never returned to the community” (43), but he does not understand what “release” actually means.  In this excerpt, Jonas is watching a video of his father evaluating male twins, one of whom is inferior to his brother:

                                    Jonas watched as his father bent over the squirming newchild on the bed.  “And you, little guy, you’re only five pounds ten ounces.  A shrimp!” [….]

                                    His father turned and opened the cupboard.  He took out a syringe and a small bottle.  Very carefully he inserted the needle into the bottle and began to fill the syringe with a clear liquid [….]

                                    To his surprise, his father began very carefully to direct the needle into the top of the newchild’s forehead, puncturing the place where the fragile skin pulsed.  The newborn squirmed, and wailed faintly.

                                    “Why’s he–” [….]

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

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

                                    He killed it!  My father killed it!  Jonas said to himself, stunned at what he was realizing.  He continued to stare at the screen numbly. (148-51; italics in original)

            Although it is primarily concerned with tribal racial purity, Resnick’s Kirinyaga contains several infanticide passages worthy of discussion.  The planet Kirinyaga is politically autonomous–the space authority “Maintenance” does not interfere in Kirinyaga activities, and infanticide is openly practiced based on ancient, pre-Christian tribal beliefs.  (This infanticide, however, becomes the basis for the possibility that Maintenance may reevaluate not only the planet’s charter, but also the euthanasia practiced on the planet.)  In one case, a child was born with the “thahu,” a curse, of being born feet first and was thus a candidate for infanticide (21).  Similarly, according to tribal custom, the firstborn of twins must be killed (28).  In language which mimics reasoning distorted by certain intellectuals who claim more rights for animals than humans, the mundumugu asserts that the infanticide is permissible because “the torture of animals as a religious ritual and the murder of a human baby […] are one and the same” (22).

III.  Euthanasia

            While most examples of euthanasia in science fiction works are presented as obvious solutions offered for various problems, some of the references to euthanasia are subtle.  For example, in Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes, once he has slipped into a coma, Graham is described as “sliding slowly, very slowly and tediously, down a long slope, if you can understand me” (16) by others around him.  Significantly, much like contemporary society when a loved one becomes incommunicative, their conversation turns to concerns over money and who will take care of him.  This foreshadowing becomes full-scale euthanasia in the twenty-second century, where the dominant philosophy is that euthanasia is preferable when one is caught in “dreary life instead of speedy death” (144).  Moreover, euthanasia has become a class issue.  By the twenty-second century, a “Euthanasy” is too costly for the poor (190), and this is confirmed later when “the Euthanasy” is called “the rich man’s refuge from life” (192).  Euthanasia is called “convenient” and “is the way to improve the race” (199); in fact, for ordinary people, “their duty–it’s a fine duty too!–is to die” (200).  [7]  As will be repeated in later science fiction which mentions euthanasia, in this twenty-first century world people don’t live to be old because of the availability of euthanasia outlets such as The Euthanasy Company (219).

            Euthanasia is denoted by a variety of literary devices in “The Machine Stops.”  In Forster’s futuristic society people ask for “Euthanasia” (112).  When the world begins to collapse, however, euthanasia becomes “out of order” and “pain had reappeared among man” (115).  This metonym is interesting for two reasons.  First, it indicates the loss of the salvific value of suffering which had occurred by the time of Forster’s futuristic society.  Second, using the metonym suggests that euthanasia had become the cure to any situation of pain instead of the obvious nonlethal means, such as counselling or medicine.

            Huxley’s Brave New World contains more common elements of euthanasia.  The philosophy of this futuristic society is encoded in the rhythmic phrase “ending is better than mending” (41)–used not only in the context of encouraging mass consumption of goods but also in the attitude towards aging.  The Resident World Controller confirms as much when he says that he has no “use for old things” (191).  Children are exposed or conditioned to experience death on special “death days” at any “Hospital for the Dying” such as Park Lane Hospital for the Dying where all who enter are not healed but die (173-4).

            Herrick’s Sometime contains several passages discussing “Lethal Chambers” where euthanasia is performed.  Few people want to be euthanized because “the creative spirit in men” is strong (59), and only a score in five years selected euthanasia (62).  By the time of this future world the lethal chambers have become quasi-religious, since they are also known as “Lethal Temples” (46).  The elderly could choose the Lethal Chamber for explicitly aesthetic reasons: “so that they might not be doomed to unlovely decay and dissolution” (51).  However, a conversation between Felix and Claude, a man headed for the Lethal Chamber, suggests that one of the reasons why some would choose to be killed is a significant weariness of life.  When they discuss the exploration of the New World just emerging from the ice age which buried it in the late twentieth century, Felix is optimistic about the venture while Claude replies with a third millennium version of cui bono: “what of it?” (54).

            As with Forster’s short story above, euthanasia is represented by specific literary figures of speech in Nolan and Johnson’s Logan’s Run where it is called “Sleep” (36).  This use of “sleep” can either be metonymic or a synecdoche.  If a metonym, then the effect of being killed is implied in a term which has a much more positive connotation.  If a synecdoche, then the first step in a futuristic euthanasia process, the slide into unconsciousness (similar to the colloquial sense of euthanizing pets as “putting them to sleep”), is what the reader focuses on, not the end result of killing a human life.

            In Lowry’s The Giver euthanasia is euphemistically called “release of the elderly, which was a time of celebration for a life well and fully lived” (7).  Interestingly, euthanasia is coupled with infanticide: “There were only two occasions of release which were not punishment.  Release of the elderly, which was a time of celebration for a life well and fully lived; and release of a newchild, which always brought a sense of what-could-we-have-done” (7).  When Jonas asks Larissa about the “release” of one man, her account is given in rapturous terms.

                                    “Tell me about the celebration.”

                                    “Well, there was the telling of his life.  That is always first.  Then the toast.  We all raised our glasses and cheered.  We chanted the anthem.  He made a lovely good-bye speech.  And several of us made little speeches wishing him well.  I didn’t, though.  I’ve never been fond of public speaking.

                                    “He was thrilled.  You should have seen the look on his face when they let him go.”

            Jonas slowed the strokes of his hand on her back thoughtfully.  “Larissa,” he asked, “what happens when they make the actual release?  Where exactly did Roberto go?”

She lifted her bare wet shoulders in a small shrug.  “I don’t know.  I don’t think anybody does, except the committee.  He just bowed to all of us and then walked, like they all do, through the special door in the Releasing Room.  But you should have seen his look.  Pure happiness, I’d call it.” (32)  [8]

            Euthanasia on Resnick’s planet Kirinyaga is clearly schizophrenic.  The mundumugu pronounces early in the novel that it is “an act of mercy” to leave the old and the sick out for the hyenas (65).  Later he asserts that “it is our tradition to care for our elders” (156).  A final assertion of the mundumugu is that a person suffering from incurable disease is left “out for the hyenas” (176)–and this is what the reader last remembers on finishing the novel.

IV.  Loss and Distortion of Religious Values

            While the idea of losing religious values is separate from the idea that one purposefully acts to distort religious values, I combine the categories here since most of the science fiction works I am considering merely note the loss of the influence or power of religious doctrine.  Although there are a few science fiction works that place blame on social elements for the collapse of religious beliefs, most simply record the activities of those who misstate religious practices or perform corrupted versions of those practices.

            Christianity survives in Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes, but it is mentioned in connection with other strange sects such as “the Incubus Worshippers, the Furniture Worshippers, and so forth” (141).  Significantly, moral decay followed the collapse of “supernatural religion” (143).  There are some interesting quasi-religious elements in the novel which may further indicate the erosion of the religious basis for this twenty-first century society.  The original Council which supervised Graham’s estate (which, it will be remembered, made him effectively the ruler of half the world) was composed of “twelve men” (145).  The possible allusion to the Twelve Apostles is especially evident when Graham himself is hailed by the lower classes of society not only as “Owner” but also “Master”–another quasi-religious term used to refer to Christ (77).

            Forster’s “The Machine Stops” includes some interesting distortions of religious character traits and values.  Vashti, the mother of Kuno, the main character, reveres the “Book of the Machine” in the same way that some would revere the Bible (91).  An exorcism ritual of bell, book, and candle is revised in this world devoid of religion.  These sacramental distortions occur when worship replaces mere reverence of the Machine (110).

            Huxley’s Brave New World is loaded with instances which distort the religious values which form the basis of respect for life.  The first evidence that religious terms have been distorted (or, in this case, attacked outright) is linguistic.  In the six hundredth year of Ford, the physical nature of parental love and sex and the terms “parents” and “mother” constitute bad concepts and bad words (19).  Anything having to do with the domestic nature of family life is assaulted, not by violence, but by ridicule: “home” is described in horrible terms (30-1), chastity is viewed as a perversion (32), and emotions are to be avoided (36).  Christianity itself is to blame for having “forced [women] to go on being viviparous” (38).  If one does not engage or delight in sexual activity, then he or she is viewed as aberrant.  A little boy who does not want “to join in the ordinary erotic play” is ridiculed (25).  One of the ancient practices of Christianity, asceticism, is reduced to sexual terms by being called “artificial impotence” (58).  Adults who are compelled to participate weekly in quasi-religious services (significantly, they are twelve in number) perform sexually titillating acts reminiscent of an adolescent sleepover: they spank each other in “orgy-porgy” (71).  When they go to New Mexico for a vacation, Lenina and Bernard deride the natives in New Mexico who retain old, despised habits, including marriage and Christianity (87).  Similarly, religious practices of “the Penitentes” are ridiculed (140) because “religious sentiment is superfluous” (204) now that the people in this future world have soma, the drug which cures all negative feelings and frustrated emotions.  In fact, soma is defined as “Christianity without tears–that’s what soma is” (208).

            Felix in Herrick’s Sometime is openly hostile not only to anything American (he excoriates American businesspeople and politicians of the era leading up to and including the Great Depression) but also to Christianity.  The novel identifies the Old World as the “so-called Christian era,” but more frequently as the “Xian era” (3).  In this novel steeped in didactic pronouncements against the capitalist United States of the Depression era, Christ is merely an “enlightened person” who spoke against money (114).  “Religious cults” and “priests” have been displaced by an amorphous “religious impulse in its essence of veneration of life and exaltation of all its ecstacies” (101).

            The status of religion in 2050 in Blish’s A Case of Conscience fares no better.  Thanks to the intellectual role of Jesuits, Rome was probably the “sanest major capital on the planet” because Italy was “least thoroughly entombed” in the economic catastrophe that affected Earth (134).  One of the aliens from Lithia becomes a popular media commentator, and, when he conducts an unscientific poll meant to gauge whether humans are satisfied with their lives or not, he discovers that one-third of people in the twenty-first century “loathed” their own society (153).  The disgust that one third of humanity has for contemporary life cannot with certainty be attributed to the loss of religious values; however, given the focus of the author thus far in the novel contrasting Lithian values to Earth values, such an assumption can be validly asserted.

            Nolan and Johnson’s Logan’s Run presents some interesting dialogue about not only the purposelessness of life, but also the loss of religious values in the future.  One foil character speaks about the meaninglessness of life: “‘There were real issues to fight for then,’ the officer went on.  ‘Liberty, freedom, justice.  Now things have changed.  Now everything comes to us on a platter.  Man’s got nothing left to fight for'” (103).  Another character casually mentions in conversation with Logan that he “used to have religion, used to figure that there was a better place beyond Sleep.  I don’t know anymore.  Really can’t be sure.  I was a Zen-Baptist for awhile, then switched to–” (103-4).  Fortunately, since the technique of abbreviating the dialogue at this point enables the reader to focus on the words just spoken, one can see that Christianity may have lost its mission as a religion broadcasting transcendental values and instead may have become another sect trying to adapt to the then-current popular religious sentiment.  Finally, the novel indicates that the terms and practices of religions have been desacralization in the future world.  “God” is used merely as an interjection (4, 46).  The Sanctuary for those who want to escape their socially-appointed deaths is called “Hell,” and it is explained for the reader as having been “named after the ancient religious concept of eternal punishment” (50).  This apposition is especially interesting because of its ambiguity.  Either Hell is named because the religious concept is not only acknowledged but also in continuous lexical use or Hell is named after a concept that is no longer relevant in the twenty-second century vocabulary.  [9]

V.  Tragic Endings

            An interesting feature of the fiction covered here is that the denouements which end the works are tragic.  The denouements of two of the works illustrate the protagonists escaping the controlled worlds of their respective dystopias (Jonas in The Giver and Logan and his girlfriend in Logan’s Run); these escapes could be construed as a satisfactory if not happy ending.  However, it is not certain that their futures are secure away from their dystopian societies.  Five of the works end tragically, either with the protagonists’ deaths or suicides.  Graham in Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes heroically fights off an invasion of airships and thus defends London, but he dies when his transport crashes into the ground.  He doesn’t die in vain, though.  The presumption is that the invasion by the twenty-second century version of the Armada under control of rebel factions has been crushed.  Perhaps, if Graham is a Christ-figure, then his death is the parallel necessary for people of the future world to have someone to believe in.

            Vashti and Kuno in Forster’s “The Machine Stops” apparently die along with others in their subterranean world once the Machine stopped controlling everything.  John, the sensitive young man who grew up on a New Mexico reservation away from the highly controlled future society, commits suicide at the end of Brave New World.  Felix in Herrick’s Sometime dies at novel’s end, not only because he is over ninety years old (he is often referred to as “the old man”), but also because he is discouraged that the younger generations may be enticed to explore the New World and colonize it just as European explorers did in the fifteenth and later centuries.  As directed by the pope, Fr. Ramon in Blish’s A Case of Conscience begins an exorcism of the planet Lithia which results in its having “melted away” (180).  At the end of Resnick’s Kirinyaga the mundumugu has returned to Kenya because the tribe has abandoned the ancient ways that he tried to compel them to respect.  He vows to ascend Mount Marsabit, where he will die alone.

            Perhaps the tragic endings of these works can be attributed to the negative attitude that science fiction had to contend with since its origin.  While some critics have pointed out that science fiction is generally positive about the progress of scientific advances,[10] many more are cautious about science’s ability to improve human life more than other fields of endeavor.  The first work to illustrate this pessimism against scientific progress was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831) which is more an admonition against human interference in the divine attribute of giving life than it is just an ordinary fright tale.

VI.  Hope for a Better World Based on a Restoration of Religious Values

            Despite the tragic endings of virtually all of the science fiction studied here, these same works offer substantial hope for readers who may be dismayed that a century which gave such political horror to the world has nothing better to offer than more of the same in fiction purported to depict the future of humanity.  [11]  Discovering the hope that science fiction works of the last century offer can be compared to an archaeological dig.  Moreover, I claim that only a right-to-life perspective has the adequate tools to identify life-affirming elements in such literature.  [12]

            Having said this, and having shown how dismal science fiction worlds are regarding the life issues, where is the “hope for a better world based on a restoration of religious values” that I claim in this subsection?  Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes is not all without hope.  When he concludes that twenty-second century society had the same economic conditions of oppression against the poor as the nineteenth century, Graham discovers that “there came to him an irresistible impulse to pray” (148).  This prayer then leads to an impulse of affection for his nineteenth-century roots as well as a reflection on the loss of the family home and, eventually, an epideictic for other elements of his Victorian background.  Soon after, this prayerful attitude and reminiscence of his homeland encourage Graham to exclaim, “Something still remained in life to be fought for” (223).  [13]

            Even though he dies at the end of the novel, Kuno in Forster’s “The Machine Stops” affirms that the “Homeless” people he saw (humans who were expelled to the surface of the earth), still live for he saw them when he once escaped to the surface of the planet (118).  Earlier, Kuno expressed his raison d’etre in language which seems to secularize two concepts of the Nicene Creed.  “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” is transformed by Kuno as “the spirits of the dead comforted me” and “even as the dead were comforting me, so I was comforting the unborn” (102).

            Even Brave New World is not as hopeless as it seems.  When John says “God” (181), it is more than just an interjection, but a moment of epiphany (he discovers that his purpose in life is to bring freedom to people).  This is not an expression of someone who has no faith, whether temporal (in his fellow human beings) or spiritual (in a divine being).  Moreover, it is significant that the plot for much of the balance of the book from this point in the narrative onward seems to have ended.  This later fifth of the novel concerns deep philosophical and religious elements: a discussion of how “high art” was sacrificed for social stability (193), an account of society’s move “from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness” (199), and a lengthy quote from Newman’s discussion about how the love of God compensates for what is lost when one ages (202-4).

            Herrick’s Sometime suggests that not all is perfect in the idealized world that Felix propounds.  There is a restlessness in the young people which cannot be squelched by the perfection of life of 2998 AD.  Several young women want to be mothers, even though Felix declares breeding was “the old loose way, the animal way” to reproduce (14-5).  His control over society is pithily expressed in the admonition that “We’ll ration ’em–or sterilize ’em!” (44).  Felix and others in the upper echelons of society have a fear of humanity; once in the ruins of New York, people on a subway are described as “sweaty evil-smelling humanity” (222).  Despite this, some couples on the expedition decide that it would be romantic to live alone in the Niagara Falls region or among the “Esquimaux” (the Eskimo or Inuit).  Apparently, the perfect world of 2998 AD cannot give the young people what they most desire and which Felix expresses as “the spice of danger in their lives” (297).  Surprisingly, in terms of overt religious practice, devotion to the Virgin Mary survives among the Pueblo people, though it has degenerated into a love for motherhood and for humanity only.

            Blish writes in A Case of Conscience that the adults on Earth “no longer had hopes even for their children, let alone for themselves” (122).  This statement functions as an admonition for the contemporary reader instead of a mere notation of life in that future world.  In contrast, the “pre-Adamic paradise” (69) of the Lithian world houses “a Christian people, lacking nothing but the specific proper names and the symbolic appurtenances of Christianity” (71).  The Lithians hold the interesting idea that, if nothing exists, at least a person will have God (78).

            The philosophical point of Nolan’s Logan’s Run is stated expressly two pages before the end.  Just before he is about to leave for Sanctuary, Logan considers what he would say to Francis, a fellow Sandman:

                        There was so much to say to Francis.  That the world was coming apart, that it was dying, this system, this culture.  That the Thinker was no longer able to hold it together.  A new world would be formed.  Living is better than dying, Francis.  Dying young is a waste and a shame and a perversion.  The young don’t build.  They use.  The wonders of Man were achieved by the mature, the wise, who lived in this world before we did. (131)

            At the end of The Giver, Jonas saves Gabriel, a newborn child about to be euthanized, and leaves the comfort and security of the “community.”  Although he is starving in the wilderness, Jonas ruminates that

                        If he had stayed, he would have starved in other ways.  He would have lived a life hungry for feelings, for color, for love.

                        And Gabriel?  For Gabriel there would have been no life at all.  So there had not really been a choice. (174)

Thus, in Jonas’ syllogism, life preempts any concern for choice, a quite contemporary lesson from a future world for us.

            The novel which illustrates the most connection with a need for religious values, even though they are the most distorted, is Resnick’s Kirinyaga.  The mundumugu is clear that “Ngai is the creator of all things” (1), but his devotion to Ngai is based on extreme racism; in the mundumugu’s estimation, there is a battle between Ngai and “the god of the Europeans” (1).  He despises European culture to the point of boldly proclaiming the hasty generalization fallacy twice: “we [the Kikuyu people] can never become like them [Maasai or Europeans]” (88) and that “there is nothing to be learned from the Europeans” (217).  Hopefully, the illogic of the mundumugu’s statements is obvious to the reader.

VI.  Conclusion.

            My intention in this paper was to perform a literary archaeological dig on certain science fiction works which, in my estimation, form the base on which later science fiction literature rests.  [14]  Of course, the grounds offered here are subject to future research, and I hope that some interested academic or student may accept a challenge to investigate the following two questions.  First, do the premises which form the base of science fiction literature in the early twentieth century support such literature produced post-war and towards the end of the twentieth century?  Second, can it be determined that the early twentieth-century foundations still support science fiction works produced in this new millennium or have they been eradicated in favor of other foundations?  Researching these questions is not merely an academic question, helping us catalog instances of science fiction’s presentation of the life issues, for answering them may help us determine not only how to respond to, but also how to prevent attacks on human life.

                                                                    Works Cited

Bailey, J. O. Pilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and

            Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction. 1947. Westport,

            CN: Greenwood P, 1972.

Blish, James. A Case of Conscience. New York: Walker, 1958.

Brigg, Peter. The Span of Mainstream and Science Fiction: A

            Critical Study of a New Literary Genre. Jefferson, NC:

            McFarland, 2002.

Forster, E. M. “The Machine Stops.” The Machine Stops and Other

            Stories. Ed. Rob Mengham. Abinger Ed. of E. M. Forster 7.

            London: Andre Deutsch, 1997. 87‑118.

Givner, Jessie. “Reproducing Reproductive Discourse: Optical

            Technologies in The Silent Scream and Eclipse of Reason.”

            Journal of Popular Culture 28:3 (1994): 229‑44.

Herrick, Robert. Sometime. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1933.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1932. New York: Time Reading

            Program, 1963.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Introduction.” The Norton Book of Science

            Fiction: North American Science Fiction, 1960-1990. Eds.

            Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery. New York: W. W.

            Norton, 1993. 15-42.

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

Mann, Patricia S. “Cyborgean Motherhood and Abortion.” Provoking

            Agents: Gender and Agency in Theory and Practice. Ed. Judith

            Kegan Gardiner. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995. 133‑51.

Milner, Joseph O. Spiritual and Ethical Dimensions of Children’s

            Literature. Mellen Studies in Children’s Literature 2.

            Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen P, 2001.

Nolan, William F. and George Clayton Johnson. Logan’s Run. New

            York: Dial, 1967.

Perrin, Noel. “Science Fiction, Imaginary Worlds and Real-Life

            Questions.” The Conscious Reader. 5th ed. Eds. Caroline

            Shrodes, Harry Finestone, and Michael Shugrue. New York:

            Macmillan, 1992. 601-5.

Randall, David A, Sigmund Casey Fredericks, and Tim Mitchell,

            eds. Science Fiction and Fantasy: An Exhibition Compiled by

            David A. Randall, Sigmund Casey Fredericks, and Tim

            Mitchell. Bloomington, IN: Lilly Library, Indiana

            University, 1975.

Resnick, Mike. Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia. New York:

            Ballantine, 1998.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: Complete, Authoritative Text with

            Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and

            Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. 1831.

            3rd ed. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Case Studies in Contemporary

            Criticism. Bedford Books of St. Martin’s P, 1992.

Sofia, Zoe. “Exterminating Fetuses: Abortion, Disarmament, and

            the Sexo‑Semiotics of Extraterrestrialism.” Diacritics: A

            Review of Contemporary Criticism 14.2 (1984): 47‑59.

Tilton, Lois. “Strangling the Baby: Cultural Relativism in Mike

            Resnick’s ‘Kirinyaga.'” Rev. of Kirinyaga, by Mike Resnick.

            New York Review of Science Fiction 9 (1989): 11-2.

Wells, H. G. “A Story of the Days to Come.” 1987. The Science

            Fiction Century. Ed. David G. Hartwell. New York: Tom

            Doherty Associates, 1997. 58-111.

—. When the Sleeper Wakes. 1899. Intro. Orson Scott Card. New

            York: Modern Library, 2003.

Wolmark, Jenny. “Cyberpunk, Cyborgs and Feminist Science

            Fiction.” Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon. Ed.

            Susanne Fendler. Women’s Studies 15. Lewiston, NY: Edwin

            Mellen P, 1997. 139-79.

                                                                Works Consulted

Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories Edited by Harlan

            Ellison. Ed. Harlan Ellison. Garden City, NY: Doubleday,


Anderson, Craig W. Science Fiction Films of the Seventies.

            Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1985.

Classic and Iconoclastic Alternate History Science Fiction. Eds.

            Edgar L. Chapman and Carl B. Yoke. Lewiston, NY: Edwin

            Mellen P, 2003.

Cobbs, John L. “Alien as an Abortion Parable.” Literature/Film

            Quarterly 18:3 (1990): 198‑201.

Ellison, Harlan. “Croatoan.” Strange Wine: Fifteen New Stories

            from the Nightside of the World. New York: Warner, 1978. 31-


Golden, Kenneth L. Science Fiction, Myth, and Jungian Psychology.

            Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen P, 1995.

Gotlieb, Phyllis. “Tauf Aleph.” The Norton Book of Science

            Fiction: North American Science Fiction, 1960-1990. Eds.

            Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery. New York: W. W.

            Norton, 1993. 427-44.

Gunn, James E. This Fortress World. New York: Gnome P, 1955.

Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: G. P.

            Putnam’s Sons, 1961.

Lanier, Sterling E. Hiero’s Journey: A Romance of the Future. New

            York: Ballantine, 1973.

Miller, Walter M. A Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: Bantam,


Percy, Walker. The Thanatos Syndrome. New York: Farrar, Straus

            and Giroux, 1999.

Silverberg, Robert. “Good News from the Vatican.” The Norton Book

            of Science Fiction: North American Science Fiction, 1960-

            1990. Eds. Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery. New York:

            W. W. Norton, 1993. 242-9.

St. Clair, Robert N. Literary Structures, Character Development,

            and Dramaturgical Scenarios in Framing the Category Novel.

            Studies in Linguistics and Semiotics 18. Lewiston, NY: Edwin

            Mellen P, 2004.

Vanishing Acts: a Science Fiction Anthology. Ed. Ellen Datlow.

            New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2000.

Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. 1895. Seven Science Fiction Novels

            of H. G. Wells. New York: Dover, 1934.

Wilhelm, Kate. The Infinity Box: a Collection of Speculative

            Fiction. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

    [1]  The following sources may be helpful as general guides to themes discussed in science fiction works: J. O. Bailey’s Pilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction (originally published 1947 and reprinted 1972), Peter Brigg’s The Span of Mainstream and Science Fiction: A Critical Study of a New Literary Genre (2002), and Science Fiction and Fantasy: An Exhibition Compiled by David A. Randall, Sigmund Casey Fredericks, and Tim Mitchell (1975).

    [2]  Zoe Sofia boldly claims that “Abortion maintains reproductive potential in individuals and populations, and is of far less consequence than nuclear war, which would represent an irrevocable choice against life’s continuance” (48).  She is unable to see that abortion itself is “an irrevocable choice against life’s continuance.”  A more bizarre reading in erudite and deconstructed language that would baffle many science fiction readers unfamiliar with the lexicon of contemporary anti-life feminist criticism follows this moral blindness.  Speaking of the Star Child in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sofia further claims that

                        This extraterrestrial embryo is a perverse and misleading symbol whose engaging organic appearance invokes maternal fertility and belies its origin in the unholy union of man with celestial powers and the tools he’s brought to life out of the excremental remains of his cannibalized mother, the planet Earth. (52)

    [3]  Only three of the works I will discuss explicitly mention the life issues “infanticide” and “euthanasia” (Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” Resnick’s Kirinyaga, and Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes).  That these works mention these issues may either indicate that modern literature became more comfortable with using the terminology or that the adoption of one position of disrespect towards a class of human beings can lead to another form of disrespect.

    [4]  The original publication date of the story is 1909, but the edition that I use has commentary on the collected short stories by Forster himself, dated 1947 at Cambridge.

    [5]  I find it curious that abortion is not explicitly mentioned, even when feminist authors’ works are discussed.  For example, Peter Brigg notes that “Many other feminist writers (such as Ursula Le Guin, Joan Slonczewski and Marge Piercy) have found in science fiction itself a place to explore their positions” (185), but abortion apparently is not one of them worthy enough to be indexed as a major element in their work.  Similarly, Ursula K. Le Guin mentions “social science fiction” and discusses women’s fiction in a section of her introduction called “Woman and Other”, but the life issues are not mentioned (36).  Finally, Jenny Wolmark claims that “the feminist science fiction being published in the 1970s was informed in particular by contemporary political debates about women’s rights that were generated by the women’s movement” (139).  If this is true, then abortion is not one of those issues.  In fact, Wolmark’s discussion of traditional feminist terminology demonstrates that abortion could hardly be a possible scenario for fiction involving “a community of women which has the capacity to make and remake itself” (170).  Feminist science fiction, adopting her estimation, is more concerned about self-creation than the destruction of unborn human life.

    [6]  Lois Tilton clearly identifies the moral conflict in the novel when she writes

                        The dilemma in “Kirinyaga” is this: if relativism is correct, then Koriba’s [the mundumugu’s] ritual infanticide is morally justified and must be tolerated.  But if infanticide is absolutely intolerable, Maintenance has the obligation to violate the Kikuyu right to moral self-determination, a right which Maintenance, not the Kikuyu, considers universally valid. (12)

    [7]  The tone of the embedded independent clause could be read in two ways.  Thus, if the speaker means to praise the poor for dying, then “their duty” is truly “a fine duty.”  If the speaker is being ironic, then asserting that “it’s a fine duty too!” can be read as exacerbation against those who assert such a proposition (especially heightened with the exclamation point).

    [8]  Perhaps the oddest phrase in this passage is “let him go”, as if the individual who is the victim of state-sanctioned euthanasia is pleading for release from life when the opposite is the case.

    [9]  Some other religious concepts are suggested, but the religious value of the terms have been desacralized.  A fellow Sandman, the ones responsible for hunting those who want to escape their “Lastday” of life, is named “Francis”, and his job of killing people who try to escape their Lastdays starkly contrasts against the association connected with Saint Francis.  Similarly, Sanctuary is doubly desacralized; it is called Hell by one character, and the reader comes to understand toward the end of the novel that the Sanctuary that Logan seeks is not a religious place but a space station around Mars.  Perhaps, however, there is further irony that the place of sanctuary is in space, in “the heavens”.

    [10]  See, for example, J. O. Bailey’s summation of what he categorizes as the “optimistic idea” that science will “develop tremendously”:

                        A hundred years of progress in science and invention proceeding at an accelerated pace toward horizons that are constantly receding leaves little room for doubt that science and invention will continue toward some development now unheard of.  At least no such doubt appears in scientific fiction, except in a few pieces in which men wilfully halt invention when it becomes dangerous.

Bailey wrote this in 1947, so his final statement at the end of this paragraph may be more telling:

                        It is possible that the latest major product of science, the atomic bomb and the probable development of atomic power, will prove to be the long-predicted agent of revolutionary change. (296)

            Joseph O. Milner identifies the approaches to science fiction as either meliorist or Spenglarian:

                        “To boldly go where no man has gone before” is the questing oath of the [Star Trek] series; it suggests a courage and a hope that new worlds will be better world.  This is the meliorist worldview [….]  The worldview or rhetoric that shines through [Dr. Who] says there is no progress; everywhere we tread, there is a throwback to the dark ages.  Things get worse, if anything.  This is the Spenglarian worldview. (11-2; italics in original)

    [11]  Noel Perrin claims that there is a more didactic purpose to science fiction than we may think.  Few of us read philosophical treatises.  Thus, “science fiction,” Perrin argues,

                        immensely sophisticated about technology, has stayed naive about metaphysics–naive in the sense that most science fiction writers continue to suppose that questions of value can be meaningfully discussed [….]  It is where you go in literature if you want to hear people openly and seriously talking about meaning, and especially meaning in a world increasingly made and controlled by ourselves. (602)

    [12]  Compare, for example, the perspectives of other literary theories.  Deconstruction aims to demonstrate that a text subverts its own meaning, even that which the author may have wanted the reader to derive.  Feminist theory focuses either on emphasizing how women’s writing is different from men’s writing or on patriarchy at work (both being negative projects, the former especially since the presumption is that men’s writing is necessarily more aggressive than that of women).  Marxist criticism seeks to expose power structures embedded in ideological bases on which the literature rests.  While the other theories are omitted here for brevity, I can argue that the dominant theories in the academy are biased against positive, life-affirming discoveries.

    [13]  The idea that there is something worth living or fighting for was mentioned in Wells’ short story, “A Story of the Days to Come” (1897), preceding When the Sleeper Wakes by two years.  In this short story Denton, the leading male character, asserts that “there is so little in life that is worth being violent about” (68).  Of course, Denton is fighting for the right to marry Elizabeth, his girlfriend, but his statement is indicative of the plight of mankind in the twenty-second century.

    [14]  I would like to thank participants at the University Faculty for Life conference held at Ave Maria School of Law, where this paper was presented on 4 June 2005, for their conversation in the question-and-answer session which followed.  Many more items of science fiction literature affirming life–television episodes and film sequences, mostly–could be added to this study.  Their recommendations indicate that the bases which I have identified here can be supported by many more examples from the popular culture which we can then transmit to our students.


Technological Aspects of a Pro-Life Bibliography

[slide two]  Background of the pro-life bibliography and website

The basis for this paper was my 2013 presentation before the annual conference of University Faculty for Life held at the University of San Francisco.  Since writing an academic paper for any conference takes about a year’s worth of reading, annotating, research, draft writing, and perfecting the paper and any accompanying material (such as a PowerPoint), I began thinking about the paper that I wanted to present before UFL in the summer of 2012.  Specifically, what more could an English professor say about the life issues in grammar, rhetoric, or literature that had not been said before?  This crucial first step in writing a paper, what students know as the planning stage, began a year-long investigation into an essentially bibliographic study.  That is, I thought, first, that it was time for the pro-life movement to consider that it had a body of literature as substantial as that of any other social movement and, second, that someone had to begin the discussion of what literature in the movement was crucial for younger generations to study.  The 2013 UFL paper, titled “Anthology of Right-to-Life Literature: Establishing the Canonical Maturity of a Vibrant Social Force”, coalesced this thinking about the movement’s literature.

Another factor made the establishment of the pro-life anthology and the eventual creation of the LifeLit Institute website more imperative: many of the first generation pro-life activists were dying, and the frightening thought occurred that many younger activists might not become aware of their contributions.  [slide three]  People should not forget Nellie Gray (1924-2012), the founder of the March for Life; [slide four] Barbara Willke (1923-2013) and Dr. Jack Willke (1925-2015), customarily called the founders of the pro-life movement; and, most recently, [slide five] Phyllis Schlafly (1924-2016), to whom can be credited the Republican Party’s shift from anti- to pro-life values.  The significant contributions, activities, and writings that these pro-life pioneers and others generated for the right-to-life movement must not be forgotten.

Establishment of the LifeLit Institute website

          Fortunately, as every student and researcher knows, a paper does not end a research project; it begins it.  The research begun in 2012 and what was written in 2013 were merely the beginnings of a project that has now taken four years.     The chronology since the 2013 presentation is simple.  For that presentation, over 300 titles were obtained by scouring for books written from a pro-life perspective on the life issues.[1]  In 2014, while attending another UFL conference, this time at Fordham University in New York, David Mall and I had the opportunity to visit the Dr. Joseph R. Stanton Library under the jurisdiction of the Sisters for Life.  The massive quantity of pro-life materials held in the Stanton Library were, first, overwhelming, and second, inspiring.  The collection elicited the first reaction since I could see that several persons would be needed to work for weeks, if not months, to catalog or at least inventory the material.  The collection was inspiring, since working on cataloging the material would be any bibliophile’s delight.  The massive amount of pro-life literature and artifacts in the Stanton Library further motivated me to implement the recommendations made in the 2013 paper.

Unfortunately, various considerations made the use of already existing Internet-based library services impossible or unlikely.  For example, at one point I thought that merely creating an account on would be sufficient to catalog the pro-life materials.  [slide six]  In a 7 July 2014 email,Rosanna M. O’Neil, Senior Library Services Consultant at OCLC, replied to my query about the propriety of creating an individual vs. a corporate profile on the system thus:

While OCLC is a non-profit membership organization, we don’t offer memberships per se, but rather through subscribing to our cataloging service, what we call “holdings” (a five-letter symbol) are added to existing titles in WorldCat or new records are added if the items are considered unique.  Through the cataloging service the titles held by a member are findable in our database to others that subscribe to it.  If was your goal, that would require another subscription as well, WorldCat Discovery, whose price is around $2,600/year.  You would need to consider that in addition to the cataloging subscription.  OCLC is for libraries and cultural institutions rather than individuals.

Adding material on WorldCat, therefore, would be neither cost effective nor ethical.  Ineluctably, I had to consider creating my own website for the express purpose of implementing recommendations in the 2013 paper.

In 2015, I resolved several questions about establishing a website to house bibliographic data on core and additional recommended works of the pro-life movement.  Should the website have a personal address, as a dot com?  The answer was obvious: no.  The site should focus be on the authors’ works, not on the personality of any manager of such a site.  Should the website be independent or created in collaboration with another pro-life entity?  The answer to this question was bifurcated.  Answering no meant that I would have to learn as much as possible about html, web terminology, and various software programs in limited time.  Answering yes was much more feasible.  Thanks to LifeTech, I could maintain the independence of the site, benefit from the professionalism of LifeTech experts, and feel philosophically assured that the people with whom I would work have the same life-affirming values.

Some speculation is necessary here about the psychology involved in establishing a website, specifically how scary an action it is.  Even with the assurance that I would work with pro-life persons, the mere act of buying a domain name for the site was intellectually and emotionally difficult.  Buying a domain name is not like buying any other commodity.  When one buys a domain, one commits him- or herself to do something on the Internet, and this quasi-contractual act implies a commitment to present and maintain material which must be not only interesting and educational, but also reliable, accurate, and beneficial to other human beings.  I remember that I took several months exploring these considerations before buying the domain name.  Eventually, all concerns and temerity aside, on 21 July 2016, the domain for LifeLit Institute was purchased through[2]  [slide seven]  After many hours in two in-person meetings in Dayton and several more hours in Skype meetings, John O’Neill of LifeTech was instrumental in guiding me through Joomla, the service which creates web content.  Basic work began on the site on 6 August 2016; all twenty-four core bibliographic works were added to the site two days later.  The remaining over 300 titles on the original list from the 2013 paper were added on 23 and 25 September 2016.  Bibliographic data will be continuously added.

Template language on the site

          [slide eight]  Thanks to the collaboration of Paul Pojman, who, given his forty years’ experience in Library Science, manages the website with me, the twenty-four monographs called “essential works” in the 2013 paper became “core recommended works” so that the remaining over 300 books researched for the 2013 paper could be designated as “additional recommended works.”  Nomenclature such as “ancillary”, “background”, and “supplementary” all implied an inferior status to the remaining works, a posture which I wanted to avoid since the entire collection is designed to promote pro-life works in general.  It was decided that permalinks to library location holdings identified by should be provided in the Review section of each bibliographic record, the sample wording preceding the URL being “Availability for this book can be found at.”

          [slide nine]  Template language was established not only for uniformity within the bibliographic entries, but also to standardize punctuation; for example, no semicolons are placed after the main title since that punctuation mark would affect search results.  One problem became apparent almost immediately, given the sameness of main titles in many pro-life works.  The Willkes’ 1985 work Abortion: Questions and Answers had to have the subtitle on the main title line since the alias provided by Joomla (“abortion”) was already in use.  The author field for the bibliographic information can present significant challenges.  For example, the “Daughters of St. Paul” are identified as both an author (specifically, a corporate author) and an editor.  This is the case for their 1984 work, Pro-Life Catechism: Abortion, Genetics, Euthanasia, Suicide, Child-Abuse (where they are the corporate author) and for their 1977 title, Yes to Life, where they are identified on the book itself as the editors.  A more philosophically complicated author example is that Michael Tooley is listed as the author of Three Perspectives; he is anti-life, but two of his co-authors are pro-life.

          The notation for photo credit for the monographs’ images became “Image credit:” followed by the name of the source (,, etc.).  Availability and image credit information is not placed in the Note field, since that information would not appear on the site; thus, availability and image credit data is placed in the Review box.  When obtaining images for the various works, using the “Copy image location” option is best.

[slide ten]  Specific ethical issues

          Beyond these administrative problems, which are relatively easy to resolve by Library Science standards, there were some specific ethical issues, three of which are illustrative.  First, should a work be included on the site if the author or editor is pro-life, yet the title is anti-life?  This is the case for Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche’s 1920 treatise Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life, which was seminal in Nazi ideology.  The work was reprinted in 1992 by the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent & Disabled, a pro-life group.  (This title is on the site.)  Second, is it ethical to list a title if the author is not known to be pro-life?  Martin S. Pernick’s 1996 work, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915, is a scholarly study, supporting a strong life-affirming message against infanticide.  (This title also has been added to the site; as of 9-25-16, no message has been obtained suggesting that the book should not be included.)  Finally, is it appropriate to list a title if the author is known to be pro-life but may not wish to be identified as such?  This is not a matter of cowardliness, but professional anxiety.  That is, a pro-lifer who has published research work on aborted mothers’ health may want to have his or her work known not as that of a pro-lifer within an admittedly strong anti-life profession, but simply research work on aborted mothers’ health.  Similarly, a pro-lifer in the legal profession may not want to have his or her work identified on a pro-life site if that entry may preclude him or her from legal advancement, the legal profession being as notoriously anti-life as its social work or academic counterparts.  (Email confirmation has been obtained from the author of the study on aborted mothers’ health to add the title to the site.)

Despite these challenges and problems, the LifeLit Institute site can be a valuable resource for pro-life activists, scholars, and students.  At this time, I would like to highlight some of the site’s features and how it works.  [slide eleven]

[slide twelve]  Future activity and projects

          Of course, much more work needs to be done on the site.  Like an architectural work, the initial frame has been established, although that may change as the load of information increases the cyber “weight” of the site.  Ongoing maintenance will require work from the current managers and their successors, yet unknown.

          Some specific projects include the following.  Ongoing site maintenance means adding not only more titles, but also more reviews of the over 300 titles originally identified as pro-life works.  This means finding qualified writers to review the works, whether academics, professional writers, or other knowledgeable persons with writing credentials.  If permission can be obtained from the Sisters for Life, another project may involve adding the holdings of the Dr. Joseph R. Stanton Human Life Issues Library and Resource Center in New York.  As I mentioned above, this library has not obtained as much publicity or use since its establishment; perhaps adding the holdings to the LifeLit Institute site will advance the educational efforts of that institution.  If adding holdings from the Stanton Library is successful, then the possibility exists that adding holdings from other pro-life groups could occur.

A constant future activity involves determining how the site can assist pro-lifers in their work.  Granted, today’s students (and, yes, even today’s professors, both young and old) do most of their primary and secondary research work on the Internet.  Does this site assist them?  How can it be improved?  Finally, other projects may require attention as time progresses and as the existence of the LifeLit Institute site is publicized.

          Usually, as most students know, when a source appears the first time in a work, that source is introduced to the reader with a sufficient apposition so that the reader knows either the credentials of that source or, if it is an organization, its purposes.  I would like to close by reversing that well-known axiom of writing since the organizing principles of the LifeLit Institute coincide with the reason why this English professor is delighted to speak before a technical audience.  [slide thirteen]  To quote the opening paragraph of the LifeLit Institute site itself:

The major purpose of the LifeLit Institute, a non-profit research entity, is to manage the anthology of pro-life literature so that the general reading public, scholars, and students come to know and to appreciate the significant body of literature created by the Right-to-Life movement since the 1960s.  It is the managers’ hope that this site will maintain and promote this literature for the benefit of all.  [slide fourteen]

[1] is an online service which contains bibliographic information on materials catalogued by OCLC, a company based in Dublin, Ohio (north of Columbus).  WorldCat allows viewers to locate libraries within their areas which have materials they wish to interlibrary loan.

[2] At $19.99 a year, the cost for this site is 130 times less expensive than subscribing to OCLC.


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

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

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

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

          [slide two]  This paper consists of three major sections.  The first section identifies foundational principles of art aesthetics from a Catholic perspective, consistent with St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists (1999) which demonstrates how Catholic art aesthetics comports with and distinguishes itself from secular aesthetics.  The second section examines specific paintings by Smith which represent an artistic consideration of the life issues.  Expansive commentary will be provided on three representative paintings: Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome, which comments on abortion (1988), Femicidal National Organization Woman’s Planned Parentless Selfish Movement, which applies to infanticide (1989), and Killer Caduceus, which can be interpreted as applying to euthanasia (1987).  The final section of this research will evaluate how the paintings comply with St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists.[2]

When contemporaries hear the word “icon”, they invariably think of its technological denotation.  It is telling that the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers as the first definition of the term “a graphic symbol on a computer display screen that represents an app, an object (such as a file), or a function (such as the command to save).”  It is as equally telling that a severely-restricted definition of the ancient understanding of the term occupies fourth position in the dictionary: “a conventional religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel and used in the devotions of Eastern Christians.”[3]  [slide three]  The history of the term may have moved chronologically from the ancient Greek world to Byzantine icons to, with the advent of film technology, images of favorite actors, such as Gloria Swanson, or historical events now captured as iconic images[4], such as the Madonna-like image of the Kent State shootings.  More importantly, though, each of these representations not only creates emotions in the viewer, but also stimulates one to action—whether silent prayer or vocal or otherwise discrete activity of a social justice kind.

[slide four]  The pro-life world, also, has its accumulating collection of art work which is iconic.  The pro-life catalog begins with Mary Cate Carroll’s painting/reliquary American Liberty Upside Down (1983) and advances to The Silent Scream ultrasound made famous by Bernard Nathanson and the monograph written by Donald S. Smith, elaborating the film (1984).[5]  Commentary about these art works can be found in many sources, such as published papers from University Faculty for Life conferences,[6] and need not be repeated here.  The work of T. Gerhardt Smith should be considered the newest addition to the pro-life artistic canon; the three paintings specified above can be appreciated as pro-life contributions to illustrate problems created by abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

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

While the vocabulary of art aesthetics from a Catholic perspective is built on ancient Greek and Roman principles in terms of seeking truth, goodness, and beauty, Christianity brings several clarifying ideas to the study of what constitutes art.  One cannot view either the embryonic[7] art of the Migration Period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire or the full flowering[8] of magnificent Renaissance or Baroque paintings and sculpture and not perceive the Christian appreciation of the human body as good, or God’s creation as beautiful, or the underlying ideas of the art work about human nature or divine teaching as true, just as the ancients would have perceived the proportion of the Parthenon or any Praxiteles sculpture as manifesting not only correct principles of design, but also commentary about what is true, good, and beautiful.  The Christian development of ancient art aesthetics, however, clarifies those principles in several respects.  St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists encapsulates these principles, nine statements from which I will highlight to advance the appreciation of Smith’s works.

          [slide five]  John Paul II begins his Letter to Artists with a most interesting phrase, “new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty” which suggests that contemporary artists are the ones “who are passionately dedicated to the search for” new manifestations of beauty.[9]  Thus, while we may still value Renaissance and Baroque paintings, the pope maintains that contemporary artists are the ones who are open to expressing their ideas about the true, the good, and the beautiful in completely new forms.  This is not a new axiom of art aesthetics; what we call modern art has aimed for “new ‘epiphanies’” since the mid-nineteenth century, just as the Renaissance was considered a new approach to art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to physiological research with the effects of colored lights, red wavelengths stimulate the heart, the circulation, and the adrenal glands, increasing strength and stamina.  […]  Yellow light is stimulating for the brain and nervous system, bringing mental alertness and activating the nerves in the muscles.  Green lights affect the heart, balance the circulation, and promote relaxation and healing of disorders such as colds, hay fever, and liver problems.  Blue wavelengths affect the throat and thyroid gland, bring cooling and soothing effects, and lower blood pressure.  (41)

          The authors then elaborate on the psychological effects of color.

Psychological literature is full of attempts to determine how specific colors affect human health and behavior and how best to put the results into effect.  […]  Bright colors, particularly warm hues, seem conducive to activity and mental alertness and are therefore increasingly being used in schools.  Cooler, duller hues, on the other hand, tend to sedate.  (42)

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

are affected by color energies in ways that transcend seeing.  One hypothesis is that neurotransmitters in the eye transmit information about light to the brain even in the absence of sight, and that this information releases a hormone in the hypothalamus that has numerous effects on our moods, mental clarity, and energy level.  [Furthermore,] colors that seem to increase blood pressure and pulse and respiration rates are, in order of increasing effect, red, orange, and yellow.  (42)

          Zelanski and Fisher identify standard connotations of various colors in Western culture over several pages: black symbolizing death; red “associated with the color of blood, as well as with fire, warmth, brightness, and stimulation” and anger; and gray with “independence, separation, loneliness, [and] self-criticism” (43-48).  They judiciously end their examination of emotions associated with various colors by noting that “The actual emotional effect of a specific color in an artwork depends partly on its surroundings and partly on the ideas expressed by the work as a whole.  To be surrounded by blue […] is quite different from seeing a small area of blue in a larger color context” (49).

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

          Perhaps the most striking thing about this painting is the gaze of the subjects.  The mother is looking downward, and it is a psychological maxim that a viewer would feel or be comfortable looking at her since the gaze of sorrow would be avoided.  The child, however, is looking directly at the viewer.  Who gets the viewer’s attention, therefore, is entirely subjective, depending on the comfort of the viewer, but some speculation should be provided here.  The painting could work in a post-abortion syndrome counseling session in one of two ways.  If the aborted mother wishes to work through her desire to see the aborted child, then she would fix her gaze on the child in the painting; if the aborted mother is so bereft that she is still at the stage of fixating or obsessing on her own sorrow, then she would identify with the mother in the painting.[10]  Either perspective—a focus on the psychological damage to the mother or the body of an aborted child—is suitable, therefore, for beginning a conversation about what occurs in every abortion.

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

          [slide thirteen]  The second Smith painting to be reviewed here, Femicidal National Organization Woman’s Planned Parentless Selfish Movement, seems to address infanticide—“seems” being the operative verb since there is little commentary either from the artist himself or from extant exhibition material that the intentional killing of a born child is meant in this painting, which is much more abstract than Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome.  Even the aggressively biased title does nothing to justify such a claim, which requires more intellectual activity from the viewer, much like an archaeological dig into an anti-life psyche.[11]

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

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

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

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

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

Killer Caduceus (1987)

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

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

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

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

“…the medical symbol being distorted to attack the figure coils ripping tightly around the medical profession and slowly taking the life/death hovering in back…”   Lethal force makes physicians the oxymorons of forensic medicine—no art, no Hippocrates, cold words, cold death.  If life does not matter, nothing does. (Artist’s Comments)[12]

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

Now that these three paintings have been reviewed, the final section of this research will evaluate how the paintings comply with Catholic art aesthetics, especially enunciated through St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists.  This task is particularly challenging for the pro-life researcher since Smith’s art is negative on virtually all fronts.  The topics are controversial; the figures depicted are tortured, morose, and nihilistic; the colors used are dark and sad; and the depictions are obscure, enigmatic, and non-representational.  The summary opinion of the paintings could be that these are tortured works from a tortured artist unable to survive in a tortured contemporary world and whose viewers are tortured into deriving a tortured meaning from what is depicted.  How, then, can Smith’s art comport with Catholic art aesthetics, especially those principles enunciated in not merely a pope’s, but a saint’s correspondence to artists like him?[13]  Applying the list of nine highlighted statements will show that Smith’s paintings are, indeed, not only worthy of serious attention, but also consistent with St. John Paul II’s ideas about art.

The first two of the pope’s comments and their applicability to Smith’s works can be combined since they concern the nature of the artist him- or herself.  The pope emphasized how contemporary artists “are passionately dedicated to the search for” new manifestations of beauty and that they strive for “new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty.”  The mother in Sorrow is as beautiful as any Madonna from the Renaissance; her voluptuous form alone would justify this claim.  That Smith uses a post-aborted mother as the subject for his painting, however, is so new in the repertoire of modern art that it is rare to find scholarly treatment of this image.[14]

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

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

          The penultimate series of statements by St. John Paul II merges his commentary about what the inherent beliefs of the artist should be.  What is Smith trying to say about “the inmost reality of man and of the world” in three remarkably dismal paintings?  The absence of any redemptive figure or element in the paintings (there is no cross, no crucifix, no savior image, no religious symbol in the works) forces even the staunchest secular person to wonder why.[15]  If the paintings celebrated abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, then the figures would appear, for example, as the jovial couple looking on the dead body of their aborted child, as in Mary Cate Carroll’s American Liberty Upside Down.  Absent any celebration, then, the viewer must wonder where the redeeming value of such seemingly nugatory works resides.  Recall that John Paul writes, “It is true nevertheless that, in the modern era, alongside this Christian humanism which has continued to produce important works of culture and art, another kind of humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God, has gradually asserted itself.”  Like the absence of redemptive figures in Dante’s Inferno, perhaps the central import of Smith’s depressing paintings is, paradoxically, the absence of any suggestion of a religious power.  The humans depicted in the paintings clearly manifest how morose, depressing, nihilistic, and fatal their actions against human life become when God is absent.

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

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

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

          The social sciences would be remiss in neglecting the artistic achievements of pro-life artists such as Mary Cate Carroll and T. Gerhardt Smith, primarily based on a rhetorical analysis which compares with social science principles.  Most social science academic scholarship operates on two major Aristotelian concepts, ethos and logos.[16]  Social scientists rely not only on the credibility of the researcher investigating certain problems (the ethos concept), but also on the reasoned and thoroughly researched data and methodology used to support projects and studies to address those problems.  Focusing on human beings is, of course, the essence of the social sciences.  (What other entities do social sciences concern themselves with if not the sociological principles which apply to human beings, or the psychological theories which apply to human beings, or any other division of the social sciences whose conjectures and data-driven theories apply to human beings?)  Social scientists delving deeper into paintings such as Smith’s would thus examine dehumanization as thoroughly as William Brennan did in his initial research into linguistic dehumanization (1995) and his subsequent expansion of that research in 2008.[17]

          What else remains?  As every humanities academic knows, literature and artistic works benefit from a study of the credibility of the writers or artists and a logical analysis of their work, but the dominant Aristotelian concept in artistic production is pathos, the feelings or emotional power stimulated by the work.  Because they can assist social scientists by illustrating the emotions affected or created by threats against human life, the Smith paintings enhance communication on the life issues.  While it may be difficult for a female patient on the psychiatrist’s couch to talk about her abortion or a male patient to talk in a standard doctor’s office about his role in securing the death of his child, it is safe to discuss abortion when one talks about a figure in a painting.[18]  The same type of distance offered by the infanticide and euthanasia paintings may offer enough space for those suffering from these other assaults on human life to communicate their anxiety or guilt about those practices.  Optimally, once viewers understand the works and reflect on their own experiences regarding the life issues, the paintings may also stimulate corrective action regarding the controversial issues they address.

Works Cited

Adamek, Ray. Abortion Activists: Characteristics, Attitudes, and Behavior. 31 January 1985. Typescript.

—. What America Really Thinks About Abortion. 1 May 2004. Typescript.

Brennan, William. Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives. Loyola UP, 1995.

—. John Paul II: Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death. Studies in the Thought of John Paul II. Sapientia Press, 2008.

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

Nigro, Samuel A. Goliath Visiting. [Brochure for the exhibition]. 1990.

—. Personal interview. 10 October 2019.

Ring-Cassidy, Elizabeth, and Ian Gentles. Women’s Health After Abortion: The Medical and Psychological Evidence. 2nd ed. deVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research, 2003.

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

Smith, T. Gerhardt. Artist’s Comments. 10 Sept. 2019. Typescript.

—. Femicidal National Organization Woman’s Planned Parentless Selfish Movement. 1989.

—. Killer Caduceus. 1987.

—. Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome. 1988.

Strøm, Agnete. “The Abortion Pastels: Paula Rego’s Series on Abortion.” Reproductive Health Matters, vol. 12, issue 24, supplement, November 2004, Accessed 15 October 2019.

Zelanski, Paul, and Mary Pat Fisher. Color. 6th ed. Prentice Hall, 2010.

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

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

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

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

[5] Some pro-lifers have argued that Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream is a precursor to Nathanson’s work.  However, besides being anachronistic, the connection is tenuous, based solely on the same word used in the title.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] One exception may be Agnete Strøm’s 2004 research into Paula Rego’s Untitled: The Abortion Pastels (1998-1999).  However, one can argue that Strøm’s article is not so much research as propaganda.  The beginning sentences of the article suggest not only the rarity of finding art concerning abortion, but also the explicit anti-life feminist function of Rego’s work:

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

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

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

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

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


Terminology to Assault Human Life and Life-Affirming Responses

          Pro-lifers have long known that the success of the anti-right-to-life movement has depended on a change in language before any technology could be used to kill a human being.  This axiom has been a consistent theme in pro-life literature from the foundation of the movement in the 1960s.  Another axiom is automatically coupled with it: that technological advances could just as easily work for the protection of human life as they could for its dehumanization and destruction.

          It may be difficult for technologically-dependent Millennials to understand the life-affirming work accomplished during the last four decades of the twentieth century by technologically unsophisticated Baby Boomers and newly-technologically aware Gen Xers.  Imagine life without today’s technological advantages.  Instead of a pc or a laptop, imagine a typewriter.  Instead of using email or LinkedIn or other internet services to communicate pro-life news and events instantaneously, imagine using that typewriter to create a master copy of a newsletter which is then reproduced on a hand-operated duplicating machine and then mailed through the US Postal Service in about two weeks to a group’s mailing list.  Instead of receiving RSS feeds or linking to online videos from Fox Business News, imagine waiting to hear “the news” from only three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and only at times that the networks broadcast (usually at 6 and 11 PM).

          In each decade since the foundation of the movement pro-lifers have resisted the linguistic assault on human life using a variety of technologies either well-established or emerging in each of those decades.  [slide two][1] In the sixties and early seventies pro-lifers used the famous Willke slides to illustrate fetal development and to respond to anti-life attacks on unborn human life; today’s pro-lifers use PowerPoint.  In the seventies the pro-life world used printing technologies to mail newsletters to their members and telephonic resources to generate legislative alerts; today’s pro-lifers use blogs, email, robocalls, and social networking communication tools like Facebook and LinkedIn to generate tens or hundreds of thousands of messages to elected officials.  In the eighties pro-lifers purchased air time and paid for slick, focus group-tested television ads at great expense to communicate their views, thus circumventing a biased media which prevented pro-life ideas from being aired; today’s pro-lifers create, at insignificant expense, videos for YouTube.  In the nineties pro-lifers were introduced to the capabilities of the internet for easy and inexpensive communication and for pro-life research; they are still exploring web resources, and I doubt that anyone who has been converted to accessing the news and research online would ever waste his or her time by paying money for a hardcopy of a newspaper or checking out books and journals at a university library.  Pro-lifers mastered the technologies of their day and fought the good fight in the battlegrounds of public speaking venues, the media, the legislatures, and the courts.

          The current and soon-to-be-concluded initial decade of this twenty-first century has seen the anti-life attack on human life move to a new battlefield, a technological terrain which couples the outdated dehumanization tactics of the old anti-life movement to highly advanced technological services.  Of course, the internet, all of only twenty some years old, does not present much in the way of new technology per se.  It is not as profound an invention as ultrasound and three-dimensional inventions which occurred subsequently which revolutionized the way we looked (literally) at the unborn child.  Nor is the internet as significant as brain research which shows to what degree comatose individuals are aware of their surroundings and have intensive brain activity despite the limitations of older technology to determine if someone was cognizant.  The internet does, however, change the frequency and instantaneity of communication on the life issues.  The success of the pro-life movement’s effort to restore the first civil right to life depends on efforts to counter the linguistic attacks on human life found in the new technological world.

          Much of what I will mention below has already been stated elsewhere and certainly by speakers whose eloquence is superior to my own.  However, as Harold Bloom, E. D. Hirsch, Stephen Prothero, and others have written, Americans either have already lost or are still losing their great cultural heritage, and one can argue that even pro-lifers have lost crucial aspects of the history of their movement.[2]  What passes as knowledge in contemporary culture consists of vapid and relatively meaningless bits of minutiae about film, music, and reality television stars.  (It’s entertaining to know, but why should I care how Lady Gaga wears her hair?)  The more important philosophical and literary tenets of the centuries either have been or are being forgotten at a rapid race.  The role of the scholar in today’s culture has never been more important; academicians have the vital task of sifting through the mess of what passes as knowledge to reiterate the great life-affirming principles of Western civilization if humanity will progress.

          Moreover, I argue that each one of us—scholars and laypersons—has not only the privilege and duty, but also the ability and technological opportunity to counter what often passes as knowledge but often reads as the most unashamed bias or simple idiocy when it comes to what is said on major network and some cable television channels or the internet about the life issues.  Fortunately, there are many scholars whose work has illuminated the disastrous effects of a society which has lost the life-affirming principles established through the centuries, and their research can assist the movement in the new technological world.

          This presentation has four components which have been abbreviated to meet the time restraints of this conference.  [slide three]  First, since many in the audience either may be new to the pro-life movement or may have never heard of the pro-life response to anti-life language used to dehumanize human beings, a review of anti-life language analyzed by various scholars is not only preparatory, but essential.  Second, the presentation will highlight a particularly egregious case study of anti-life dehumanizing rhetoric.  The third component will offer general linguistic strategies to counter anti-life threats when future instances occur.  Finally, during the question and answer period, I hope that the audience will not only contribute their own examples of anti-life efforts to dehumanize human beings, but also formulate ways to respond to those anti-life attacks.

I.  Scholarly Commentary on Terminology Used to Assault Human Life

          The terminological changes which led to the killing of human beings in the twentieth century had been documented decades before the disastrous Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion in the United States throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever.  [slide four]  Leo Alexander formulated the trend toward the anti-life philosophy most eloquently and succinctly in a now famous passage which attempted to document how the horror of the Nazi regime began.  His words are as appropriate today as they were in 1949:

Whatever proportions these crimes finally assumed, it became evident to all who investigated them that they had started from small beginnings.  The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians.  It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived.  (44)[3]

What Alexander says about the Nazi crimes highlights the starting point for this study of anti-life rhetoric.  When one believes that one is superior to another person, the balance of human relationships is altered and dehumanization can occur.  The Nazi experience should have been sufficient to tell us the disastrous effects of such a perception of human life.  Apparently, it was not sufficient, for American anti-life efforts have surpassed anything that the Nazi crime machine created.

          During the formative decades of the seventies and eighties (formative in that the pro-life movement became more open to scholarly activity and more politically powerful), dehumanizing anti-life rhetoric was analyzed by a diverse corps of scholars vis-à-vis rhetoric and technological innovations.  [slide five]  In a chapter on semantics in her 1979 monograph Who Broke the Baby? Jean Garton, noted founder of Lutherans for Life, writes:

[M]aking sound moral choices requires that we use language to describe reality (not create it), to communicate factual information and to aid understanding.  As we conclude what may well be catalogued in history as the Sensuous Seventies, we recognize that for an increasing number of people, moral choices are being made on the basis of feelings apart from facts or truth.  Ignoring evidence, indeed not even seeking it, many have embraced the maxim of the sensual Frenchman Rousseau who said, “Don’t think.  It hurts.  Just feel.”  As a result, the decision-making process is not located in the intellect but in the pit of the stomach, in the shifting sands of human emotions.  (16-7)

          By the 1980s, thanks in large part to the debate surrounding the ultrasound abortion which is the basis of The Silent Scream video, pro-life literature began discussing technological advances in greater detail.  For example, the 1983 anthology To Rescue the Future: The Pro-Life Movement in the 1980s has a section solely devoted to technological aspects.

          William Brennan discussed the success of the Nazi regime’s efforts to dehumanize millions of human beings in his 1983 work, The Abortion Holocaust: Today’s Final Solution; chapter eleven is devoted to linguistic camouflage of the killing operations of the Nazi regime.  The comparisons that he establishes with anti-life arguments of abortion and euthanasia supporters in the United States are inescapable.

          The various editions of the Willkes’ “handbooks” on abortion (which standardized pro-life discussion of the issue for years) consistently discuss not only anti-life rhetoric, but also ways to correct such language from a pro-life perspective based on technological advances in neonatology and social science.  Chapter thirty of the 1990 edition of Abortion: Questions and Answers, for example, continues this practice by offering a paragraph-by-paragraph refutation of anti-life arguments.

          [slide six]  William C. Hunt considers various aspects in his 1994 essay “Technological Themes in the Abortion Debate,” discussing categories such as means and efficiency and several pairings of concepts which are viewed differently from the technological versus the philosophical and moral perspectives (for example, artificiality and naturalness).  Hunt conjectures that

[T]he dominant themes of our technological world are in conflict with what we have hitherto known as our moral world.  This stems mainly from a tendency to look upon human organizations in terms of machines and to understand human interactions primarily by way of a mathematical methodology.  As a result, it is difficult, if not impossible, for someone immersed in the technological world to act morally in any traditional sense of the word.  Quite literally, technological themes demoralize decision making and diminish responsibility.  (256)[4]

          Brennan expanded his earlier research on the implications of the Nazi dehumanization efforts in his 1995 monograph, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives[slide seven]  Brennan continues his study of anti-life rhetoric in his 2008 monograph John Paul II: Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of Death, wherein he suggested that the pope used a

[T]wo-pronged verbal strategy in countering a burgeoning culture of death that is engulfing an increasing number and range of victims.  On the one hand, the Pontiff employed sometimes graphic but always authentic terminology in stripping away the litany of euphemisms constructed to obscure the destructive practices used against the victims.  On the other hand, he exposed the defective, degrading definitions of the human person spawned by utilitarian, reductionist ideologies and replaced them with a wealth of life-affirming designations founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic of equal and intrinsic value for all human lives whatever their status, condition, or stage of development.  (vii)

II.  A Pro-Life Study of an Instance of Anti-Life Rhetoric

          Some attacks on human life are common in the ordinary language of most persons, and it is a task for scholars to document these cases and to recommend corrected language lest the errors in thinking committed by inaccurate language, whether stated intentionally to dehumanize or not, remain.  [slide eight]  The most egregious example of faulty language which uses a scientific term for the purpose of dehumanization refers to a human being as a “vegetable,” a corruption of the lengthier medical phrase denoting that one is resting in a “persistent vegetative state.”

          Exploring this prime example in greater detail is necessary.  It is easy to see how the perfectly valid medical phrase has been misunderstood and corrupted into a dehumanizing vehicle.  The mind of the uneducated person cannot process the word “state” in such a way that it becomes personally identifiable with someone or something that the person knows.  Similarly, the uneducated person cannot identify with the adjective “persistent”—that is, he or she does not visualize someone or something when hearing the word.  The uneducated person, however, is able to identify the adjective “vegetative” with a noun form and can visualize his or her favorite vegetable—tomato, zucchini, etc.  Transferring the visualization from his or her favorite vegetable to someone, a living human being such as Terri Schiavo, becomes mentally easy.  Dehumanization of that human being can quickly occur if the uneducated person is open to the effort to reduce that human being to a non-human entity.

          For a contemporary analysis of this dehumanizing term, I searched the internet for the words “Schiavo” and “vegetable” to see how many sites would appear and if any blog contained the terms.  [slide nine]  The GrassfireBlog contained an article by Keith Fournier which faced the dehumanizing vegetative metaphor directly, “Terri Schiavo a Vegetable? No!”  As of the date of last access (Monday, 6 September 2010) responses to the article received 17,000 words of commentary in nearly seventy posts.   [slide ten]  Two anonymous posts were dramatically representative of the anti-life and pro-life viewpoints.  The anti-life post simply reads, “You ask is Terri schiavo a vegetable? YES SHE IS!! She will never be like you and I again!! NO THERAPY WILL EVER DO ANY GOOD!!”

          Besides being grammatically incorrect (no capitalization of the surname, no introductory comma where necessary, and use of the subject instead of object pronoun), the characteristics of this post are simple: it must have been written in an irrational rage with no effort made to provide a logical basis of the claims made.  Merely asserting that someone is a zucchini does not make the person a zucchini.  Moreover, claiming that someone will “never” attain a better condition in life is the grossest form of hasty generalization; one can conjecture what the future will bring, but no one knows with certainty that the future will only bring negative consequences.  The claim that “no therapy will ever do any good” is a victim of a double hasty generalization; certainly, that some therapy could have assisted Terri Schiavo can be argued with as much certainty as the anti-lifer does that no therapy would have accomplished any good.  The anti-lifer does not believe in the possibility that any good could have occurred in Terri Schiavo’s life, and it is unfortunate that this person’s lack of hope is offered as evidence against the life of another human being like Terri Schiavo, whose family had great hope in her.

          Here is the life-affirming post:

Too many people don’t value the life of a person who seems to be inconvenient.  Indeed, we are killing ourselves off.  The people who labeled unborn children as embryos and fetuses (strictly scientific terms) or products of conception to make their execution seem more acceptable are the same people who are labeling Terri and others like her as vegetables.  These same people may well be the ones who later live only by (younger) people who are healthier and stronger than they are—people who have no more of a conscience than they do.

Where the anti-life post was more of a rant than a logical support for a hopeless position, this life-affirming post contains much that can be admired as an instance of a pro-life counter to anti-life negativity for three reasons.  First, the grammatical perfection of the post is an important element, since people tend not to believe others who cannot write or speak well, consigning them to the class of ignorant persons.  Second, it is logically rendered.  The person conveys his or her education without being pompous; citing the Latin terms as examples not so much of dehumanizing but scientifically accurate language helps the reader to understand the point being made.  Finally, the writer attempts to show the logical progression that euthanasia would make (affecting the same people who support the killing of Terri Schiavo).[5]

III.  Life-Affirming Strategies for Future Instances of Anti-Life Thinking

          I offer the following strategies to correct instances of anti-life thinking.  [slide twelve]  First, one can adopt the philosophical position of Richard M. Weaver, who writes that

After all, there is nothing but sentiment to bind us to the very old or to the very young.  Burke saw this point when he said that those who have no concern for their ancestors will, by simple application of the same rule, have none for their descendants.  The decision of modern man to live in the here and now is reflected in the neglect of aging parents, whom proper sentiment once kept in positions of honor and authority.  There was a time when the elder generation was cherished because it represented the past; now it is avoided and thrust out of sight for the same reason.  Children are liabilities.  As man becomes more immersed in time and material gratifications, belief in the continuum of race fades, and not all the tinkering of sociologists can put homes together again.  (30)

          Second, one can implement Brennan’s strategy of “authentic terminology.”  As I analyzed the misunderstanding of the phrase “persistent vegetative state,” one can see that moving one’s language from the abstract to the concrete, minimizing or reinterpreting Latin words into more accessible common vocabulary, will help uneducated persons to see the dehumanizing effects of certain language.  [slide thirteen]  For example, the phrases “embryonic reduction,” “pregnancy reduction,” and “selective termination” can be “translated” into the following clearer sentence so that readers will understand that these phrases mean that “poisonous substances are injected into the hearts of unborn children of women pregnant with more offspring than desired as a result of taking fertility drugs” (Brennan, John Paul II, 3).

          [slide fourteen]  Third, in what may sound oxymoronic, affirm the stigma of certain words.  “Abortion” is virtually always negative, “infanticide” is the killing of the (usually handicapped) newborn, and “euthanasia” is a similarly negative code term for denying food and water rights to the dying or the elderly.

          Fourth, use apposition, an increasingly necessary linguistic practice to educate today’s younger students and those older persons who may have lost the life-affirming heritage of Western culture.  For example, it is necessary to refer to abortion as “legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever” because many people still think, thanks to a biased media, that the Supreme Court legalized abortion only during the first three months of pregnancy.  Similarly, it is necessary to refer to a person in a PVS state as “someone who is resting in a persistent vegetative state” or “someone whose body is resting in a coma.”  If a specific person is mentioned, then a better reference would be “Terri Schiavo, who was not terminally ill and who was starved to death.”

          A restricted reading of the literature of the pro-life movement in the United States illustrates a dual hope—that technology could protect human life and that linguistic assaults on humanity could be countered by an intelligent and sophisticated use of that technology.  I trust that what can be investigated and learned at conferences like this one will help us see that the tragedy of 22 January 1973 can be corrected by a future reality where all life is respected.

Works Cited

Alexander, Leo. “Medical Science Under Dictatorship.” New England         Journal of Medicine 241.2 (14 July 1949): 39-47.

Binding, Karl, and Alfred Hoche. “Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy

          Life: Its Extent and Form. Essay One: Legal Explanation; Essay Two:

          Medical Explanation.” Leipzig: Verlag von Felix Meiner, 1920. Trans.

          Walter E. Wright. Issues in Law & Medicine Reprint Series. Ed.

          James Bopp. 8:2 (fall 1992): 231-65. Terre Haute, IN: National Legal

          Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled, 1992.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages. New

          York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

Brennan, William. Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take

          Lives. Chicago: Loyola UP, 1995.

—. John Paul II: Confronting the Language Empowering the Culture of

          Death. Studies in the Thought of John Paul II. Ave Maria, FL:

          Sapientia P, 2008.

—. The Abortion Holocaust: Today’s Final Solution. St. Louis: Landmark

          Press, 1983.

Fournier, Keith. “Terri Schiavo a Vegetable? No!” GrassfireBlog. 23 Feb.

          2005. 6 Sept. 2010



Garton, Jean Staker. Who Broke the Baby? Minneapolis: Bethany

          Fellowship, 1979.

Hirsch, E. D. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.

          Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Hunt, William C. “Technological Themes in the Abortion Debate.” Ed.

          David Mall. When Life and Choice Collide: Essays on Rhetoric and

          Abortion. Vol. 1: To Set the Dawn Free. Words in Conflict Ser.

          Libertyville, IL: Kairos Books, 1994. 255-67.

Neal, Patricia, with Richard DeNeut. As I Am: An Autobiography. New York:

          Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to

          Know—and Doesn’t. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.

The Silent Scream: the Complete Text of the Documentary Film with an

          Authoritative Response to the Critics. Comp. Donald S. Smith. Ed.

          Don Tanner. Anaheim, CA: American Portrait Films Books, 1985.

To Rescue the Future: The Pro-life Movement in the 1980s. Ed. Dave

          Andrusko. Toronto: Life Cycle Books, 1983.

Weaver, Richard M. Ideas Have Consequences. Chicago: U of Chicago P,


Willke, J. C. [Jack and Barbara]. Abortion: Questions & Answers.

          Cincinnati: Hayes, 1990.

[1]  These bolded references indicate the PowerPoint slide which accompanied the paper presentation.

[2] Consider, for example, the seminal work of E. D. Hirsch in his Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages (1994), and Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (2007); all of these works address the common knowledge gap from which Americans suffer.

[3] The notion of “life not worth living” in the Nazi regime and used by euthanasia supporters in the United States can trace its ancestry to Karl Binding’s legal discussion in his 1920 essay “Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life”; Alfred Hoche discussed medical implications of euthanasia in the article.

[4]  He ends his essay with the hope that “we will be better able to deal with the rhetoric surrounding issues of public policy such as abortion” (265) once the technological bases of our culture are explored.

[5]  [slide eleven]  Although not a scholarly quote, I discovered this comment on being a “vegetable” in the autobiography of the Oscar-winning actor Patricia Neal, someone who deserves respect not only for her film career, but also for the honesty with which she writes about an abortion in the 1940s which affected her entire life.  Neal writes about her body’s condition after having suffered three strokes:

I lay in a coma like an immense vegetable.  No one detects any movement in a vegetable except, perhaps, the shrewd gardener who knows its roots are reaching deep into the earth.  So, perhaps, was my unconscious body reaching into the wellhead of raw existence.  ([254])


Technology Meets Rhetoric: A Rogerian Methodological Review of the Visual Rhetoric of Websites Concerned with Abortion

          Reviewing certain anti- and pro-life websites (e.g. Planned Parenthood and the National Right to Life Committee) for a rhetorical analysis using the Rogerian method of argumentation requires that a litany of technological concepts and standards should be addressed first before the content of the websites (the merits or disadvantages of their front pages, color schemes, diction, content saturation, etc.) can be determined.  A significant challenge is that the technical jargon which most information technology professionals use may be unfamiliar to the general population.  A second significant challenge is that many Americans may not be aware of the Rogerian method of argumentation, let alone the Aristotelian, the system with which it is most often contrasted.

          [slide two]  Since this paper focuses on the rhetorical quality of anti- and pro-life websites, material will be presented in the following order.  First, the paper will examine standards which IT professionals recommend for websites.  Second, a summary of key aspects of the Aristotelian and Rogerian methods of argumentation will be presented.  For greater audience participation, two quizzes will be conducted at this point in the presentation.  Third, an interactive analysis of representative websites will be provided.  Finally, time will be reserved for questions and answers.

Standards for Websites

What standards for websites do IT professionals establish?  Who in the industry has the authority to set or promulgate these standards?  How frequently are these standards amended?  Since there is no single publication which can answer these multifaceted questions, determining the criteria by which websites are established involves a review of major titles written by a variety of IT professionals, often in expansive editions replete with technical jargon.  The following chronological review isolates major ideas about website construction in recent popular monographs, easily accessible through academic or public libraries.  For convenience’s sake and to meet time demands for this presentation, “recent” means since the beginning of this century, a span of fourteen years, which, according to common knowledge, can equal an age in computer technology.[1]

[slide three]  Dick Oliver and Charles Ashbacher’s Sams Teach Yourself HTML and XHTML in 24 Hours (5th ed., 2001) shows how far those interested in constructing websites have come.  The authors’ initial recommendations include these four important (and now simple) steps: “get a computer” ([9], “get a connection to the Internet”, “get a Web browser program” (10), and “explore!” (11).  Their work contains substantial technical suggestions, ranging from commentary on a site’s background color (“white to match the background that most Web browsers use” 140) to the appropriate text colors (the “16 standard Windows colors: black, white, red, green, blue, yellow, magenta, cyan, purple, gray, lime, maroon, navy, olive, silver, and teal” 162).  They further suggest that users “Stick to the named colors and don’t waste time mucking with hexadecimal color codes—unless you have precise control over your intended audience’s computer displays” (165).

The authors provide a succinct table titled “Key Elements of Web Page Design” (191).  Since this table is carried in electronic format on a site dated 2014, the criteria established there, which are identical to this 2001 work, will be discussed later.  Beyond their own recommendations, the authors refer to official standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium ( on unnumbered page 409) and unofficial sources such as, which interestingly cites as the worst website for 2013 (411).

[side four]  Two suggestions by Oliver and Ashbacher address rhetorical aspects more than technical, and their recommendations are as valid today as before:

The first page that a visitor sees should always begin by explaining what the site is about and provide enough introductory information to “hook” the intended audience while getting rid of anyone who really has no interest [….]  In all aspects of your site design, keep in mind the following fact: Studies have repeatedly shown that people become confused and annoyed when presented with more than seven choices at a time, and people feel most comfortable with five or fewer choices.  Therefore, you should avoid presenting more than five links (either in a list or as graphical icons) next to one another and never present more than seven at once.  (341-3)

          [slide five]  Like the previous authors, Mark Bell’s Build a Website for Free (2009) continues the bifurcation of website design books which address not only technical, but also rhetorical matters.  Bell’s technical recommendations include the following, based on his philosophy to “keep things as simple as possible” (39).  First, he recommends that website developers reserve 15% of the web page as a header and another 15% as a footer (37).  He also identifies the “magic four” colors for text: red, yellow, black, and white (44).

          [slide six]  Rhetorically, Bell encourages developers to answer three questions under the planning stage of the website creation process: “Why am I building this website?”, “What are the website’s goals?”, and “Who [sic] do I want to visit my website?” (13).  Once these matters have been addressed, the developer can focus on content, which should be “personal”, “high quality”, and “unique” (76).

          [slide seven]  Except for some technical suggestions about the sixteen colors and recommending fonts (“If you want to be really conservative, you won’t go wrong with any of these fonts: Times, Arial, Helvetica, Courier” 157), Matthew MacDonald’s Creating a Web Site: The Missing Manual. (2nd ed., 2009) conveys more rhetorical suggestions than previous web page development manuals.  “Once you pinpoint your Web site’s raison d’être,” he writes, “you should have a better idea about who your visitors will be.  Knowing and understanding your audience is [sic] crucial to making your Web site effective” (17).  Reiterating other authors’ themes, MacDonald urges web developers to “Keep it simple” (19), “Be consistent”, and, to reinforce the point, “Know your audience” (20).

          [slide eight]  Besides citing some technical information, such as how website URLs can be obtained (, MacDonald’s work then suggests ways to advertise and promote websites, such as accessing the Open Directory Project, (313); using a special feature on Google where one’s URL can be added directly, (317); and participating in Amazon’s affiliate program, (381).

          What is the current teaching on website standards?  Two sources in the past two years can be cited.  [slide nine]  The entry for “web page design” in the Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms (11th ed., 2013) lists eight guidelines “for designing a good” web page:

1. Decide on the purpose of your web page.

2.  Plan for maintainability.

3.  If you want people to visit your web site repeatedly, put something useful there….

4. Do not draw attention to the wrong things.

5.  Remember that you do not have a captive audience.

6.  Remember that some people still use older browsers.

7.  Use dark type on a white background for anything the reader may need to print out.

8.  Attach links to informative words, not the word “here.”  (547)

[slide ten]  The second source repeats what Oliver and Ashbacher identified as significant elements of website development in their 2001 work.  Several elements of Oliver’s 2014 chart directly address rhetorical matters much more than technical ones.

For example, Oliver’s recommendation regarding “a headline, rule or image every 40 to 100 words” is consistent with contemporary thinking about reading activities.  Students for several decades have shied away from reading solid blocks of text, and the tendency to avoid such blocks has transferred to their lives beyond academia.  The “two tofour [sic] thematic colors” suggestion is further consistent with contemporary color theorists.  Monochromatic websites are fatally boring, and polychromatic ones, while interesting for persons with attention deficit, are annoying to ordinary readers.[2]  The recommendation that 50% of a page should be blank space follows current theories about the readability factor; the more white space a document has, the more likely it will be read.  The last two suggestions (regarding “tone and style” and “overall impact”) suggest that Oliver wants his readers to be keenly aware of the audience’s psychographics.  How one determines the “mood” of an audience and whether a population considers a site “balanced and attractive” is extremely difficult absent market analysis, but a noteworthy goal.  [slide eleven][3]

          Finally, while IT professionals and website developers may have been more concerned with the technical aspects of website production and design in the first decade of this new millennium, many writers in this second decade have progressed from critique of features of websites and software used to design them to commentary on the technological progress achieved thus far.  Often, the commentary no longer endorses technological innovation on the web in enthusiastic terms, but examines controversial ideas generated by the success of certain well-known Internet sites.  Two such critics are Ian Lloyd and Danah Boyd.

[slide twelve]  Ian Lloyd has significant cautionary words about Facebook in his Build Your Own Website the Right Way Using HTML & CSS (3rd ed., 2011).  That he criticizes Facebook using comical language testifies to his ability to convey a deeper problem inherent in the world’s premiere social networking site so that his audience (virtually all of whom use the service) will not resist his message.

Just as Jupiter sits there in our solar system, sucking in most of the errant space dust and asteroids that swing past it like some astronomical vacuum cleaner, Facebook is this monstrous (in size, not nature…or not always!) presence, drawing in ever more people.  And for many people, once they arrive, they’re content to never leave.  (302; italics in original)

While he offers these humorous words in the context of whether businesses should or should not use Facebook, educated contemporary readers see that Lloyd has struck on deeper problems.  Younger people use social networking services like Facebook, but cannot communicate well face-to-face.  English professors can testify that writing skills have suffered from an audience raised on texting abbreviations and emoticons.  Ironically, one can be socially networked with thousands of Facebook “friends” or LinkedIn “connections” yet be the loneliest person on the planet without human interaction.

[slide thirteen]  Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014) offers much trenchant commentary on the impact of social networking on teenagers.  Two of her ideas are worth mentioning here as examples of the rhetorical force of online services.

Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies.  As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice.  (8; italics added)

The two highlighted words in this stipulative definition suggest several challenges for any website developer, one of which depends not only on the study of demographics (as Boyd examines in her study of teens), but also on psychographic factors.  How does one attempt to reach an audience which uses social media and Internet connectivity as a way to express themselves and their sense of “community”?  How does one know how to convey a controversial position to an audience whose worldview may be either unknown or diametrically opposed to that of the web developer?  More specifically for pro-life entities, how does one communicate a life-affirming message to an audience which may be unfamiliar with or hostile to life affirmation when the media they are constantly exposed to (broadcast television, background radio at work or in public places) are anti-life?

[slide fourteen]  Boyd further addresses a controversial issue raging in academia, the first life-impacting force that young adults face beyond the home.  Faculty are generally admonished to consider some Internet sites as unreliable sources for their students, and one such site is Wikipedia, which is probably the premiere site that young adults in colleges and universities consult when writing research papers.  Although faculty attitudes toward Wikipedia may be changing, the distrust of the site as a source for reputable information is a staple of academic discourse.  Boyd, however, in her defense of the site, illustrates the nature of knowledge production in contemporary life which has profound implications not only for the role of the faculty member in the academy, but also for any developer of a website who is concerned about the rhetorical purpose of his or her site.  She writes that

Wikipedia can be a phenomenal educational tool, but few educators I met knew how to use it constructively.  Unlike other sources of information, including encyclopedias and books by credible authors, the entire history of how users construct a Wikipedia entry is visible.  By looking at the “history” of a page, a viewer can see when someone made edits, who did the editing, and what that user edited.  By looking at the discussion, it’s possible to read the debates that surround the edits.  Wikipedia isn’t simply a product of knowledge; it’s also a record of the process by which people share and demonstrate knowledge.  (188-9)

Although the epistemological question remains, the mere fact that most students use the site and that many faculty are open to its use will decide the acceptability of the service in the next few years.  The question for pro-life website developers is profound: if young adults are accustomed to accessing websites which disclose “the process by which people share and demonstrate knowledge”, then to what degree do pro-life sites engage in this process and disclose how information is presented?  Furthermore, how can young people interact with and respond to such knowledge?

Key Aspects of the Aristotelian and Rogerian Methods of Argumentation

          [slide fifteen]  The basis for argumentation over the millennia, Aristotle’s method of arguing controversial issues involves the concepts of ethos (which is the credibility of the person arguing a position), kairos (the appropriateness of the situation), logos (the use of logic and the avoidance of fallacies), and pathos (emotions appropriately used).  The idea is that, if all four concepts are used well to advocate a particular stance, one can convince another to adopt one’s perspective.  For example, if an expert on Islamic terrorism speaks before a patriotic American audience using facts and statistics about the incidences of Islamic terrorism since 9/11 and interjects several poignant episodes of such terrorism, then one would achieve his or her goals of arguing for intensive action against such terrorism.  If any one of these items is altered, the argument may not be persuasive.  For example, while one may be an expert on Islamic terrorism, if one were to speak at a mosque where the audience may not necessarily be composed of all patriotic American Muslims, using a logical approach and interjecting poignant episodes may not be sufficient to overcome the obvious problem in the presentation.  Thus, one may lose his or her audience and not move the persons listening to believe in, let alone act on, one’s goal of action against Islamic terrorists.

          [slide sixteen]  The implications of the Aristotelian method are profound for pro-life speakers and writers.  Consider the four Aristotelian concepts vis-à-vis these scenarios:

1.  55-year-old white male speaking before African Americans about the high abortion rate in that demographic

2.  22-year-old stay-at-home mother blogging about biomedical issues

3.  Male activist showing bloody pictures of aborted babies before a group of agnostic millennials

4.  Byzantine Catholic senior citizen woman wearing a crucifix as she speaks before a congregation of Orthodox Jews about Nazi atrocities and euthanasia

Each of these four situations involves one or all of the four Aristotelian concepts, and the challenge for the pro-life speaker or writer (or, by extension, blogger, Facebooker, Google+er, LinkedIner, Twitterer, etc.) is two-fold: to be aware of the four concepts while he or she is speaking or writing and to avoid impediments to the transmission of the pro-life message as best he or she can.

          [slide seventeen]  While he is more well-known as a psychologist, Carl Rogers is credited with developing a method of argumentation which may not necessarily replace, but enhances some aspects of the Aristotelian.  The Rogerian method, in contrast to the Aristotelian, aims for common ground on a controversial issue.  Although there are differing categories of Rogers’ work, the main features of his system are easy to identify.  It is based on empathic listening, a technique which forces one to listen to a complete disclosure of another’s person opposing viewpoint.  When such listening is adopted, one can respect and, optimally, understand, if not agree with, an opponent’s position.  “Collaborative negotiation” (which, according to a standard textbook definition, means “reducing antagonism toward those with different beliefs, initiating small steps in understanding, cultivating mutual respect, and encouraging further problem solving”) is then possible.  Since this method strives to reach common ground on a controversial issue, the result is not necessarily to convince, but to reach consensus, albeit a tentative one (Ramage, Bean, and Johnson 141-3).

          [slide eighteen]  How would the Rogerian scheme make argumentation different, especially for activists on the first life issue of abortion?  If the summary points of Rogerian argument are correct, then the four scenarios reviewed earlier using the Aristotelian method would be approached much differently.  Moreover, the Rogerian method poses substantial problems for activists on the life issues.  Listening to position statements from opposing sides of a controversial issue which may be constructed in biased or inflammatory language may preclude empathetic listening.  While respecting opponents’ positions could advance academic understandings of controversial issues, if the understanding remains in the academic world and cannot be translated to effective action (for example, legislative or political activity), then persons on both sides of an issue would wonder about the relevance of the time-consuming effort required to engage in Rogerian argumentation.  Finally, reaching consensus may be stymied if it is perceived as compromise, and activists on both sides of, not merely abortion, but all three of the controversial life issues may find this common political imperative unconscionable.

          Some of the objections raised in the above paragraph are evident in textbooks which advocate the Rogerian method, and it does not serve the rhetorical cause well if the exemplification of abortion as a controversial issue that could be addressed using Rogerian argumentation is itself flawed linguistically and rhetorically, as in the following passage from John D. Ramage, John C. Bean, and June Johnson’s Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings (9th ed., 2012):

[slide nineteen]  On issues such as abortion, gun control, gay rights, or the role of religion in the public sphere, the distance between a writer and a resistant audience can be so great that dialogue seems impossible.  In these cases the writer’s goal may be simply to open dialogue by seeking common ground—that is, by finding places where the writer and audience agree.  For example, pro-choice and pro-life advocates may never agree on a woman’s right to an abortion, but they may share common ground in wanting to reduce teenage pregnancy.  There is room, in other words, for conversation, if not for agreement.  (Ramage, Bean, and Johnson 135)

Using the phrase “pro-choice” could be viewed as an effort to be fair to those who support the killing of the unborn child throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever.  The pro-life perspective, of course, would recoil at such a positive connotation of an inherently evil practice.  Similarly, the phrase “a woman’s right to choose” is a euphemism which would destroy any vestige of an effort to reach out to pro-lifers since killing an unborn child, harming his or her mother, and denying the rights of the father should not be categorized as anyone’s civil right.  If this phrase were used in a Rogerian effort to attract pro-lifers to discuss the first life issue of abortion, then it would be understandable if the pro-life contingent of such an effort boycotted the event.  Finally, the “common ground” that the editors of this textbook passage suggest of “wanting to reduce teenage pregnancy” is well-known in right-to-life circles as an argumentative trap, specifically a red herring, a logical fallacy which deflects attention away from the issue under discussion.  As current political history shows, when anti-life Democrats want to avoid the controversy surrounding their efforts to advance the killing of the unborn, they distract voters’ attention by discussing a “war on women” (not the one they make on unborn women or their mothers) or by saying that their political opponents (both Republicans and pro-life Democrats) are against contraception.

Analysis of Representative Websites

          Now that basic IT standards have been identified and major tenets of two methods of argumentation have been provided, reviewing the websites of the two most prominent abortion groups will conclude this presentation.  Two home pages and embedded pages concerning abortion will be considered, first from the anti-life Planned Parenthood and then from the pro-life National Right to Life Committee.  While it may seem as though this author is disparaging the Rogerian method of argumentation, it must be conceded that the method itself is a golden opportunity for pro-life activists to achieve several goals.  Certainly, anti-life activists can use Rogerian argumentation to try to accomplish their goals, but they have much more to lose since their rationale for the killing of the unborn, the handicapped newborn, and the elderly is not only fault-ridden, but also based on omission, if not censorship, of pro-life ideas.  What remains now is the analysis of the pages.

          [slide twenty]  If one visited the Planned Parenthood Federation of America website, one would delight in seeing a happy young woman encased in a comforting background of blue (or is she happy despite her surroundings being symbolized by a melancholic color?).  If the visitor were a person of color, then he or she would immediately identify with the young woman, who is either Latina or African American.  Since Planned Parenthood is known not only for birth control, but also for abortion, if one were accessing the website because he or she wanted abortion information, one would have difficulty in finding it; the word “abortion” is embedded in the right side of the screen in font smaller than the words “Health Center” which, apparently, are meant to draw the viewer’s attention.  One would wonder why “donate” is not only in a larger font, but also in all caps.  The perception created is that Planned Parenthood may be more concerned about money than it is in promoting, not its abortion clinics, but its “health centers.”

[slide twenty-one]  The home page scrolls between this slide of a young Latina/African-American woman and a second slide with two headless young white people (if the color of their hands is any indication), the young woman kicking up her left foot in the old-fashioned way of a young woman in love.  The website visitor may not perceive this anachronistic and patriarchal view of women’s sexuality since the key words on the second slide (“birth control”) may grab the viewer’s attention and may be presumably what the website viewer wants.  Besides that, the background (header and right side) is the same, so the lack of variation focuses the viewer to those words.

          Using the Rogerian method of argumentation, the pro-life visitor to the website could question why his or her perspective is not addressed; that is, the pro-lifer would wonder why abortion, which is such a paramount function of Planned Parenthood clinics, is not given more prominence.  The pro-lifer would also wonder why a young woman from a minority group is featured on one slide while the two headless young white people appear on the second slide, their privacy guaranteed by being faceless entities.  The pro-lifer could argue that a consensus has been reached that Planned Parenthood is more concerned with having minorities abort more than whites.  However, this is a conclusion which Planned Parenthood may not find suitable for public knowledge; after all, no organization wants to be known as a racist, eugenicist entity, even though Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, was a well-known racist and eugenicist.

          The pro-lifer would further wonder why the abortion clinics for which Planned Parenthood is known are not referenced immediately on the first page.  However, using the Rogerian method, the pro-lifer would be able to reach another consensus with Planned Parenthood, that “abortion clinic” is too specific and precise a phrase for the name of the locations where the killings occur.  Granted, this point of consensus could lead to the conclusion that Planned Parenthood relies on euphemisms to carry out its abortion business; this conclusion reached by collaborative negotiation may therefore be suitable for both groups.  On second thought, Planned Parenthood may not want to abandon its euphemistic language, a well-established marketing tool that has helped to confuse mothers faced with difficult circumstances surrounding their babies’ lives, because profits may fall if mothers are told that such euphemisms hide the negative connotations of killing unborn children.

          Above all, the ambivalent and pro-life visitors “reading” these websites would be open to listening empathetically to the anti-life viewpoint, and such listening would help the ambivalent person and the pro-lifer to know Planned Parenthood’s apparent three concerns: 1. promoting minority abortions; 2. safeguarding the furtiveness of young whites seeking birth control; and 3. directing people to their “health centers”, a euphemism for abortion clinics.  While Planned Parenthood may not wish to have its website visitors receive these impressions, the website does generate significant progress in promoting an alternative view of the organization, since the common knowledge about Planned Parenthood is that it is a birth control organization and not one which has a eugenicist program using abortion as its main tool in its various business outlets (called “health centers” or simply “clinics”).

          [slide twenty-two]  The Rogerian method can be applied to Planned Parenthood’s embedded web page titled “Abortion” in the same manner.  Unfortunately, consensus may not be reached because anti-life organizations like Planned Parenthood are virulently hostile to any pro-life interpretation of their language.  For example, the caption at the top of the page can be challenged by pro-life activists on at least three grounds.  First, the idea that abortion is safe is immediately countered by accounts of mothers who have died from abortions; mentioning their deaths would not advance Planned Parenthood’s business functions.  Second, for public relations purposes, the legality of nine-month legalized abortion is rarely recognized by anti-life activists since the original 1973 abortion decisions, anti-lifers focusing only on the legality of first-trimester abortions, pro-lifers correctly emphasizing that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever.  Finally, “end pregnancy” is rhetorically ambiguous, since pregnancy can end in childbirth, babies who are stillborn, and destructive abortion methods.  However, given these pro-life challenges of an alternative perspective, it is doubtful that Planned Parenthood would agree to alter its website to accommodate pro-life concerns about its rhetoric.

Furthermore, each of the highlighted words in subsequent paragraphs on this page can be further challenged with an alternative viewpoint.  The “two kinds” of abortion listed omit some of the more gruesome abortion methods, such as partial-birth abortion.  “Options” is a linguistic variation of “choice”, which was long a favorite term in the anti-life community, but one which obscures the moral dilemma which should obtain when a mother is thinking about killing her unborn child.  The language about “parental consent” makes it clear that unemancipated mothers can hope that a willing judge would void the application of any parental consent law which would stop her not only from aborting, but also possibly harming herself.  Finally, the use of “health center” deflects the reality of the abortion clinic as the site where unborn children are killed.

          [slide twenty-three]  If one visited the National Right to Life Committee website, in contrast to the relatively simplistic Planned Parenthood home page, one would be greeted with lots of white space which focus the viewer’s attention to, not two, but seven messages scrolling in seven rapid slides.  The white space increases the readability factor, and the range of eight tabs at the bottom of the header consolidates information where necessary.  The presence of the baby in the upper right corner may convey to an ambivalent person or anti-lifer coming to this home page that the National Right to Life Committee is concerned about white babies and may become confused on learning that infanticide and euthanasia are coequal life issues.  Landing on the slide mentioning the “Affordable Care Act” would disarm those who may support Obamacare and may encourage such viewers to stay on the web page for the remaining six slides, all of which scroll in rapid succession, probably to fulfill the standard that young Internet users do not stay on web pages for long intervals.

          [slide twenty-four]  The ambivalent or anti-life viewer would be surprised to see that none of the seven slides contains either graphic photos of aborted babies, or identifiably Catholic elements (graphic imagery and Roman Catholicism being two characteristics of an uneducated view of the right-to-life movement).  The National Right to Life Committee has three functions: educational, legislative, and political.  The educational intent of the organization is evident in the “Life at Risk” slide; the legislative intent is clear in the “Tobias Testifies”, “Affordable Health Care”, and “NRLC Commends” slides; and the political intent is indicated by the “Vote” slide.  That the legislative and political functions of Planned Parenthood are absent from its website (beyond, possibly, the ambiguous “Get Involved” notation) is a point of collaborative negotiation that could make it clear to the general public that Planned Parenthood is not merely a “service” or “health” organization as its website intimates.

The “Donate” slide (“donate” being in all caps and a large font) is identical to Planned Parenthood’s emphasis on raising funds, and this commonality could lead to Rogerian collaborative negotiation.  Unfortunately, while Planned Parenthood obtains tax funding and foundation grants which finance its abortion activities, the difference between both organizations’ use of funds could jeopardize reaching a consensus.  Planned Parenthood could argue, as the National Right to Life Committee does, that donations are needed for “our life-saving efforts”; it would be difficult for Planned Parenthood to argue that mothers’ lives are saved only because unborn children’s lives are destroyed, especially since the National Right to Life Committee aims to save both the unborn child and his or her mother.  [slide twenty-five]  The “Abortion Information” page embedded within the website may pose a problem for those accessing the page for information about clinics which perform abortions.  However, since the National Right to Life Committee has education as a top priority, the page reflects that intent: a hypertext brief history of abortion is provided with “Quick Facts” (the first being fetological information) occupying the right side of the page.

          Much more can be written about the rhetoric of anti- and pro-life websites, just as other services provided by anti- and pro-life organizations have developed beyond mere website presence and email lists to RSS feeds and instantaneous legislative action with links embedded within the emails and icons allowing users to transmit the legislative appeals to one’s connections through Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, or other services.  Further research is needed to determine the utility of these services in the cause of restoring protection of all human life.  Such research depends on more sophisticated activists who not only analyze Internet and social media services, but also produce life-affirming work within those services.  Medical technological advances in the late twentieth century allowed humanity to see the unborn child and to perceive that even the severely comatose have active brain activity identifiable by increasingly sophisticated instruments.  The generations of the twenty-first century have the privilege and opportunity to use IT technological advances to generate action to restore the first civil right to life to an even greater degree and to an even greater audience. [slide twenty-six]

Works Cited

“Abortion Information.” National Right to Life Committee. [2014.] Web. 29 Aug.


“Abortion.” Planned Parenthood Federation of America. 2014. Web. 29 Aug.


Bell, Mark. Build a Website for Free. Indianapolis: Que, 2009. Print.

Boyd, Danah. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New

Haven: Yale UP, 2014. Print.

Fitzgerald, Drew. “Echoes of Y2K: Engineers Buzz That Internet Is Outgrowing

Its Gear Routers That Send Data Online Could Become Overloaded as Number of Internet Routes Hits ‘512K’.” Wall Street Journal, 13 Aug. 2014. Web. 14 Aug. 2014.

Koloze, Gregory. Message to the author. 6 Sept. 2014. Email.

Lloyd, Ian. Build Your Own Website the Right Way Using HTML & CSS. 3rd ed.

Collingwood, AU: SitePoint, 2011. Print.

Lynch, Patrick J., and Sarah Horton. “Page Design: Visual Design.” Web Style

Guide. 3rd ed. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

MacDonald, Matthew. Creating a Web Site: The Missing Manual. 2nd ed.

Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2009. Print.

National Right to Life Committee. National Right to Life. 2014. Web. 29 Aug.


Oliver, Dick. Sams Teach Yourself HTML 4 in 24 Hours. 2014. Web. 15 Aug.

2014. <


Oliver, Dick, and Charles Ashbacher. Sams Teach Yourself HTML and XHTML in

24 Hours. 5th ed. Indianapolis: Sams, 2001. Print.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America. 2014. Web.

29 Aug. 2014.

Ramage, John D., John C. Bean, and June Johnson. Writing Arguments: A

Rhetoric with Readings. 9th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.

Stewart, Jude. ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color. New

York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

“Web Page Design.” Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms. Eds. Douglas A.

Downing, Michael A. Covington, Melody Mauldin Covington, Catherine Anne Barrett, and Sharon Covington. 11th ed. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s, 2013. Print.

[1] That the Internet “age” of the World Wide Web may be reaching a close was recently suggested by The Wall Street Journal.  According to Internet engineers, there are warning signs that the Internet may be approaching limits, specifically (from the article’s subheading) that “Routers That Send Data Online Could Become Overloaded as Number of Internet Routes Hits ‘512K’” (Fitzgerald).

[2] Although much can be written about color theory, a final word is necessary here.  Many critics still comment on the symbolism of colors; for example, Jude Stewart’s ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color (2013) examines cultural factors surrounding the red to violet continuum abbreviated by the capitalized main title.  While the symbolism of red as a color of passion, for example, certainly has marketing relevance, for purposes of this discussion, other factors identified by Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton in their online Web Style Guide (3rd ed., 2011) such as the hue, saturation levels, and brightness of colors may have more relevance for the design of websites.

[3] The author wishes to thank Gregory Koloze, Director of Services at GK HospITality Solutions, LLC, for providing trenchant commentary about Oliver’s recommendation for image size and modem speed.  His analysis of the items on slide ten of the PowerPoint accompanying the presentation is worth noting in full:

At first I was concerned about the information on slide 10’s table, referencing image size and a 28.8 modem.  Then I realized, to have a good webpage, you do need appropriate sizes because, in many parts of the world, high-speed internet isn’t available and dial-up and satellite connections are being used.  You wouldn’t want to lose viewers due to a bandwidth intensive webpage.  Likewise, you would not want to have a website too large to load for a teenager looking at Right to Life’s webpage while she has music sharing running in the background, her mother is watching Netflix, her brother is online gaming, and her father is using a VPN to do work at home, leaving RTL’s site barely loading and you lose her.  Long story short: it’s a good table to have, but at first glance someone might discount the credibility of the data unless he or she thinks about it or the reasoning for the recommendation is explained further.


Select Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Assisted Suicide Fiction: Themes and Absences in the Works

Abstract:  This paper identifies common themes in the fictional literature on assisted suicide, classifying them as either major or minor. Three major themes include the absence of or, when they are present, distortion of religious values regarding assisted suicide and end-of-life decisions; the defeatist or utilitarian attitudes toward pain and suffering; and the use of the standard dehumanizing language found in euthanasia debates.  At least six minor themes can be culled from the works under review: first, the diminution or eradication of the idea that life is sacred; second, the aesthetics of death; third, the definition of suicide; fourth, anti-Catholicism; fifth, a decidedly liberal bent; and sixth, the use of rhetorical erotema.  Fortunately, four recent works illustrate a life-affirming response to most assisted suicide fiction: Harry Kraus’ Lethal Mercy (1997), Nicholas Sparks’ The Choice (2007), Jane St. Clair’s Walk Me to Midnight (2007), and Fiorella De Maria’s Do No Harm (2013).

          This paper arose from several fears, all of which reside in the author: the fear of facing the reality that the contemporary issue called assisted suicide counters the proposition that the author is not living in the most perfect of all perfect worlds; the fear of reading literature whose narrative structures ineluctably end with a disturbingly sad denouement; the fear of what reading such disturbing literature would have on his psyche; the fear of confronting those whose arguments for assisted suicide seem unassailable; and the fear that the alternatives to assisted suicide are grand, yet pale philosophical tenets that cannot match the grander and stronger needles filled with toxic agents to end what some misguided person may think is a dreary life.

As ministers, priests, and rabbis and their secular counterparts (psychologists) suggest, the first step to overcoming such ghostly fears and replacing them with substantial reality is to seek them out, name them, look them in the face, and bid them be gone.  In the world of literary criticism, these actions translate to finding works which concern assisted suicide, identifying themes in the works, countering those messages in the literature which are life-denying, and exorcising them in the name of a life-affirming literary ethic.

Thus as a starting point, titles concerning assisted suicide have been culled from research in the WorldCat database with the parameters that the work was written in or translated into English and produced since 1900.  These simple parameters were chosen not only to obtain a substantial list of items concerned with this topic, but also to recognize a fact of social history: assisted suicide became a new aspect of end-of-life issues in the twentieth-century Western world.  That English is the dominant language of discourse in the medical and literary fields makes the task of the literary researcher easier.

This paper first identifies common themes in the fictional literature on assisted suicide, classifying them as either major or minor.[1]  Three major themes in the literature studied here include the absence of or, when they are present, distortion of religious values regarding assisted suicide and end-of-life decisions.  The distortion of religious values affecting such decisions is ecumenical; works written from the perspective of characters who are purportedly Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant illustrate their ignorance of religious values frequently.  Whether such ignorance or distortion result from authorial intent to promote assisted suicide must be deferred to a vaster research project than this.  The second major theme concerns the defeatist or utilitarian attitudes toward pain and suffering, intimately connected with the value placed on human life.  The third major theme involves the use of the standard dehumanizing language found in euthanasia debates.

At least six minor themes can be culled from the works under review, the first being the diminution or eradication of the idea that life is sacred, predicated on the notion of “useless” life.  The second minor theme involves the aesthetics of death; that is, many works studied here reference the beauty that death brings to human life.  Admittedly oxymoronic, the beauty achieved in death is voiced not only by those who deny life, but also those who would most affirm its value.  Third, contemporary fiction often struggles with the definition of suicide, venturing simple definitions in either the declarative or interrogative sentence functions.  This inability to define suicide or assisted suicide leads to the often interesting corollary that most twentieth-century assisted suicide fiction hesitates to have characters commit the deed.  Characters who tire of life are redeemed at novel’s end either with a deus ex machina love of life or by another torque in the plot that removes the stress that a character may feel when compelling someone else to assist him or her in suicide.  That the hesitation frequently vanishes with twenty-first century assisted suicide fiction testifies to the abandonment of any qualms about offending readers with a topic formerly viewed as objectionable, probably because a highly secular, de-Christianized reading public itself is changing its attitude on the issue.

The remaining minor themes are infrequently found in the literature, but occur often to indicate how contemporary fiction tries to manage this controversial issue.  The fourth minor theme is a staple of American bigotry, anti-Catholicism.  The fifth minor theme is that many twenty-first century novels concerned with assisted suicide have a decidedly liberal bent, disparaging anything which seems rightist or conservative.  Attacks against conservatives may exist in the narrative only to advance the idea that supporting assisted suicide is a liberal tenet; often, however, these attacks are as gratuitous as certain sex scenes.  The sixth minor theme is the use of rhetorical erotema, which peppers some of the assisted suicide works, not only to have the reader consider a specific viewpoint, but also to stifle any opposition to the decision by a life-denying character engaged in someone’s suicide.[2]

          The task now is to examine these themes found in the literature.

Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s Miasma (1929)

One of the earliest novels concerned with assisted suicide is Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s Miasma.  From the beginning, it is clear who are the good guys and who the bad; Dr. Dennison, the narrator who believes in a life-affirming ethic, mentions doctors who do “disreputable jobs” (15), and within seven pages one of the main exponents of a competing perspective regarding the value of life is the first intimation of Dr. Leatherby’s philosophy, that there is no purpose in suffering (22).  Leatherby enforces the life-denying philosophy, mentioning those who live “long past the proper time” (47) and, a page later, the idea of “useless” life (48).  Within another page, Dennison, who has been befriended by Leatherby, states the maxim that “while there’s life, there’s hope” (49).  One could almost miss the importance of this expression, attributed to Theocritus, since there is a later reference to Dennison’s Christian faith (144).  However, that Dennison manifests a continuity between the ancient pagan world and Christian values is consistent with a medical person who believes that the ancient world and the Christian are largely compatible—an idea that Leatherby later refutes.

The full import of Leatherby’s philosophy hits the reader only towards novel’s end.  “Life isn’t anything sacred” (208) is asserted along with the idea that death “is painless, beautiful” (209).  The explication of his ethics occupies an entire chapter (211-21) and includes the ideas that his is the “Calvinistic […] opposed to the classic” (212) view of life, which should not have “utterly futile pain” (213); “man’s life is his own” is further asserted on the same page as death viewed as “easy and beautiful” (214).  Taking all these points together, Leatherby argues for “a true euthanasia” (219).

When his assisted suicide activities are discovered, fictional satisfaction occurs consistent with the moral weight of the Judeo-Christian centuries preceding the advent of this 1929 novel: to escape prosecution, Leatherby commits suicide.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Short Story “2BR02B” (1962)

          Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “2BR02B” is perhaps a transition from the clear divisions of Holding’s novel to the intellectual ferment of the sixties which witnessed the destruction of the sacredness of life ethic.  This is not to say that Vonnegut, known for his liberal and humanist philosophies, would have advocated the plot of this short story as a solution to overpopulation.  However, that the story would have proffered the idea that one person must sacrifice him- or herself if another person (a newborn) enters the world suggests openness to the idea of balance not only in population, but also in the demands of one generation placed on another.[3]

          Vonnegut’s story concerns a father whose wife gave birth to triplets; in a futuristic society, each child becomes permitted only if someone chooses to die.  Thus, the father sacrifices himself in order to have the child live.  Is this short story, therefore, an explication of a euthanasia plot or the first effort of the culture to describe a person who voluntarily kills himself with the assistance of the state, the last option being a sufficient stipulative definition for “assisted suicide”?  The ambiguity attending the question may be hidden by the shock value of the story.  Certainly, for the 1962 audience, that a father would be forced to have himself killed so that his child would live would be unconscionable.  In 2014 (after being exposed to decades of forced abortions in the People’s Republic of China, media and courtroom accounts spanning decades of mothers killing their newborns and their young children, and professors placed in the United States who openly advocate the killing of handicapped newborns), the shock value has dissipated, and so the question posed by the short story can be addressed.  Since this story is as tersely written as one of Hemingway’s short stories, it is difficult to identify language which conveys the author’s position or the narrator’s tone towards assisted suicide.  Such literary analysis must be relegated to future studies.[4]

Barbara Stevens Sullivan’s The Eighth of September (1995)

          Moving from a work by a humanist author to Barbara Stevens Sullivan’s The Eighth of September also moves the reader into the culture of a secular Jewish perspective on the issue of assisted suicide.  The nature of the family’s religious tradition is discussed early in the novel (5), as is the general philosophical ideas of the meaning of life and death (5-6).  Shirley, the main character, is described not only physically, but also in terms of her disability status: although not terminally ill, she has suffered a stroke (7).  Sympathy for Shirley was probably meant to be stimulated when the narrator reports that she had aborted her third child (13), but the opposite effect may have been created by this gratuitous use of abortion as birth control.  The religious and political positions of the family are eclectic; there is a mention of a visit to a Native American holy site (44), the “ridiculous war Bush” brought the United States into (45), another mention of the family’s Jewish identity if not practice (45), and further confused religious practices (50-1).

Perhaps it is this enumeration of disparate religious data that appropriately leads into commentary from the first third of the novel about assisted suicide issues themselves.  For example, having a “vegetable for a parent” (60) is obviously discouraging, and the loving devotion that a man had when he cared for his wife at home when she was in a coma is discussed in a disparaging manner (72), as if to suggest that no one should have to commit such time-consuming attention to anyone else’s care or endure such a waste of resources.[5]  “If her mother would only die!” (83) is an exclamation uttered by a daughter even though hope exists that Shirley could go home from a care facility where she temporarily resides (175-6), the image of a nursing home, of course, having been earlier depicted as suitably depressing to prevent any consideration that such a place could be life-affirming (120).

          Halfway through the novel, religious elements are reduced only to casual mention of terms and bigoted statements.  The exclamation “crazy Catholic mishagass [crazies]” (108) intersperses with commentary about searching for God, referring to Merton and contemplation in silence (142).  Native American sweatlodges (144) appear again, and suicide is called a sin (161) even though the family members admit that they are neither Christians nor Jews (170).

          A series of conditional statements can apply before the final assisted suicide occurs.  Since suicide is viewed as “rescue” (149-50), since Shirley, a frequent reader of Final Exit, asserts that her life is “nothing” (157), and since life does not exist before or after this earthly life (213), the family continues to arrange plans for Shirley’s suicide, which will be anything but “beautiful”: she will take pills to put herself to sleep and, once her head is bagged, choke to death on her vomit (224-5).

          Three novels intervene here, all of which briefly mention the major and minor themes.  Young-Ha Kim’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (a 2007 translation of the 1996 Korean original) reads like any other European or American novel on assisted suicide which seems devoid of Judeo-Christian values.  The narrator, a killer preoccupied by people “dragging their lives” (96), compares herself to a god “through creation or murder” (10).  It is uncertain if the reader is meant to understand that Mimi’s suicide is an actual one or a literary one—a take on what Europe now calls in its dispute with Google the “right to be forgotten” (Schechner).

          The situation in James McManus’ Going to the Sun (1996) is dire: David has been mauled by a grizzly (29) and wants to die.  Unfortunately for David, Penny, the narrator and David’s lover, has no intellectual or spiritual resources beyond standard pat secular axioms to help her decide if she should kill David.  Penny asserts that people decide if they want to die (41-[42]).  In retrospect, she questions if she is a murderer [68], yet cites Alaska law as an aid for her to decide her moral status (69).  She speaks disrespectfully of the Sixth Commandment and confession [70]; refers not to any saint or moral philosopher, but to Derek Humphry and Jack Kevorkian (71); holds a view towards the Bible which shows her lack of religious values (83); and believes not in religion, but fate (281-[282]).  David was no better.  He was a non-practicing Catholic (based on his sexual escapades with Penny and a former girlfriend); Penny thinks he “would not have approved of” the prayers at his funeral Mass [126].

          John Straley’s The Angels Will Not Care (1998) concerns a “death tour industry” (62) where persons on board ship die unexpectedly.  Cecil Younger, the narrator, hired to determine why people are dying, receives an ambiguous reply from the ship’s doctor when asked if he ends people’s lives, and the possibility is only hinted at throughout the novel.  Another character, however, openly states, “I determine my destiny” (141).  Some discussion concerns the confusion over medicines which may cause death (194), the passive vs. active distinction, and the role of the suicide doctor is eventually clarified (209); apparently, the suicides were supposed to be spaced (210).  To offset any further concern about the novel focusing on assisted suicide, a deus ex machina of life-affirming joy occurs when the narrator learns that he is a father (223-5).

Aidan Chambers’ Postcards from No Man’s Land (1999)

          Aidan Chambers’ Postcards from No Man’s Land is interesting for its setting and philosophical content as much as how it represents a fictional work geared for an adolescent readership.  Having the Netherlands as the setting conjures up two conflicting ideas, generationally based; for an older generation, particularly Baby Boomers, this is the country which suffered greatly during World War II, a country which is the site of Anne Frank’s tragedy and affirmation of life, and the country which would most seem to affirm life after the atrocities of the war.  For the younger generation, this is the country which embraced not only prostitution and drugs as liberating items necessary in contemporary culture (liberation from what is always ambiguous), but also euthanasia as the final privilege that secular persons have.

          The religious perspective of the characters is evident from the first pages when “god” is used as an interjection instead of a vocative for the Supreme Being.  A litany of contemporary social problems does not list any of the life issues, an indication of the traditionally myopic view of the liberal mindset (41).  Geertrui, the main character, “has an incurable illness” (64) and wants assisted suicide (93-4).  A long section of the novel engages in the in medias res technique, allowing the reader to see how a character such as Geertrui reached her current religious position.  She “still prayed in those days” (during the war) (97); her criticism of “ideology” (103) is a necessary precursor to the claim that the Bible is a “novel” (112).  After the death of Jacob, Geertrui’s British lover during the war, “the human instinct to keep life going at any cost” (228) controlled her life.  Unfortunately, the general horrors of the war and the specific horror of the death of her lover marked Geertrui considerably; she talks disparagingly about mothers who had illegitimate children and who were assisted by nuns (251).  Why such negativity should be uttered may not be clear at first, except to show not only her disgust of those who chose life even under dire circumstances, but also, possibly, to attack any Catholic entity as a suitable target for religious bigotry.  The antagonism for all things religious even affects non-human entities; the attitude regarding religious hymns is distinctly negative (239-40).

          The disregard for religious values is evident in other characters as well.  Daan, the friend of the ostensible protagonist of the novel (Jacob), is irreligious and bisexual (113 and 278); Jacob’s girlfriend Hille supports assisted suicide in a lengthy philosophical passage (215-8); and Jacob masturbates, treating the sexual activity merely as a “call of nature” and not as a sexually immoral act (233).

Geertrui’s ambivalence about her assisted suicide is deflected so that, instead of focusing on the act itself, she demonstrates her mental confusion by writing that she does not want Jacob at her assisted suicide (301-2).  After the killing, since this is a novel written for young adults who are irreligious and live a carpe diem life, the only way to end the plot is to focus not on how someone’s suicide comports with the divine will or how that suicide affects others.  For the secular and entirely earthbound adolescent characters of this fictional world who do not live by the standard of sexual fidelity within marriage, the novel ends with an appropriately salacious teen sex scene (311-2).[6]

          A quick survey will highlight the major and minor themes evident in five novels which intervene in the decade following Chambers’ work.

Jonathan Kellerman’s detective novel Dr. Death (2000) concerns the murder of an assisted suicide doctor, Eldon H. Mate, who is modeled after Jack Kevorkian.  One of the investigators calls Mate “just a homicidal nut with a medical degree” (15).  The novel contains pro-assisted suicide statements from a character who asserts that Mate was concerned with death, not “quality of life” (63).  This character also blames Catholics for Mate’s murder (70) with no justification beyond her having worked for a Catholic hospital.

          Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye (2006) is a historical novel set in 1831 which attempts to draw on the mysterious character of Edgar Allan Poe when he was a West Point cadet.  Gus, the narrator, views an epileptic boy as “a shell where a human being had once lived” [196].  He asks Poe to shoot him so that he will not be convicted and hanged of the murder of his sickly wife (406); Gus calls it a “mercy” (407).  He eventually commits suicide [413], saving Poe from having to decide the moral issue—as well as maintaining the status quo of literary history.

          Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk (2006) contains much religious discussion for a novel concerned with Eleanor’s desire to have Patrick, her son, assist her suicide.  Although characters do not believe in Original Sin (70-1), they recognize the futility of a New Age foundation (103-4), acknowledge the “gravitational field of confession” (121), and consider the philosophy behind “love thy neighbour” as a former “meaning of life” (126).  A Garden of Eden reference occurs (129) as does a commentary about Purgatory (190), yet any suggestion that the novel will suddenly turn life-affirming because of these religious references is halted by the claim that “an awful Christian stench” (191-2) is occupying the discussion.  Patrick treats his mother with compassion (220) yet considers assisting with her death as “a filial role” (221); this last assertion is supported by Patrick’s comparison of himself and his family with the Holy Family (227).  However, in a deus ex machina, Eleanor decides to “do nothing”; Patrick acquiesces (278-9).

          The unnamed narrator in Stephen White’s Kill Me (2006) contracts with an organization called the Death Angels to kill him should he become incapacitated.  When Adam, a son from a casual sexual encounter, appears on the scene, the narrator realizes that he cannot allow himself to be killed until he resolves whatever issues he has with his son.  However, when the narrator develops an aneurism, the Death Angels activate his contract and intend to kill him.  At novel’s end, his son needs a liver transplant, and the only person who can provide a perfect match is the narrator.  The narrator allows Lizzie, a former employee of the Death Angels, to kill him, allowing his liver to be donated to his son.  Just as an ignorant reading public may think that obtaining embryonic stem cells may seem morally justified if they are put to “good use”, since obtaining the cells requires the killing of a human being, the moral ambiguity of such a utilitarian and pathos-inspired approach toward assisted suicide in this novel may obscure the fact that a murder is being committed.

          John Barth’s The Development: Nine Stories (2008) presents a variety of characters who express life-denying views based on the absence of religious principles.  One character ponders “the prospect of his merely ceasing to exist” (28).  His wish is to “simply disappear—poof!” (29; italics in original), and the italicized interjection is probably intended as a comical approach to a serious end-of-life matter.  However, that people “only get one go-round” (42) and the expression of doubt concerning what exists after death (49) illustrate that eternal life asserted by religious belief is absent in these characters’ lives.

Greg Ames’ Buffalo Lockjaw (2009)

          If Barbara Stevens Sullivan’s The Eighth of September (1995) is the contemporary Jewish take on the assisted suicide issue, then Greg Ames’ Buffalo Lockjaw provides a view of a purportedly Catholic family struggling with the issue—“purportedly” being the operative term, since none of the characters lives up to the standards of Catholicism on the issue of assisted suicide or other tenets of Catholic belief.  For example, two main characters’ sexual behavior testifies against their adherence to Catholicism: Jimmy, the narrator, fornicates (43), and his lesbian sister is pregnant by a sperm donor (154).

          Jimmy’s perspective on assisted suicide is immediately apparent when he mentions that he is reading, not a compendium of moral theology or the latest pronouncements from Church authorities on the topic, but Assisted Suicide for Dummies (4).  He thinks he has the right to kill his mother (13) because suicide is not a sin (14); since his life is not founded on religious principles, he may have been persuaded more by his mother’s support for assisted suicide (104) as well as her debilitated state.  His hostility against his faith is obvious in several statements.  “Buffalo is a hard-core Catholic city” (172) could be a statement of praise, but it is not meant as epideictic.  Obvious hate statements against pro-lifers further distance the narrator from his religion’s activism on behalf of life; he cites the “antiabortion group Christians in Action” (200) and calls pro-lifers “sadists” (201) with no just cause.

          Instead of focusing on the religious or moral aspects of end-of-life issues, Jimmy seems most concerned with the beauty of death.  He often mentions his concern with “finding beauty” (23) and that he should “find the beauty” (106 and 136).  However, the concern over beauty cannot obscure several passages which read as logical argumentation and syllogisms used to comment on or support assisted suicide.  For example, the erotema “They shoot horses, don’t they?” (15) is a rhetorical ploy designed to elicit an affirmative response, the unstated enthymeme of the logical fallacy being that, if horses which are decrepit are shot, then humans who are similarly decrepit should be shot.  Jimmy’s friend may have come closest to arguing an analogy appropriate for resemblance arguments in the Aristotelian system when he equates assisted suicide with hiring a hit man (80-1).  Furthermore, the several instances of logical elements (such as a series of “if…then” propositions in two locations, pages 117 and 252) suggest that the lines mentioning finding beauty in death may deflect the more important task of making the case for euthanasia.

          The final bit of evidence that the novel shows ostensible Catholics not living up to their faith’s position on care for the infirm is revealed after Jimmy’s mother’s death.  The police suggest that Jimmy’s father, purported to be a faithful Catholic, was involved with his mother’s death (280-1), and Jimmy suspects his father may have killed his mother with the cooperation of a nurse who seemed so caring and compassionate toward his mother in her nursing home (287).  Apparently, it is a secret that they will uncomfortably share for the rest of their lives.[7]

          This paper began with a statement of several fears.  Fortunately, while the fiction discussed above may parallel the excruciating decisions that some people have to make regarding end-of-life decisions, the depictions of persons in dire straits, devoid of religious principles to guide them into their final days, do not constitute the comprehensive perspective on the issue that it may seem.  There are novels which display characters who are ordinary people, engaged with end-of-life issues from a different worldview, one which the vast majority of the world’s population experiences and which über-leftist writers may have renounced.  Four recent works may illustrate the response of that different worldview which counters the dismal, Cormac McCarthy post-apocalyptic road that some would have the reading public travel, and they include Harry Kraus’ Lethal Mercy (1997), Nicholas Sparks’ The Choice (2007), Jane St. Clair’s Walk Me to Midnight (2007), and Fiorella De Maria’s Do No Harm (2013).[8]

Where the themes of most of the earlier assisted suicide fiction novels either plead ignorance or utter hostility against religious principles, these four works openly profess a reverence for life based on religious themes without being didactic for a contemporary audience.  While the novels considered earlier suffer from defeatist or utilitarian attitudes toward pain and suffering, these life-affirming novels in contrast view suffering only as a means to an end, the end being a perfected state of existence with one’s family and, ultimately, the Divine Being.  Similarly, although the earlier works use standard dehumanizing language found in euthanasia debates, the four life-affirming novels contain characters who show respect for those suffering or near death.

Moreover, the four life-affirming novels address or counter the five minor themes identified earlier.  There is no diminution or eradication of the sacredness of life.  While life-denying novels suggest that death brings beauty to life, these life-affirming novels argue the opposite: that the respectful treatment of human life in its precarious or final stages could give beauty to the period surrounding death.  In these four novels, the definitions of suicide and assisted suicide are not difficult to grasp, and there is no bigotry against Catholicism or other denominations of Christianity or other religions.  Finally, the labels “conservative” and “liberal” tend to merge when characters are concerned with the care of the dying, and thus become moot; the important element in the plot is not advocating a leftist view, making the characters’ situations the mere background for didactic passages in support of assisted suicide, but depictions of care for fellow humans who are suffering or near death.  If this last proposition is accepted, then rhetorical erotema to stifle opposition to a life-denying decision is a useless literary tool.

Perhaps the fears that some have about end-of-life decisions would be alleviated if the steady stream of life-denying fictional works is balanced by fiction which does not focus on what seem to be insurmountable tragedies surrounding the end of life.  Writing serious fiction on a serious topic need not be morose, but this is the final characteristic of life-denying fiction.  In virtually all of the assisted suicide novels which end with the death of the person requesting suicide, the denouement is necessarily (and obviously) somber.  Just like abortion novels, there is no way to rejoice over the death of fellow human beings.

The life-affirming novels, however, have one saving grace: their plots are resolved, if not happily (for a human being has died), then at least satisfactorily.  That is, no life-affirming character suffers the final personal anguish of Dr. Leatherby (who, remember, commits suicide at novel’s end), or the father in Vonnegut’s short story (who goes grudgingly to his death when he would rather live and celebrate life with his newborn), or the assisted suicide victim in Sullivan’s novel (choking ever so beautifully on her vomit), or the young man in Chambers’ work (incognizant of the facts that, first, he was tangentially involved with a family acceding to a matriarch’s assisted suicide and, second, he has been reduced to a sexual toy by his assisted suicide supporting girlfriend), or the chronologically adult yet adolescent-minded lost boy Jimmy in Ames’ novel (who will live the rest of his life, virtually but not absolutely certain that his father killed his mother).  Although fiction is often merely an escape from the dreariness of cubicle life at work or a frustrating day with the kids instead of a didactic enterprise, with such necessarily dreary denouements that assisted suicide novels bring, readers may prefer to engage with life-affirming fictional worlds that enlighten their own.

Works Cited

Ames, Greg. Buffalo Lockjaw. New York: Hyperion, 2009. Print.

Baddock, James. Piccolo. New York: Walker, 1992. Print.

Barth, John. The Development: Nine Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Print.

Bayard, Louis. The Pale Blue Eye. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

Chambers, Aidan. Postcards from No Man’s Land. New York: Speak, 1999.


Crombie, Deborah. All Shall Be Well. New York: Avon, 1994. Print.

De Maria, Fiorella. Do No Harm. San Francisco: Ignatius P, 2013. Print.

Goldsborough, Robert. Death on Deadline. Toronto: Bantam, 1987. Print.

Holding, Elizabeth Sanxay. Miasma. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1929. Print.

Kellerman, Jonathan. Dr. Death. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.

Kim, Young-Ha. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself. Trans. Chi-Young Kim.

Orlando: Harcourt, 2007. Trans. of Na nun na rul p’agoehal kwolli ka itta. Munhakdongne, 1996. Print.

Kraus, Harry Lee. Lethal Mercy. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997. Print.

McDaniel, Lurlene. Breathless. New York: Delacorte, 2009. Print.

McManus, James. Going to the Sun: A Novel. New York: HarperPerennial,

1996. Print.

Nanda, Serena, and Joan Gregg. Assisted Dying: An Ethnographic Murder

          Mystery on Florida’s Gold Coast. Lanham, MD: AltaMira P, 2011. Print.

Picoult, Jodi. Mercy. New York: Washington Square P, 1996. Print.

—. The Storyteller. New York: Emily Bestler/Atria Books, 2013. Print.

Robinson, Peter. Before the Poison. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

Schechner, Sam. “Google Softens Stance in Europe’s Privacy War: Company

Unveils Web Page Where European Residents Can Ask It to Remove Links.” Wall Street Journal. 30 May 2014. 31 May 2014.

Sparks, Nicholas. The Choice. New York: Vision, 2007. Print.

St. Aubyn, Edward. Mother’s Milk. London: Picador, 2006. Print.

St. Clair, Jane. Walk Me to Midnight. Waterford, VA: Capstone Fiction, 2007.


Straley, John. The Angels Will Not Care. New York: Bantam, 1998. Print.

Sullivan, Barbara Stevens. The Eighth of September. Portland, ME: Astarte

Shell P, 1995. Print.

Trimble, Louis. Give up the Body. Seattle, WA: Superior, 1946. Print.

Trueman, Terry. Stuck in Neutral. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.

Vonnegut, Kurt. “2BR02B.” Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1950-1962; Player

Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Stories. Ed. Sidney Offit. New York: Library of America, 2012. 770-7. Print.

White, Stephen. Kill Me. New York: Dutton, 2006. Print.

[1] Since most of the published popular fiction studied here illustrates a negative view of human life, these themes could more properly be restricted by the hyphenated phrase “life-denying” in contrast with those works which convey life-affirming messages.  The classification of the themes as major or minor results from a cursory tally as the items under Works Cited were read and annotated.

[2] The erotema by the narrator in Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison (2012) further suggests a perspective that could cover all of the themes in the literature found thus far: self-centeredness.  Granted that Chris Lowndes, the narrator, has no faith (7) and that the seasonal trappings, if not the religious meanings, of Christmas in York, England make him feel alive (271-2), the heavy use of first-person pronouns stand out when he discusses his killing of his wife, who had suffered from cancer, by morphine overdoses.  In at least two locations, before the novel ends on page 358, the narrator says, “I told myself that I had done Laura a favor, and I knew in my heart that it was true, but I had still killed her.  Did that make me a murderer?” (337) and “I didn’t know whether that technically made me a murderer or not, but that didn’t matter.  I had killed” (354).  Even the tortured denouement includes too obvious first-person language; Chris’ discovery that the woman whose hanging he had been investigating was justified (she had killed her husband so that he would not pursue chemical weapons research) led to “the first tentative move toward forgiving myself” (356).  Placing such introspection at the end of the novel changes it from one which is a mystery involving the execution of another person who had killed.  Such psychological transference may therefore justify the nearly 20% overuse of the words quoted here (eleven of the fifty-eight) being first-person subject, object, and reflexive pronouns.

[3] Louis Trimble’s Give up the Body (1946) contains evidence that the question may have been asked earlier.  More a murder mystery than a discourse on assisted suicide, one character asks a rhetorical question which could be an attempt to redefine suicide: “Is suicide extreme cowardice or extreme bravery?” (192).

[4] Three novels are omitted from the larger discussion here, but two common threads connect them: first, a hesitation to have characters engage in assisted suicide; second, its opposite, an affirmation of life.  Robert Goldsborough’s Death on Deadline (1987) has one character identifying suicide as the “ultimate admission of failure” (67) and the deus ex machina reveals that Harriet’s death was an accident, not a suspected suicide, assisted or otherwise (159-60).  Although James Baddock’s Piccolo (1992) is not concerned with assisted suicide (it is a detective novel, involving scientists whose suicides were actually murders), there is a brief and quasi-assisted suicide scene; Redmond kills a criminal engulfed in flames (215), ostensibly to put him out of the misery of the situation.  Finally, Deborah Crombie’s All Shall Be Well (1994) may involve Meg in the assisted suicide of Jasmine Dent who is under her care; however, towards the denouement it is learned that Jasmine was killed by her visiting nurse (264); furthermore, Jasmine’s last journal entry praises life and affirms that she wanted to live (267-8).

[5] While it seems that the main plot of Jodi Picoult’s Mercy (1996) concerns the adultery of a husband more than an assisted suicide courtroom drama (most of the 400 pages constitute a tedious development of the adultery theme instead of the intricacies of assisted suicide), the novel contains some choice rhetorical uses of inaccurate language to denote mercy killers and their victims, “vegetable” being a key element.  Maggie, a cancer patient who was killed by her husband, discusses vegetable imagery (30); the husband’s defense attorney “didn’t know how he felt about euthanasia” and asks, “Was it the same as wanting someone to pull the plug if you ever became a vegetable?” (90).

[6] Chambers’ novel is only one of many fictional works for young adults which discuss assisted suicide.  Two such novels deserve attention here.  Terry Trueman’s Stuck in Neutral (2000) concerns fourteen-year-old Shawn, who has cerebral palsy, and his father, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a poem about him.  Shawn says that his father “divorced me” (4; emphasis in original) since he is a “total retardate” (4).  Shawn defines euthanasia as “the killing of sick people” (11) and affirms that “there’s an actual person hidden inside my useless body; I am in here, I’m just sort of stuck in neutral” (11; emphasis in original); he even comments on the use of “vegetable” to describe a handicapped person (25).  Unlike authors who are concerned with the beauty that euthanasia brings to one’s death, Shawn describes the beginning of his seizures (“crackling”) as beautiful (32).  Shawn suspects that his father will kill him (12), and his speculation is justified.  His father thinks out loud that “maybe you’d be better off if I ended your pain”, the act of euthanasia which he contemplates changed both euphemistically and metonymically (21).  Shawn’s father makes a documentary at Shawn’s school which questions the utility of funding education for “the uneducable” (44-7).  The murder that his father wants to commit is foreshadowed when it is suggested that he will write a book about a convicted man who suffocated his brain-damaged two-year-old son (66).

            The family’s religious practices are ambiguous.  Shawn’s mother does not finish the idea that “a lot of people believe in life after—”, and the presumption is that she does not (16).  The father is an atheist (50) who “almost started believing in God” when Shawn was born; he had prayed for a cure for his son (112).  Despite the parents’ lack of faith, Shawn argues, since “we are more than just our bodies and our brains, I should believe that we have souls” (59).  At novel’s end, it is presumed that the father will suffocate Shawn (113-4).  The fictional nature of this work is tempered by the novel being based on the author’s experiences with his son, who has cerebral palsy (115-6).

Lurlene McDaniel’s Breathless (2009) concerns the situation of Travis, a young man with osteocarcinoma, who asks his girlfriend Emily to kill him.  The idea of God that Emily, the narrator, holds is of one who fixes things (44).  Her religious affiliation is confusing; she prays “Kyrie eleison” (45) even though she is a “minister’s daughter” and thus some category of Protestant (89).  Travis asks for a do-not-resuscitate order and offers, not complete rational thoughts, but two phrases as his justification for doing so: “My body.  My choice” (96) and proceeds to plan his suicide with Emily’s help.  His attitude about seeing God after his death is clearly aggressive: “We’ll deal with each other when we meet” (137).  Once his decision is made, Emily abandons the trappings of her religious belief: she stops going to church (114) and hides her bible far in a closet corner (150), yet she ironically at novel’s end goes to Mexico to build a church (162).  The most important feature of the novel is the last sentence, an erotema.  After Emily kills Travis (163-5), her rhetorical question is just as taunting as Travis’: “Who’s my judge?” (165).

[7] Two other novels following Ames’ work deserve some attention.  Serena Nanda and Joan Gregg, coauthors of Assisted Dying: An Ethnographic Murder Mystery on Florida’s Gold Coast (2011) offer brief mentions of terms and ideas associated with assisted suicide and euthanasia.  The American attitude toward aging and independence (12) is discussed along with the Muslim attitude toward caring for the elderly (16).  Euthanasia is mentioned (68) as is the idea of “useless, selfish creatures” (79). One character thinks death leading to something better is not a matter of religious certainty, but “a great point for consideration” (87).  The characters’ antipathy to anything but leftist beliefs is evident when one says that she has “never been to a Wal-Mart” (159) and when the Tea Party and President George W. Bush are disparaged (162).  It is interesting that discussion question ten asks, “Can death be made beautiful?” (195).

The second novel is Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller (2013), which involves Sage, the narrator, an atheist who comes from a Jewish family (15), who is asked by Josef, a former SS officer, to assist him in his suicide.  After a long and tedious retrospective narrative, Sage agrees to kill Josef (410), baking a roll containing the poison monkshood.  However, only in the denouement is it learned that a case of mistaken identity had occurred.  Josef was not the SS man that Sage thought (457), but his brother.  Thus, Sage did not assist in a suicide as much as she committed murder by killing the “wrong” person (458).

[8] Although De Maria’s and Sparks’ novels concern problems attending a living will law in (respectively) Britain and the United States and not assisted suicide per se, the timeliness of these works which illustrate several ideas discussed above justify their inclusion in this study.  De Maria’s work concerns efforts to deny life-saving treatment for a young woman affected by a pro-life physician’s abrogation of her living will.  That the young woman’s friends seem to collaborate in “assisting” (or promoting) her death when ordinary medical care could save her life is implicit in this novel.  The degree to which anti-life forces can agitate for denial of medical care when such care would save someone’s life, to the point of prosecuting physicians who live by the Hippocratic Oath, is a frightening consequence of their autocratic demand for social acceptance of their views.

            Sparks’ novel is philosophically milder.  Although four-fifths of the novel is concerned with the romance of the main characters, the last section of The Choice offers a different take on the frighteningly life-denying role that living wills play in end-of-life decisions.  Gabby, the wife of Dr. Travis Parker, has been in a coma for eight-four days.  Since her living will specified that feeding tubes should be removed after twelve weeks, Travis must decide whether to follow the living will or ignore his wife’s wishes.  Although he is depicted as an upstanding man (despite the fact that his and Gabby’s ideas about premarital sex follow typical American norms and not the chaste religious view that sex should be reserved for marriage), Travis’ religious sense is ambiguous throughout the novel.  The closest he comes to considering religious beliefs occurs when the narrator says that

he’d been searching for answers in the Bible and in the writings of Aquinas and Augustine.  Occasionally he would find a striking passage, but nothing more than that; he would close the cover of the book and find himself staring out the window, his thoughts blank, as if hoping to find the solution somewhere in the sky.  (240)

Although this passage indicates neither his religious affiliation nor the degree to which religious ideas affect his decision-making, Travis is aware of key ideas in end-of-matters.  He ponders if he would become a killer by withdrawing feeding tubes (291) and thinks that “where there was life, there was always hope” (294).  Fortunately, Travis chose not to remove Gabby’s feeding tubes (300), and she awakes from her coma.


Right-to-Life Issues in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature

Abstract:  Although it may seem as though gay and lesbian fictional works have nothing to do with the life issues, this research examines several instances where the right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are mentioned in gay and lesbian fiction.  Moreover, there is enough evidence to suggest that the literature comports more with, if not an overtly pro-life philosophy, then at least a life-affirming one.  That is, the literature illustrates characters with same-sex attraction who do not necessarily support the killing of the unborn, the handicapped newborn, or the medically vulnerable or aged.  Finally, this study demonstrates how using the five questions of right-to-life literary theory can provide an opportunity for persons with same-sex attraction to renounce their allegiance with the destructive elements of the contemporary gay and lesbian movement and, instead, align themselves with the pro-life movement, which is more compatible with their efforts to seek authentic love.

[slide 2]  I.  Introduction and Commentary on Scholarship

          This study examines a rarely explored area of pro-life academic (as opposed to legislative, healthcare, or general activist) concern: the impact of the gay and lesbian movement on the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.  Of course, the reverse may be possible.  That is, instead of discussing whether the gay and lesbian movement impacted the three issues of the pro-life movement, it can be argued that the three life issues may have influenced the gay and lesbian movement, especially, for example, in end-of-life care of persons with AIDS.[1]  While colleagues in organizations such as University Faculty for Life have investigated other aspects of the life issues in English and the humanities (adolescent, African-American, Latino, Muslim, and even South Korean literature), reviewing literary works produced by or for the gay and lesbian communities has not been addressed.  Thus, this project begins unique research.

In fact, it seems that academics who are not formally part of the pro-life movement and who may either be aligned with or generally support the gay and lesbian movement themselves may not have bothered with the life issues in gay literature, and this lack of scholarly interest is evident in the research.  The difficulties in obtaining gay and lesbian literature which address the life issues are most perplexing.[2]  While academics have penned many articles on legal issues in the gay and lesbian community (the overthrow of heterosexual normativity in all things legal and social being a primary goal of the aggressive gay and lesbian movement), little criticism exists regarding what gay and lesbian literature has to say on the life issues.[3]

Moreover, even though the pro-life movement has over a half century of activism in the United States and has developed resources in all fields (including the creation of the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, which began in 1990), scholarly research on gay literature within the past two decades continues to neglect the life issues.  If the indexes of the works are any indication, then abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia do not figure in Cruising the Performative: Interventions into the Representation of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Sexuality, a 1995 compilation by Sue-Ellen Case, Philip Brett, and Susan Leigh Foster.  Nor do the life issues appear in Bonnie Zimmerman and Toni A. H. McNaron’s The New Lesbian Studies: Into the Twenty-First Century (1996), Scott Bravmann’s Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture, and Difference (1997), Gregory Woods’ A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (1998), Colm Tóibín’s Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature (2001), and William Mark Poteet’s Gay Men in Southern Literature: Ritual, Initiation, & the Construction of Masculinity (2006).

Even the magisterial 2015 anthology Critical Insights: LGBTQ Literature, edited by Robert C. Evans, does not identify any of the life issues in its chronological review of such works from Stonewall riots of 1969 to the present.  Although the lugubrious, Norton-like The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature: Readings from Western Antiquity to the Present Day (1998), edited by Byrne R. S. Fone, does not have an index, the final section of the volume (about two hundred of the 829 pages), covers literature since Stonewall.  This era coincides with the history of anti-life agitation, yet it is remarkable that the life issues which dominated American culture and history since then are neither mentioned nor included in the study.[4]

[slide 3]  II.  From Negation to the Structure of This Study

This study begins with several statements illustrating the rhetorical principle of negation, defining what the study does not address, before proceeding into what it will cover.  This study does not summarize the millennia-long history of same-sex attraction, nor does it generalize the history of that part of same-sex attraction which has become known as gay and lesbian action for legal recognition of certain practices long determined throughout human history as either disgusting, immoral, physically harmful, reprehensible, or sinful.  This study does not address policy changes by professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association’s declassification of homosexuality and lesbianism as not disordered.  Nor does this study argue against the erosion of Judeo-Christian sexual values, the eradication of such values being the political and social objective of the current aggressive gay and lesbian movement.  This study does not engage in the refutation of what proponents call the legalization of same-sex marriage and which opponents identify as the gay and lesbian distortion of heterosexual marriage.  Although some argumentation is ineluctable from a humanities perspective, detailed debate against the moral positions of those who equate behavior resulting from same-sex attraction with heterosexual normativity (for example, claiming that sodomy between homosexual men is “just as good as” sex between a husband and wife) must be deferred to apologists, attorneys, psychologists, sociologists, theologians, and others in the contemporary culture wars.

          [slide 4]  This study does, however, discuss the following.  First, five attributes culled from a close reading of gay and lesbian literature will be presented.  The study then considers a series of works exemplifying the gay and lesbian attitude towards reproduction and abortion, including Sarah Schulman’s Girls, Visions and Everything (1986), Annie Proulx’ “Brokeback Mountain” (first published 1997), and Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City (2018).  Infanticide from a gay and lesbian perspective is considered in Angelina Weld Grimké’s “The Closing Door” (1919).  The study then considers several novels regarding AIDS patients and the absence of euthanasia as a solution to the pain and loss of dignity created by the disease.  The study closes with an application of the five questions of right-to-life literary theory, focusing especially on the search for authentic love by persons with same-sex attraction.

III.  Five Attributes Culled from a Close Reading of Gay and Lesbian Literature

          Although the gay and lesbian political movement, especially the aggressive one of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, may seem to have nothing to do with the life issues, the political basis of the gay and lesbian attacks on heterosexual normativity need to be identified to understand why gay and lesbian activists align themselves with anti-life forces.  As early as 1980, Edmund White claimed that, although some philosophical disagreements became evident between feminists and gay activists, “This fairly recent rupture, however, should not obscure the debt that gay liberation owes to feminism.  The members of both movements, for instance, regard their inner experiences as political” (780).  In his 1998 anthology, Fone asserts not only that “Since Stonewall, American gay writers have inaugurated a debate that explores the personal and the social but especially the political implications of ‘coming out’” ([729]), but also that

Post-Stonewall writers, however, have moved coming out away from being a question of private recognition and acceptance and translated it into the realm of public political action, arguing that coming out is a necessary political act and the primary political weapon in the battle against homophobia.  (730)

Devon W. Carbado, Dwight A. McBride, and Donald Weise confirm the impact of the feminist agitation to legalize abortion on gay and lesbian activism in their 2002 anthology on African-American gay literature.[5]  A recent example of the interconnectedness of the push for keeping abortion legal and the purposes of the gay and lesbian lobby occurs in Katrina Kimport’s 2016 research, wherein she argues that the “abortion rights” movement can learn much from the putative success of the “marriage equality” movement.

Given the political bases of the gay and lesbian movement, it is common knowledge that the gay movement aligned itself with so-called left-leaning causes and political factions, especially after Stonewall.  For example, although the warrant for its position is not provided, the Human Rights Campaign, which Wikipedia identifies as “the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and political lobbying organization in the United States”, lists “abortion rights” as a key item in its political action criteria.[6]  Now that the Democratic Party has especially renounced the values of those who made it a political force since the New Deal (ethnic and religious, especially Catholic, voters), the gay agenda has not only enjoyed political, but also economic power.  One thinks invariably of people like the Clintons, the Obamas, and George Soros who fund efforts to destabilize heterosexual marriage and promote nine-month legalized abortion in the US and around the world, especially targeting Catholic countries, like Ireland, for the public relations value that a change in moral and legal values can generate.[7]

However, while the preceding paragraphs collapse several decades of the political heat generated by those who support and oppose the gay and lesbian legal, political, and social agenda, the intention here is to focus on the literature.  What are the characteristics in gay and lesbian literature itself which can assist readers to understand and evaluate it?  Using the close reading technique of standard formalist criticism, the following five attributes can be isolated.

[slide 5]  First, a reading of contemporary gay and lesbian literature illustrates a confusion over the four traditional categories of love (agape, eros, philia, and storge), well-distinguished by C. S. Lewis.[8]  Second, the literature focuses on the obvious, the satisfaction of sexuality as the most significant aspect of humanity.  Third, gay and lesbian literature repudiates the Jewish and Christian view of human sexuality.  Fourth, the literature directs hostility against one denomination, Roman Catholicism, more than any other; this hostility can be further trifurcated into “mild”, “intellectually dishonest or misunderstood”, or “extremely hostile” categories.  Lastly, despite the loss of standards covering sexuality for five millennia and despite gay and lesbian activists’ animosity towards religiously-based defense of the unborn, the newborn, and the elderly, the literature still illustrates an abiding respect for life threatened by abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

          The ordering of these five attributes is not meant to indicate causality, the determination of which would require a lengthier analysis than can be provided here.  However, the order of the five attributes often approximates the trend in the literature where a character encounters confusion over his or her sexuality (the first principle), which leads to what the character thinks is a satisfaction of that sexuality by engaging in a practice contrary to what he or she has been taught (the second principle).  If a character reflects on the philosophical foundations of sexual values, then he or she would reject Judaism and Christianity, the bases of Western culture (the third principle).  If the character was raised as a Roman Catholic, then his or her renunciation of that branch of Christianity which is most forceful in protecting heterosexual normativity may occupy an important place in the fictional work (the fourth principle).  Finally, the character will display respect for the unborn, the handicapped newborn, or the medically vulnerable or elderly even though he or she renounced Judeo-Christian sexual ethics (the fifth principle).  Some examples from gay and lesbian literature will illustrate these principles.

First, there is a serious confusion in gay and lesbian literature between the four types of love, concisely discussed in C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves: agape, eros, philia, and storge.[9]  Caring for all persons with AIDS and demanding respect for all members of the gay and lesbian community could manifest a universal love for mankind (agape); similarly, evidence for philia exists, certainly towards the object of one’s same-sex attraction.  However, the friendship which would normally develop between the persons generally declines into genital activity (a sequence in plot development which is reached in most gay and lesbian fiction).  Moreover, Lewis’ storge, or familial affection, is often lacking, either because the gay or lesbian person perceives his or her family to be hostile to him or her or because important members of the family unit are absent or the family unit is otherwise broken.  One thinks of the affection and direction in life that Ennis did not receive from his father and the assault Jack endured when his father urinated on him in Annie Proulx’ “Brokeback Mountain” or Latino gay activist John Rechy, discussing his “strange, moody, angry man—my father” in his City of Night (qtd. in Stavans 1027).

Second, obviously, an essential attribute of gay and lesbian literature concerns sexuality.  The gay and lesbian understanding of human sexuality is that its satisfaction is the most significant aspect of one’s humanity.  Repeatedly, gay and lesbian theorists emphasize that sexual expression should be “liberated” from what some perceive as archaic religious views.  This ironic position may account for the academic emphasis on the complexities of the ancient Greek view on sexuality, specifically same-sex attraction.  The irony, of course, should be evident; why the Jewish and Christian understanding of human sexuality is denigrated as archaic while the Greek cultural perspective, which is as old as Judaism and Christianity, is not may be attributed not so much to a reasoned academic evaluation but to the utilitarian goal of the gay and lesbian movement to normalize not so much “sex”, but unnatural genital activity.

Third, a closely related idea to the second attribute is that the Jewish and Christian understanding of human sexuality is specifically repudiated by gay and lesbian authors and theorists.  While traditional Judaism and Christianity view human sexuality as a divinely ordained means to accomplish its inherent simultaneous objectives (the physical satisfaction of the married persons whose sexual activity is open to the procreation of children), twentieth-century sex theory divorced the dual purposes, thus allowing a series of sexual beliefs and policies which are contrary to the understanding of sex throughout several millennia.  The separation of the unitive and the procreative functions of heterosexual normativity enabled the Lambeth Conference to permit contraceptive use in the Anglican Church in 1930.  The separation of sex’s two purposes justified the legalization of abortion, whether for a specific period of gestation or, as in the United States, for the entire nine months of pregnancy through the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions in 1973.  Of course, the separation of sex’s two functions stimulated the legal and social acceptance of genital activity by gay and lesbian persons.

Fourth, even more specifically, one can argue that moving from not understanding the forms of love to abandoning traditional Jewish and Christian principles of heterosexual normativity to the alteration of practices in some Protestant denominations in the late nineteenth and twentieth-century leads ineluctably to hostility against Roman Catholicism, that branch of Christianity which continues to oppose genital activity by gay and lesbian persons.  The presence of anti-Catholic statements in gay and lesbian literature is pronounced and takes either mild, intellectually dishonest or misunderstood, or extremely hostile forms.

          [slide 6]  An example of a mild criticism of Catholicism is found in Quebecois lesbian author Marie-Claire Blais’ 1986 Autobiography:

My years at the convent had given me a taste for study and discipline and I still kept my love for the pagan beauty of Roman Catholicism.  Perhaps my admiration for Simone Weil, Georges Bernanos, Paul Claudel, and François Mauriac was born of the swarming aesthetic emotions which I think of as my religious feeling.  But I hated the Catholic Church, its clergy, the nuns, and the ostracism of all those who were judged to be deviant.  (qtd. in Malinowski 43)[10]

          [slide 7]  While examples of the category of “intellectually dishonest or misunderstood” ideas about Catholicism are, thus far, found more in the criticism instead of the literature, they are prominent enough to mention here since they disclose the perspectives of literary critics towards this religion, perspectives which could color their explication and review of gay and lesbian literature.  When she introduces Blais’ excerpts in a 1995 anthology, Dawn Thompson writes that “Christian imagery is gradually replaced by a more open and accepting spirituality”, the implication being, of course, that Christian spirituality is in her estimation closed and exclusionary (38).

Two other critics use similarly highly negative connotations.  Paul Christensen argues that Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” uses “elements of repressive Christianity, militarism, and corporate oligarchy”, all terms whose connotations are meant to be understood as highly negative (193).  Irish gay author Colm Tóibín wrote in 2001 that

The Church has lost the war against contraception and divorce, and won the battle, at least for the moment, on abortion.  But it still works its authority when it can.  It won the right to have certain people—teachers and nurses mainly—excluded from recent anti-discrimination legislation, on the basis that the Church as an employer has a right to discriminate against those who do not support its ethos.  (257)

Being open to a contrary view that the Church must uphold moral values it received from its founder to fulfill its spiritual mission (the orthodox perspective) is not acknowledged in Tóibín’s claim, knowing, of course, that the connotation of “discrimination” is a negatively loaded term for anyone in Western culture.

[slide 8]  An especially vituperative anti-Catholic instance occurs in Malcolm Boyd’s description of one of his sexual episodes.

          He rose from the bed like a pillar of amber, like an avenging angel—and noticed my clerical collar on top of the bureau.  He picked it up with great delicacy.  As I stood beside him, he looked at me.  “You a priest?”


          “Well, how about that!”  His eyes suddenly burst into flame.  “I don’t want to make it with a priest.”

“Why?  What’s the matter with being a priest?”

“I’ve got no time for the goddamn church.  It hates gays.  The church hates humanity.  The church hates God because God made people.  You’re a fucking priest in the goddamn church.”

I saw the fist coming toward me, felt a crash of pain….  (qtd. in Malinowski 95-96; ellipsis in original)

That Boyd is an Episcopal priest makes an objection to this passage as not being focused on anti-Catholic bigotry irrelevant, for the term “priest” is customarily identified with one denomination.  Moreover, the text does not show that the gay lover makes such a distinction; in his world, a priest is commonly identified with one denomination only, thus accounting for his visceral reaction.

Finally, despite the loss of standards covering sexuality for five millennia and despite gay and lesbian activists’ animosity towards religious positions of respect for the unborn, the newborn, and the elderly, the fifth attribute of gay and lesbian literature is that it still illustrates an abiding respect for life threatened by abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.  The following section will highlight specific passages which convey this consistent respect for life.

IV.  Specific Passages from Gay and Lesbian Literature

Gay and lesbian literature provides several interesting passages on the three life issues.  The first life issue, abortion, may be, obviously, a relatively unimportant theme in gay literature according to the political activists.  After all, persons with same-sex attraction who identify themselves as gay or lesbian are neither physically capable, absent assisted reproductive techniques, of creating new life through their genital activity nor do they wish to manifest their presumed love for each other in the form of another human being.  However, there is some evidence worth evaluating.

A.  Sarah Schulman’s Girls, Visions and Everything (1986)

[slide 9]  Biographical commentary about Sarah Schulman notes her activism “in progressive politics and grass roots movements for social change” including “reproductive rights”, which is code for abortion (451).  An excerpt from Schulman’s Girls, Visions and Everything mentions abortion explicitly:

Their talk was full of memories and associations, comfortable as old friends, but with the excitement of describing themselves to each other for the first time.  Eudora Welty, The Allman Brothers, Giovanni’s Room, Top Cat, reading Dostoyevsky in high school and finding out there were things to think about in life, like how much control you have and when to take it.  They talked about woman things too.  About rape, about abortion, about being straight.  (8)

          The placement of the term “abortion” in the final litany of terms is most curious and, when explicated using formalist close reading, can disclose the prioritization of the lesbian author of sex over reproduction.  The term is listed almost as an afterthought, as though it were utterly unimportant to the women engaged in conversation.  The lack of importance is intensified since the term is placed, not in a complete sentence, but in a prepositional phrase, and the emotional power of the act of abortion is further decreased by its placement as a second of three nouns in the prepositional phrase.  The idea, therefore, must be that the purely sexual activities (rape, the imposition of presumably male-only force on the women, and lesbianism, a choice the women can make) are more important than the act of killing called abortion.  Whether the seeming lack of concern about the anxiety and often torturous choice that a mother makes when she decides to abort is due to lack of empathy or a deliberate disregard of aborting women’s anxieties (for fear that attention to such anxieties would detract from the lesbian political agenda) must be relegated to future research.

          B.  Annie Proulx’ “Brokeback Mountain” (first published 1997)

          [slide 10]  The following passage from a literary work which has more popularity and notoriety than the above relatively obscure lesbian passage concerns not so much abortion, but the attitudes of the straight wife and the gay husband toward the dual purposes of sexuality.  The following passage from Annie Proulx’ short story “Brokeback Mountain” illustrates the tensions between these characters’ views:

A slow corrosion worked between Ennis and Alma, no real trouble, just widening water.  She was working at a grocery store clerk job, saw she’d always have to work to keep ahead of the bills on what Ennis made.  Alma asked Ennis to use rubbers because she dreaded another pregnancy.  He said no to that, said he would be happy to leave her alone if she didn’t want any more of his kids.  Under her breath she said, “I’d have em if you’d support em.”  And under that, thought, anyway, what you like to do don’t make too many babies.[11]

          It is interesting to note that both heterosexual Alma and her gay husband are ambiguous about the purposes of heterosexual normativity.  That Alma wants sex on the stipulation that Ennis uses condoms shows that she has as much a corrupted sense of the purposes of sexuality as her husband.  That Ennis refuses to use condoms shows that he seems to respect the unitive aspect of sexuality, but his subsequent sodomization of his wife counters such a perception.  Of course, the second purpose of sexuality is frustrated by both: Alma claims she would want Ennis’ children, yet she places financial stipulations as higher concerns; Ennis, similarly, claims he would want more children, yet sodomizing his wife clearly testifies to what he most values, mere genital activity.  Furthermore, this passage and the entire short story can be viewed as evidence of a married man who has not resolved his same-sex attraction; not having done so, Ennis effectively destroys not only his own happiness, but that of his wife and children and, of course, his lover’s family.

          C.  Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City (2018)

          Although briefly reviewed elsewhere,[12] Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City is a remarkable deflection from the aggressive gay and lesbian agenda’s perspective on abortion.  Angela Morales, the lesbian main character, does not follow the political dictum which presumes that giving birth is a manifestation of, as one of the “rules of the lesbian Mafia” contained in the novel reads, “white supremacist heteropatriarchy” [19].  While Angela cannot account for her attraction to the eminently masculine (and, by definition, heterosexual) Ryan, she has sex with him enough to become pregnant.

          [slide 11]  Reminiscent of Hemingway’s famous short story about abortion, the following passages reflect Angela’s anguish in choosing either abortion or carrying the pregnancy to term.  In this first passage, Angela recounts her experience with the most prominent abortion business with which lesbians and others who advocate life-denying positions would be most familiar and her initial reactions to being pregnant:

I couldn’t believe it was real, even as I dialed Planned Parenthood from a pay phone […]  The voice on the line was kind, matter-of-fact.  They called me “dear.”  They said they could see me next Tuesday.  I said Tuesday sounded good.  That was five days from now.  How much could the cells multiply in five days?  Not much, I figured.  And I didn’t want to know.

          The receptionist suggested I bring a friend or partner for support.  I said, “I’ll be fine.”  I wanted it out, quick.  The sooner it was gone, the more over this would all be.  I was done with affairs.  I was done with faking it.  I was done with secrets.  It was time to clean up my mess, all by myself.  In five days I would expel this last trace of Ryan from my life.  He didn’t even need to know.  No one did.  I would box up the whole weird affair and store it in the farthest corner of the attic.  Better yet, recycle it.  (162; italics in original)

[slide 12]  In this next passage, a change in Angela’s attitude slowly emerges, when she perceives the barest of fetological facts:

I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of water.  When I tried to drink from it, my hands shook so much I had to set the glass on the counter and brace myself.  I walked out the front door and stood on the porch in the cool damp night.  I slid my hand under my shirt and touched my flat abdomen.  All I could feel was my own warm skin.  Whatever was inside me was tiny and deep, secreted away.


The next morning I wrapped the used tests in a plastic bag and threw them into a Dumpster on MLK while walking Bullet.

          I borrowed Summer’s dog-eared purple copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves.  The embryo was probably the size of a lentil or maybe a pea.  That was nothing!  A mere legume.  It hardly even existed.  Five days couldn’t go quickly enough.  I was seized by the urge to eradicate, eradicate.  (162-3)

[slide 13]  After she informs her lesbian friends that she did the unconscionable (not only had sex with a heterosexual man, but became pregnant by him), and after she confirms her pregnancy with three home pregnancy tests, Angela reviews her circumstances and reaches an ineluctable conclusion:

That night in bed, I lay on my back and rested my hands on my abdomen.  Of course it was too early to feel anything.  But I knew it was in there.

          “You and me,” I whispered in the dark.  Two selves.  “Do you think we could do this?”  (187)

This last passage is noteworthy for three reasons.  First, it is a conversation between Angela, the mother, and the unborn child—not a narrator’s summary of events.  Second, the change in the pronouns in this brief passage is rhetorically substantial.  Using the third-person neuter pronoun to refer to the unborn child indicates that Angela has begun from a standard life-denying position.  Moving to the second-person singular pronoun “you”, however, indicates that she acknowledges the existence of the child.  That she uses the first-person plural pronoun “we” in her last sentence is especially remarkable, for it presumes that she accepts the child as much as she accepts herself.  Third, since her sentence is an interrogative, the expectation is that a response will be provided.  Of course, the unborn child cannot answer for him- or herself (it is only later that one learns that the child is female), so the reader must presume that Angela will answer for both of them in choosing life.  The choice that Angela—lesbian, former Catholic, and ideologically liberal—makes is obvious: the child deserves to live.

While the novel could have ended after this life-affirming choice, doing so would have deprived readers of a lesbian perspective on the nature of heterosexual normativity.  Angela retains her lesbian lifestyle and, apparently, does not care to use her same-sex attraction in a nongenital way.  Her character is, after all, a fallen away Catholic, so readers know just how stubborn (or ignorant) she chooses to be about her sexuality.

          Johnson may have wanted to demonstrate the normalcy of lesbian relationships.  That she has failed to do so cannot be held against her.  After all, as deconstructionist critics claim, whatever an author says should not and cannot necessarily be trusted since words are inherently unstable.  Besides that, even though the author may have wanted to illustrate the propriety of lesbian genital activity, other readers can see that the lesbian component of the novel reinforces heterosexual normativity much more.

          Thus, whatever Johnson intended to convey in this novel, the heterosexual normativity of the characters’ lives is inescapable.  While the first half of the novel concerns whether Angela should engage in sex with Ryan and then, when she is pregnant, choose life or abort Lucia, the second half of the novel revolves around a standard and stereotypical element of broken heterosexual families: her daughter, Lucia, nearing age ten, wants to meet her father.  That the novel ends with Lucia playing innocently with Ryan’s cat, her mother in tow, testifies to something which gay and lesbian authors miss: the natural, heterosexual instincts of the human family cannot be denied, despite whatever censorship, neglect, or distortions gay and lesbian activists want to impose on them.

          D.  Angelina Weld Grimké, “The Closing Door” (1919)

[slide 14]  A sample infanticide passage is rich for an intertextual critic.  Lorna Raven Wheeler has adroitly connected a significant passage in her research on an infanticide short story by Angelina Weld Grimké, “The Closing Door” (1919) with the non-reproductive intentions of the gay and lesbian movement.  Grimké’s short story concerns the infanticide of a newborn whose mother has learned about the lynching of her brother.  Speaking of the main character Agnes, Wheeler writes:

While she may be nearly singular in her decision to commit infanticide, her anguish is the anguish of black women in the face of this kind of violence [the lynching of her brother].  Her emotion is read in the staccato of her exclamations:

“Yes!—I!—I!—An instrument!—another one of the many! a colored woman—doomed!—cursed!—put here!—willing or unwilling!—for what?—to bring children here—men children—for the sport—the lust—of possible orderly mobs—who go about things—in an orderly manner—on Sunday mornings!”

          Arguably, this passage, not the description of the lynching, is the most important speech of the story.  Certainly, it is the most emotional.  The punctuated outbursts and the use of the dash and the subsequent lower-case phrases present Agnes’ horror and anguish clearly.  Even more interesting are Grimké’s words themselves.  This passage is the key to Grimké’s take on birth control.  She argues, through Agnes, that it is the reproductive “instrument,” the mother of “men children” who, among women, suffers the brunt of lynching.  (187; internal citation omitted; italics in original)

          This compelling narrative combines, Wheeler asserts, a lesbian relationship which informs Agnes’ infanticide actions and her attitude not only on infanticide, but also abortion.  Carbado, McBride, and Weise note the significance of the anti-life and lesbian connections when they comment that the short story was

Written specifically for Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review [….]  Although lesbianism is only very broadly hinted at in the opening lines, this unconventionally tragic depiction of motherhood speaks from the perspective of an especially anguished outsider.  (40)

The infanticide, lesbianism, and racism issues in this short story need to be significantly expanded in future research.

          E.  Euthanasia Novels

[slide 15]  On the last life issue, euthanasia, except for nonfictional, medical articles where assisted suicide or direct euthanasia are intimated as “cures” for AIDS patients,[13] what is striking is the absence of assisted suicide, physician-assisted suicide (or its more accurate form, physician-assisted death), euthanasia, or any variant.  It can be presumed, therefore, that gay and lesbian fiction neither endorses nor suggests euthanasia as a recourse for persons suffering from AIDS.  Rather, gay and lesbian fiction illustrates not only compassion between persons with same-sex attraction whose sexual lives are affected by AIDS, but also hope that that the time remaining for the person who has AIDS would be maximized so that the partners would enjoy each other’s company for as long as possible.

One scene in Tim Murphy’s Christodora (2016) illustrates these generalizations well.  In the following passage, Hector expresses his anger at his lover Ricky, for not seeking treatment:

“The thing with you, Ricky,” he continued to himself, mumbling parts aloud, “you just didn’t want to live.  That’s why I say fuck you, as harsh as that sounds.  Because you didn’t even care that there were two people involved, not just you.  You put me through that for, unh, what would that have been, from about 1989 when I first knew until ’92.  You wouldn’t get tested, you wouldn’t go on meds until they forced you on meds in the hospital and it was too late [….] and then I had to watch you die, like I didn’t have better things to do that year.”  (239)

Three inferences in this passage need to be highlighted to appreciate the novel’s life-affirming philosophy.  That Hector witnessed Ricky’s illness for three years testifies to his compassion for his lover.  Second, one would think that seeing a loved one in pain over that three-year span would encourage Hector, a character ostensibly well-versed in the medical terminology and practices of the day, to suggest that Ricky could end his life easily instead of enduring the indignity and suffering caused by AIDS.[14]

Third, even though his novel is fiction and set dominantly in the eighties and nineties, Murphy could have altered the plot to include controversial issues like euthanasia or assisted suicide to reflect what was being discussed at the time of the book’s publication.  Adding this element to the plot would have been easy for Murphy, the language, characterizations, and various references in the novel being liberal and obviously biased against Catholics, Republicans, and those who are usual targets of the gay and lesbian political movement.  That he did not add this contemporary issue testifies to the claim that euthanasia, even for a terminally ill person suffering from devastating AIDS, was never a choice entertained by the gay and lesbian community.  This is consistent with Murphy’s statement in the Acknowledgements that the novel “is a work of fiction obviously inspired by the history of AIDS activism in America, particularly New York” and that the novel is the result of “my efforts to cleave to the bones, if not the fine points, of what really happened” (429).

Although reading the hundreds of novels dealing with AIDS patients was impossible, the claim that gay and lesbian literature rejects euthanasia can be supported by the plots of the following novels, which will be annotated in chronological order to show the consistency of the claim that euthanasia was never entertained throughout the era of AIDS activism.  Harlan Coben’s Miracle Cure (1991) contains two passages in which the pain and suffering of AIDS patients could provide opportunities for the author to suggest assisted suicide or euthanasia as a means to end such suffering.  No such suggestion is made for the patient who is in “so much pain he wouldn’t let anyone see him” (182).  When the pain and suffering from AIDS is described again over a span of two pages, no suggestion of assisted suicide or euthanasia is made later in the novel (331-2).  When the killer in this murder mystery states that he did ot murder the AIDS patients, but that he merely wanted to “speed up the inevitable”, his utilitarian motive (“I wanted their deaths to mean something, to benefit the AIDS movement”) is countered with the life-affirming retort “You took away their last precious moments of life” (472).

Dale Peck’s Martin and John (1993) illustrates Martin’s death from AIDS over a span of five pages; the narrator reflects on his lover’s death throughout the novel and on these pages specifically with compassion (163-7).  One instance of suicide occurs in Rita  Ciresi’s Pink Slip (1999) when the major character’s cousin, who is HIV positive, commits suicide, but it is obvious that his death is mourned; besides that, never is assisted suicide or euthanasia suggested as a solution to prevent the debilitating effects of being HIV positive.  Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica (2005) does not mention euthanasia as a solution to the pain and suffering of any character who has AIDS.  It even ventures reasons for living with AIDS, albeit stammeringly proferred by the narrator, who is irreligious.  Alison, the narrator, encourages her friend Veronica, who contracted AIDS from a bisexual lover, to live as long as she can “To really find out who you are and care for yourself and . . . and forgive yourself—I mean—I don’t mean—“ (206).  The Angel of History (2016) by the Lebanese-American Rabih Alameddine covers the death of a lover from AIDS after eighteen months of suffering; this particular lover’s death is followed by a litany of other men who died from AIDS (175-6).  Nowhere does euthanasia surface as a “solution” to these men’s sufferings.[15]

Throughout recent US abortion history, anti-lifers have argued that abortion was necessary either to empower women or to protect their health.  Pro-lifers, in contrast, argued that legalizing abortion was wrongheaded because, since one does not kill the patient to cure the illness, eliminating poverty and addressing women’s health problems were more just and effective solutions, not killing the unborn children, harming the mothers, and alienating the fathers.  If active killing of AIDS patients was never a choice in gay and lesbian fiction, then there already exists common ground between the gay and lesbian and pro-life movements: both believe in attacking the problems behind abortion and euthanasia instead of the people.[16]

[slide 17]  V.  Application of the Five Questions of Right-to-Life Literary Theory

Culminating nearly thirty years’ worth of individual research on specific novels, poems, short stories, and video works which concern one or more of the life issues, right-to-life literary theory consists of five questions which can be applied to any work of literature, especially ones which address the three life issues.  These questions are:

  1. Does the literary work support the perspective that human life is, in the philosophical sense, a good, some “thing” which is priceless?
  2. Does the literary work respect the individual as a being with inherent rights, the paramount one being the right to life?
  3. If the literary work covers the actions of a family, does it do so respecting heterosexual normativity and the integrity of the family?
  4. Does the literary work comport with the view that unborn, newborn, and mature human life has an inherent right to exist?
  5. When they are faced with their mortality, do the characters come to a realization that there is a divine presence in the world which justifies a life-affirming perspective?

While some questions or portions thereof may not seem applicable to certain literary works (for example, smaller works like haiku which may not at first yield an intensive explication or literary works which may not appear to be concerned with the three life issues), all five questions have relevance for gay and lesbian literary works.  What remains is the application of the five questions so that this study can conclude with appropriate generalizations for future research.

          On the first question (the pricelessness of human life), gay and lesbian literature does not deny this generalized philosophical principle.  Many narratives support this principle existentially; otherwise, the literature would offer numerous accounts of the degradation and killing of human beings.  The anti-life philosophy of killing humans to resolve problems instead of resolving the problems facing humans is the basis for Mason Quinndell, the protagonist in David Martin’s Bring Me Children (1992), who delights in torturing homeless persons and committing infanticide by placing handicapped newborns in subterranean caves, but it is not the means of solving problems of human beings who have AIDS in gay and lesbian literature.  Perhaps the love for life evinced by gay and lesbian characters can be accounted for by an inherent appreciation of human life per se.  That the majority of gay and lesbian characters are persons who do not practice any religion and thus act on either what they think are purely secular values or natural law principles inherent in every human being, which religious persons would attribute to God, simply reinforces the pricelessness of human life.  If gay and lesbian characters are irreligious, then they believe that earthly existence is all that they have; if life with their loved ones is that precious, then they would want to experience life as much as possible.

          On the second question (the recognition that the individual is a being with inherent rights, the paramount one being the right to life), most gay and lesbian literature acknowledges the importance of the individual and his or her right to exist.  Rarely does gay and lesbian literature speak in generalities about love for humanity; rather, it is affection, friendship, or love (whether erotic or one of the other categories) of a particular person.  For example, in Proulx’ short story, Ennis loves, not just another cowboy, but Jack; in Johnson’s novel, Angela loves, not just any heterosexual male, but Ryan and after him, not just any lesbian lover, but Beatriz; David B. Feinberg loves, not just one more man picked up at a gay bar, but Roger (see below).  It is rare to find a gay or lesbian literary work where the character is either depersonalized or unnamed.

          Answering the third question of right-to-life literary theory is clearly more ambiguous, since heterosexual normativity is challenged by gay and lesbian philosophy.  However, as demonstrated here, even the staunchest lesbian character must acknowledge that heterosexual normativity, having been the genetic code for humans for millions of years, cannot thus be easily discarded.  Johnson’s novel, for example, ends with a scene which mimics a heterosexual family.[17]  Lucia, Angela’s daughter, has her need to see her biological father satisfied; Ryan, similarly, is satisfied that his daughter acknowledges him.  It is even telling that Beatriz, Angela’s lover, feels misplaced when the family of mother, father, and child are reunited, if only for the purpose of providing the reader with a satisfactory denouement.

          The fourth question of right-to-life literary theory (whether the literary work comports with the view that unborn, newborn, and mature human life has an inherent right to exist) can only be temporarily answered in the affirmative here.  Since this is an area of new research, more material needs to be investigated to determine if the corpus of gay and lesbian literature answers this question sufficiently.

          Finally, the fifth question of right-to-life literary theory (when they are faced with their mortality, do the characters come to a realization that there is a divine presence in the world which justifies a life-affirming perspective) collates several ideas which often face characters, like the real human beings for whom they are created, towards the ends of their own or others’ lives.  Excepting holocaust literature, nowhere are the various items in this question as important as in gay and lesbian literature, where persons dying of AIDS must not only face their mortality, but do so often under their own pain and the emotional pain of those who love them.

          Unlike saccharine fiction where characters may have a “come to Jesus” moment after living lives filled with sinful action, characters in gay and lesbian literature are often unable to reconcile adherence to their sexual practices with the renounced religion of their childhood or youth.  Their worldviews are so centered on their sexual activity that they cannot recognize any more notable or noble event in life.  [slide 18]  For example, a character in Andrew Holleran’s novel Dancer from the Dance (1978) retorts to another character’s claim that spending time on Fire Island, a notoriously gay locale, would be a waste of time.  “Waste? […].  Who can waste a summer on the Island?  Why, it’s the only antidote to death we have” (753).  Later in this same novel, the theme of waste is repeated when the narrator wonders, “Can one waste a life?  Especially now?  ‘Well,’ Malone would say when some conceited beauty refused to even meet his eyes, ‘we’re all part of the nitrogen cycle’.” (756)  if the first character could see nothing beyond death, then this second character compounds the hopelessness by equating himself and all the men he loved and loves with nonhuman molecules.  A final assertion from this novel reinforces the purely sexual identity and purpose of a gay character’s life:

“We live, after all, in perilous times,” Sutherland went on, lighting another cigar, “of complete philosophic sterility, we live in a rude and dangerous time in which there are no values to speak to and one can cling to only concrete things—such as cock,” he sighed, tapping his ashes into a bowl of faded marigolds.  (759)

The astute reader would notice immediately the irony and double entendre of a penis being identified as a permanent, eternal entity, a flaccid substitution for the concept of God.

However, some gay and lesbian literature, especially that involving the death of a lover or general reflection on AIDS affecting the entire gay community, often illustrates characters who desire not merely genital activity, but authentic love.  This search is a common trope in the literature, and excerpts from David B. Feinberg’s “Breaking Up with Roger” (1989, republished in 1991) illustrate this point well.  In the following excerpt, the main character in the short story describes himself as “a proabortion [sic] atheistic knee-jerk pink faggot” (93), and the following declaration of facts prefaces the emotional background on which he and his lover Roger discuss authentic love:

I was afraid of dying.

Roger was afraid of getting sick.

He said he didn’t mind dying; it was just the getting sick that he hated.

I said, “Are you crazy?  Nobody wants to die.” (Spontaneous 104)

          [slide 19]  On this background the following more elaborate semi-comical discussion occurs which has enormous impact for the men involved and didactic value for the reader:

          “And suppose I had a two-inch penis,” asked Roger during one of our twenty-three-minute post-breakup phone calls.  “If after you looked into my big brown eyes and boyishly sat next to me on the couch and then seduced me with your lips and took me over to the bed, leading me like the blind leading the blind, and then as we tussled on the bed and you caressed my legs, my thighs, my loins, feeling around, very casually, for some hardened tool, and then licking my bountiful chest, suppose after you had finally undressed me, taken off my shirt, my pants, then my underwear, you found that I had a two-inch penis.  Would you have still loved me the same?”

          “I probably would have pressed the bed-eject mechanism and sent you out flying through the window onto the hard sidewalk.”

          “You wouldn’t have loved me for my charm, my wit, my sweet, loving kindness?”

          “Of course not.”

          “I can’t believe how shallow you are.  You never loved me for what I am, just for a thing.”

          “What about me?  What about if I had a two-inch penis?”

          “That’s beside the point,” responded Roger, in the sullen voice of a child refused.  He paused for dramatic effect, long enough to let the dark and heavy cloud of guilt envelop me.  “I was just playing with you,” said Roger.  “I was just teasing.  You can tell, can’t you?”

          “How long is it anyway?” I asked, wanting to quantify my lust once and for all.

          “I never actually measured it.  I think maybe eight and a half or nine inches.  The last time I measured was when I was twelve.  I don’t know.  It may have grown since then.” (Feinberg, qtd. in Malinowski 179; italics in original)

          [slide 20]  A more desperate and vulgar treatment of the same search for authentic love, written only two years before the previous passage, occurs in Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On (1987):

When the book’s protagonist, a Jewish screenwriter-movie producer not unlike Larry Kramer himself, sees his own hopes for love fade, he delivers a tirade that raised many troubling questions.

          “Why do faggots have to fuck so fucking much?”  Larry had written.  “It’s as if we don’t have anything else to do  …  all we do is live in our Ghetto and dance and drug and fuck  …  I’m tired of being a New York City-Fire Island faggot, I’m tired of using my body as a faceless thing to lure another faceless thing, I want to love a Person!  I want to go out and live in a world with that Person, a Person who loves me, we shouldn’t have to be faithful!, we should want to be faithful!  …  No relationship in the world could survive the shit we lay on it.”

          It all needs to change, Larry’s protagonist told an unfaithful lover at the book’s climax, “before you fuck yourself to death.”  (qtd. in Malinowski 463-464; ellipses and italics in original)

For characters like these, there is no moment of redemption whereby the genital activity which the men experienced is converted to platonic friendship or the satisfaction of erotic love in a heterosexually normative relationship.  It is as though they are stuck in their sorrow, unable to move beyond the trauma which they rightfully feel to a greater good beyond that sorrow.  The search for authentic love usually ends with the death of their lovers.

          As compelling as gay and lesbian literature may appear to be in some academic circles, the genre may have reached its peak.  This claim can be asserted based not only on the legal successes of the political agenda of the gay and lesbian movement, but also by the reassertion of Judeo-Christian sexual values in response to an aggressive gay and lesbian political movement which would rather force people into adopting gay and lesbian ideas instead of persuade them of the merits of those positions.  Kenneth W. Warren wrote in What Was African American Literature? (2011) that that literature effectively ended because it was a response “to conditions that, by and large, no longer obtain”, the victory of civil rights legislation and the election of Barack Obama suggesting that the African-American literary movement accomplished its goals (9).

Similarly, gay and lesbian literature may have already reached its apex and is falling into decline.  After one reads a standard coming-out story, or a gay or lesbian passage documenting genital activity, or a fictional account of a perceived act of discrimination, or any variant of the preceding, what more can be said?  The plot lines are becoming tedious.  Fortunately, applying a right-to-life perspective to the literature could invigorate the genre for a new generation of scholars, one which may not necessarily agree with the political tenets of the gay and lesbian movement, but one which, being pro-life, could dig deeper into the literature to determine why it remains life-affirming.  [slide 21]

Works Cited

Alameddine, Rabih. The Angel of History. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016.

Bosman, Ellen, and John P. Bradford. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: A Genre Guide. Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

Bravmann, Scott. Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture, and Difference. Cambridge U P, 1997.

Carbado, Devon W., Dwight A. McBride, and Donald Weise, editors. Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual African American Fiction. Cleis Press, 2002.

Case, Sue-Ellen, Philip Brett, and Susan Leigh Foster, editors. Cruising the Performative: Interventions into the Representation of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Sexuality. Indiana U P, 1995.

Ciresi, Rita. Pink Slip. Delacorte Press, 1999.

Coben, Harlan. Miracle Cure. Signet, 1991.

Evans, Robert C., editor. Critical Insights: LGBTQ Literature. Grey House Publishing, 2015.

Feinberg, David B. “Breaking Up with Roger.” Malinowski and Brelin, 167-182.

—. “Breaking up with Roger.” Spontaneous Combustion. Viking, 1991, pp. 91-111.

Fone, Byrne R. S., editor. The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature: Readings from Western Antiquity to the Present Day. Columbia University Press, 1998.

Gaitskill, Mary. Veronica. Vintage Contemporaries, 2005.

Hicks, Madelyn Hsiao-Rei. “Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Review of the Literature Concerning Practical and Clinical Implications for UK Doctors.” BMC Family Practice, vol. 7, 2006, p. 39.

Holleran, Andrew. Dancer from the Dance. Fone, pp. 750-73.

Hughes, Mark and Colleen Cartwright. “LGBT People’s Knowledge of and Preparedness to Discuss End-of-Life Care Planning Options.” Health & Social Care in the Community, vol. 22, no. 5, Sept. 2014, pp. 545-552. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/hsc.12113.

Human Rights Campaign. “Federal PAC: Political Action Committee Criteria.” Accessed 27 May 2018.

Johnson, Chelsey. Stray City. Custom House, 2018.

Kimport, Katrina. “Divergent Successes: What the Abortion Rights Movement Can Learn from Marriage Equality’s Success.” Perspectives on Sexual & Reproductive Health, vol. 48, no. 4, Dec. 2016, pp. 221-227. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1363/48e10416.

Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. 1960. Harcourt Brace, 1988.

Malinowski, Sharon, and Christa Brelin, editors. The Gay and Lesbian Literary Companion. Visible Ink, 1995.

Martin, David. Bring Me Children. Random House, 1992.

Mishara, Brian L. “Suicide, Euthanasia and AIDS.” Crisis, vol. 19, 1998, pp. 87-96.

Murphy, Aimee. “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Life Begins @ Conception!” Life Matters Journal, 11 July 2017.“We’re-Here-We’re-Queer-Life-Begins-Conception”. Accessed 5 January 2018.

Murphy, Tim. Christodora. Grove Press, 2016.

Peck, Dale. Martin and John. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993.

Peterson, Jordan B. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Random House Canada, 2018.

Poteet, William Mark. Gay Men in Southern Literature: Ritual, Initiation, & the Construction of Masculinity. Peter Lang, 2006.

Proulx, Annie. “Brokeback Mountain.” Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Scribner, 1999. [253]-285.

Rechy, John. City of Night. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, Ilan Stavans, general editor. W. W. Norton, 2011, pp.1024-31.

Reilly, Robert R. Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything. Ignatius Press, 2015.

Schulman, Sarah. Girls, Visions and Everything. Seal Press, 1986.

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. 20th anniversary ed. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1987.

Slome, Lee R., Thomas F. Mitchell, Edwin Charlebois, Jeffrey Moulton Benevedes, and Donald I. Abrams. “Physician-Assisted Suicide and Patients with Human Immunodeficiency Virus Disease.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 336, 6 February 1997, pp. 417-421. doi:10.1056/NEJM199702063360606.

Stein, Gary L. and Karen A. Bonuck. “Attitudes on End-of-Life Care and Advance Care Planning in the Lesbian and Gay Community.” Journal of Palliative Medicine, vol. 4, no. 2, June 2001, pp. 173-190. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1089/109662101750290218.

Tóibín, Colm. Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature. Scribner, 2001.

Warren, Kenneth W. What Was African American Literature? Harvard U P, 2011.

Wheeler, Lorna Raven. “The Queer Collaboration: Angelina Weld Grimké and the Birth Control Movement.” Evans, 179-192.

White, Edmund. “The Political Vocabulary of Homosexuality.” Fone, pp. 777-85.

Woods, Gregory. A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition. Yale U P, 1998.

Zimmerman, Bonnie, and Toni A. H. McNaron. The New Lesbian Studies: Into the Twenty-First Century. Feminist Press, 1996.

[1] At least two studies address end-of-life care, discussing the gay and lesbian communities’ ideas on assisted suicide or euthanasia instead of palliative care.  Gary L. Stein and Karen A. Bonuck discussed these initial topics in their 2001 article, “Attitudes on End-of-Life Care and Advance Care Planning in the Lesbian and Gay Community.”  Thirteen years later, Mark Hughes and Colleen Cartwright broached euthanasia-focused questions further in “LGBT People’s Knowledge of and Preparedness to Discuss End-of-Life Care Planning Options.”

[2] Unless significant works can be discovered which address the life issues, transgender literature, a subset within the gay and lesbian category, must be relegated either to future research or to persons who have a stronger desire to investigate such literature.

[3] Of course, there is some literary criticism which, however well-intended as an effort to summarize some aspect of gay and lesbian literature, is written in language which contemporary students and other readers would find much too vague and loaded with politically-correct academic buzzwords, as in the following lugubrious passage of eighty-three words from Fone, elaborating his claim that American gay and lesbian literature has affected world literatures:

Further, though more addressed to academe than to the greater public, gay studies centering on the recovery of gay male literature and history have also entered the list of combatants against homophobia and, in a sometimes uneasy though fertile dialogue with feminism and lesbian studies, has initiated a major reevaluative project that ambitiously aims to critique and if need be alter or deconstruct all previous interpretations of homosexualities in all academic disciplines (often enrolling this project within the confrontational discipline of queer studies).  (731)

[4] In contrast to these sources, Robert R. Reilly clearly explains the rationale behind the aggressive gay and lesbian movement’s support for abortion in his 2014 work (updated in 2015) Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything.  Reilly devotes several pages to the abortion connection, but readers will find his commentary on the US Supreme Court’s Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey decision (pages 77-82) most instructive.  The causal chain which ends that commentary is most instructive as a legal summary for purposes of this research: “The separation of sex from procreation logically leads to the legalization of contraception, then to abortion, and finally to homosexual marriage and beyond.  The logic is compelling, in fact, inescapable.  Only the premise is insane” (82).

[5] Their terminology is decidedly biased against pro-lifers, referring to feminist agitation for the overthrow of protective laws as the “reproductive rights movement”, abortion as a “right”, anti-lifers as “pro-choice groups”, and pro-life politicians as “right-wing legislators who sought to overturn” Roe v. Wade (274).

[6] The full criterion reads:

HRC undertakes an in-depth interview with each candidate seeking HRC’s endorsement, which allows the organization to educate candidates on issues that affect the LGBTQ community, as well as gauge their level of support.  In place of an interview, an incumbent’s support for issues of concern to the community is based on his or her voting record.  Candidates are assessed on the following issues which form the basis of HRC’s legislative agenda: the Federal Marriage Amendment, employment fairness, hate crime prevention, open military service, marriage, domestic partner benefits, adoption and other family issues, HIV/AIDS, lesbian health, abortion rights and others as they arise.

[7] Certainly, not all gay and lesbian activists are anti-life, nor are these activists content to remain in their disordered sexuality.  One can point to the mission and work of Courage to meet the needs of Catholics who have same-sex attraction.  For those who have same-sex attraction and do not want to renounce their allegiance with the gay and lesbian movements entirely, the writing of Aimee Murphy summarizes the division in the lesbian community between anti- and pro-life views on abortion when she writes that

there’s a sizable portion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, queer community that believes in the intrinsic right to life, from conception to natural death.  And I think the pro-life movement has a lot to learn about the necessity of radical inclusivity in building movements. If we want to bring an end to the violence that is abortion, we need everyone to stand with us, to believe in the principles of equality, nondiscrimination, and nonviolence towards all.  We need to make sure that queer folks like myself have a welcoming hand extended towards them, have representation in the leadership of our millions-strong movement, and have spaces wherein their worth as human is affirmed as they work for the life and dignity of every human being.

[8] If his monograph were viewed as an eloquent and finely crafted essay on the four categories of love when it was first published in 1960, referencing it today is countercultural and possibly litigious, especially since gay and lesbian activists use the courts to stifle free speech rights of heterosexuals whenever possible.  Lewis’ admonition then is a mandate now for heterosexual normativity.  While saying “It has actually become necessary in our time to rebut the theory that every firm and serious friendship is really homosexual” is relatively innocuous, a subsequent passage in the chapter on friendship would certainly arouse gay and lesbian activists to have Lewis’ work banned as homophobic:

The homosexual theory therefore seems to me not even plausible.  This is not to say that Friendship and abnormal Eros have never been combined.  Certain cultures at certain periods seem to have tended to the contamination.  In war-like societies it was, I think, especially likely to creep into the relation between the mature Brave and his young armour-bearer or squire.  The absence of the women while you were on the warpath had no doubt something to do with it.  In deciding, if we think we need or can decide, where it crept in and where it did not, we must surely be guided by the evidence (when there is any) and not by an a priori theory.  Kisses, tears and embraces are not in themselves evidence of homosexuality.  The implications would be, if nothing else, too comic.  Hrothgar embracing Beowulf, Johnson embracing Boswell (a pretty flagrantly heterosexual couple) and all those hairy old toughs of centurions in Tacitus, clinging to one another and begging for last kisses when the legion was broken up…all pansies?  If you can believe that you can believe anything.  (60, 62-3)

[9] Perhaps what is noted here as confusion of the loves is actually ignorance.  If so, the question then becomes determining whether a gay or lesbian author deliberately chose such ignorance to advance his or her political purposes or whether the author is simply stupid.

[10] Blais goes on to say:

But I am afraid that we are threatened all over again with a rebirth of a mediaeval kind of religion and that we will be victims again of the same intolerance and bigotry, which in the name of morality once forbade my books to be sold in bookstores.  I still have a vivid recollection of the poverty of intellectual life in Quebec at the time when I came of age and I hope never again to see a time when the same kind of religious hysteria will trample on works of art.  (qtd. in Malinowski 43)

[11] The film version makes Ennis’ preferred sexual activity obvious when, after this brief verbal exchange, altered in the film slightly, ends, Ennis turns Alma over to sodomize her.

[12] See my review of the novel on at

[13]  A general internet query (“Is assisted suicide or euthanasia ever suggested for AIDS patients in gay and lesbian literature?”) yielded these results:

Hicks, Madelyn Hsiao-Rei. “Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Review of the Literature Concerning Practical and Clinical Implications for UK Doctors.” BMC Family Practice (2006)7:39 (2006)

Mishara, Brian L. “Suicide, Euthanasia and AIDS.” Crisis (1998), 19 (1998), pp. 87-96.

Slome, Lee R., Thomas F. Mitchell, Edwin Charlebois, Jeffrey Moulton Benevedes, and Donald I. Abrams. “Physician-Assisted Suicide and Patients with Human Immunodeficiency Virus Disease.” New England Journal of Medicine 336:417-421 (February 6, 1997). doi:10.1056/NEJM199702063360606.

[14] The entire six-page chapter nineteen, devoted to the final moments of Ysabel, a heterosexual woman who contracted AIDS from an infected man, similarly never mentions any effort to terminate her life by euthanasia.

[15] In fact, the scornful attitude with which the narrator treats AIDS as the cause of his lovers’ deaths becomes comedic:

After Pinto had his first bout with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, the death sentence, he began to joke about wanting to be buried ass up, offering the world the choice part of his anatomy[;] he wanted an open-casket funeral so the men who had spent weeks and days and hours and hours worshiping his ass could pay it final tribute.  He was joking, of course, but I believe he also meant it.  (200-1)

[16] [slide 16]  The absence of euthanasia as a solution to the AIDS pandemic or to, in one of the cases below, cancer can be further supported by commentary in two genres beyond the scope of this study, autobiography and drama.  In their 2008 compilation of gay and lesbian literature, Ellen Bosman and John P. Bradford describe Sandra Butler and Barbara Rosenblum’s autobiographical Cancer in Two Voices (1996) in terms which preclude any suggestion of euthanasia:

Cancer-stricken Barbara and her partner, Sandra, alternate narration on the physical and emotional pain associated with terminal illness.  The mutual suffering and grief of patient and caregiver contrasts [sic] with their separate experiences as Jews, and ultimately celebrates living joyfully in the face of mortality.  (143)

Similarly, Bosman and Bradford summarize gay and lesbian drama on AIDS thus:

Beginning with Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking The Normal Heart in 1985, the next two decades saw the appearance of stage works addressing relationships upset by AIDS and depicting how relationships could survive with dignity and humor.  Common threads in these dramas are love as a long-term duty, willingly chosen, and diverse angers at the government, medicine, and one’s fellow man.  (315)

That the editors do not identify euthanasia or any variant of the practice as a common theme in the literature is most telling.

[17] Oddly, since they are on opposite ends of the gender ideological spectrum, Johnson supports in fiction what Jordan B. Peterson states in his nonfiction commentary that the concepts “parent” and “child” are 200 million years old and that “all family forms are [not] equally viable” (39, 142).


Right-to-Life Issues in Contemporary Bioethics Fiction

Abstract:  This study reviews literary works from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries which concern bioethical aspects involving the foundations of the right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.  After considering definitions of “bioethics” from various sources, the paper derives three general principles from the literary works and examines how each of these principles is depicted.  Finally, the research highlights fictional works which include ethical standards developed by religious sources, filling the ethical void created by most bioethics fiction.

          Granted that, according to Merriam-Webster’s etymology, the term “bioethics” was first used in 1970, it is spectacular how a concept of a mere half a century has had such a major effect on humanity after six millennia of culture, law, philosophy, and religion.  United with its companion term “technology”, bioethics has not only affected, but also changed (in the sense of altered the generation and physical composition of) human life as profoundly as any economic, industrial, political, or other revolution of the past.  While other conference speakers will address the legal, moral, and philosophical aspects of bioethics, this study offers a humanities perspective, focusing on bioethics fiction, specifically full-length novels.

I.  Resolving Two Questions

          Before delving further, it may be helpful to resolve two questions: first, what can a humanities approach bring to a subject which is essentially more technical than artistic, and, second, since there are many genres of “fiction” (for example, “cowboy fiction”, “romance fiction”, “science fiction”, or even, here in Minnesota, “Lake Wobegon fiction”) what is the definition of “bioethics fiction” and how does that differ from the other categories?

Although it has its limitations, scholarly commentary on bioethics in literature provides some interesting ideas to help answer these two questions.  For example, in what reads as a philosophical justification of a humanities approach to bioethical works, if not an effort to allay humanities professors’ anxieties about being excluded from the discussion about such fiction, Meera Lee Sethi and Adam Briggle write:

Science and storytelling appear antithetical.  Science deals in a non-narrative form of rationality, offering facts where stories offer interpretations.  But Rejeski pushes back on that easy dichotomy.  “Storytelling and narrative are absolutely critical to science,” he will tell you.  “The public uses stories to understand science, and so do scientists, whether they’re doing it on purpose or not.”  One place where the two realms intermingle is the space Rejeski happens to inhabit every day: evaluating the human significance of new scientific discoveries.  What is life? What would it mean to live in a world where humans synthesize life?  (33; italics in original)

Bruce Jennings considers the deeper structure of the category of literature under discussion here.

Indeed, the narrative that bioethics has fashioned for itself has been mainly a liberationist romance: a quest narrative in which the individual, seeking autonomy, struggles against limitations, constraints, and inhibitions imposed by forces (rules, roles, institutions, interference by others, customs, traditions) from the outside.

Today this liberationist romance is being challenged, revised, and deepened from at least two angles.  One, which might be referred to as “deontological humanism,” refines our comprehension of individual freedom and dignity beyond minimalist notions of self-reliance and freedom from others’ interference.  A second perspective, which offers a critical deconstruction of what it calls “biopolitics” and “biopower,” provides a more overtly political and systemic narrative of ethics in the face of power.  (16)

Despite efforts to show that a humanities approach to bioethics is warranted, some humanities scholars may be hesitant about addressing contemporary controversial issues which bioethics fiction raises, which is understandable if they are anti-life since opposition to right-to-life positions is never morally justifiable.[1]  However, one can concede from these few citations that a humanities approach is appropriate.

Resolving the second question (what constitutes “bioethics fiction”) is more challenging.  The definitions of “bioethics” range from simple-structured sentences to elaborate formulations.  Merriam-Webster defines it simply as “a discipline dealing with the ethical implications of biological research and applications especially in medicine.”  In contrast, one essay in the magisterial Bioethics combines both etymology and definition:

Bioethics originated in the late 1960s in the United States.  Its roots are in the traditional medical ethics of Anglo-American medicine; in the cultural setting of American health care; and in certain social, religious, and moral perceptions that had emerged in the American ethos.  As the 1970s opened a number of scholars were attempting to analyze issues in medical ethics using the perspectives and methodologies of the two disciplines traditionally concerned with ethics, philosophy and theology.  As these scholars began to publish and discuss their work, a distinct field of study called bioethics came into being.  The word bioethics was coined by Van Rensselaer Potter (1971) and first applied to the ethics of population and environment.  It soon became the rubric for a diverse collection of considerations about the ethical issues inherent in health care and the biological sciences.  (Jameton and Jonsen, 184; citation omitted)

This same source provides a more detailed account of the definition of “bioethics” thus:

Bioethicists show considerable interest in the theoretical definition of the field and its methodologies.  In 1974 Albert R. Jonsen and André E. Hellegers published an essay delineating bioethics as a mélange of traditional professional ethics, philosophical ethics, and theological ethics.  Robert M. Veatch, however, was the first to attempt a full exposition of the theoretical underpinnings of bioethics.  His 1981 book, A Theory of Medical Ethics, set the field firmly on the ethical considerations relative to autonomy of the patient.  H. Tristram Engelhardt Jr. […] followed in 1986 with The Foundations of Bioethics, an even more strongly stated thesis about autonomy as the basis of the discipline.  Nevertheless, some have asserted that bioethics, though it had its origins in the strong affirmation of autonomy for patients, may have moved too far in this direction and thereby neglected other aspects of health care, such as benevolence, community, and social justice (Jameton and Jonsen 196; citations omitted)

The definition of “bioethics” in the most common online source which virtually all students and the general reading (that is, internet “reading” or surfing) public (and many faculty) use, Wikipedia, is as follows:

Bioethics is the study of the typically controversial ethical issues emerging from new situations and possibilities brought about by advances in biology and medicine.  It is also moral discernment as it relates to medical policy and practice.  Bioethicists are concerned with the ethical questions that arise in the relationships among life sciences, biotechnology, medicine, politics, law, and philosophy.  It also includes the study of the more commonplace questions of values (“the ethics of the ordinary”) which arise in primary care and other branches of medicine. 

          As can be expected, legal scholarship is substantial in bioethics.  Although legal contributions often add to the ambiguity of what “bioethics” means, some scholars add contemporary political controversies to the field, thus clarifying the domain of this body of legal literature.  For example, the first edition (2001) of Timothy Stoltzfus Jost’s Readings in Comparative Health Law and Bioethics defines “bioethics” in a stipulative definition which applies to an entire chapter of essays:

The third chapter addresses bioethics—here understood as the right of patients to autonomous decision making, and the limits that bound this right.  This chapter examines abortion, assisted reproduction, and the right to die, including the right to assistance with suicide and euthanasia.  (xii)

This definition is repeated verbatim in the 2007 second edition (xi).

Furthermore, addressing the need for a review of bioethical practices internationally, some essays in Bioethics Around the Globe (2011) provide conflicting definitions.  In an essay on bioethics in central Europe, Bruce Jennings writes an extended definition which reads more prescriptively than descriptively:

Bioethics is a form of discourse that is shaped by particular social and cultural conditions, and that has a particular normative function in relation to these conditions.  It operates on a theoretical level and on a political-cultural level.  It must engage with moral philosophy and cognate disciplines (political philosophy, jurisprudence, theological ethics) to provide a basic normative conceptual framework.  And bioethics must engage with the actually existing values, norms, and cultural belief systems that form the context for human behavior.  Bioethics must meet actors and institutions where they are, but it cannot leave them there, because change in assumptions, commitments, understanding, and action is the entire point of the enterprise.  If it is not critical, bioethics can become apologetic and ideological.  [93]

A later essay on bioethics in South Africa asserts that the

term bioethics will not only refer to the outcome of systematic reflection (mainly occurring in an academic context) on moral problems raised by health care and the life sciences and informed by a range of multidisciplinary perspectives (e.g., philosophical, political, medical, anthropological, etc.), but also to institutional practices that provoke or are influenced by such reflection.  In short, while bioethics will refer to what is done on the level of academic training and research in the discipline, it will also refer to practices and institutions that occur and operate on the basis of social endeavors that are fundamentally informed by moral ideas and concerns.  [van Niekerk and Benatar 134]

In contrast, a final essay in this volume declares that bioethics in China “is a rational endeavor based on evidence and reasoning, and is not subject to religious influence” (Qiu 182).

These definitions are helpful to distinguish the field of bioethics from, for example, art criticism, especially when specific principles are identified to show how bioethicists resolve problems under their consideration.  These principles have remained relatively stable since the beginning of this century.  For example, in 2000 Mark Levin and Ira Birnbaum acknowledged that “the most widely accepted formulation of principles in modern bioethics [include] the four principles of respect for persons/autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice/fairness” (477).  A year later, Ben A. Rich identified professional competence, beneficence and nonmaleficence, autonomy, and justice as “the four ethical principles generally considered to be basic to medical practice”, “traditional medical ethics [having] evolved into bioethics during the last half of the Twentieth Century” (13, 10).

However, the definitions and enumeration of principles are largely secular formulations.  To balance the secular understanding of bioethics itself, one should consider Jewish and Christian formulations since these religions inform Western culture and should carry significant weight in any study of bioethics concerns in fiction.

Although Jewish bioethical principles are difficult to confine in a simple definition, the entire conclusion of a case study by Levin and Birnbaum summarizes the tension between Jewish bioethical principles and contemporary bioethics within that tradition:

Although the very existence of “Jewish bioethics” has been questioned, we have demonstrated that the parochial features of the Halachic system relate to the subject of inquiry rather than absence of critical reasoning or inductive process.  The approach of the Jewish Law to the issues of concern to secular bioethics can be characterized as being rule- and principle-based, where rules are distilled from the Talmudic and cognate literature, and principles are continuously established as guides to action in specific cases.  This case-based approach provides for flexibility as well as integrity and reproducibility within the Halachic framework.  It also allows translation of Halachic reasoning into philosophical language and the Western method of discourse, and has much to contribute to the methodology of applied bioethics.  It not only expands our vision of who we are and what kind of world we live in but challenges and energizes.  We believe that the perspectives of this ancient system will be a valuable addition to the ongoing debate about the topical issues of modern bioethics.  (482)

Christian bioethicists bifurcate the field; that is, Protestant Christians may focus on autonomy as the central attribute of a “Protestant bioethics”, the presumption being that other categories of Christians may include autonomy and other items constitutive of the field.  Thus, Merril Pauls and Roger C. Hutchinson enumerate several tenets of Protestant bioethics (emphasizing the preeminence of autonomy, a reliance on the grace of God, and formation of ethical principles based only on scripture) yet conclude within the space of a few paragraphs that it “is difficult” and “is so difficult” to determine beyond generalities the Protestant determination of the concept (340).

However, a Christian determination of “bioethics” is possible, and three sources can contribute to a working definition for purposes of this study.  For example, basing her work on several writers advocating narrative ethics,[2] Hannah Wakefield develops a summary statement of “Christian bioethics” which is general enough to encompass all denominations of Christianity as well as contrast against the more secular definitions given thus far.  She argues for

a Christian bioethics that is formulated narratively.  A narrative bioethics leads us to empathize with the other, to confront his or her otherness in suffering, to recognize the intersubjective, relational context of the patient’s story, and to honor the patient in his or her concreteness and particularity.  When grounded first in response to God, the author of life, a Christian bioethics allows us to engage the story of the other as rooted in our engagement with God’s much larger story.  It is only in this ordered interaction that we can demonstrate our love for both God and other by making decisions that honor both.  (124)[3]

          A definition supplied on the website of the National Catholic Bioethics Center corresponds with the simpler one provided by Merriam-Webster, where, after a listing of specific issues with which the field should be concerned, the term is defined thus: “Bioethics is the study of the ethical concerns arising from advances in biology and medicine.  Its task involves distinguishing between morally appropriate and inappropriate uses of biotechnology and medicine” (“Making”).[4]

While not formally defining “bioethics”, the third source (new guidelines issued by the Vatican this year) suggests a functional definition of “bioethics” which is unambiguous:

To offer clearly and accurately the Catholic Church’s positions on abortion, contraception, genetic engineering, fertility treatments, vaccines, frozen embryos and other life issues, the Vatican released an expanded and updated guide of the church’s bioethical teachings.

          The “New Charter for Health Care Workers” is meant to provide a thorough summary of the church’s position on affirming the primary, absolute value of life in the health field and address questions arising from the many medical and scientific advancements made since the first charter was published in 1994 [….]

 The charter “reaffirms the sanctity of life” as a gift from God and calls on those working in health care to be “servants” and “ministers of life” who will love and accompany all human beings from conception to their natural death.  (Glatz)

II.  Selecting Bioethics Fiction for Discussion

Although library research on the subject of bioethics could have been overwhelming since it has generated a substantial quantity of scholarly articles and books in its brief history and divides into numerous subcategories, surprisingly few fictional works address the right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia as major themes.  Consequently, most scholarly studies address general ethical, and not specific literary, concerns of bioethical issues, such as medical standards for determining death or the conditions under which organs can be obtained from patients.[5]  However, while scholarly study of bioethical concerns in literature may constitute a relatively recent subject area, the life issues are discussed, although obliquely.  That is, while bioethics fiction does not often mention abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia directly, fictional works do address the philosophical foundations on which the life issues rest, such as the definition of being human, the establishment of rights applied to those who are determined as human, and, perhaps most importantly, the denial of rights to those deemed not human and the consequences thereof.

Moreover, it is noteworthy that, while some scholarly commentary is simply ad hoministic attacks against the pro-life movement,[6] if some scholarly commentary on bioethics fiction does address the life issues, it does so not according to ethical standards derived from religious sources, but politically-correct matters long considered “safe” (either non-controversial or issues considered appropriate for “liberal” academics to promote).  For example, many scholars would rather write about the application of feminist or Marxist tenets more than how well bioethical principles illustrated in contemporary fiction comport with standards derived from millennia of religious teachings.  This is the case in Sheila Jasanoff’s 2005 study of biotechnological developments in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, where references to the religious basis of ethical decision-making are negative.  Instead of recognizing that the first civil right to life is based on millennia of Jewish and Christian teaching, Jasanoff contorts the efforts of the US pro-life movement from one which seeks to restore the first civil right to life to one which fits a Marxist literary view of competing ideologies: “As deployed by the US religious right, the concept of ‘life’ is less an instrument for classifying or regulating populations than a device for keeping at bay unruly social movements or novel constellations of social life” (147).  Furthermore, Jasanoff sees President George W. Bush’s support of pro-life principles as merely simplistic evidence of “a Republican administration out to consolidate its conservative religious support” (148).[7]

          Pending changes warranted by future research, the balance of this study isolates three general principles from various literary works (one from the early twentieth, the rest from the last quarter of the twentieth and the years of this twenty-first century), examines how each of these principles is depicted, and evaluates whether the literary examples comport with the Judeo-Christian understanding of bioethics.  Excluding older titles for the moment (those written before the twentieth century),[8] many fictional works addressing the philosophical foundations identified above have been catalogued since the 1970s,[9] so an extensive body of literature exists and needs to be evaluated from a pro-life perspective.  Finally, the paper will highlight a fictional work which closes the ethical void of most bioethics fiction by including ethical standards formulated by religious sources.

          Proceeding chronologically, ten representative novels concerned with bioethics issues will be considered: Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith (1925), Robin Cook’s Coma (1977), Eva Hoffman’s The Secret (2002), Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper (2004), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox (2008), Jodi Picoult’s Handle with Care (2009), Laurence Gonzales’ Lucy (2010), Kira Peikoff’s No Time to Die (2014), and Don DeLillo’s Zero K (2016).

III.  Three General Principles Culled from Bioethics Fiction on the Life Issues

          Three general features can be culled from these fictional works.  First, bioethics fiction seems devoid of Judeo-Christian ethical principles.  That is, obvious ethical principles obtained from five thousand years of Jewish thinking and two thousand years of Catholic and Protestant formulation (such as the recognition that human life is a gift from God and that all human beings must be respected, no matter their condition of dependency) are not explicitly referenced.[10]  Religious terminology, however, is usurped in bioethics fiction and often appears in surprising paradoxical formations.  Second, fictional works which concern bioethical matters adopt utilitarian principles above any other ethical system.  A corollary of this second general feature, perhaps following a standard set by Sinclair Lewis in Arrowsmith (1925), illustrates the quest for profit over ethical concerns.  Finally, the presumed loss of religious force in society may account for the third general feature of bioethics fiction, the dehumanization not only of genetically-based humans, but also of cybernetic beings which approach humanness, including, for example, clones or robots.  This last general principle offers significant dramatic tension in many works of bioethics fiction; after all, if respect for mankind is not based on a divine power, then some can alter the definition of the humanity of their peers as social needs demand, and the ensuing conflict makes for great drama.

          Absent either an author’s or a character’s explicit renunciation of Jewish and Christian ethical principles,[11] although they can be discussed independently, one can argue that the three general features evident in the works to be reviewed proceed causally.  That is, abandoning Judeo-Christian ethical principles may lead to a utilitarian view, which in turn can lead one to view economic factors as the paramount social good; it is a short step from this position to the dehumanization of those who are vulnerable to biopower or who pose a threat to what is perceived as the paramount social good.

A.  Absence of Judeo-Christian Principles and Usurpation of Religious Terminology

          Although tracing the abandonment of Judeo-Christian values in society is beyond the scope of this study, it is common knowledge that, as Stephen Prothero has suggested in his Religious Literacy (2007), contemporary Americans are increasingly more secular than previous generations, and authors may therefore not need to refer to these values.  Indeed, if referring to these values may confuse readers, sales suffer, so there is an economic motivation to “go light” on these ethical issues.  And yet, even though Western society has become supposedly more secular from the twentieth century on, religious terminology is inescapable.  These conflicting aspects may account for the first general principle of bioethics fiction; while the works discussed below may be bereft of Judeo-Christian values, some openly hostile to such values, they retain religious imagery and vocabulary, even usurping those images and terms to advance a life-denying perspective on the bioethical issue being dramatized.

Characters in Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith (1925) have clearly renounced the Judeo-Christian perspective.  The main character, Martin Arrowsmith, thinks that belief in a soul is “that junk” (596); “he saw no one clear path to Truth but a thousand paths to a thousand truths far-off and doubtful” (600), uses “God” as an interjection (639), and indicates his attitude toward monotheism by referring to “one’s gods” (673).

However, the novel is replete with instances of religious terminology to express how scientific progress, especially laboratory research (the beginnings of late twentieth-century bioethical controversies), has usurped religious meaning.  According to Martin, “just being in a lab is prayer” (607); when a doctor draws blood, he is “like a priest of diabolic mysteries” (612).  This priesthood for doctors includes “Father Nietzsche and Father Schopenhauer […] and Father Koch and Father Pasteur and Brother Jacques Loeb and Brother Arrhenius” (614).  One of Martin’s professors gives him “episcopal blessings!” (624).  In a form of transference of deities, since the “god” of the dean of the medical faculty “was Sir William Osler”, Dean Silva, therefore, becomes Martin’s “new god” (646, 664).  Martin achieves paradox when he discusses “the superiority of divine mankind” (676).  The private office of Hunziker, a pharmaceutical researcher, “was remarkably like a minor cathedral”; similar sacerdotal functions are ascribed to doctors when another character asserts, “the country doctor often has to be not only physician but dentist, yes, and even priest” (685, 698).

A half century later, Robin Cook’s Coma (1977), which involves a hospital deliberately putting patients into a coma during surgery for the purpose of harvesting their organs, displays similar renunciation of the Judeo-Christian heritage.  The main character, Susan Wheeler, wonders about “the [meaninglessness] of life” (46).[12]  Characters typically use “Goddamn” in swearing, curiously maintaining the rule about capitalizing the term throughout; “Christ” is similarly used only as an interjection (72, 76).[13]  To show that sexual values were changing in the seventies, shifting from the traditional view that sex was appropriate for a married couple’s mutual pleasure and for the procreation of children, when “holy fuck” is used, the reader should not think that the character is referring to the sanctity of sexual relations between husband and wife in marriage (91).[14]  Instead of the Deity in Heaven, “occupying the entire top floor”, the hospital’s “computer being above everything else in the hospital” is compared to God and jokingly known as “help from above” (120).  Continuing the sacerdotal transference that Lewis used for his doctors, Susan’s lover “almost had the attitude of a contrite sinner who has confessed”, the implication being that Susan herself has the priestly capacity to “forgive” him for a sexist comment (176).  Similarly, Susan’s “mild sense of euphoria” can be attributed to her mentor: “It was as if Dr. Chapman had powers of absolution” (209).

Eva Hoffman’s The Secret (2002) contains often subtle indications that Judeo-Christian values do not apply in this novel of a woman who is a clone of her mother.  In the opening pages, the lack of Judeo-Christian values becomes evident when Iris, the narrator, inexplicably calls her “soul” “a travesty” (7) and that she “was wrong, a mistake, a result of bad judgement”, contrary to the religious tenet that every human being is right, wanted (and therefore not a mistake), and deemed valuable because he or she—no matter the conditions of one’s fertilization—is valued by God (12).  Steven, the mother’s boyfriend, suggests the futility of life when he ambiguously claims, “We don’t matter so much, maybe” (44).  When Iris learns she is a clone of her mother, her perception of her existence is changed, but she has no knowledge that she is one of God’s creatures.  Iris’ “Adviser” says, “we’d all prefer more divine origins”, the implication being that a divine origin is not what humans experience (68).  In a debate on cloning, a speaker calls humans “the creators” while an opposing speaker talks about objective reality without mentioning God: “though he knew very well about veils of illusion, the reality behind these veils was not going to be manmade.  Then he became inarticulate” (106, 108).

Some explicit religious references occur, but it is obvious that the characters are confused about their religious beliefs.  Iris’ grandparents are supposedly Jewish (most probably cultural, instead of practicing, Jews), yet her grandmother, though not religious, indecisively claims, “Well, I suppose we believe life is sacred, God-given” (148).  Iris’ aunt shrugs as she identifies herself as Christian, but not Catholic, which is disparagingly categorized as “that kind of Christian” (219).  Iris’ assertion “I wanted someone to know” about her being a clone could be construed as a secular form of confession, the psychological value of the sacrament well-known among religious persons (233).  There are “abstruse hypotheses” about the origins of life, but no certainty provided by religious tenets in a God who could be Creator (250).

          Religious items are not absent in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper (2004), but the various references illustrate that the main characters are minimally-practicing Catholics who are ignorant not only of how their faith responds to bioethical issues, but also of the basics of their faith.  Sara, the mother of the child conceived for the express purpose of being of medical use to a sibling who has leukemia, speaks casually of the child conceived for the benefit of the sibling: “The doctor was able to screen several embryos to see which one, if any, would be the ideal donor for Kate.  We were lucky enough to have one out of four—and it was implanted through IVF” (102).  She seems blissfully unaware that her statement has violated several life-affirming and religious principles: that three unborn lives were sacrificed; that the fertilization was desired for a utilitarian purpose, not out of love for another child; and that the fertilization occurred beyond the sex act.  To add to the insult, the child, their daughter Anna, was identified by the neuter pronoun.  In a contorted variation of the Golden Rule, Sara’s operating principle is “You do whatever you have to, when it comes to people you love, right?”, and the questioning at the end of what should be a declarative statement indicates that she herself does not believe in the assertion (169).[15]

Several instances show the characters’ disrespect and hostility to religion.  The attorney who advances the medical emancipation claim distorts the Virgin Birth as an episode where Mary would justify herself for “a nice little roll in the hay with Joseph”; as he further queries, “Who’s going to contradict you if you say God’s the one who knocked you up?” (205; italics in original).  Anna asserts that the story of Adam and Eve “I know is a load of crap” (249).  Brian, the father, does not know “where to look for” the “right answer” regarding whether his daughter should “donate” a kidney to her sister (346).

          A second novel of Jodi Picoult’s, Handle with Care (2009), shows yet another presumably Catholic family ignorant of their faith as they negotiate bioethical issues involving Willow, a child born with osteogenesis imperfecta.  Just as casually as Sara in the above Picoult novel, Charlotte was “about to try in vitro” before she was pregnant with Willow (49).  A family friend asserts that Charlotte “rarely missed a weekend Mass”, affirmed again by this same family friend later in the novel, but these are odd affirmations, given the preceding casual acceptance of in vitro fertilization ([56], 140).  Even though the O’Keefes are called “die-hard Catholics”, Charlotte obviously does not follow the most fundamental Church teaching when it comes to voting, and her justification is redolent with sentiment instead of logic combined with feeling:

I had grown up Catholic.  I had been taught by nuns.  There were girls who’d gotten pregnant, but they either disappeared from the class rosters or left for a semester abroad, returning quieter and skittish.  But in spite of this, I’d voted Democratic ever since I turned eighteen.  It might not be my personal choice, but I thought women ought to have one.  (162, 189-90)

Charlotte’s weak and utterly contemporary American Catholic profession of faith justifies what her husband Brian would later say about her: “You’re conveniently Catholic, when it suits you” (297).  Writing to her daughter, Charlotte’s claim that she “was the one who had summoned your soul to this world” may be allowed from a sentimental mother, but is prima facie unorthodox as an abrogation of an attribute belonging to the Creator (339).

          Laurence Gonzales’ Lucy (2010) concerns a young woman conceived by a human father and born from a bonobo ape mother.  While the plot follows Lucy’s struggle to affirm her human status (an unsuccessful effort, since she will eventually find satisfaction—and maternity—in the African jungles away from humans), the presence of many negative comments about religion is striking.  Lucy was raised by her father to think “religion was part of the problem” [103].  A TSA official, who questions the propriety of “animals” flying on board a plane instead of in the baggage compartment, calls Lucy “an abomination before Christ.  You should be put to sleep” (159).  Protesters have scriptural passages on their signs to justify their animosity against Lucy, and an obviously fundamentalist Christian blares Leviticus’ admonition against human sexual contact with animals through a bullhorn ([168]-69).  The author’s political bias becomes evident when he identifies “Steven Rhodes, the Republican from Utah”, as the sponsor of a bill to outlaw interspecies life forms like Lucy [170].  Senator Rhodes is further depicted as a religious zealot with an anti-Lucy pastor (217).  A scientist who befriends Lucy displays hasty generalization when he tries to comfort Lucy with, “There’s no reasoning with the Christian right.  They hate science” [232].  A nurse identifies herself as a Christian, yet she still collaborates with Lucy’s captors [243].

Despite these instances of religious bigotry, the natural law within Lucy cannot be silenced.  Even though her father was anti-religious and she herself expressed one anti-Catholic sentiment,[16] her nascent theology is respectful and life-affirming.  Lucy’s religious experience in her girlhood consisted of a simple prayer “to the forest to arrange things in a beneficial way” (253) because she “wanted to live” [265].  A standard denouement of a happy-ending plot is repeated in this work: returning to Africa to live among the bonobos, Lucy seems to be in paradise, rejoicing especially in being pregnant.  Moreover, she reaches deep spiritual insights.  She admires her mother-in-law for “embracing her suffering and turning it into a thing of beauty that could endure beyond her brief lifetime”, and has learned that she was named “Lucy”, according to her father’s written testimony, “not, as some might think, because of the australopithicine [sic] of the same name, but because the name means ‘light’” (305).  This last entry, of course, recalls for the educated reader the beginning of Genesis.

          Kira Peikoff’s No Time to Die (2014) illustrates the life of Zoe, a teenager who does not age beyond her fourteen years.  Zoe is a standard agnostic or atheist character, who expresses her opinions about tenets of religious beliefs on several occasions.  Instead of eternal life, she thinks that death is “the idea of vanishing—poof—for all of eternity” (20; italics in original).  As with other fiction discussed above, “Jesus” is used not as an affirmation of faith, but as a mere exclamation in several instances (137, 305, [363], 403).  Since “this [life is] all we’ve got”, Zoe, who “had never given much thought to religion”, thinks that, “long after anyone had ever heard of her, after the Earth stopped turning and the sun exploded and life went on somewhere else in the universe, she would still be dead.  Just another piece of galactic debris” (316, 321, 341; italics in original).

Despite these negative ideas about religious belief, religious terminology and concepts are evident, and the several instances support Zoe’s existence as a human being and not a mere genetic freak.  A first indication that “God language” is inescapable occurs when a professor comments about her dean’s being “skittish around any scientist ‘trying to play God’” (73).  Normally, this phrase is used by a character attacking one who supports anti-life practices, such as embryonic stem cell research.  However, that a relatively secular professor would use the phrase (recorded in double quotation marks) does not necessarily suggest that the character denies the existence of God.  A religious basis for this character’s action is thus possible.  Similarly, when she reflects that her “crippled old” grandfather and she “were trapped in bodies that belied their souls”, Zoe similarly evidences a belief in a most difficult, because incorporeal, religious concept, the existence of her soul, quite an intellectual feat for an agnostic or atheist (124-5).  Perhaps the most interesting affirmation of life comes from Galileo, the novel’s hero, which reads like a pro-life manifesto:

“But one thing I do know is that life is precious.  Life is good.  And you can never have too much of a good thing.  Which boils down to the bottom line—we’re lucky to be alive.  And the world is lucky to have you in it, not just because of your DNA.  You’re much more than your genes.”  (343-4)

Don DeLillo’s Zero K (2016), the most recent bioethics fiction work to be examined, involves one family’s venture into cryonic suspension offered by the Convergence, whose goal is to have people “emerge in cyberhuman form” after their cryonic suspension ends (67).  While the plot of this novel follows the primary purpose of bioethics fiction (to illustrate humanity’s quest for physical immortality), religious imagery permeates the entire work.  While ethical concerns are not discussed in a didactic fashion as in some novels reviewed here to educate the reader (for example, Peikoff’s No Time to Die, where several passages debate the effects of human longevity on the economy), virtually every page of DeLillo’s work contains a religious allusion or a distortion of the original intent of the religious symbol or term.

Jeffrey, the narrator, is immediately confronted with religious imagery and concepts within the first few pages when Ross, his father, explains the Convergence as “Faith-based technology.  That’s what it is.  Another god.  Not so different, it turns out, from some of the earlier ones.  Except that it’s real, it’s true, it delivers”, after which explanation Jeffrey affirms that “We’re back to the old-time religion” (9-10).  The narrator says that he is not Catholic, yet the phrases “dust thou art” and “dust thou shalt return” become meaningful for him as the mere act of repetition suggests (15; italics in original).  A conversation between a man in a monk’s cloak and Jeffrey reinforces the motif of death and suggests an opposing view to the purpose of the Convergence:

“I want to die and be finished forever.  Don’t you want to die?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“What’s the point of living if we don’t die at the end of it?”  (40)

Since the novel is devoted to the time that Jeffrey will spend with Artis, his stepmother, before her cryonic suspension, their conversation contains many significant religious elements.  Artis has a different perspective on the Convergence from that of the monk-like character above.  For her, being in a cryonic state will eventually lead to being “reborn into a deeper and truer reality” (47).  When she speaks “in serial fragments”, he “found [himself] lowering [his] head in a sort of prayerful concentration” (53).

The opposing view about the Convergence and its underlying bioethical choice probably accounts for Jeffrey’s need for definition, and his quest for definitions results in an existential fear:

There was something satisfying and hard-won about this [effort to define things] even if I made it a point not to check the dictionary definition.  [….]  But I was afraid of the conclusion I might draw, that the expression was not pretentious jargon, that the expression made sense, opening out into a cogent argument concerning important issues.  (55)

Jeffrey’s definitional tendencies mirror those of the biblical character Adam; he “would give” the speakers guiding a group of people into cryonic suspension “names, both of them, just for the hell of it” (66).  Jeffrey’s definitional tendency is in contrast to the two Convergence speakers’ litany of rhetorical questions, spanning three pages (69-71).

          Jeffrey is as confused about his religious nature as the environment of the Convergence confusedly uses religious terms and gestures to guide those entering cryonic suspension.  Jeffrey views a false limp as “my faith”; curiously, this false condition becomes a “circular way to recognize myself” and reinforces his need to define things: “Define person, I tell myself.  Define human, define animal” (103; italics in original).

Perhaps the most telling item in the novel is Jeffrey’s reaction to Ross’ and Artis’ cryonic suspension.  “It’s not their resonant lives that haunt me,” he says, “but the manner of dying” (266).  This is an odd reaction when the Convergence seems to have done everything to have prepared the deaths of his parents as a serene event.  The pods which contain the bodies are likened to, in Jeffrey’s words, a “shrine” (117).  Although the location for the Convergence (desert regions in Asia) is deemed necessary because of geopolitical problems, it is appropriate for the teleological purposes of this novel since the desert is the place “to repeat the ancient pieties and superstitions” (128).  The preserved bodies are placed in what Jeffrey calls a “catacomb” (133).  Each of the four people to enter cryonic suspension receives a blessing when the speaker places a hand on his or her head, an event which gives Jeffrey another opportunity to add religious words and a string of appositions to the act: “She placed her hand on my father’s head—my father or his representation, the naked icon he would soon become, a dormant in a capsule, waiting for his cyber-resurrection” (245).  Why this entire event would “haunt” Jeffrey eludes the reader, but some speculation is possible.  Even though the outward appearance of the Convergence’s efforts to guide one into cryonic suspension seems to convey familiarity and comfort for persons who may be used to a sacramental approach to the act of dying, it is still a death, engineered by human beings, acquiesced by the person to be killed him- or herself.  Jeffrey, focused on determining clear definitions for items and concepts, is keenly aware of the cognitive dissonance between death engineered biotechnologically and death which should be the natural end of human life.

B.  Utilitarian Principles, Focusing on Economics

Several novels employ utilitarian ideas as the philosophical foundation for their plots, the second general ethical principle of bioethics fiction discussed here.  Lewis’ Arrowsmith highlights the utilitarian philosophy of the medical profession succinctly when the character Pickerbaugh argues that the ends justify the means:

“What if my statistics aren’t always exact?  What if my advertising, my jollying of the public, does strike some folks as vulgar?  It all does good; it’s all on the right side.  No matter what methods we use, if we can get people to have more fresh air and cleaner yards and less alcohol, we’re justified.” (750)

Lewis’ novel repeatedly emphasizes the need for profits.  Martin Arrowsmith is urged by his boyhood mentor to “make five thousand dollars [a] year” (589).  When they often associate with each other, doctors “argue about whether they can make more money if they locate in a big city or a town” (604).  A character who ostensibly begins his speech with the dichotomy of ethics vs. money makes it clear that the “gospel” of new furniture for doctors’ offices settles the debate (648-9).

Cook’s Coma not only has the benefit of the characters’ utilitarian perspective but the author’s commentary.  Susan Wheeler takes the contraceptive Ortho-Novum not to correct any hormonal imbalance, but because she “was a practical woman; strong-willed and practical” (19) regarding her sexual immorality.  Her lover, Dr. Bellows, has a similar utilitarian view of sexuality, calling himself “Machiavellianly practical” (24).  The purpose of the Jefferson Institute, the place where long-term care patients who have fallen into comas, reside, is to “curtail costs” (156), and the economic basis of the Jefferson Institute is elaborated towards novel’s end (263-4).  In a chilling passage, surgeons discuss how much the organs they are harvesting would earn (275-6).  The reader learns only in the denouement that the main character’s protector, Dr. Stark, is part of the Jefferson Institute’s black market organ plan (290-1).  In the “Author’s Note” following the novel, Cook declares how the “market economy” (304) drives the need for organs, which are called “valuable human resources” (305).

Evidence of utilitarianism in three novels following the publication of Coma can be summarized.  In Hoffman’s The Secret, Dr. Park, the scientist who cloned Iris, “didn’t want to bring anyone damaged into the world.  Or mentally unstable”, in contrast to the Judeo-Christian ethic, where “damaged”, “defective”, or handicapped human beings are valued (98).  Dr. Park refuses to speak further with Iris about her status, and he can justify his refusal because, under the economic hierarchy of a utilitarian worldview, Iris’ mother “was my customer, not you” (100).

In Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, Anna recounts the utilitarian reason why she was conceived (to save her sister Kate) (7-8).  The utilitarian mindset is evident in the rest of the family as well.  Jesse, Anna’s brother, thinks he is worth more dead than alive (94), and Sara openly thinks of her still unborn daughter as a tool for Kate: “I have thought of this daughter only in terms of what she will be able to do for the daughter I already have” (94, 100).  The entire plot of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) exemplifies utilitarianism.  The sole purpose of the children at Hailsham is to be organ donors; after they have “donated” their organs, their death is euphemistically called “completing” (207).

Although Willow’s father in Picoult’s Handle with Care (2009) is outraged that a lawyer would suggest wrongful birth, Charlotte, the mother, asks a simple utilitarian question: “What happens if we win?” (65).  Sean, the husband, is aware of utilitarian ethics “a means to an end”, but for Charlotte lying about wrongful birth is a way to “play a game” because “The ends justify the means” (104, [171], [186]).  Eventually, Charlotte wins $8 million in the lawsuit.

Three novels after Picoult’s Handle with Care contain brief evidence of the utilitarian approach.  Lucy’s father in Gonzales’ Lucy (2010) clearly identifies his scientific experiment of mating with a bonobo in utilitarian terms: “And I offer Lucy as proof to the world that, even though the ethics of what I’ve done may be questioned, the results are unequivocal” [50].  It is significant that another character comments on this ethics/results terminology much as pro-lifers would consider in vitro fertilization unethical yet value the child born as a result of that procedure:

“So the issues here revolve around her father’s decision to bring her into the world, which most of us would agree was a very bad decision from an ethical point of view.  But we must keep that ethical issue separate from the very good outcome of that bad decision.  Lucy is a remarkable person.  Her father did something reprehensible, but that in no way detracts from her value as a human being.”  ([186])

Zoe’s father in Peikoff’s No Time to Die angrily claims, “They don’t care about you, the human being—only you, the DNA!” (63).  The political impact of funding for medical research is often discussed in this novel.  For example, extending life “wasn’t too appealing to a bloated government” because it would have to pay more if people lived longer; funding human longevity research would “crash” the economy (70, 80-1).

Finally, in a rhetorical twist of utilitarian ethics, a character in DeLillo’s Zero K states a clearly anti-egalitarian view which contorts the utilitarian goal of the greatest good for the greatest number: “Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth” (76).

C.  Dehumanization of Humans and Human-Like Characters

          The loss of religious force and the standard of utilitarian ethics may account for the third general feature of bioethics fiction discussed here, the dehumanization expressed by various characters not only of cybernetic beings who approach humanness (clones, “bots”, etc.), but also of genetically-based humans.  This dehumanization may account for three instances where Martin Arrowsmith, the hero of Lewis’ Arrowsmith, views his fellow humans with less than the respect demanded by Judaism and Christianity.  Martin regarded people “as he had regarded animals in biology”, and this perspective moves quickly to his comment that “most people [are] above the grade of hog”, ultimately leading to the most dehumanizing statement in the novel, wherein a Negro doctor, mistaken for a servant, is described (in an apposition, no less, a rhetorical feature meant to draw attention to the preceding term which it further defines) as “a beautiful young animal” (595, 809, 856).

          Cook’s Coma contains dehumanization elements peppered throughout the novel.  Dr. Bellows’ attitude about donating kidneys from comatose ICU patients is obvious when he refers to their brains twice as “squash”, a variation of the metaphor of a human being reduced to a “vegetable”, a metaphor which is repeated when his lover, Susan, describes another patient “like a vegetable” (47, 48, 90).  A unique dehumanizing metaphor occurs when a patient is likened to a football:

[Susan] was faced with the fact that Bellows and probably the entire crew were not thinking of Nancy Greenly as a person.  The patient seemed more like the part of a complicated game, like the relationship between the football and the teams at play.  The football was important only as an object to advance the position and advantage of one of the teams.  Nancy Greenly had become a technical challenge, a game to be played.  (81)

Elsewhere, patients are “brain stem preparations”, a synecdoche which reduces the entire human being to one small, albeit significant part of his or her existence (267).  The dehumanizing element culminates in the novel’s denouement when the antagonist, Dr. Stark, criticizes “the common folk” and claims that respect for life is “a public policy handicap” (297, 298).

          Gonzales’ Lucy (2010) illustrates the obvious conflict between humans and interspecies generation.  Senator Rhodes’ bill to outlaw interspecies generation becomes law, and Lucy—although an obviously literate and communicative being capable of deep philosophical thought—is automatically not a legal human (249).

Dehumanization occurs in Peikoff’s No Time to Die when a character queries whether “cockroaches” are “a microcosm for human life on Earth”; later, this same character views humans as “bacteria” (158, 209).

IV.  An Example of a Life-Affirming Bioethics Novel

          Certainly, the above works which are largely anti-life (in the sense that they illustrate the dehumanization of their characters) could be cited as examples of rhetorical negation in literature.  That is, readers can appreciate and learn how biotechnology can assault human life by reading the adventures of humans or bots resembling human beings.  Moreover, it would be illogical to presume, absent clear evidence, that the author him- or herself promotes an anti-life perspective through his or her fiction.  Besides that, when they would finish most of the above fiction, readers would feel dispirited and hopeless, two results of a steady stream of life-denying fiction.

          This is not to say that, in contrast, fictional works which negotiate the ethical void of most bioethics fiction by including ethical standards developed by religious sources throughout the millennia have plots which necessarily end satisfactorily or happy.  A recent trilogy by Mary E. Pearson, for example, depicts a forlorn twenty-fourth century: the United States and many other nations have split into smaller political entities, human cloning has become a reality, biogeneticists are experimenting with material which needlessly prolongs human life (even to the point of salvaging human life onto computers), and Christianity seems to have gone underground.  However, The Adoration of Jenna Fox (2008) by Mary E. Pearson is in stark contrast to the above works regarding the three general principles identified in this study.

Written for a young adult audience, the novel follows the lives of Jenna, Kara, and Locke.  Jenna is responsible for a car accident that should have killed all three; all of them were saved by Jenna’s father, who loaded the essential data of their brains onto computers for later full-body reconstitution.  The novels thus concern not merely adolescent romance, but also the appropriateness of maintaining life at all costs, the issue of natural means to end human life, and the wisdom of human longevity spanning centuries.

Adoration has life-affirming features in contrast to the above three general principles evident in most bioethics fiction.  The novel uses religious imagery and terminology in an appropriate way, absent any authorial intention to show irony or to disparage the religious term.  While the utilitarian ethos is never challenged by name and key terms in that philosophical approach (for example, “ends”, “means”, or any variant of the name of the approach) are not analyzed or replaced explicitly by Judeo-Christian values, the value of human life is affirmed on several occasions and in the two sequels.[17]  Consequently, dehumanization is refuted by clear affirmations of the value of human life, whether wholly human or, as in the instances of the three main characters, a human who may be composed of biogenetically-modified material.

A life-affirming statement is made within the first few pages when eighteen-year-old Jenna discusses “the fetus that was me”, and the affirmation of her unborn humanity is related two-thirds through the novel:

She pulls me close again, my head on her chest.  I can hear her heartbeat.  Familiar.  The sound I heard in her womb.  The whoosh, the beat, the flow that punctuated my beginnings in another dark place.  [….]  I close my eyes, pressing my ear to her chest again.  Hearing the sounds, the pulse of Claire, the world of my beginnings, the time when there was no doubt I had a soul.  When I existed in a warm, velvet liquid that was as dark as night, and that dark place was the only place I wanted to be.  (10, 182-3)

Even though she had had “no feeling” on entering a church earlier in the novel (35), Jenna’s religious sentiments become obvious when she discloses the accident “in a desperate breathless finish, feeling like I have confessed a sin and I need forgiveness” (79).  When her father explains how her brain was saved and stored on a computer, Jenna asks an odd question for a work of bioethics fiction in an outpouring of frustration that could be aimed not merely at her father, but also, beyond this novel, at the entire enterprise of biotechnological advance:

“What about a soul, Father?  When you were so busy implanting all your neural chips, did you think about that?  Did you snip my soul from my old body, too?  Where did you put it?  Show me!  Where?  Where in all this groundbreaking technology did you insert my soul?”  (129)

In contrast to her father’s biogenetic activity, Jenna states the obvious fact that most plots of bioethics fiction work against, that death is the end of life: “Everyone has to die eventually” (204).  This novel ends 260 years later with the consummate life-giving plot ending modified by a bit of biotechnology whose ethical problem not even Jenna, who had been “baptized” by her grandmother, apparently did not question: Jenna “arranged for Kayla”, her daughter, by her husband Ethan “long after he was gone” (264).[18]

However, not all is right with Pearson’s future world, despite Jenna’s and other characters’ respect for religious values and developing faith.  At least two instances of symbolic euthanasia or suicide occur, and the disjunctive is necessary since the action against the entities “killed” depends on how they are defined.  Jenna’s friends, whose lives are stored on computers, are bemoaned as existing in a “purgatory [that] will go on and on” (239).  Note that the entities stored are not the friends themselves, but computer files; in Pearson’s world, if 10% of a person’s brain can be saved, then that person can be reconstituted, and his or her “software” (intelligence stored on the computer) can be placed in the reconstituted body.  In a symbolic act of euthanasia, Jenna disconnects the three computer cubes containing her friends’ and her own backups from their power docks and throws them into a pond (254-5).[19]  One can argue that the act of destroying the computer copies is neither suicide nor euthanasia since the person committing the act is the real, as in incarnated, entity doing the action to not another incarnated human being, but a mere computer copy.  Perhaps this episode in the novel is a fictional opportunity to safely explore the rights of cloned or reconstituted human beings and to determine their legality before anyone in the real world ventures to force the issue.

          Consider the cumulative evidence from the denouements of the novels considered here.  Martin in Lewis’ Arrowsmith continues his quest for quinine research, but the reader knows that the cost is the sacrifice of love.  Susan Wheeler in Cook’s Coma will not suffer the fate of others who were put into coma before their organs were harvested, for her lover arrives—deus ex machina—to save her from the anesthesia which would kill her, police ready to arrest the antagonist Dr. Stark.  Iris comes to appreciate her unique self in Hoffman’s The Secret despite her having been made purposefully a clone of her distant mother.  A sense of divine justice occurs in Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper when Anna, who had been conceived for the purpose of being an organ donor for her sister, dies and becomes an organ donor despite her successful lawsuit asserting bodily integrity.  The clones in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go fulfill their purposes (being organ “donors”) and die, yet the final reflection by Kathy suggests that even clones in this novel devoid of religious imagery hope for resurrection.  In Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Jenna becomes a mother, a sign that she values life enough to have another person experience it.  Divine justice occurs again in Picoult’s Handle with Care when Charlotte, fresh from winning her wrongful birth lawsuit, loses the daughter at the crux of the case.  In Gonzales’ Lucy the hybrid human Lucy finds a welcoming society among the bonobo apes of Africa.  Those characters seeking Zoe’s life are rebuffed in Peikoff’s No Time to Die.  Jeffrey is perhaps the only character studied here who finds neither solace nor safety in DeLillo’s Zero K, but that is entirely proper; the lack of closure which natural death would have given his parents indeed “haunts” him, a fitting verb to describe what happens when bioethical advances attempt to deprive mortal life of a natural death, which millennia of human culture has acknowledged as the entree to immortality.

This study began with a substantial quantity of definitions of the term “bioethics”, and it may be appropriate to end it with another, a stipulative definition summarizing a pro-life perspective on the various novels discussed.  Bioethics is a field designed not only to resolve challenging or difficult applications of biotechnology, but also to forewarn society when limits have been, are being, or will be superseded.  This admonitory function has been evident from the beginning of the genre, and the claim can be made that the fictional need to end bioethical challenges posed by the various plots with human life being affirmed may be the novelist’s way of overcoming the ethical challenge presented.  Unless one despairs and resigns oneself to live in a biotechnical dystopia like Brave New World or 1984, this life-affirming tendency of contemporary bioethics fiction is certainly comforting for the modern reader.

Works Cited

“Bioethics.” Merriam-Webster, 2017,

“Bioethics.” Wikipedia, 14 May 2017,

Carpi, Daniela. Introduction. Bioethics and Biolaw Through Literature, edited by Carpi, De Gruyter, 2011, pp. [1]-19. Law & Literature 2.

Clayton, Jay. “The Ridicule of Time: Science Fiction, Bioethics, and the Posthuman.” American Literary History, vol. 25, no. 2, 2013, pp. 317-43. Academic Search Complete.

Cook, Robin. Coma. Little, Brown, 1977.

Cox, D. Michael. “Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology and the Ethics of Personhood.” Modern Theology, vol. 32, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 139-41. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/moth.12233.

DeLillo, Don. Zero K. Scribner, 2016.

Glatz, Carol. “Vatican Releases Updated Guidelines for Bioethical Questions.” Catholic News Service, 6 Feb. 2017,

Gonzales, Laurence. Lucy. Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Hoffman, Eva. The Secret. PublicAffairs, 2002.

Hughes, James. Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Westview Press, 2004.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. Random House, 2005.

Jameton, Andrew, and Albert R. Jonsen. “America, Bioethics in.” Bioethics, edited by Bruce Jennings, 4th ed., Macmillan Reference, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2014, pp. 184-202.

Jennings, Bruce. “Biopower and the Liberationist Romance.” Hastings Center Report, vol. 40, no. 4, 2010, pp. 16-20. Academic Search Complete.

Johnson, Sandra H., et al., editors. Health Law and Bioethics: Cases in Context. Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, 2009.

Jost, Timothy Stoltzfus. Readings in Comparative Health Law and Bioethics. Carolina Academic Press, 2001.

—. Readings in Comparative Health Law and Bioethics. 2nd ed., Carolina Academic Press, 2007.

Laethem, Erica. “Why Bother with Bioethics?” Bioethics Across the Life Span, edited by Marilyn E. Coors, National Catholic Bioethics Center, pp. 1-22.

Levin, Mark, and Ira Birnbaum. “Jewish Bioethics?” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, vol. 25, no. 4, 2000, pp. 469–84.

Lewis, Sinclair. Arrowsmith. Lewis at Zenith: A Three-Novel Omnibus; Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961, pp. [585]-914.

Magalhães, Susana, and Ana Sofia Carvalho. “Searching for Otherness: The View of a Novel.” Human Reproduction & Genetic Ethics, vol. 16, no. 2, July 2010, pp. 139-164. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1558/hrge.v16i2.139.

“Making Sense of Bioethics.” National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2017,

Marks, John. “Clone Stories: ‘Shallow Are the Souls That Have Forgotten How to Shudder’.” Paragraph, vol. 33, no. 3, Nov. 2010, pp. 331-353. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3366/para.2010.0203.

Montello, Martha. “Middlebrow Medical Ethics.” Hastings Center Report, vol. 40, no. 4, July 2010, pp. 20-22. EBSCOhost.

Myser, Catherine. Bioethics Around the Globe. Oxford UP, 2011.

Pauls, Merril, and Roger C. Hutchinson. “Bioethics for Clinicians: 28. Protestant Bioethics.” CMAJ, vol. 166, no. 2, 5 Feb. 2002, pp. 339-43.

Pearson, Mary E. The Adoration of Jenna Fox. Henry Holt, 2008.

—. Fox Forever. Henry Holt, 2013.

—. The Fox Inheritance. Henry Holt, 2011.

Peikoff, Kira. No Time to Die. Pinnacle Books, 2014.

Picoult, Jodi. Handle with Care. Atria Books, 2009.

—. My Sister’s Keeper. Washington Square Press, 2004.

Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.

Qiu, Renzong. “Reflections on Bioethics in China: The Interaction Between Bioethics and Society.” Myser, pp. [164]-87.

Rich, Ben A. Strange Bedfellows: How Medical Jurisprudence Has Influenced Medical Ethics and Medical Practice. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2001.

Sethi, Meera Lee, and Adam Briggle. “Making Stories Visible: The Task for Bioethics Commissions.” Issues in Science & Technology , vol. 27, no. 2, 2011, pp. 29-44. Academic Search Complete.

van Niekerk, Anton A., and Solomon R.  Benatar. “The Social Functions of Bioethics in South Africa.” Myser, [134]-51.

Wakefield, Hannah. “Narrative and a Christian Bioethics.” Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics, vol. 29, no. 2, summer 2013, pp. 111-26. EBSCOhost.

[1] For example, while they may obliquely mention larger political and social issues, specific common controversies (such as designer babies, “selective reduction” of one or more unborn children when multiple pregnancies occur, or organ “harvesting” from comatose persons) are omitted, as in Jay Clayton’s discussion of biotechnology impacting science fiction:

Both of these developments—acceptance of artificial reproduction and respect for diversity—are signs of how the subculture of SF genre fiction had joined other new social movements such as feminism, queer and transsexual politics, disability rights, and multiculturalism to stake out a distinctive, countercultural position in opposition to prevailing trends in the Nixon–Regan [sic] years.  Although many women active in feminist causes reacted against invasive biomedical technology in matters of reproduction, science fiction emphasized the thematics of reproductive choice to align its [belief] for genetic engineering with women’s rights.  (329)

This list of contemporary social and political issues is almost a casual litany of politically-correct ideas, one which certainly omits the more controversial right-to-life terms “abortion”, “infanticide”, or “euthanasia” which are raised in bioethical literature.  The source has the word “brief” in place of the term bracketed in the above quote, but “belief” was most likely intended.

[2] As described by Ben A. Rich, “narrative ethics” differs not only from the common understanding of “narrative” within the humanities, especially English academics, but also from Wakefield’s formulation: “Narrative ethics challenges the position of many prominent analytic philosophers that personal identity and a full understanding of the unity of the life of a person can be understood as nothing more than the persistence of certain psychological connections over time” (20).  This statement omits the literary understanding of the term as well as Wakefield’s emphasis on God in her definition of Christian bioethics.

[3] The idea that bioethics is inherently narratological is reinforced by the editors of Health Law and Bioethics, where they begin and end the preface, affirming that “leading health law scholars tell the stories behind thirteen landmark [law] cases in the field” (Johnson et al. xvii).

[4] This definition parallels one provided in a print publication: “Bioethics is a systematic way of addressing ethical questions that arise in medicine and science.  Its focus is the study of morally relevant human action.  Its methodology, depending on the approach, involves rational thought (philosophy) or faith seeking understanding (theology), or both” (Laethem 4).

[5] A notable exception is Christina Bieber Lake’s Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology and the Ethics of Personhood (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), which was praised in a review by D. Michael Cox thus:

Lake’s text is brimming with insightful readings of fiction in dialogue with thoughtful ethical reflections.  Well-suited to ethics courses and general readers interested in issues surrounding biotechnology, it offers a compelling and accessible defense of the abiding importance of the humanities, particularly literary fiction, for the cultivation of the moral imagination.  (141)

[6] See, for example, James Hughes’ colorful albeit unsubstantiated vituperative claim that “For the human-racists in the right-to-life movement, killing an abortion doctor is the same as assassinating death camp doctors at Auschwitz—a moral obligation” (117).

[7] Of course, there are exceptions to the scholarly bias against the pro-life movement.  Some scholars have analyzed bioethics fiction in an objective manner, unlike the obvious bias that Jasanoff displays.  For example, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper (2004), a novel concerned with a couple who decides to become pregnant for the express purpose of addressing the medical needs of another child, is examined in two articles, one by Susana Magalhães and Ana Sofia Carvalho and another by Martha Montello.  John Marks examines two novels addressing cloning, Eva Hoffman’s The Secret, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

[8] Daniela Carpi identifies several fictional works addressing bioethical issues:

Literature is helpful in creating mental experiments that alert us to problems in the real world.

            In fact, literature has often anticipated such existential problems and questioned the ethical and legal limits we should set for science.  Let us consider, for instance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where there is an experiment on the creation of life through the collection of organs and body parts; in H. G. Wells’s science-fiction novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, the mad physician Doctor Moreau, wants to transform animals into human beings through long and painful explants and transplants […]  (6)

[9] Jay Clayton explains why certain years did not have as many bioethics fictional works as others.  He writes:

After Blish’s The Seedling Stars (1957), there was little SF about genetics for more than 20 years.  A recent review of “Science Fiction and the Life Sciences” by Joan L. Slonczewski and Michael Levy suggests that a growing interest in environmentalism, which intensified after publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), stimulated SF writers to turn their attention toward ecological issues, producing imaginative explorations of alien ecosystems such as Dune (1965) and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).  Another likely factor was the rise of the counterculture and new social movements concerned with minority and gender issues, which led to increased emphasis on fiction about altered states of consciousness and changed racial and sexual norms, especially in New Wave SF.  In any event, almost no science fiction confronted questions of evolution and genetics in any depth until the excitement about recombinant DNA reignited interest in the mid-1970s.  (328)

[10] An exception occurs in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper where six principles of bioethics are enumerated by a character called to testify in a medical emancipation case brought by the protagonists:

“In Western Bioethics, there are six principles we try to follow [….]  Autonomy, or the idea that any patient over age eighteen has the right to refuse treatment; veracity, which is basically informed consent; fidelity—that is, a health-care provider fulfilling his duties; beneficence, or doing what’s in the best interests of the patient; nonmaleficence—when you can no longer do good, you shouldn’t do harm…like performing major surgery on a terminal patient who’s 102 years old; and finally justice—that no patient should be discriminated against in receiving treatment.”  (301; ellipsis in original)

[11] Often, authors’ statements about their adherence to or disagreement with religious tenets are ambiguous.  Such is the case with Jodi Picoult, whose seemingly clear statement “I personally am pro stem cell research” is rhetorically challenging since “stem cell research”, as the right-to-life community knows, divides into the life-affirming research using adult stem cells and the life-destroying research which requires the killing of the unborn child (unpaginated interview within My Sister’s Keeper).

[12] The source has the word “meaningless”, but the term “meaninglessness” was most likely intended.

[13] A curiously appropriate use of the term occurs when Susan is saved from a harrowing death and exclaims, “Thank God” (281).

[14] The casual attitude towards sex continues when characters view sex as recreation and call “mindless sex” an “escape” (158-9).

[15] It might be too much of a close reading, but, grant that the second comma changes this simple declarative to an interrogative, the first pause before the dependent clause may suggest that Sara thinks that the obligation to “do whatever you have to” does not apply to those whom one does not love.  Whom she does not love would refer, of course, to her family, especially her husband with whom she is having the conversation.

[16] The severity of this one instance of anti-Catholicism, however, may be lessened by the circumstances under which it was uttered.  As she flees her pursuers, Lucy tries to convince someone to help her pass a checkpoint by saying that she was in “a Catholic orphanage.  There was a priest there.  He was molesting all the boys.  I had to get away” [268].

[17] The plot continues in The Fox Inheritance (2011) and Fox Forever (2013).

[18] The circumstances and moral integrity of this child’s conception are ambiguous.  Although Jenna can “never have a child”, her mother says, “We saved an ovary, darling.  It’s preserved at an organ bank.  And a surrogate mother won’t be a problem” (137).

[19] A similar act of destruction occurs in Fox Forever when Locke destroys 200 copies that were made of Kara and himself (278).


Representation and Rhetoric of Abortion in the Film Bella: Implications of Its Standards as the Latino Response to American Views on Abortion

Abstract:  This paper considers literature written by American Latino authors who address the issue of abortion.  After surveying literary criticism of recent Latino literature, the paper focuses on works in three separate genres: Tato Laviera’s poem “Jesús Papote” (1981), the prose passage “Silent Dancing” (1990) by Judith Ortiz Cofer, and the film Bella (2006).  The paper explicates and critiques these works so that non-Latino audiences can appreciate the themes evoked in the literature.  Finally, the paper analyzes Latino literary aesthetics as pronounced by major theorists and determines if the standards apply to the film Bella.

          A substantial portion of this paper was presented at last year’s annual conference of The International Journal of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University in May and reprised at the University Faculty for Life annual conference held at Brigham Young University in June.  The IJAS audience (colleagues from India, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, Thailand, and elsewhere) and fellow faculty at the multidisciplinary UFL audience aided me considerably during the question-and-answer periods following the presentations.  Having the final version of the paper published in the Journal of Teaching and Learning late last year is one way to thank these communities of scholars.

          However, that was last year’s paper, last year’s research, and last year’s reading.  This paper this year allows me to expand on some unresolved questions from previous research, if not to answer them fully, then at least to provide others with ideas that they can write about next year and in subsequent presentations, whether here at the National Association of Hispanic and Latino Studies or elsewhere.

Major themes in Latino literature can be culled not only from individually-published primary sources, but also from the most recent compendium of Latino literature yet produced, The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2011).  Most of the entries in this 2,700 page, four pound volume can be placed under five categories (in alphabetical order): 1. devotion to one’s ethnic heritage, 2. difficulties of finding and performing work, 3. faith, 4. family, and 5. love of children as the future of the race.  A sixth category (sexual conflict) is possible because a significant portion of the late twentieth-century literature in the Norton collection concerns sexual matters deviating from Latino religious and moral standards.  Although my research interests concern the three life issues in literature (abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia), for brevity’s sake this paper must focus on the first life issue since substantial fictional literature from the Latino perspective on infanticide and euthanasia has not yet been discovered.[1]

Certainly, literary treatment of abortion in the Latino population is as rare as literary criticism on the topic.  However, as rare as the subject of abortion as a rhetorical topic is in printed literature, there are notable exceptions, such as Tato Laviera’s poem “Jesús Papote” (1981) and Judith Ortiz Cofer’s short story “Silent Dancing” (1990).[2]

Moreover, if the film The Cider House Rules (1999) functions as an Anglo treatment of the issue, then Bella (2006) is unique in that it is the first film to represent abortion in the American Latino community.  Bella has achieved prominence not only as an artistic representation of the issue of abortion, but also as a vehicle for critical commentary ranging from perceptive cinematographic critique to polemic.  Thus, if Bella becomes the standard by which cinematic treatment of abortion obtains, then I will suggest the consequences of such a standard.  This component of my research is unique, involving a discussion not merely of Latino moral values, but also of aesthetics.

Literary Criticism of Latino Literature on Abortion

What literary criticism of abortion in Latino literature has been generated is, if not completely missing, scant and biased.  For example, contrary to the contemporary and admittedly myopic American view of feminism, the 2010 anthology Patriarchy in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street neglects to mention abortion as an issue of reproductive liberation for women, even though nearly fifty pages of chapter three are devoted to “Patriarchy in the Contemporary World.”

On the second point (literary criticism being scant or biased), literary critics may be more concerned with what they would like to find in the literature than what is actually present.  For example, Aída Hurtado summarizes what she perceives are current trends in Latino studies thus:

Currently there is a flurry of academic and artistic production from Latina feminists who are making connections with Latina activists in the United States and in the rest of the Americas.  Some of the most exciting work is being created by Latina feminists who are questioning the heterosexism of Latino culture and are beginning to document the lives of Latina lesbians.  These scholars are also working with Latina feminists and women of color to form domestic and international alliances around women’s issues.  In the domestic arena are such organizations as the Women of Color Resource Center, which is committed to creating inclusive political agendas to span ethnic and cultural differences.

Politically, Hurtado is more direct in enumerating the specific issues that, to her, drive the Latina community:

Latinas in the United States have been forced to resist gender subordination within their own communities as well as gender, class, and race/ethnic discrimination in society at large.  Latinas’ “triple” oppression has resulted in their earning less, receiving less education, and having more children to support than whites or than men in their own group.  The core concerns of Latina feminists are material conditions such as employment, poverty, education, health, child care, and reproductive rights.

Since the language of this discussion is obviously politically leftist, doubt exists whether abortion, which in most leftist agendas falls under the euphemism of “reproductive rights,” is a social justice issue that the larger Latino population, nurtured and living dominantly Roman Catholic religious and ethical values, would support.[3]

          The political import of such criticism does little to help students, let alone their faculty, understand the literature.  What does the literature itself say about the first life issue of abortion?  What do Laviera’s poem, Ortiz Cofer’s short story, and the film Bella and its novelization suggest as the Latino approach to this issue?  What Latino literary aesthetics are operative when controversial issues such as abortion are discussed?  Why, also, is Bella a signal event in the canon of Latino literature?  What follows are deeper analyses of these three seminal works.

Tato Laviera’s Poem “Jesús Papote” (1981)

          The relevant passage in Laviera’s poem pertaining to abortion is brief, but not only the content, but also stylistic features support a rhetorical position on abortion overlooked by criticism.

My name is jesús papote may month flowers she dis-

covered me making her green throwing up she wanted

abortion she took pill after pill she had to wait

syphilis infection i came between the habit she

needed more i was an obstruction constant pressure

wrinkled inside cars in out constant pounding those

men were paying they had a right to hurt the habit

stronger tricks longer she became oral more and more

the money was not there one night nobody wanted her

she decided to extricate me she pounded punch after

punch like those men punch after punch abortion at

all costs she tired herself i lost my voice


My name is jesús papote june [….]

she threw up the world she greened

she scratched-drew-blood nails on scars scabbing

pores blood vessels eruptions hands on blood she

painted open mental torture digging into wall’s

electricity cabled concussion paralyzing currents

she wrote god let me die god let me die she fought

we fought i was not an added burden i kept quiet

i held if she survived detoxified normal life no

more deserted streets no more pains no more misery

she won grandma she won she smiled she ate she

beat the odds.  (15-6)

          Presuming that the poetic narrator is reliable (the poem ends in his joyous birth, so the recollection of the abortion threat occurs at a safe distance), the depiction of the mother’s life is one which surely engenders sympathy in the reader and, if the reader lacks a life-affirming philosophical perspective, certainly a justification for abortion.  The drug addicted mother survives on the streets by prostituting herself, and she is pregnant.  Would anyone suggest that such an environment is a worthy one in which any child should be born?  The answer, of course, is yes—not only from the mother herself, but also from her child.[4]  (The father’s reaction to the pregnancy is irrelevant because he is absent.)

          The stylistics of this passage wherein the mother contemplates abortion cannot be ignored.  The lack of punctuation and sentence structure could be attributed to the general norms of vers libre, where the absence of conventional meter qualifies any work as being poetry.  However, the absence of terminal punctuation and orderly sentence structure and syntax is mandatory in Laviera’s work to convey the eclectic emotions and events occurring in both the mother’s and the unborn child’s lives.  External events and the mother’s spoken words and emotions which threaten the unborn child must be delivered in a rapid-fire mode to convey the urgency of the situation and the chaos that is the mother’s life.  Note that the mother has no reference points for moral authority: no religion, no person who values her beyond a sexual object, and no faith.  Even the “god let me die” anaphora stated twice reads more as a mere interjection and not intercessory prayer to the Divine Being.

          What is most significant about the passage is not only the resolution of the conflict between abortion and the affirmation of life, but also the lack of traditional characters who are usually depicted in abortion narratives.  The US Supreme Court abortion decisions which legalized abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever were only eight years old when the poem was written.  No activist character, no individual doctor, and no abortionist intervenes to resolve this moment of crisis.  The characters themselves resolve the dilemma of life gestating in horrible conditions.  The narrator’s affirmation that “she fought / we fought i was not an added burden” demonstrates that, having been devastated by the world, the mother chose to fight against her circumstances instead of surrender to them.  The only person to help her was not the father of the unwanted child, but the child himself.

          Concluding the poem with direct address to the grandmother is a life-affirming rhetorical torque that any feminist on either side of abortion as a political issue would appreciate.  The unborn child’s exclamation “she won grandma she won she smiled she ate she / beat the odds” is not merely a replica of what a child would say to his grandmother.  Considering it from a feminist perspective, it is also an affirmation of the life-giving forces conserved by the women in the family.  Given the devotion to the maternal and to the feminine which is purportedly dominant in Latino culture, how right and just it is, then, that, even though he has six more months to be born, the unborn child could see his future secure.

Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Short Story “Silent Dancing” (1990)

Two functions need to be performed before one can appreciate the rhetorical value of Judith Ortiz Cofer’s short story “Silent Dancing” (1990).  First is listing what is absent in the short story when contrasted against its Anglo- or European-American counterparts; second is commenting on the high number of “removes” that the narrative establishes to distance the reader from the event.  The second is contrasting the short story’s perceptions of the mother who has aborted, the father of the child, and the unborn child him- or herself.

Here is the passage:

I came to tell you that story about your cousin that you’ve always wanted to hear.  Remember that comment your mother made to a neighbor that has always haunted you?  The only thing you heard was your cousin’s name and then you saw your mother pick up your doll from the couch and say: “It was as big as this doll when they flushed it down the toilet.”  This image has bothered you for years, hasn’t it?  You had nightmares about babies being flushed down the toilet, and you wondered why anyone would do such a horrible thing.  You didn’t dare ask your mother about it.  She would only tell you that you had not heard her right and yell at you for listening to adult conversations.  But later, when you were old enough to know about abortions, you suspected.  I am here to tell you that you were right.  Your cousin was growing an Americanito in her belly when this movie was made.  Soon after she put something long and pointy into her pretty self, thinking maybe she could get rid of the problem before breakfast and still make it to her first class at the high school.  Well, Niña, her screams could be heard downtown.  Your aunt, her Mamá, who had been a midwife on the Island, managed to pull the little thing out.  Yes, they probably flushed it down the toilet, what else could they do with it—give it a Christian burial in a little white casket with blue bows and ribbons?  Nobody wanted that baby—least of all the father, a teacher at her school with a house in West Paterson that he was filling with real children, and a wife who was a natural blond.  (96-7)

Although the cousin’s abortion is briefly mentioned in “Silent Dancing” and therefore lacks the detail that Anglo or European authors would provide in a lengthier treatment in a novel or more extensive short story, what is more pronounced in the above text is the series of several removes from reality in which the abortion episode is related.

There are at least six.  First, of course, is the obvious removal (the text itself as the initial distance from reality).  An immediate categorization of the short story as a work of fiction, not as a nonfictional account of a historical event, qualifies as a second remove.  The third remove involves the fact of authorship; the mother who aborted is not relating her account, but another person is.  The fourth remove becomes obvious when several layers are uncovered.  The reader needs to appreciate the distance involved in having the person relating the abortion matrimonially removed several times from the event; she is not merely a common law wife of a relative closer to Ortiz Cofer, but the narrator’s “great-uncle’s common-law wife” (96).  A fifth remove manifests itself when one considers the means used by Ortiz Cofer to relate the narrative of another woman’s abortion; it is recalled not in standard narratological form of a plot in past or present time, but as a dream, where facts about the abortion episode can be altered either intentionally or not.  The final, sixth remove is evident when the reader understands that the narrator within this particular episode of the short story (the great-uncle’s common-law wife) does not quote the mother directly but instead offers her own evaluation of the abortion episode.

          Besides considering the various removes from reality evident in this short story, one can also excavate a literary perspective towards the mother, the father, and the unborn child much at odds with those who support legalized abortion.  The attitude toward the mother is intriguing.  If negativity applies to “a responsible mother [who] did not leave her children with any stranger” (92), then the calculus of negativity could swing further against the mother who aborts, since she has “left” her child to the extreme (in the hands of an abortionist and thus abandoned the child to death).

          The narrator’s attitude toward the father is apparent in this story; the father of the child is a typically self-centered American man who values sex more than his marriage commitment and who does not regard himself as a role model for his children.

          The author’s attitude toward babies in general is not as negative as one would think.  Reflecting on the film images in the short story, Ortiz Cofer further indicates the Puerto Rican attitude towards children:

Here and there you can see a small child.  Children were always brought to parties and, whenever they got sleepy, were put to bed in the host’s bedrooms.  Babysitting was a concept unrecognized by the Puerto Rican women I knew: a responsible mother did not leave her children with any stranger.  And in a culture where children are not considered intrusive, there is no need to leave the children at home.  (92; italics in original)

Ortiz Cofer’s example is trenchant, for the attitude thus illustrated is greatly at odds with the negativity or hostility towards children in Anglo culture.

The Film Bella (2006; Novelization 2008)

          Although this study is concerned with the written aspects of the life issues in Latino literature, it is necessary to include Bella, which was released as a film written by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, Patrick Million, and Leo Severino in 2006 and novelized two years later by Lisa Samson.

          The plot for both film and novel is simple: Nina becomes pregnant, loses her job at an upscale New York restaurant, and considers abortion, but, thanks to the kindness of José, with whom she worked at the restaurant, gives birth to the child, surrendering the baby so that she can pursue her dancing career.

This severe reduction of the plot of a film that runs for one hour and thirty-two minutes and a book of 187 pages ignores some refined and crucial details.  José had been a star soccer player until he was convicted of vehicular homicide of a little girl; his employment now is that of a humble restaurant chef.  Nina is pregnant by one of the restaurant’s management staff.  The father of the child would support her only by paying half of the cost of an abortion.

Both José and Nina are suffering souls.  José’s psychic burden is the killing of the little girl and its attendant consequences: ignominy, a life of penance, even a radical change in appearance; the most frequently noted physical characteristic is his long and apparently unkempt beard—he calls himself “scruffy-bearded” at the denouement of the novel (181).

Exasperated with her condition in life (she is considering abortion because she is a failure at virtually everything: her dancing career and now her employment), Nina exclaims, “I can’t even take care of myself [….]  How am I going to take care of a kid?” (Samson 102).

The rhetorical value of one image from the film is not only an example of Nina’s tortured self, but also iconic.


In the above image from one of the initial scenes from the film, Nina has fallen back onto a gurney, being wheeled towards her ineluctable abortion.  Her face expresses the customary anxiety and hopelessness of any woman about to undergo an abortion, and this expression may demonstrate that the Latino literary aesthetic on abortion has been successfully transferred from the written text of the film’s narrative to this image.  Her disheveled hair and the haphazardly placed gown slung over her right shoulder add to the perception that something is terribly wrong.  This is not the image of a contented mother about to experience a procedure that will restore her to being merely a woman.

          Details of the plot and even a cursory analysis of the above iconic image, however, are relatively unimportant when the rhetorical functionality of the work is examined.  Bella illustrates the effect of a life-affirming perspective on a situation which is common in American culture.  As true as it was in 2006, when pregnant women lose their jobs in the “new normal” of the Great Recession of the past four years, and when those women are irreligious, have no support systems, and have no moral basis to distinguish between abortion, adoption, or giving birth, then abortion is an ineluctable choice.  Nina is such a young woman.  She has no family support, her beloved father died when she was a little girl, and her relationship with her mother is precarious.  Her religious background cannot be determined; a possible indication of familiarity with Christianity, if not Catholicism, can be suggested by her feeble effort to make the Sign of the Cross when she dines at José’s family’s house (“Nina tried but failed, sort of waving her hand in a circle in front of her chest” 155).

          And then come the round characters incarnating the life-affirming perspective: José and his family, of Mexican heritage, all of whom are imbued with a focus on family, good food, Catholic Christianity, and tolerance—even tolerance for a young woman who seems intent on abortion.  Since the opening scene of the work shows Nina seemingly prepared for an abortion, the rest of the narrative (in both film and novel) follows what would be an in medias res structure.  Nina is strongly affected not only by the sense of devotion to family asserted throughout the work, but also by José’s ethics.

          Is the loving support and quasi-religious imagery of this Mexican-American family relevant in a study concerning Latino literature on the life issues?  Yes, especially since ethnicity forms a crucial background of the plot.  After identifying himself as “RicoMex” (half Puerto Rican and half Mexican), José wonders about Nina’s ethnic heritage in a passage that concentrates the narrative’s focus on ethnic values:

José realized he knew so little about her.  Obviously not Hispanic, what type of family did she come from?  Irish?  German?  Or had they been over here so long they were simply typical Americans with nothing left of their old countries in them?  (166)

It is the final rhetorical question that the rest of American society must answer.

Contemporary Latino Literary Aesthetics

What remains is to consider how these works confirm or challenge, supplement or expand tenets of contemporary Latino literary aesthetics, and forming a canon of such tenets is necessarily conjectural.  Gloria Anzaldúa’s seminal 1987 Borderlands/La Frontera eclectically identifies several such tenets: the idea that “la mestiza is a product of the transfer of the cultural and spiritual values of one group to another”; the idea that “remaining flexible” becomes a survival tactic; that “male hatred and fear […] we do not excuse, we do not condone and we will no longer put up with”; finally, that “el retorno” to one’s roots or heritage is ineluctable (1850-8). 

As summative as these points seem, they are not unique.  European Americans experienced the same in the middle nineteenth century (especially the Irish) and other European nationalities in the early twentieth century.  What is Anzaldúa’s definition of la mestiza if not the same as the European peasant who brought the Old World to the New?  Flexibility became a European-American survival tactic as the initial immigrants left their own rich Italian, Polish, or Russian cultural heritages for the so-called white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant American one.  Anzaldúa’s focus on resisting male oppression may sound unique, but the history of European women writers testifies to the production of work resisting such patriarchy, a favorite and now tired phrase of a feminist literary criticism largely propped up by feminists who are themselves getting older.[6]  Finally, the idea of el retorno is not a unique characteristic pertaining only to Latino literary aesthetics; European immigrants, certainly the first generation, dreamed of returning to the homeland, but the opportunities of the New World forestalled the return, as much as two world wars and the dominance of the Iron Curtain, so that the desire for the return to the European homeland is now experienced by Americans only vaguely aware of their European roots and who “return” to Europe as a tourist during a week-long vacation.

A similar attempt at listing attributes of Latino aesthetics may be found in a 2002 anthology of contemporary Latino works, Herencia: The Anthology of Hispanic Literature of the United States.  In his introduction Nicolás Kanellos declares that

Hispanic literature of the United States is transnational in nature; it emerges from and remains intimately related to the crossing of political, geographic, cultural, linguistic, and racial boundaries [….] Our paradigm of native, immigrant, and exile cultures and literatures is meant to be dynamic: It allows for the ebbs and flows of new cultural inputs and for culture change from one generation to another.  (29-30)

The summary idea of this passage must also be relegated as just another tenet which matches the European-American experience.  The terms offered in the listing could apply equally to British, German, and Greek immigrants as they can to any Hispanic ones.

Finally, in his 2008 introduction to a recent collection of Tato Laviera’s poems, William Luis writes that

Whereas “hispano” emphasized the Hispanic language, culture, and traditions, “Latino” is a communal acceptance of the adopted environment that produces a new and hybrid culture, based on the coming together of differences.  (“Tato” xv)

This attempt at definition of the Latino literary experience is just as ordinary as the ones above.  The stipulative definition in the dependent clause and the formal definition of the independent clause apply to European immigrants as much as any other ethnic group.  Thus, the rhetorical effect between the two categories is one of comparison, not contrast.  In fact, Latino culture may be at the point of hybridization that most European immigrant populations were in the 1930s.

After considering these sources for contemporary Latino literary aesthetics, what can be said about the three major works examined here?  The rhetorical argument could be made that these works demonstrate a shift in the Latino attitude toward abortion, a transformation that is most welcome as a response to the high abortion rate in that community.  What is the poem “Jesús Papote” vis-à-vis the topic of abortion if not a documentation of American society’s attempt to affect the Latina mother in the most desperate way possible, to encourage her to abort her child?  Similarly, what is the short story “Silent Dancing” if not an illustration that American society succeeded in affecting the Latina mother so that she aborted her child?  Finally, but most encouragingly, what is Bella if not the Latina response to American society, a clear si to la vida and no to aborto?

Whatever the current literature shows, an abortion rate twice that of white mothers “will out”—will need to be documented in literature, whether written or visual, to satisfy the basic need of catharsis.  Mothers cannot live with abortion in their history; such a disruption of the maternal instinct has been documented well by commentators in literatures of other ethnic groups.[7]  Now that Latinos are the dominant minority in the United States, and now that Latinos are becoming much more integrated into American society, as the twentieth-century European immigrants did before them, one can expect a deluge of narratives on the first life issue of abortion.  Moreover, as Latinos become further integrated into American society, their exposure to the remaining two life issues (infanticide and euthanasia) could follow the sociological trend of other ethnic groups which—secularized, focused on material comforts, and bereft of their ethnic identities—adopted infanticide and euthanasia positions contrary to those of their cultural and religious heritages.  Alternatively, if Latinos retain their positive and life-affirming values, then the anti-life philosophy which seems ascendant in American society may find a worthy adversary in a culture that has promoted respect for family and life for the past five hundred years and has shown no inclination yet to abandon those values.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “La conciencia de la mestiza: Towards a New

Consciousness.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 1850-8. Print. N.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

The Cider House Rules. Dir. Lasse Hallstrom. Perf. Tobey Maguire, Charlize

Theron, Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd, and Michael Caine. 1999. DVD.

Miramax, 1999.

Cumpiano, Ina. “Metonymies.” The Floating Borderlands: Twenty-Five

Years of U.S. Hispanic Literature. Ed. Lauro Flores. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1998. 390-1. Print.

Franco Migues, Darwin. “Ciudadanos de Ficción: Discursos y Derechos

Ciudadanos en las Telenovelas Mexicanas. El Caso Alma de Hierro.” Comunicación y Sociedad (2012): 41-71. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

Hurtado, Aida. “Feminism and Feminisms.” The Reader’s Companion to

U.S. Women’s History. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

Kanellos, Nicolás. Introduction. Herencia: The Anthology of Hispanic

Literature of the United States. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2002.1-32. Print.

Laviera, Tato. “a message to our unwed women.” La Carreta made a U-

          Turn. Houston: Arte Público P, 1992. Print.

—. “jesús papote.” Enclave. Houston: Arte Público P, 1985. Print.

Luis, William. “Tato Laviera: Mix(ing) t(hro)u(gh)ou(t).” Mixturao and Other

Poems. Houston: Arte Público P, 2008. ix-xxi. Print.

The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Gen. ed. Ilan Stavans. New York:

          W. W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Ortiz Cofer, Judith. Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto

Rican Childhood. 2nd ed. Houston: Arte Público, 1991. Print.

Patriarchy in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Social Issues

in Literature. Claudia Durst Johnson, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2010. Print.

Samson, Lisa. Bella: A Novelization of the Award-Winning Movie. Nashville:

Thomas Nelson, 2008. Print.

[1]  However, see footnote seven regarding Ina Cumpiano’s poem “Yo, La Malinche.”

[2]  Excerpts from these texts, which were incorporated into the presentations at last year’s conferences, are replicated here because I think that the works need to be disseminated much more than they have been.  As every public speaker knows, the demo- and psychographics of an audience depend on the knowledge and attitudes that persons have of the subject matter.  Before almost every academic presentation, therefore, I ask my audience if anyone has heard of this author or that work.  If the audience is familiar with the person or material, then the presentation from the speaking copy can be adjusted accordingly.  However, if the audience is unfamiliar with the author or his or her material, then I must supply ad hoc appositions or clarifications throughout the presentation.  What struck me at all three conferences (it must be remembered that one was international in focus, and two others largely transcontinental) was that, with the exception of a few people who recognized Judith Ortiz Cofer and one other person aware of Gloria Anzaldúa, virtually no one even heard of the works I would discuss.  I trust that my effort to highlight the controversial passages in the authors’ material will encourage my colleagues and their students to become closely familiar with these works.

[3]  Although beyond the scope of this paper, since the focus is on American (as in US) Latino literature, Darwin Franco Migues’ critique of a popular Mexican soap opera indicates the degree to which scholarship serves a political agenda.  Having a character exclaim “Abortemos la Ley, no la Vida” is, apparently, evidence for Franco Migues that “based on an analysis that followed the representation of abortion and alternative family formations in the soap opera Alma de Hierro, this paper argues that telenovelas’ engagement with the public domain may hinder civil rights and the actors who pursue them” (41).

[4]  The mother in another Laviera poem is not as silent as the mother here.  In “a message to our unwed women”, the mother carrying an unplanned child affirms her decision to give birth unequivocally:

“i am now a true woman

my child will not be called


this act was done with love

with passion

my feelings cannot be planned

i will not let their innocence

affect me

i will have him, coño,

because i want him


to give birth A LA RAZA

is the ultimate that i can

ever give.”  (37)

[5] Still Photo from the Image Gallery of Bella (, accessed 10 February 2013).

[6]  I commend our colleagues Cheryl Carpenter and Charlotte Teague of Alabama A&M University, who not only discussed patriarchal oppression, but also said something about how to stop it.  They discussed “sass” as a rhetorical strategy in Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” to fight such oppression in their presentation (session 162).

[7]  A gap in the literary criticism would be filled by a detailed study of Ina Cumpiano’s poetry would be interesting.  While one of the sections of “Yo, La Malinche” discusses infanticide, another poem (“Metonymies”) sounds odd to the trained academic ear, aware that the connotations of some words automatically suggest abortion imagery.  The matter of authorial intent, therefore, would be a significant aspect to determine in future research aiming to explicate her work.