Biography and Abortion: Perception and Distortion of Reality in Accounts by Celebrity Aborted Mothers

Biography and Abortion: Perception and Distortion of Reality in Accounts by Celebrity Aborted Mothers

Abstract:  This study reviews criteria established by the scholarship on biographical literary criticism and applies those criteria and an additional one, the cathartic value of biographical disclosure, to the abortion narratives of three celebrities: Gloria Swanson, Amy Brenneman, and Nicki Minaj.

          In academia, where certain dominant literary theories are promulgated in an attempt to get more people to read books instead of mere headlines of online articles and maybe even to write essays instead of brief but often insipid tweets, biographical literary criticism may not be as sexy as psychological literary theory, which seeks Freud’s Oedipus or Electra complexes in innocent passages, or as contentious as Marxist criticism, which strives to explain the ideological bases of political controversies such as so-called white privilege, or as controversial as queer theory, whose practitioners seem to be interested more in promoting a gay and lesbian social agenda instead of understanding how persons or characters with same-sex attraction maneuver within their worlds.  In contrast, those who use biographical material as vehicles not only to understand the literature being studied, but also to assess the impact of the ideas within that literature appreciate how biographical literary criticism is an essential tool to accomplish both objectives.

          These purposes are especially relevant to obtain insight into literature whose controversial nature still impacts the culture, such as those narratives which address abortion, one of the three major life issues.  One can argue that a biographical critical approach to abortion texts must be the starting point for any other literary exegesis, even preempting a formalist analysis.  After all, one must start with the facts of the mother who aborted her child before one can discuss possible psychological interpretations of the killing, as in psychological criticism, or ideological concerns surrounding the killing, as in Marxist criticism, or even gay or lesbian contortions of the sexuality which involved the killing, as in queer theory.

Review of the Scholarship

          While some popular sources written from an anti-life perspective are more preoccupied with asserting that mothers, especially if they were celebrities,[1] who aborted were justified in killing their unborn children, some scholarly sources simply ignore biographical literary criticism as an independent technique to study literature.  Significantly, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab, a resource almost universally recommended by college and university faculty, does not list biographical literary criticism under the category “Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism.”  Many other literary perspectives are identified instead (“Moral Criticism, Dramatic Construction; Formalism; Psychoanalytic Criticism; Marxist Criticism; Reader-Response Criticism; Structuralism and Semiotics; Postmodern Criticism; New Historicism, Cultural Studies; Post-Colonial Criticism; Feminist Criticism; Gender Studies and Queer Theory; Ecocriticism; Critical Race Theory”).  In fact, the site suggests that students who delve into biographical research may be veering dangerously away from their original intent, the explication of literature:

[slide two]  When your argument ceases to discuss the work itself and begins to focus on the personal (your own reaction) or the biographical (the author’s life), you need to get back on track.  Make no mistake: a sense of audience and information about the author can be important.  When these details become central to the essay, however, you are no longer writing on literature.  (Brizee et al.)

          Moreover, three other recent works on literary criticism neither segregate, nor mention biographical criticism as one of the many literary theories available.  The 1991 anthology Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal, edited by Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, merges formalist criticism (the most likely category under which biographical criticism could be combined) with archetypal criticism.[2]  The 2007 edition of The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, edited by David H. Richter, also does not separate biographical criticism from the other perspectives; the only index entry for the criticism is a casual reference to the strategy.[3]  Finally, Pelagia Goulimari’s 2015 monograph, Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to Postcolonialism, contains many current terms of contemporary criticism (for example, “alienation”, “dissonant composition” “subaltern”, and “hybridity”), but neglects biographical criticism almost entirely; there is no index entry to the theory, although there is a casual reference to New Critics’ opposition to “authorial intention and against the relevance of the author’s biography” (225).

Despite these problems of nomenclature, omission, or organization of the theories, the scholarship on biographical literary criticism has not been entirely neglected.  Major tenets of this literary theory can be summarized succinctly.  In their 2006 work, X. J. Kennedy, Dana Gioia, and Mark Bauerlein identify three major aspects of biographical criticism, all of which sound cautionary more than descriptive.  They begin with the important negation that such criticsm is not biography, which “is a branch of historical scholarship [yielding] a written account of a person’s life” (16-17).  A further negation is balanced with a declaration of the function of biographical literary criticism: “Biographical criticism, however, is not concerned with recreating the course of an author’s life.  It focuses on explicating the literary work by compiling relevant materials from the life” (17).  The connection between biographical criticism and formalism (also called New Criticism, dominant in the academy until the sixties) is evident in this first aspect since the term “explicating” is used, a term intimately connected with “close reading”, the standard method used in formalist criticism.

          The second aspect of biographical literary criticism which Kennedy, Gioia, and Bauerlein state is similarly admonitory: [slide three]  readers “must use biographical interpretations cautiously” since “writers are notorious for revising the facts of their own lives.  They often delete embarrassments and invent accomplishments, trading the truth for a preferred image” (17).  These critics amplify this admonition further in a third aspect:

An added danger, especially in the case of a famous writer […] is that the life can overwhelm the work, leading critics to draw simple connections between this element in the work and that event in the life, with the latter taking priority.  The texts are complicated and mystifying, but the real life events are (putatively) not, and so critics are tempted to invoke the latter to resolve the former.  A savvy biographical critic remembers to base an interpretation on what is in the text itself.  Biographical data should amplify the meaning of the text, not cover it with life episodes.  (17)

As with the first aspect discussed in the preceding paragraph, since the focus is on the text, the connection between biographical literary criticism and formalism is obvious and probably functions as a safeguard against unfounded or perhaps bizarre interpretations of a literary work.

          Michael Meyer’s 2013 summary of biographical criticism is simpler: “A knowledge of an author’s life can help readers understand his or her work more fully.  Events in a work might follow actual events in a writer’s life just as characters might be based on people known by the author” (2032).  Despite this, Meyer also recommends a cautionary approach:

[slide four]  Some formalist critics—some New Critics, for example—argue that interpretation should be based exclusively on internal evidence rather than on any biographical information outside the work.  They argue that it is not possible to determine an author’s intention and that the work must stand by itself.  Although this is a useful caveat for keeping the work in focus, a reader who finds biography relevant would argue that biography can at the very least serve as a control on interpretation.  (2033)

Finally, while authors can sometimes make it clear that their fictional work is inseparable from autobiography,[4] as Meyer asserts, “it is also worth noting that biographical information can complicate a work” (2033).  Meyer considers the case of Kate Chopin, whose “marriage was evidently satisfying to her and that she was not oppressed by her husband and did not feel oppressed” even though many of her characters experience oppressive and unfulfilling marriages (2033).  Likewise, Kennedy, Gioia, and Bauerlein cite John Cheever (whose claim that his was a “sunny, privileged youth” belied the facts of “a childhood scarred by a distant mother, a failed, alcoholic father, and nagging economic uncertainty”) as an example of how, “Once these facts came out, critics regarded Cheever’s work in a different light” (17).

The Cathartic Value of Biographical Disclosure

          An important feature of biographical literary criticism which this study examines and which literary critics seem to have ignored is the purpose of biographical, especially autobiographical or first-person, writing: the cathartic value of such disclosure.  Certainly, a novelist may also engage in catharsis when he or he constructs a plot ostensibly unconcerned with his or her own life.  However, when one reads biographies, the author him- or herself will maintain not only that his or her life is important enough to study, but also that the expression of actions in the biography serve a confessional and therefore purgative effect.  For example, the didactic value of biography is evident when Benjamin Franklin writes in his autobiography (1771-1789)[5] that

From the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and in which I passed my earliest years, I have raised myself to a state of affluence and some degree of celebrity in the world.  As constant good fortune has accompanied me even to an advanced period of life, my posterity will perhaps be desirous of learning the means, which I employed, and which, thanks to Providence, so well succeeded with me.  They may also deem them fit to be imitated, should any of them find themselves in similar circumstances.  (5)

He thus affirms at the beginning of the autobiography the importance of his own activity in his accumulation of wealth and in the founding of the United States.

The confessional function of biography becomes evident when Franklin discusses his thirteen virtues.  Even though they are affirmed later in his autobiography, mentioning the virtues softens the impact of an earlier passage where he candidly admits his sexual escapades:

Having turned my thoughts to marriage, I looked around me and made overtures of acquaintance in other places, but soon found that the business of a printer being generally thought a poor one, I was not to expect money with a wife, unless with such a one as I should not otherwise think agreeable.  In the meantime, that hard-to-be governed passion of youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way, which were attended with some expense and great inconvenience, besides a continual risk to my health by a distemper, which of all things I dreaded, tho’ by great good luck I escaped it.  (65)

Thus, the revelation that one of the Founding Fathers of the United States was simply just another oversexed young man prepares the reader for his assertion of chastity, the twelfth virtue, with its supporting imperative being “Rarely use venery but for health or offspring” (79).

          Similarly, when Henry David Thoreau famously writes about chastity in the “Higher Laws” chapter of Walden (1854), his commentary is couched in appropriate nineteenth-century language, yet his reader (and, for that matter, contemporary twenty-first century readers, steeped in sexually-explicit literature) would understand that sexual temptation is something he experienced while sojourning in the woods. “The generative energy,” he writes, “which, when we are loose, dissipates and makes us unclean, when we are continent invigorates and inspires us” clearly refers to the biographical event of his sexual temptation (267).  That Thoreau, nominal Protestant Christian that he is, is aware of the purgative effect of such confession becomes obvious when he clarifies a page later, “I hesitate to say these things, but it is not because of the subject,—I care not how obscene my words are,—but because I cannot speak of them without betraying my impurity” (268; italics in original).  In so doing, of course, the reader becomes aware that more occurred in the woods than merely hoeing beans, bathing twice a day in Walden Pond, or admiring the natural environment.

          However, these examples not only of the intersection of biography and literature, but also of the confessional aspects of biography vis-à-vis a controversial topic involve dead white male authors, neither of whom can be appealing to a contemporary audience, more than half of whom are educated women, many of whom have had abortions themselves or who know of mothers who had aborted.  What examples can be shown to illustrate the content of biographical messages about the abortion experiences of contemporary mothers?  Can a literary analysis be made of their statements, consistent with the admonitions offered by scholars investigating biographical literary criticism as a tool of explicating the “literature” of their abortion experiences?  To answer these questions, the abortion experiences of the following celebrities will be examined.  Gloria Swanson’s extensive discussion of her abortions in the first decades of the twentieth century begins the study.  The research progresses to biographical content of the abortion experiences of two twenty-first century celebrities, the actor Amy Brenneman and the musical artist Nicki Minaj, both of whom discuss their abortions through Internet video presentations (one verbal, the other musical).

Gloria Swanson

          [slide five]  Praise for Gloria Swanson is justly founded on her extensive film, radio, and commercial success; her close-up final scene in Sunset Boulevard alone guarantees her position as a cultural icon.  Swanson’s accounts of her abortion experiences further add to her stature as a pioneering woman, this time becoming one of the first actors not only to discuss her abortions, but also to express regret for them.[6]

          There are two significant abortion passages in Swanson’s autobiography, one an involuntary and another a voluntary abortion, the second of which must be considered in light of an abortion forced upon her by her first husband, Wallace Beery.  When she complained to him about “terrible pains” she was experiencing during her wanted pregnancy, Beery “said he would go and try to find a doctor or a druggist” (72).  The abortion forced upon her is related thus:

[slide six]  Wally came into the room and put a bottle of medicine on the table beside the bed.  He said he had been lucky to find a drugstore nearby that opened early.  If this stuff didn’t make me feel better in a couple of hours, he would get a doctor to come and see me.  Then he went and got some water from the kitchen.

“How many shall I take?”

“Four or five capsules, the druggist said.  Take five.”

I saw Wally’s mother standing in the doorway watching me take the medicine.  Then she disappeared.  I began to feel very sick after that.  My stomach ached and I started gagging.  The pain was awful.  All of a sudden I felt too weak to stand up, and I could feel myself start to topple.

When I came to, everything smelled different.  A nurse was wiping my forehead and wrists and telling me I was doing fine.  [….]  “There’s nothing to be down in the mouth about, honey,” she said.  “You’re young.  You’re pretty.  You’ve got all the time in the world to have another baby.”

Oh, no, oh, no, I thought, sobbing.  Wally brought me here.  He stood right there and told me to take that poison, and when I was unconscious he brought me here so they could finish the job.  (73)

On the ruse that she wanted a refill of the prescription for indigestion, Swanson learned from the pharmacist that the pills she had been given were abortifacient.  Thus ended her less than two month marriage with Beery.

          If Richard Dyer MacCann is correct that “her personal voice and labors are apparent” (152) throughout her autobiography, then this passage is remarkable as a prelude to Swanson’s voluntary abortion discussed 160 pages later, especially since a battery of “could have” propositions are entertained.  She could have agreed with the nurse that she could have children later.  She could have simply acknowledged Beery’s forced abortion as an attempt to secure her film career.  She could have resigned herself to the forced abortion and stayed married with the man responsible for the chemical abortion of her child.  She could have ignored the emotional impact of this event and resumed her career in silent film-era Hollywood.  The biographical facts, however, are that she did not exercise these possible options.

          That is, Swanson did not choose abortion until later in her career.  The circumstances behind her decision to have a voluntary abortion of her child by Henri, the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, are described thus:

          [slide seven]  By having Henri’s child under the terms of my present contract, I would forfeit the chance to become one of the highest-paid performers in history.  I would also, probably, lose Henri, because we had both gone past the stage where we could be happy in a garret.

          By not having the baby, on the other hand, I could be in The Coast of Folly on schedule and complete my contract in a year.  I could be free to dictate my own terms after that or leave Paramount altogether, and I could provide a rich, happy life for Henri and me.

          [She explains the situation to André Daven.]  When I finished, I told him I thought I had to have an abortion.

          André said, “You are absolutely right.  The situation must be regularized.  It is easier perhaps in Paris than in New York or California.  You and Henri are both very young.  You have all the time in the world to have another child.”

          The words went through me like an electric shock.  They’d been said to me before, by the nurse in the Hollywood hospital after Wally gave me the awful medicine to take, when I was seventeen.  I had judged Wally harshly at the time and had held that judgment against him ever since.  I had thought he had done the most monstrous thing in the world, and now I was preparing to do it myself.  Furthermore, I was doing it for the same reason Wally had, probably—to save my career.  (233)

As if the above were not enough, as if relating the circumstances of the momentous choice to abort the child were not already rhetorically significant, in what may be a literary first for autobiographical writing, Swanson continues her account of the voluntary abortion a page later with a passage where the child him- or herself speaks.  Continuing her conversation with André Daven:

[slide eight]  “There’s no other way, is there?” I asked.

“Of course not, Gloria,” he said.

His voice was reassuring, and I smiled feebly at him in gratitude.  Then I heard another voice speaking very clearly.  “Don’t do this,” it said.

The voice, I knew, was inside me.  It was the voice of my unborn child.  I tried not to listen.

“Your heart is pounding,” the voice said.  “I know you hear me.  Listen to me.  I want to live.  I am frightened of the sewers.”

I shuddered and started to sob convulsively.


When he had left, I pulled back the taffeta curtains in my bedroom and stared into the gray, foggy Paris dusk.  A face was looking at me from the darkness.  It was not a baby’s face.  I could not have stood that.  It was the face of death, beckoning or warning, I couldn’t tell which.  (234)

Even though the 519 pages of the autobiography highlight her many artistic and commercial successes, Swanson’s regret over this abortion is a compelling theme throughout the rest of the work.  She has “nightmares about the child I had killed” (5) even though she wanted to hold others responsible “for making me destroy my baby” (5); her price for her success was that she had to “sacrifice a child” (11).  The first chapter thus begins and ends with abortion.  She wanted to have children to compensate for the aborted one (245).  What would now be called post-abortion syndrome is evident in her reaction to a movie advertisement which implies that one of the characters would need to sacrifice “your throne or your baby”, a choice Swanson applies to herself (277).  Pregnant again, she chooses not to abort (419).  Another columnist, whose commentary she includes in the autobiography, notes that the stamp that Swanson designed for the United Nations Decade of Women had “a vague, roughly formed foetus” [493].  Swanson’s elaboration on this stamp in a stand-alone paragraph is clearly life-affirming:

My painting on the cachet showed the earth in a trail of light streaking across the black infinity of space toward the viewer.  I had painted the continents and oceans to suggest an embryo, and in the lower right-hand corner I had written: “Woman, Like Mother Earth, Has an Eternal Rendezvous with Spring.”  If ever there was a statement obviously made by a female Aries, that was it, and I was pleased with it because I believed it.  (495)

Her final comment about her voluntary abortion is significantly written on the last page of the autobiography when, while traveling in Japan, she participates in the Buddhist ritual of atonement using the mizuko jizo, the miniature statues representing aborted children: “the greatest regret of my life has always been that I didn’t have my baby, Henri’s child, in 1925.[7]   Nothing in the whole world is worth a baby, I realized as soon as it was too late, and I never stopped blaming myself” (519).

[slide nine]  How can the above passages be illuminated further using biographical literary criticism?  Can the scholarly tenets discussed above be considered in relation to Swanson’s abortion experiences to assist the reader to understand the literary function of the narratives?  Certainly, the first cautionary criterion that Kennedy, Gioia, and Bauerlein offer poses an immediate problem, for there is a one-to-one correspondence between Swanson’s life and the depiction of the abortion episodes.  On their second criterion, however, the literary treatment of the abortion episodes is heightened; Swanson does not deflect the embarrassment of saying explicitly that she sacrificed her unborn child for her career, nor does she invent a martyr-like persona to mitigate the choice to kill the unborn child in the voluntary abortion.  Even in the narration of the coerced abortion, Swanson does not depict herself as a victim, for her actions afterwards denote a woman who can retaliate well against her opponent, in this case, leaving Beery and ending her marriage with him.  Meyer’s caution that focusing on the texts themselves serves to prohibit unwarranted interpretations restricts interpretation in this instance to meanings which can be corroborated by Swanson’s personality: that of a strong-willed, imperious woman unafraid to assert herself in difficult circumstances.

          Keeping Meyer’s cautionary note in mind, the cathartic value of both abortion episodes is evident in the diction, the characterizations, and even the punctuation which Swanson uses.  Beery is not depicted as a purely evil character, for she acknowledges in the subsequent abortion episode that his ulterior motive may have been intellectually sound (the preservation of her career), although immoral.  Even the repetition of exclamatory utterances with pauses after each term (“Oh, no, oh, no,”) conveys an element of pathos which is convincing to the reader, consistent with Swanson’s knowledge of the histrionic effect of such repetition.  Moreover, the coerced abortion episode reads as a well-balanced narrative of logical events: one action leads to another, is stated simply, and the effects of that action are recounted with minimal use of highly connotative diction; for example, taking the five capsules leads to “pain” and “gagging.”  Since the passage reads logically, the reader can trust that what is being communicated is valid.

The cathartic effect of the voluntary abortion episode becomes evident only in the last paragraph.  After she offers logical reasons why she should abort (to advance her career and to secure her financial future), and after a simplistic affirmation by the friend who agrees to her abortion, Swanson makes the credible assertion that she knows she is complicit in the killing of her unborn child and is no better morally than Beery who aborted her involuntarily.  Such a startlingly honest confession must have been a liberating event in her life, so much so that Swanson could progress in her film and acting career until her late years, even though her autobiography frequently mentions her regret for the abortion.

Amy Brenneman

[slide ten]  In contrast to Swanson’s abortion narratives, that of contemporary actor Amy Brenneman illustrates how a life-denying perspective can pose challenges for the biographical literary critic, albeit surmountable ones.  [play link in slide ten]  Although the video presentation contains an almost identical account of the Internet text version of her abortion experience, there are some aspects which deserve attention.  First, the video contains many “cuts”, sudden shifts from one set of lines to another; the astute twenty-first century viewer would wonder why the cuts are necessary in what should be a continuous, mellifluous narrative of an abortion experience which is meant to be viewed positively.  That Brenneman uses “um” and “ah” vocalizations frequently does not add to the confidence that the viewer should obtain from such a performance.  However, these may be stylistic items designed to appeal to an audience used to such jerky movements and halting speech in inferior acting.

More importantly, while the video purports to be a personal account of a mother who aborted and feels no regret about her having killed the child, Brenneman’s language focuses excessively on the legal condition of abortion policy in the United States, thus deflecting attention away from the emotions she felt and feels about the action taken.  The brief personal details (she had “been with a boyfriend”, John, and was “not ready to be a mom”) are overcome by frequent appeals to legal authority: abortion (the controversial nature of which as being legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever is not acknowledged) is simply the “law of the land”, which she compares to the non-controversial “right to vote.”  Overall, Brenneman was content with her abortion because “I get to choose” and could “celebrate the basic law of the land.”  Further deflection from her own experience occurs when Brenneman argues that, if one were pressed, one would know “a woman who’s terminated a pregnancy.”

Finally, regarding whether there were any post-abortion effects, Brenneman claims that “it didn’t scar me for life.”  The ambiguous language of this final assertion would make the twenty-first century reader wonder, if abortion did not scar her entire life, whether it did scar her initially, periodically, or in some other time expression.  Thus, while her video presentation may have overused a logical appeal, it suffers from the absence of two other important elements of persuasion: first, a sense of pathos, the emotional component, which is evident, for example, in Swanson’s abortion episodes, and, second, an affirmation of the credibility of the speaker, the ethos factor in Aristotelian argumentation.  The summary effect of this Internet performance of Brenneman’s recounting of her abortion experience is not only unpersuasive, but also insipid.

The written version of the abortion experience is just as tasteless in its lack of convincing personal details and unconvincing in its reliance on legal grounds in support of abortion.

[slide eleven]  I had an abortion.  I am simply one of millions of women who have exercised this constitutionally protected right, and according to recent data, I am part of the 95 percent of women who do not regret their choice.

So here is my story.

          In the spring of my junior year at Harvard, my period was late. I had been in a relationship for almost two years with a loving and supportive boyfriend.  We used birth control, but it malfunctioned.  When I learned I was pregnant, I knew immediately and without question that I wanted an abortion.  I had no desire to be a mother at that time—I wanted to finish college and start my career. 

          We found a doctor in the yellow pages.  We went to his clean and respectable office.  I had the procedure done with no pain; my boyfriend was with me the whole time.  Afterward, I breathed huge sigh of relief [sic] and thought to myself, I get my life back!  I was grateful that I lived in a country where forced birth was not the law of the land and where motherhood was not a lifelong consequence for a contraception slip.

          I have never, not for one moment, regretted my abortion.

          [slide twelve]  Reviewing this passage from the criteria established by biographical literary critics generates some interesting insights, many of which were probably not Brenneman’s intention in producing a video for the anti-life Center for Reproductive Rights.  The admonition that a biographical literary critic should not equate a work of literature as pure biography is well-avoided in this passage; the persona in the passage cannot be equated with Amy Brenneman herself, even though it purports to be her abortion experience.  That is, the stiff syntax of various sentences indicates a robot-like testament to the efficacy of abortion, not an account from a human being with a full range of emotions.

Furthermore, the astute, if not jaundiced, twenty-first century reader would read certain terms critically and challenge their denotations.  Words and phrases which designate the speaker as “simply one”, knowing something “immediately and without question”, having a procedure done “with no pain”, and benefitting from having the father of the child being aborted “with me the whole time” are incredible statements.  Contemporary readers are well aware that an aborted mother should not be lumped together in the category of “millions of women” since each aborted mother has her own story to tell about her abortion experience.  Most aborted mothers find an abortion choice agonizing, ruminating over available options for a significant amount of time before deciding to kill the child.  Virtually every abortion account, even those written from the anti-life perspective, note that an abortion generates either physical, psychological, or spiritual pain.  The last claim, that the father of the child steadfastly supported the mother at the time of the abortion is either a distortion of what Brenneman perceives as her reality or simply ridiculous; as the abortion experiences of millions of women suggest, the fathers of the children being killed have either separated from the mothers long before the abortion or abandoned their erstwhile lovers to experience the abortion procedure alone.  Thus, the persona created is unreliable as a credible authority.

          One could argue that Brenneman invents an environment suitable for her rhetorical purpose (to justify the killing of her child) when she describes the abortionist’s office as “clean and respectable.”  One can understand the first adjective, since that directly counters the charge that abortionists’ offices are customarily unsanitary; the second adjective, however, strains credulity.  What mother would think of the nature of an abortionist’s office as “respectable” when she enters it to kill her child?  Although she may be correct in her assertion that she felt a “huge sigh of relief” (most mothers do so, thinking that their “problem” has been resolved), similar invention probably occurs when Brenneman asserts that she had “my life back!” (the terminal punctuation indicative more of a teenaged girl writing in her diary than a mature woman recounting a serious episode in her life.  The question here is an epistemological one: how does she know that she “has her life back”?  How can she be certain that her life is more fulfilled being an aborted mother?  After all, as she asserts in the video presentation, she eventually married and had children.  If abortion is so instrumental to restore a woman’s life, why would any woman have any child in the future?  The astute twenty-first century reader would conclude that Brenneman aborted simply for convenience’s sake, as Swanson did to secure her career.  The difference is that Swanson was able to acknowledge both the reason for aborting her child and the regret in having done so.

          Finally, Brenneman’s abortion episode suffers from a lack of the cathartic value which is essential for biographical disclosure.  After asserting that she has “her life back”, the reader is deflected to political considerations, both of which are faulty.  She should not be “grateful” that she “lived in a country where forced birth was not the law of the land” because that is not the law of the land; there is no statute in the US Code stipulating “forced birth” for mothers.  Brenneman’s contention that “motherhood was not a lifelong consequence for a contraception slip” should rankle even the most contraceptive-aware woman; as research suggests, even “unwanted” children, such as those conceived through “a contraception slip”, become loved.  Why Brenneman cannot see such love at work may testify to her own hard nature brought about by her current obsession with promoting abortion.  However, this may be an unwarranted interpretation of the passage which, as biographical literary critics suggest, should be controlled by biographical details.

Nicki Minaj

          [slide thirteen]  Nicki Minaj, whose current estimated net worth is $60 million, revealed her abortion in the 2014 song “All Things Go.”  A more compelling account of the effects of her abortion occurs in a music video posted three years earlier, “Autobiography.”  Sung in a stream-of-consciousness style, commentary on the abortion occupies a significant portion of the song, at least 30% of the entire work:  [play link in slide thirteen]

[slide fourteen]  Please baby forgive me mommy was young mommy was too busy trying to have fun now I pat myself on the back for sending you back cause god knows I was better than that to conceive you then leave you the concept alone seems evil I’m trapped in my conscience I ad-hear [sic] to the nonsense listened to people who told me I wasn’t ready for you but how the fuck would they know what I was ready to do and of course it wasn’t your fault it’s like I feel you in the air I hear you saying mommy don’t cry can’t you see I’m right here I gotta let you know what you mean to me when I’m sleeping I see you in my dreams with me wish I could touch your little face or just hold your little hand if it’s part of god’s plan maybe we can met [sic] again

The capitalization, punctuation, and spelling errors in the above passage are retained, and the two “sic” notations are made only after presuming that the errors thus identified may have been the artist’s intention.  There may be another reason to account for such a profusion of grammatical problems; if the artist is discussing the disorganizing and disastrous effects of her abortion, then the words themselves and the manner in which they are conveyed should illustrate those effects.  Having grammatical order, therefore, would frustrate the artist’s intention to show how much the abortion has affected her.

          [slide fifteen]  As is typical of most rap artists, Minaj’s song combines biographical details with intense self-reflection.  On this point biographical literary critics must yield to a staple criterion of rap music: that it is necessarily autobiographical and often so confessional that topics which would be filtered or censored by most individuals become suitable subjects for musical development.  An outrageously famous example of this criterion is Eminem’s “Kim” song, which relates his persona’s desire to kill his girlfriend by slitting her throat.  Minaj’s song is consistent with this autobiographical rule.

          Similar to Swanson and in opposition to Brenneman’s testimony, however, Minaj does not invent an unrealistic environment for herself after the abortion.  The persona in the song occupies a landscape where the aborted child is constantly around her (“it’s like I feel you in the air”), and the only place which they occupy together is the commonly accepted location of rest (“I see you in my dreams”). The twenty-first century reader would know that this illusion is not necessarily psychotic, but a customary expression for wishing to “see” someone who has died.

          Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Minaj’s abortion sequence is the cathartic value of the song—both this 2011 video version and the later “All Things Go”, which may be deemed a second effort at striving to achieve peace after the abortion, the logical conclusion being that the artist herself is still not at peace with the killing of the child.  Again, like Swanson and unlike Brenneman, Minaj has the benefit of a fan base which loves her music, idolizes her actions and style, and gives her the necessary validation to continue her music career despite the agony of having killed an unborn child.  That the child is always present to Minaj to the point that she can wish to “touch your little face or just hold your little hand” depends on a religious principle unexpected from a rap artist: she defers to the Divine Being (“if it’s part of god’s plan”) regarding a possible reconciliation.  The final independent clause, “Maybe we can met [sic] again”, thus constitutes not merely the final line of the abortion account in the song, but a prayer; being a prayer, Minaj has accomplished what Swanson obtained and which Brenneman still has not: getting beyond herself and loving other human beings, even those unborn or aborted.

          Admittedly, the autobiographical content of a famous star of yesteryear, a politicized and otherwise sterile account of an abortion experience by a contemporary actor, and an abortion passage replete with grammar and punctuation errors may not qualify as great literature.  However, that biographical literary criticism can be applied to these works could assist contemporary students to understand how one of the more enduring literary theories maintains its potency in an academic world where currency is valued more than time-proven classics and where the fluidity of what counts as “literature” excludes the masterworks of even fifty years ago, let alone those from previous centuries.

Beyond the claim that it should be reconstituted for a younger generation of students, using biographical literary criticism can help all readers—young and old—understand and appreciate the words offered, in this case, by three human beings who shared their abortion experiences.  The opportunity now is to accept those biographical disclosures, praise where merited, and recommend a life-affirming perspective where warranted.

[slide sixteen]  Works Cited

Brenneman, Amy. “Amy Brenneman: Why I’m Sharing My Abortion Story; The Actress Opens up about Why She Decided to Terminate a Pregnancy at Age 21—and Why It Was the Right Decision.​”, 29 Feb. 2015,  Accessed 26 Mar. 2016.

Brizee, Allen, et al. “Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, 17 Aug. 2015, Accessed 19 May 2016.

Center for Reproductive Rights. “Amy Brenneman: My Abortion Story.” YouTube, uploaded 29 Feb. 2016, Accessed 26 Mar. 2016.

Elizabeth. Classic Hollywood Beauties: Actresses Who Had Abortions, Accessed 26 Mar. 2016.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography and Other Writings. Signet Classics, 2014.

Goulimari, Pelagia. Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to Postcolonialism. Routledge, 2015.

Isaacson, Walter. “Introduction.” Franklin, pp. vii-xv.

Kennedy, X. J., et al. The Longman Dictionary of Literary Terms: Vocabulary for the Informed Reader. Pearson, 2006.

MacCann, Richard Dyer. The Stars Appear. Scarecrow, 1992.

Meyer, Michael. The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing. 10th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013.

Minaj, Nicki.  “Nicki Minaj—Autobiography Lyrics.” YouTube, uploaded 15 Feb. 2011, Accessed 26 Mar. 2016.

Richter, David H., editor, The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

—, editor. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s P, 1998.

—, editor, The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

Ryken, Leland. “Re: Update on Christian literary criticism.” Received by Jeff Koloze, 27 May 2016.

Shearer, Stephen Michael. Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star. St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

Spanier, Sandra. Introduction. Process, by Kay Boyle, U of Illinois P, 2001, pp. ix-xlii.

Swanson, Gloria. Swanson on Swanson. Random House, 1980.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. Penguin Books, 1983.

Walhout, Clarence, and Leland Ryken, editors. Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal. William B. Eerdmans, 1991.

[1]           These sources claim that the abortions were justified on the bases that celebrity mothers could not have a child because doing so would have sacrificed their careers, or that they were too poor to have a child, or for some other reason.  Since these sources often merely assert unsubstantiated claims which happen to exist on an Internet platform, this research will not unduly concern itself with such compilations.  See, for example, the website written by “Elizabeth”, which claims that many famous actors (“actresses”) aborted without providing any source material to substantiate the claims.  As of 22 June 2016, an email to Elizabeth, asking about sources for the claims on the website, has not been answered.

[2]           The author wishes to thank Leland Ryken, Emeritus Professor of English at Wheaton College, for his quick response to an email query about biographical criticism in the anthology he coedited.  Ryken further stated:

Given the categories in our book, biographical criticism would be parallel to new historicism—but that would be “new biography,” fueled by a political correct assault on traditional values, a revisionist impulse, and a hermeneutic of suspicion in which seemingly positive biographical data actually conceals something sinister.

[3]           The first and second editions (1989 and 1998 respectively) also do not provide a separate chapter for biographical literary criticism.

[4]           See, for example, Sandra Spanier’s commentary that Kay Boyle herself said that her novel Process (1924) was “autobiography pure and simple” (xxvi).

[5]           Scholarship has determined that Franklin began his memoirs, later called the Autobiography, in 1771 and “continued writing through May 1789, a year before his death” (Isaacson ix).

[6]           Although the large number of passages in which she regrets her abortions will be discussed later, Stephen Michael Shearer disagrees, saying in his 2013 study that Swanson had “no regrets” (132).  Richard Dyer MacCann suggests otherwise, since he includes Swanson’s abortion passage in which she expresses her regret in his 1992 work on silent films.  Furthermore, MacCann argues that her sincere disclosures contributed to the huge success of the autobiography:

Its frank revelations, along with later descriptions of her six marriages and several liaisons, helped to make it a best seller for many months after Random House published it in 1980.  But any objective reader of star memoirs must surely put it among the ten best such books in the history of Hollywood.  Although she credits several people with some assistance, her personal voice and labors are apparent.  [152]

[7]           The reader must remember that the Autobiography was published in 1980, fifty-five years after the abortion.


Anthology of Right-to-Life Literature: Establishing the Canonical Maturity of a Vibrant Social Force

Abstract:  This paper argues that there is an urgent need to anthologize major pro-life works which have shaped the right-to-life movement.  After reviewing the methodology for locating and obtaining such works, the paper examines various problems in determining which works merit being included in such an anthology.  The author establishes four criteria by which hundreds of pro-life works have been evaluated for inclusion: they must have been published since the 1960s, they must have been written or translated into English, the authors must be either life-affirming themselves or approach standard pro-life views on the essential three life issues, and the works must have obtained a level of commercial success such that their impact either on the pro-life community or on the larger culture is profound.  The paper then discusses twenty-four works, highlighting their major contributions to the pro-life movement.  The paper ends with future research and recommendations.

I.  The Need for a Right-to-Life Anthology

Very much of the literature […] is unknown to the general reading public and little known even to students of American literature.  Before any meaningful debate can take place on conflicting critical approaches and interpretations and on analyses of distinctive forms, structures, images, and themes, the literature itself will have to become better known.  All too often, and for far too long, it has been a spurned or neglected part of our literary heritage.

These words of Abraham Chapman apply to the pro-life movement in 2013 as much as they did to the 1968 audience reading his introduction of an anthology of African-American literature.[1]  After forty years, the common span of nearly two generations, the right-to-life movement can boast of a body of literature that covers all of the major genres and addresses significant aspects within the three life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.  Whether argumentative, didactic, or literary, life-affirming authors have produced works not only for the sake of the political aims of the movement to restore the first civil right, but also to reaffirm some of the foundational points of Western civilization, three of which are that human life is of inestimable value, that life is worth living, and that records of human experiences often qualify as great literature.  This last purpose may be an attempt to satisfy the perception, as valid in the ancient world as it is in today’s technologically advanced culture, that literature accomplishes a sense of permanence attained by other human activities such as art and music.

The ferment of the last forty years on the life issues matches and in many cases supersedes the enthusiasm of other social movements.  For example, before it was hijacked by anti-life activists in the 1960s, the feminist movement could boast of a substantial history of activism in the United States, calculating mid-nineteenth century work by life-affirming women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the beginning of a century-long effort to recognize civil rights for women.  Latino activists could argue that the effort to secure rights for persons of Hispanic origin may have begun as soon as the European invasion of the Americas; if not pre-Columbus, then certainly the chronology begins when the United States secured the Mexican annexation by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, thus making the Latino rights movement as historically lengthy as the first-wave feminist movement.  Efforts to secure civil rights for African Americans parallel the post-1848 status of Hispanic persons, although the basis for this movement in the Anglo world has its historical root in the eighteenth century.  Finally, gay and lesbian activists have much in common with pro-life activists in terms of history if not ideology; both movements began in the 1960s and are still functioning as champions of their respective causes today.

However, there are vast differences which make other social movements pale in contrast to that of the pro-life movement.  For example, feminist and gay activists could always point to a consistently activist academic, judicial, and media establishment to advocate their goals.  Pro-life advocates, however, had to fight from the ground up.  This populist aspect of pro-life activism permeates the literature of the last forty years; while the pro-life movement can count numerous scholars and key political figures in its ranks, many other works have been published by ordinary individuals who wanted to address some aspect of the pro-life movement.

Political challenges in reaching their goals aside, all other social movements have recognized the importance of anthologizing works by representatives within their communities, the anthologies forming the bases of academic study so that younger generations could understand and advocate the goals of those movements.  For example, African Americans can point to several anthologies of their works, ranging from Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) to Abraham Chapman’s Black Voices: An Anthology of African-American Literature (1968).  Native American anthologists created two recent anthologies of note: Duane Niatum’s Carriers of the Dream Wheel (1975) and Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry (1988, an amplification of his earlier work).  Similarly, Latino activists built on earlier anthologies of works by Hispanic authors, “Hispanic” being what was then the politically-correct term.  The existence of these earlier anthologies has culminated in the premiere collection of Latino literature, The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2011).

Certainly, some anthologies of pro-life literature exist, but they focus on specific aspects of the movement.  One thinks, for example, of Death, Dying, and Euthanasia, edited by Dennis Horan and David Mall (1980), whose focus is on the third life issue of euthanasia, or Pro-Life Feminism: Different Voices, edited by Gail Grenier Sweet (1985), whose feminist focus is evident in the title.  However, there is no compendium of major works in the movement to date.[2]  Relying on anti-life versions of right-to-life history or tepid or non-existent anti-life critical commentary of major works is obviously untenable.  Moreover, given the culture’s lack of knowledge of significant trends in history and social movements, let alone the decreasing pool of common knowledge reported by scholars since the 1980s, the vast knowledge created by pro-life authors over the past four decades may be lost.  Thus, it is time for pro-lifers to create their own anthology.

II.  Problems in Researching Material for an Anthology

The first task of any anthologist is to locate works which would meet the general parameters for a collection of pro-life works.  The methodology for this study has been relatively simple, though time-consuming.  Although email communications through various sources (LinkedIn discussion groups and special interest listservs, including University Faculty for Life’s listserv) and calls to specialized libraries (such as the Dr. Joseph R. Stanton Human Life Issues Library and Resource Center, coordinated by the Sisters of Life) yielded few results, the bibliographic resources of WorldCat proved invaluable.[3]  Discounting titles which used the keywords for other areas of academic and research analysis, searches for “abortion,” “infanticide,” and “euthanasia” titles produced in book format and written in English yielded an impressive 57,000 bibliographic records.  Proceeding in chunks of one year at a time, these search results were sifted so that only titles produced by pro-life authors could be examined for original date of publication and number of holding libraries.  An Excel file was created to collate these materials, following MLA format as closely as possible, and to record additional notes.[4]

The task of locating titles now concluded, determining which literary works merit inclusion in any anthology is the next challenging task.  Does the researcher consider works which obtained commercial but not critical success as an indicator of anthology status?  Should works which aim for deep philosophical perspectives yet low sales be included?  Are works by those who do not support but whose contents argue for life-affirming principles meritorious?  Does one rely on the impact that works have on the larger culture, or does one evaluate works which only affected the pro-life community?  Does one include international works or those produced only within the American English-speaking world, North America, or the entire English-speaking world?  An earlier anthologist’s summary position regarding Native American literature helped resolve some of these questions.  Niatum addresses the Americanizing perspective of anthology construction thus:

Because of the restrictions on space, there had to be the inevitable exclusions.  I regret that I have not been able to include many other qualified poets.  I also greatly regret my decision to limit the work to Native Americans north of the border with Mexico.  But to have included writers from a broader geographic area would have created a different book.  (Harper’s, xi)

Since the right-to-life movement is an essentially American response to the attack on the first civil right, the North American bias in this effort to create a pro-life anthology will become evident.

Once these tactical questions are answered, another set of philosophical questions arises.  Although anthologizing literature is a fascinating activity, unlike the work required for an encyclopedia, the steps required to anthologize material necessarily involve not only accessing primary works, but also being able to critically evaluate those works for the express purpose of deciding whether they are essential in the formation of a canon.

Several problems impact each portion of the previous sentence in this effort to create an anthology of pro-life works.  Many pro-life titles have had subsequent editions, none more notorious than the Willkes’ Handbook on Abortion.  Often, obtaining the original publications of titles which have undergone subsequent editions is difficult.  Fortunately, access to online catalogs such as OhioLink[5] and WorldCat can enable a researcher to obtain a first edition from libraries throughout the United States.  First editions are the optimum standard, since any change in pro-life thought can be easily traced from an original source.

On the matter of critically evaluating titles, the life-affirming subjectivity of the anthologist, necessarily a partisan in any movement (as feminist and Latino literature compilers have manifested) must be tempered by the need to be objective.  Thus, while any anthologist appreciates the recommendations from colleagues and friends that their works “must” be included in any anthology, collegiality and friendship must surrender not only to publishing reality, but to a general consensus about the impact of any pro-life work.

The realities of publication lead to the final criterion of a work being essential in the formation of a canon.  The force of a work can be evaluated in terms of financial or philosophical impact, often suggested by mere publication numbers (copies in print, copies sold, etc.).  Using this standard, however, can squelch the claim that a work is essential.  If it has no wide circulation, then how can its influence be substantial?  Conversely, if a work has wide dissemination in the culture (whether stimulating more pro-life activity or stirring anti-life hostility), then its characterization as an essential item is secure.  My aim has been to balance these competing factors by considering the profundity of the works, thus enabling me to include not only commercially successful titles, but also those which achieved popular success without necessarily meeting a simplistic (if not tawdry) “best seller” status.  The criterion of commercial success can alter the discussion dramatically; not everything which is popular is profound, although this criterion could be useful in determining a work’s entertainment value.  An equally troublesome criterion is a subset of popularity: the number of libraries owning a particular title.  If this criterion is used, then a resulting list of the essential works would look radically different.

III.  Criteria for the Anthology

Despite the combinations of responses to the above questions (many of which seem irreconcilable), it has been possible to derive a set of standards by which pro-life works can be evaluated for inclusion in this study.  Some anthologists accept a work if it has achieved at least one standard in a set of objective criteria,[6] and in the case of criteria for graphic fiction, Ivan Brunetti affirms that his admittedly subjective “criteria were simple: these are comics that I savor and often revisit” (10).[7]

However, although the number of criteria enumerated below may change as years progress, fine points of language are altered, and further pro-life research warrants, this effort towards anthologizing right-to-life works proceeds on the following four essential criteria:

  1. The works must have been produced within the time of the first contemporary assaults on the right to life (thus, for historical convenience, since the 1960s).  As every educated person knows, attacks on life (whether unborn, newborn, or elderly) have an ancient history, whether it is abortion in ancient Egypt, infanticide in ancient Rome, or twentieth-century Nazi barbarism.  However, the protection of human life is the paramount human rights activity of this moment in history, this moment spanning only half a century.
  2. The works must have been written or translated into English.  This criterion reflects the reality that anti-life activism and the pro-life response is a particularly American (i.e. United States) social movement and that English is the common language in which the life issues are argued, with accommodations for British spellings in some works.[8]
  3. The authors must be either life-affirming themselves or approach standard pro-life views on the essential three life issues (abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia).  That is, the authors’ perspectives must either investigate or support respect for the unborn child and his or her mother, the handicapped newborn, and the elderly.
  4. The works must have obtained a level of commercial success such that their impact either on the pro-life community or on the larger culture is profound.  While commercial success could be determined by publishing facts such as Amazon’s “best sellers rank” feature, I have relied on the number of WorldCat holding libraries as the criterion to show the stability of the work as deemed by librarians who must constantly judge the merits of items in their collections.[9]

IV.  Discussion of the Anthologized Works

          Having considered some introductory matters about anthologies in general, having addressed some problems attendant on creating anthologies, and having determined criteria by which this anthology has been established, what remains are merely two questions about the ordering of content.

First, merely listing the essential works to be included in any pro-life anthology is a first question of organization.  Is it possible to reduce the huge number of pro-life books to a master list of essentials?  Certainly, while a list of “the top ten” most important books from the pro-life movement can be generated, doing so not only would achieve a salutary goal of advancing a quick marketing tool consistent with other top ten lists, but also exclude important elements of the literature.  At the other extreme, recognizing every one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-life books, editions, ebooks, and study materials published over the past forty years would amount to a comprehensive annotated bibliography, not an anthology highlighting the master works.

Second, if merely listing is accepted as the organizing principle of this anthology, then what subdivision should be followed?  Should alphabetical listing (either by author or by title) control or should the listing follow chronological order?  The rationale for chronological ordering seems self-evident, even though one can argue that another ordering scheme would have greater value in specific disciplines; for example, an ordering by genre would aid a researcher focusing on legal or religious works.  Should the items be listed according to genre and then, if this criterion is adopted, alphabetical or chronological listing within that genre?  The simplest method to adopt for purposes of this paper is to consider the items chronologically, not only for ease of presentation, but also to establish the continuity of ideas generated from one major work to another.[10]

All questions about anthology criteria and ordering now having been settled, what follows is a discussion of essential items which should be included in a pro-life anthology.  The 56,944 possible entries in WorldCat have been reduced to an Excel file containing 319 bibliographic records, these titles being held in 60,580 holding libraries.[11]  From these statistics, I have isolated the following as essential works for any right-to-life anthology:

  1. Noonan’s The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives (1970)
  2. Willkes’ Handbook on Abortion (1971)
  3. Abortion and Social Justice (1972)
  4. Summerhill’s The Story of Birthright: The Alternative to Abortion (1973)
  5. Lamerton’s Care of the Dying (1973)
  6. Garton’s Who Broke the Baby?  (1979)
  7. Nathanson’s Aborting America (1979)
  8. Schaeffer and Koop’s Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979)
  9. Death, Dying, and Euthanasia (1980)
  10. Brennan’s The Abortion Holocaust: Today’s Final Solution (1983)
  11. Nathanson’s The Abortion Papers: Inside the Abortion Mentality (1983)
  12. Reagan’s Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation (1984)
  13. The Silent Scream (film 1984, book 1985)
  14. Willke’s Slavery and Abortion: History Repeats (1984)
  15. Pro-Life Feminism: Different Voices (1985)
  16. Scheidler’s Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion (1985)
  17. Friend’s God’s Children (1987)
  18. Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome (1987)
  19. Reardon’s Aborted Women: Silent No More (1987)
  20. Terry’s Operation Rescue (1988)
  21. Andrews’ You Reject Them, You Reject Me: The Prison Letters of Joan Andrews (1988)
  22. Mosher’s A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy (1993)
  23. Bella (2006, book 2008)
  24. Abby Johnson’s Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey Across the Life Line (2010)

Other works will be interpolated in the discussion of these twenty-four essentials.

A.  Five Foundational Works from the Early Seventies

Five works from the early seventies are foundational for right-to-life literature.  While the focus of Noonan’s The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives (1970) is on legal aspects, Abortion and Social Justice, edited by Thomas W. Hilgers and Dennis J. Horan (1972), Richard Lamerton’s Care of the Dying (1973), Louise Summerhill’s The Story of Birthright: The Alternative to Abortion (1973), and the Willkes’ Handbook on Abortion deserve substantial commentary as major works in the early decade of the pro-life movement.

          John T. Noonan’s The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives (1970) must be designated as the first foundational work from the seventies.  While the work certainly qualifies as a commercial success (WorldCat notes that, nearly forty years after its original publication, 1,090 libraries own the title), the legal focus of the work is meant to forestall the overturning of protective legislation then current in the various states.  Although legal activity on the life issues has greatly affected abortion law in the United States since 1970, Noonan’s historical approach to the first life issue began a significant output of other studies which aim to correct the distortion of abortion history that anti-lifers generated—a key concern for Noonan, whose legal expertise knows the importance of history in legal precedents.  Moreover, although his work has been amplified by sectarian and social commentators or superseded by other legal histories throughout the past four decades, the veracity of his work has never been challenged.  Some later histories include John Connery’s Abortion: the Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (1977), J. C. Willke’s Slavery and Abortion: History Repeats (1984), Marvin N. Olasky’s The Press and Abortion, 1838-1966 (1988), George Grant’s Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present (1991), Marvin Olasky’s Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America (1992), Joseph W. Dellapenna’s Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History (2005), Ian Robert Dowbiggin’s A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God, and Medicine (2005), Frederick N. Dyer’s The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion (2005), and the most recent contribution to the historical genre, Justin Buckley Dyer’s Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning (2013).

The second foundational work from the seventies, Jack and Barbara Willke’s Handbook on Abortion (1971), has a substantial publishing history; WorldCat reports that the twenty-eight editions of this title are owned by 593 libraries.  The success of the work can probably be attributed to the seminal ideas which the authors advanced as essential for pro-life theory, ideas which will be not only repeated in its numerous editions, but also found in subsequent pro-life literature.

The opening paragraph of the foreword, for example, comments on two staples of then-contemporary thought about right-to-lifers, incorrect nomenclature and anti-Catholic bias, encapsulated in one sentence: “those whose deep-felt convictions are pro-life,” they write, “have been labeled ‘anti’ (abortion) and have been dismissed as traditional religionists and often, by inference, either Roman Catholic or influenced by that church’s teaching” (1).

          The foreword indicates the essential reason for having published the book: media bias foreclosing any opportunity for pro-lifers “to counter this wave of propaganda” (1) to liberalize abortion laws in the sixties and early seventies.  Moreover, the book identifies three other elements which have endured through four decades: first, an ignorant public (“the average citizen […] will demonstrate an almost total lack of factual knowledge about the subject”); second, support for some reasons to support legalizing abortion “stemming from the often false and misleading pro-abortion propaganda which has filled the public media”; and, finally, a brief mention of “swing voters”—an idea which would be more fully developed in sociological work by Ray Adamek and political commentators in the Reagan era.

          Recognizing that “those committed to a pro-life philosophy have produced several excellent (and expensive) books,” the explicit publishing purpose of the Handbook, however, is to provide the movement with an educational tool which “is small, concise, and inexpensive enough to be useful, without sacrificing too much detail” (2).  On these bases and on its success throughout the past forty years as an educational tool, it is thus proper to consider this work as the bible of the pro-life movement. 

          Abortion and Social Justice, edited by Thomas W. Hilgers and Dennis J. Horan (1972)[12] the third foundational work from the early seventies,is a significant effort to anthologize key essays for the early pro-life movement.  It retains its influence in the movement, with 761 WorldCat holding libraries owning the title.  George H. Williams, then chairman of Americans United for Life, collects these ideas in his foreword, “The Democratization of a Near Constant in History”—the title being a phrase which he cites from Noonan’s work mentioned above.

          The first idea that Williams discusses is that a life-affirming stance can be argued without reference to religious beliefs.  As the Willkes argued in their work, perhaps this was a tactic designed to prevent any charge that being against abortion and affirming the right-to-life of the unborn was essentially a Catholic position.  The repetition of this idea was later justified, since, as all now know from Bernard Nathanson’s work (see below), anti-Catholic bigotry was a key strategy of anti-life forces; if the reduction of all opposition to abortion could be labeled as a merely Catholic effort, then disenfranchising a significant number of elected officials and their constituents would further advance the anti-life cause by removing two millennia of Catholic argumentation from the debate.  On this religious point, Williams writes that

Not a single essay or paper among the nineteen is theological or programmatically religious, although undoubtedly a religious conviction informs many of the writers thereof.  The arguments against abortion as public policy can be cogently stated without resort to religious, ecclesiastical, or theological sanctions.  And in a secular society, where state and church are constitutionally separated, it is entirely proper that we argue in the public domain against abortion in terms acceptable to humanists and theists alike.  (ix)

Williams’ second idea is that legalized abortion is not a “right [but] in fact a grave retrogression” (xi).  The third idea is perhaps the most important foundational principle of the entire pro-life movement.  Elaborating John Noonan’s idea that opposition to abortion is a “Near Constant in History” (xi), Williams writes that

This near constant, the opposition to abortion however defined, has been largely articulated by professional people.  Today we are involved in the laicization of this insight of the religious community and in the democratization of this conviction [….]  What has been within the competence and concern of the professional elites as indeed a near constant in Western history is becoming in our time the concern of the laity in general, speaking from the point of the Church, with Catholic doctors and lawyers, for example, carrying the charge formerly in the custody of the episcopal magisterium; and, the concern of the people at large, banded together in voluntary associations, to exert influence upon legislatures, hospitals, and the media.  (xiii)

Williams mentions four other seemingly minor foundational ideas of the early pro-life movement, which later would become significant factors.  Focusing on the legal profession which seemed most able to assist the pro-life movement, he suggests a purpose of the anthology when he states that “To this end, we recognize that both law and education must complement each other, hence the stress in the collected essays of this volume” (xiv).  Casually mentioned is a second idea that Clardy will elaborate in her essay (that the Founding Fathers were “color-blind in the sense that they did not see the personhood of people of color” xv).  Williams then connects this episode of historical denial of African-American civil rights with those who “do not yet perceive the civil rights of the fetus, so much taken up are they by their understandable concern for the rights of women” (xv).  The third idea acknowledges the new field of scientific endeavor, fetology: “Yet genetics and fetology make so clear to us what for our forefathers could only be gropingly surmised” (xv-xvi).  Finally, while he acknowledges and (with the one word “alas”) bemoans that “much of the Protestant theological, ethical, ministerial, and organizational leadership has, alas, temporarily I judge, joined the other side,” Williams still expresses the hope—to be enunciated more clearly in Schaeffer and Koop’s Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979)—that he does “not believe that among faithful Protestant Christians as distinguished from some of the more articulate clerical leadership there is any substantial shift in the inherited repugnance to abortion” (xvi).[13]

Grouped into three main categories, essays by prominent activists consider the medical, legal, and social aspects of abortion.  The essayists contribute not only their expertise obtained in the research of the issue, but also their perspectives from what may at times seem contradictory backgrounds.  Thus, while Fred E. Mecklenburg is listed as a member of the American Association of Planned Parenthood Physicians, his essay (“The Indications for Induced Abortion”) presents evidence against one of Planned Parenthood’s highest goals, the permanent legalization of abortion.  The collection introduces several important ideas to the abortion repertoire.  Thomas W. Hilgers cites the “medical hazards” of legal abortion in his essay.  Arthur J. Dyck analyzes the argument whether abortion is necessary to control overpopulation.  Erma Clardy Craven discusses how abortion is used by some as a method of African-American (her term being “Black”) genocide.  The book has an additional advantage of a glossary of medical terms, and contributors have provided ample references and footnotes—research components which show the progression from the Willkes’ handbook (where sources are given in-text in appositional and attributional expressions) to a more scholarly examination to be used by pro-life activists.

Finally, Williams offers an opinion which was probably universal in the late sixties and pre-Roe seventies.  The optimism evident in “Happily, the tide seems to have begun to turn again in our favor” (xi) and “we dare now to express some confidence that the worst that we feared may not come to pass and that some of the worst developments—for example, in New York—can be rectified” (xi) are painful to read, not only after millions of abortions have been performed, but also after it is evident that infanticide and euthanasia have even firmer grips on American life.

The fourth foundational work from the seventies is Louise Summerhill’s The Story of Birthright: The Alternative to Abortion (1973).  Like other social activists who pioneered social service organizations, Louise Summerhill’s collaboration in the establishment of Birthright with other interested Canadian pro-life activists rivals Margaret Sanger’s creation of Planned Parenthood, an organization which began as a birth control promoter but which is known more for the abortion clinics it controls.  Like Sanger, whose biographical work traces the history of the organization that she founded (as well as justify its establishment), Summerhill’s The Story of Birthright: The Alternative to Abortion (1973)[14] is a judicious mix of biography and history.  In fact, the biographical elements demonstrate that this genre has become worthy enough to match the argumentation of either the Willkes’ Handbook or the Hilgers and Horan anthology.

          Summerhill would become famous with her work in helping women faced with untimely pregnancies.  When Canadian society in the late 1960s was pressuring women into believing that abortion was the only choice available to them, Summerhill responded by establishing in 1968 the first pregnancy service in the world.[15]  This service would have as its motto “It is the right of every pregnant woman to give birth and the right of every child to be born”—a clear repudiation of Margaret Sanger’s proclamation in her 1938 autobiography that it is first right of child to be wanted (194).

          What is more impressive about this work is the cumulative effect of various statements which testify not only to Summerhill’s faith (the basis for her work in an arduous and unglamorous area of the pro-life movement), but also the pro-woman (if not feminist) approach of the philosophy of the organization which she founded.  Summerhill’s philosophy can be encapsulated in several tenets which should be memorable for future generations.  “Clearly, as God’s possessions, children have a right to be born—a birthright” (viii; italics in original) ineluctably leads to an affirmation that “Women have always been capable of loving and giving to the point of heroic sacrifice, for sacrifice is an integral part of woman’s existence.  We women are the givers, the nurturers, of life, and no nation can rise above the level of its women” (ix).

Starting from these positions, the philosophy of Birthright is evident.  “The essence of the Birthright service is love.  We should not underestimate the power of love.  We do not need professional training in order to listen, to understand, to love” (9).  It is this love which culminates not in any educational effort presented to mothers coming to the organization as would be the case in a Right-to-Life group, but service.  “When a girl calls Birthright she is reminded, gently, of these facts [of fetal development], if she seems set on abortion, and when she comes to our office, she may be shown pictures of the different stages of development of her baby, and, often this brings home to her that this is a little human being who has a right to live.  (We do not show pictures of aborted babies)” (32). Two other statements combine to summarize the essential philosophy of the organization:

The fact is that we pledge complete secrecy to the girls and we cannot break this pledge for any reason or no matter how young the girl.  This is of the greatest importance for the image of Birthright, as well as the protection of the girls, who always come first….  To uphold, at all times, that any pregnant girl or woman has the right to whatever help she may need to carry her child to term, and to foster respect for human life at all stages of development.

          This is the creed and philosophy of Birthright.  (65, 69)

One of the two foundational works published in 1973, it is fitting that the fifth foundational work from the seventies, Richard Lamerton’s Care of the Dying (1973) should be placed here, if only because the topic concerns end-of-life issues, thus completing the areas of concern to the pro-life movement.  Moreover, with 493 holding libraries in WorldCat, Care of the Dying occupies as important a place in contemporary death studies as it did in early pro-life literature.

The purpose of the work is simply stated in the Introduction.  Citing a correspondent who noted that “Dr. Lamerton suggests we use our pens to press for [techniques which would alleviate pain] rather than for euthanasia,” Lamerton’s life-affirming response is simple: “This book is the result of taking up the challenge” (11).  Chapter eight (“The Euthanasia Debate”) contains arguments so cogently expressed for euthanasia that the reader may think that he or she has stumbled on a pro-euthanasia tract. However, Lamerton dismisses the reasons for euthanasia with a summary statement that “it is nonsense in my opinion” (93) and then proceeds to counter the arguments on legal, medical, social, and finally moral considerations.

          The importance of this work cannot be underestimated.  If pro-lifers thought that the right-to-life movement only concerned abortion, then this work by the British Lamerton made it clear to American audiences that attacks on human beings at the end of life needed as much attention as those who are at the beginning of life.  This book can be credited with encouraging pro-lifers to argue for care of those with terminally-ill conditions, introducing new concepts to the pro-life vocabulary such as “extraordinary care,” “hospice,” “ordinary care,” and “palliative care” to counter anti-life agitation for euthanasia.  The trend of Lamerton’s work continues with Care for the Dying and the Bereaved, edited by Ian Gentles (1982), William F. May’s Testing the Medical Covenant: Active Euthanasia and Health Care Reform (1996), and Rita Marker’s Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide & Health Care Decisions: Protecting Yourself and Your Family (2006).

B.  1979, a Banner Year for Pro-Life Literature

          Just as the above five titles were foundational for pro-life literature, 1979 saw the publication of three more works which ended the first full decade of pro-life activism with substantial contributions to the literature: Jean Staker Garton’s Who Broke the Baby? (1979), Bernard N. Nathanson’s Aborting America (1979), and Francis A. Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop’s Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979).  Each of these titles is iconoclastic for several reasons.

          Although Donald P. Shoemaker’s Abortion, the Bible, and the Christian (1976) precedes her work by three years, Jean Staker Garton’s Who Broke the Baby? (1979) is the first apologetic work written from a Christian denomination other than Catholicism which made traction in the pro-life publishing world.  Its role as a harbinger of great things to come not only from Protestant Christianity, but also later from the Evangelical community cannot be underestimated.  Where activists on both sides of the abortion issue may have thought throughout the 1970s that abortion was a “Catholic issue,” Garton’s book testified to a refreshing perspective, that of Lutheran Christianity’s strong opposition to abortion.  Furthermore, Garton’s work is perhaps the first in Protestantism devoted to a rhetorical analysis of anti-life slogans.  As Summerhill used biography in her work, Garton writes that

The same catchy abortion slogans which I once employed continue to manipulate the feelings and thoughts of many others.  The inaccurate ideas fostered by the abortion rhetoric escape the notice of the less critical.  Language is an agent for change and when language lies, when words are warped and twisted perversely, they are eventually emptied of their true meaning.  (unnumbered preface)

That the work is owned by 345 WorldCat libraries further testifies to the book’s historical and rhetorical value.  Garton’s rhetorical methodology continues in such works as When Life and Choice Collide: Essays on Rhetoric and Abortion, edited by David Mall (1994) and William Brennan’s Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives (1995).

          With 894 holding libraries, Bernard Nathanson’s Aborting America (1979) is an account of anti-life intrigue in the effort to legalize abortion that reads like a mystery novel gone horribly wrong, where the bad guys succeed in achieving their bigoted goal of subjugating an entire class of believers (Roman Catholics) so that others would be more likely to support legalized abortion.  Nathanson’s exposé of the political maneuvers of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) is not only a biographical account of how the author became involved in abortion procedures and politics, but also a scathing account of NARAL’s anti-Catholic bigotry as a tactical weapon in the fight to legalize abortion.

          Common Internet searches for reaction to the book’s claims about the deception and bigotry used to legalize abortion yield many items from pro-life quarters, but little from anti-life ones.  It is tempting to say that the silence is deafening, but such a pun should be saved for another Nathanson effort to expose abortion, the film The Silent Scream, which debuted in 1984.  Sufficient now is the fact that NARAL’s website has no reference to one of its premier activists.[16]

          When Francis A. Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop’s Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979) was first published, few could have known the effect it would have on the American Evangelical Christian community.  That 662 WorldCat libraries own the title may be a testament to its publishing power; the effect on the Evangelical community, moreover, seems to be permanent, as evidenced by R. Albert Mohler’s epideictic on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the book’s publication:

Whatever Happened to the Human Race? awakened American evangelicals to the anti-human technologies and ideologies that then threatened human dignity.  Most urgently, the project put abortion unquestionably on the front burner of evangelical concern.  The tenor of the times is seen in the fact that Schaeffer and Koop had to argue to evangelicals in the late 1970s that abortion was not just a “Catholic” issue.  They taught many evangelicals a new and urgently needed vocabulary about embryo ethics, euthanasia, and infanticide.  They knew they were running out of time.

C.  Ferment of the Eighties

          Every year in the decade of the eighties saw the publication of, if not all major works, significant material which has informed the vocabulary of the pro-life movement and, in one important case, altered the perception of a common phrase (“silent scream”).[17]  Two works—Reagan’s Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation (1984) and the 1984 film and 1985 monograph of The Silent Scream—tower above the others.  Four works develop the historical bases of the pro-life movement (for example, connecting slavery and abortion).  Two works concern post-abortion syndrome and the feminist movement.  Two works address activism regarding abortion clinics.  Finally, three other works use fiction and epistolary writing as the means to address the pro-life issues.[18]

The Two Most Significant Works of the Decade

          Whether authored by a White House speechwriter or by the president himself, Ronald Reagan’s brief essay contained within the volume Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation (1984) stands as a political milestone in right-to-life literature as the first full-length work by a sitting US president who dared to discuss abortion as a national tragedy.  The publication of the essay could have backfired against Reagan; 1984 was an election year, and, popularity aside, there was no guarantee that proclaiming his pro-life beliefs would endear him to a population recovering from the 1982 recession.  That the essay proper is only twenty-three pages could diminish its importance were it not for these facts.  Moreover, that 1,080 WorldCat libraries own the item makes this book one of only ten pro-life works held by over a thousand libraries.

Like the presidential document, perhaps no other work in the eighties achieved such commercial and popular success as the second most significant work, the film The Silent Scream (1984) and its companion book, Silent Scream: The Complete Text of the Documentary Film with an Authoritative Response to the Critics, edited by Donald S. Smith and Don Tanner (1985).  Media attention became riveted to the ultrasound abortion, and anti-life commentators were placed in an uncomfortable defensive strategy.  Vituperation against the film aside, the film accomplished two goals which seemed impossible given American media and entertainment bias against the movement.  First, the film advanced the personalization of the unborn child and showed him or her as a victim of abortion.  Secondly, the film ushered in a new era of pro-life education, where video format of essential messages quickly became the rule for popular education.  If WorldCat statistics are an indication, the number of libraries holding the film version is nearly six times those owning the monograph (152 holding libraries for the film vs. 27 for the book).

Development of Historical Bases

          Four works from the early years of the eighties addressed the historical bases of the pro-life movement.

          Death, Dying, and Euthanasia, edited by Dennis Horan and David Mall (1980), examines the subjects of dying, the death process, definitions of euthanasia, and the euthanasia movement in the United States.  The book includes significant contributions to the above subject areas from both pro-euthanasia supporters (e.g. Joseph Fletcher) and anti-euthanasia supporters (e.g. Paul Ramsey) and collates seminal works from the time before abortion agitation (for example, Leo Alexander’s essay “Medical Science Under Dictatorship,” which was first published in 1949).  Thirty years after publication, the work continues to hold an important place in pro-life literature, with 981 WorldCat libraries owning the item.

The book’s seven sections include the following representative essays to illustrate current topics facing pro-lifers at the beginning of the decade: “A Statutory Definition of the Standards for Determining Human Death: an Appraisal and a Proposal” by Alexander Morgan Capron and Leon R. Kass; “Moral and Ethical Dilemmas in the Special-Care Nursery” by Raymond S. Duff and A.G.M. Campbell; “Involuntary Euthanasia of Defective Newborns: a Legal Analysis” by John A. Robertson; “The Prolongation of Life: an Address of Pope Pius XII to an International Congress of Anesthesiologists” by Pope Pius XII; “Editor’s Comment on the Living Will” by Dennis J. Horan; “Some Non-Religious Views Against Proposed `Mercy-Killing’ Legislation” by Yale Kamisar; “Opinion of the New Jersey Supreme Court in the Karen Quinlan Case” by Chief Justice Richard Hughes; “How Hospices Cope” by Richard Lamerton; “Medical Science Under Dictatorship” by Leo Alexander; and “Suicide and Euthanasia” by Germain Grisez.

          William Brennan’s The Abortion Holocaust: Today’s Final Solution (1983) must be recognized as bold for expanding a controversial area of the life issues, the comparison made in the early literature of abortion to genocide.  While Erma Clardy Craven specifically connected abortion with African-American genocide, the link to a topic normally associated with the Jewish Holocaust had not been discussed in such detail before.  Thus, Brennan’s work is a milestone in the sequence of pro-life ideas.

          Bernard N. Nathanson’s The Abortion Papers: Inside the Abortion Mentality (1983) analyzes how the opposition to the right to life first manifested itself through the use of the media.  He urges pro‑lifers to use scientific advances in fetology to assert their cause.  Nathanson also remarks on how the anti-life movement used anti‑Catholic bigotry to obtain its first goal of legalizing abortion and how such a strategy is continued to keep abortion legal.

          J. C. Willke’s Slavery and Abortion: History Repeats (1984) compares the African-American civil rights movement with the right-to-life movement.  The numerous points of similarity between the fight against slavery and the fight for the first civil right to life are striking.  In twenty short chapters, Willke documents the similarities between slavery and abortion instantaneously; thus, shifting from dehumanizing assaults on African slaves in the nineteenth century to abortion in the twentieth helps the reader to understand the parallels between the two issues.  Willke’s discussion of the African-American situation is amplified by Alveda C. King in two works, How Can the Dream Survive If We Murder the Children?: Abortion Is Not a Civil Right! (2008) and Life at All Costs: An Anthology of Voices from 21st Century Black Prolife Leaders (2012).

Feminism and Post-Abortion Syndrome

          Two works from the second half of the eighties deserve recognition in the effort to bring post-abortion syndrome to the attention of the public.  Pro-Life Feminism: Different Voices, edited by Gail Grenier Sweet (1985), is the first edition[19] of an anthology devoted to establishing the connection between historical, nineteenth-century feminist activists; demonstrating twentieth-century differences between pro-life feminists and leaders of anti-life organizations such as the National Organization of Women; and, finally, affirming what should be done to advance women’s rights from a life-affirming perspective.

David C. Reardon’s Aborted Women: Silent No More (1987) introduced the topic of Post-Abortion Syndrome to the reading public.  Commercially successful (778 WorldCat libraries own the work), Reardon’s analysis of the psychological complications following abortion generated intense debate in the psychological establishment.  Although Reardon’s work amplifies an earlier (1979) study of psychological effects of abortion (Psychological Aspects of Abortion, edited by David Mall and Walter F. Watts), other works were published to address this new aspect in pro-life activism, including Anne Speckhard’s Psycho-Social Aspects of Stress Following Abortion (1987), Theresa Karminski Burke and Barbara Cullen’s Rachel’s Vineyard: A Psychological and Spiritual Journey of Post Abortion Healing: A Model for Groups (1995), and Elizabeth Ring-Cassidy and Ian Gentles’ Women’s Health After Abortion: The Medical and Psychological Evidence (2nd ed., 2003).

New Activism

          Two works from the second half of the decade argue for both legal protest and civil disobedience against abortion clinics and the abortionists who run them.  Joseph M. Scheidler’s Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion (1985) and Randall A. Terry’s Operation Rescue (1988) cover a range of methods for pro‑life activists to advance the cause.  Direct action, Scheidler and Terry argue, would generate more media attention to pro-life claims, persuade people to the pro-life perspective, and, most importantly, save lives.

Both works, however, signal a strong torque in right-to-life political theory, moving away from the gradualist approach of first-generation right-to-life leaders to direct action against abortion clinics and, in Terry’s work, to illegal activity for the express purpose of flooding the courts with civil disobedience claims.  If the Reagan and Bush years were successful in having a pro-life president sitting in the White House, they were just as unsuccessful: no Human Life Amendment had passed, abortion rates in some demographic sectors increased dramatically, and it seemed as though traditional legislative activity—a hallmark of pro-life action since Jack Willke’s leadership of the National Right to Life Committee—would not accomplish the movement’s goals.  Terry suggests that the Operation Rescue movement is an effort to “produce the social tension necessary to bring about political change” (27).

Fictional and Epistolary Literature

          Finally, three works from the decade of the eighties show that, besides didactic or argumentative literature, the genres of fiction and personal narrative could boast of some significant works.[20]

          Pro-life fiction made a substantial leap with the publication of Stephen F. Friend’s God’s Children (1987).  No other earlier fictional work succeeded in breaking into the world of the reading public as this novel, which is owned by 366 WorldCat libraries.[21]  In terms of narrative substance, Friend’s novel spans 528 pages of a plot concerned ostensibly with the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act, but which provides Mafia characterizations and delves into practices of devout and ambiguous Catholics.

Friend’s novel is joined with a work by a more famous author, one not usually associated with the life issues, Walker Percy, whose The Thanatos Syndrome was published in the same year.  Percy creates a dystopia which has legalized abortion, infanticide (called “pedeuthanasia” 33), and euthanasia.  After a child pornography ring and pedeuthanasia clinic are shut down, Father Simon Smith chastises his audience during a homily, speaking of the “tenderness” which Nazi euthanasia supporters felt towards the people they were killing.  Father Smith’s chastisement of his audience at Mass culminates the didactic purpose of Percy’s work: to safeguard the integrity of the human person against intrusion by the government.  Compared with the 366 libraries holding Friend’s work, Percy’s 1,940 holding libraries demonstrate the power that a major name will have in the success of a novel dealing with controversial issues.

          The final literary exemplar from the eighties is devoted to personal narrative in the well-established genre of epistolary writing.  Joan Andrews’ You Reject Them, You Reject Me: The Prison Letters of Joan Andrews (1988) does not compare with the more well-known Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. (at least, among Americans aware of their cultural heritage); it contrasts.[22]  A valuable source for understanding an activist’s life experiences, Andrews’ letters span two years of her imprisonment for protesting at abortion clinics (1987 and 1988).

          It is noticeable, however, that pro-life fiction grew substantially after these publications, including such works as Angela Hunt’s The Proposal (1996), Jane St. Clair’s Walk Me to Midnight (2007), Lisa Samson’s Bella: A Novelization of the Award-Winning Movie (2008), and Eric Wilson and Theresa Preston’s October Baby: Every Life Is Beautiful (2012)—all four of which are owned by a combined 888 WorldCat holding libraries.

D.  The Nineties: Globalism and the Internet

          The nineties saw globalism as a characteristic social trend, and this idea affected the pro-life movement as well.  Pro-life activists fought with the anti-life Clinton Administration over the Mexico City policy, which prohibited federal funding for abortions in other countries, and nationalized health care, among other topics.  Within right-to-life literature, the global effects of an anti-life philosophy became clear with the publication of Steven W. Mosher’s A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy (1993), which sent shockwaves not only in the pro-life community, but also in the secular media.  With 739 WorldCat holding libraries, Mosher’s account of forced abortion policies in the People’s Republic of China could not be ignored by the secular media.  Bringing the controversial issue of forced abortion, which concerned not only women’s rights but also state control of its population policies, to the attention of the US government—at a time when the only media outlets were the traditional and biased major media—is a significant accomplishment that merits attention.

          The paucity of materials from the nineties which merit notation as essential items for an anthology can be attributed to a technological development which pro-life activists quickly used to broadcast information and services.  The Internet certainly did not stop hardcopy publication of pro-life monographs or serials, but it did enable the pro-life community to generate activism and to accomplish objectives without relying on a biased media or fearing a lack of funds.  Producing hardcopy monographs and serials, in contrast, consumed not only time but also precious and limited resources.  The nineties saw the development of numerous pro-life websites which are now standard means of communication, particularly for legislative and political news and action.  However, more research needs to be conducted to evaluate the pro-life movement’s use of Internet resources as a supplement to or in lieu of hardcopy production of materials.

E.  The Twenty-First Century: Asserting the Right to Life in the Post-9/11 World

          Terrorism abroad and eight years of an anti-life presidency (Obama) may have distracted the national sentiment away from the life issues.  However, the pro-life literary output continued to produce numerous works which address all aspects of the pro-life movement.  Determining whether the following works merit inclusion in an anthology may be premature without further research.

Nonfiction works continue to dominate pro-life publishing.  A difference from works published in the early decades is that newer pro-life titles often achieve publishing success not experienced by their early movement counterparts.  Such is the case with Hadley Arkes’ Natural Rights and the Right to Choose (2002), owned by 772 libraries; Arthur J. Dyck’s Life’s Worth: The Case Against Assisted Suicide (2002), owned by 589 libraries; the Schindlers’ A Life That Matters: The Legacy of Terri Schiavo, A Lesson for Us All (2006), owned by 463 libraries; Francis Beckwith’s Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (2007), owned by 713 libraries; Abby Johnson’s Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey Across the Life Line (2010), owned by 608 libraries; and Christopher Robert Kaczor’s The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice (2011), owned by 717 holding libraries.

Fictional works, however, continue not only to inspire readers with their life-affirming stories, but also to challenge literary critics who may not yet seem able to handle narratives which are simultaneously successful and affirm life.  An important exception in this new century is Bella (film 2006, novelization by Lisa Samson in 2008) whose commercial and critical success surpasses that of The Silent Scream in the eighties; 432 WorldCat libraries own the book, but 1,149 WorldCat libraries own the film.  While The Silent Scream was attacked by anti-lifers and its veracity challenged, the difference now, however, is that Bella is judged on aesthetic grounds more than on its life-affirming message.

V.  Summary and Recommendations

          If the above suggests anything, it is that pro-life literature over the past forty years is substantial and that it covers virtually all issues of concern to the pro-life movement on the three life issues.  The companion Excel file should be used in conjunction with this discussion of the major works so that those interested in the literature can understand where they are placed in the larger body of pro-life works.

Since the preceding has focused on monographic works primarily, although some life-affirming films are briefly mentioned, opportunities for more research exist for undeveloped or neglected areas.  This study has not included serial publications such as the Life and Learning volumes published by University Faculty for Life, or other serials such as The Human Life Review or National Right to Life News, the official newspaper of the National Right to Life Committee.  Similarly, this study has not examined life-affirming art work (such as Mary Cate Carroll’s painting/reliquary “American Liberty Upside Down”), music (John Elefante’s song “This Time”), or theatre (Malcolm Muggeridge and Alan Thornhill’s Sentenced to Life).  Finally, although they change with rapidity as needs and information warrants, Internet sites were not discussed, even though most monographic works now have companion websites just as pro-life films are now offered electronically through resources such as YouTube instead of older technology.  Again, more research is needed to evaluate which works presented in electronic media or in serial format should be included as masterworks of the pro-life movement.

          Even though these opportunities exist for future research, some recommendations can be suggested regarding the monographs already discussed.  Three immediately come to mind.

          First, libraries with significant holdings of pro-life material should catalog and make bibliographic records of their collections available through Internet access.  For example, if the Stanton Library operated by the Sisters of Life has one of the premier collections of pro-life materials in the United States, then every item in that collection should be catalogued and indexed for scholarly use.  If costs are a factor, then identifying the library’s holdings on WorldCat would be an important step towards disseminating the holdings.

          Second, as long as copyright concerns can be satisfied, pro-life materials should be digitized as soon as possible.  Many pro-life titles, especially those from the early decades of the movement, are either difficult to obtain or, the fate of all printed materials, becoming fragile (having been printed on low quality paper or destroyed by frequent use).  Moreover, as publishing houses merge or cease altogether, the opportunity to obtain first editions of primary source material will become more challenging for the researcher.

          Finally, a formal anthology of pro-life works should be published.  The key items mentioned here must be included in such an anthology so that contemporary and future students will know some of the greatest works of the most important civil rights movement in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  It is especially imperative to do this since the first generation of pro-life leaders is getting older, many of them have died (most recently, Nellie Gray and Barbara Willke), and the current generation of pro-life activists, most of whom are young adults, may not be familiar with the standard works which formed the pro-life cultural heritage.  Such an anthology would assist in perpetuating the pro-life conversation and activism from generation to generation.

Works Cited

Abortion and Social Justice. Eds. Thomas W. Hilgers and Dennis J. Horan.

New York: Sheed & Ward, 1972. Print.

Andrews, Joan. You Reject Them, You Reject Me: The Prison Letters of Joan

Andrews. Ed. Richard Cowden Guido. Manassas, VA; Trinity Communications, 1988. Print.

Arkes, Hadley. Natural Rights and the Right to Choose. Cambridge, UK:

Cambridge U P, 2002. Print.

Beckwith, Francis. Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion

Choice. New York: Cambridge U P, 2007. Print.

Birch, Cyril, ed. Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the

Fourteenth Century. New York: Grove, P, 1965. Print.

Blackwood, Jean. Beyond Beginning and Other Poems. Rolla, MO: Low-Key

Press, 1982. Print.

Bradley, Adam, and Andrew Dubois, eds. The Anthology of Rap. New Haven:

Yale U P, 2010. Print.

Brennan, Gail Patrick. Alone…A Story for Children…About Abortion! Elm

Grove, WI: ALONE, 1979. Print.

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

Chicago: Loyola U P, 1995. Print.

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

1983. Print.

Brunetti, Ivan, ed. An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories.

          New Haven: Yale U P, 2006. Print.

Burke, Theresa Karminski, and Barbara Cullen. Rachel’s Vineyard: A

Psychological and Spiritual Journey of Post Abortion Healing: A Model for Groups. Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1995. Print.

Care for the Dying and the Bereaved. Ian Gentles, ed. Toronto: Anglican Book

Centre, 1982. Print.

Chapman, Abraham, ed. Black Voices: An Anthology of African-American

Literature. New York: NAL, 1968. Print.

Connery, John. Abortion: the Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective.

          Chicago: Loyola U P, 1977. Print.

Death, Dying, and Euthanasia. Eds. Dennis Horan and David Mall. Frederick,

MD: University Publicatons [sic] of America, 1980. Print.

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[1] The omitted words can now be revealed: “created by black American writers in the twentieth century” (25).  Life-affirming academics would, of course, universalize the category, not restrict it to African-American writers, and expand the chronology to include the twenty-first century.

[2]  Dolores Orr’s Annotated Guide to Pro-Life Literature is an early effort to address this gap in the literature.  WorldCat notes that this sixteen-page work was a “course paper prepared for Bibliography 250, University of California, Berkeley, Library School.”

[3], the online public catalog which provides bibliographic data created by librarians at OCLC, Inc., has proven indispensable in determining the copyright or estimated date of publication for many publications, especially from the seventies when either ISBN or LC numbers were not regularly provided in many pro-life publications.

[4] A copy of this Excel file is available for other researchers.  Please send your request to

[5]  OhioLink is a consortium of academic and public libraries throughout Ohio, an indispensable tool for a researcher who wishes to obtain materials quickly (usually within a week through interlibrary loan) held by a library in another part of the state.

[6] Adam Bradley and Andrew Dubois, editors of The Anthology of Rap (2010), affirm that the lyrics included in their collection only “had to meet at least one” of three standards (xli).

[7] To his credit, the balance of the introductory material suggests that a chronological ordering is the general frame for the collection, although such an ordering is not strictly followed if it interferes with the “visual and thematic connections between stories” (10).

[8] It is fortunate that the rise of the anti-life philosophy was restricted (at least in the early decades) to the United States, thus eliminating a challenge experienced by anthologists of Chinese literature like Cyril Birch, who wrote:

In our work of selection we have tried to avoid translations, whether or not previously published, which are marred either by lifeless English or by uninformed scholarship.  We have regretfully jettisoned fine translations of decades ago whose English style has [sic] dated, and scholarly translations of pieces whose merits could be glimpsed only through a thick fog of footnotes.  (xxv)

[9]  These numbers are conservative, since WorldCat records the libraries owning a title, not necessarily the number of branches within a public library system that will purchase individual copies.

[10] One anthologist’s commentary about chronological ordering applies to pro-life writers as much as it does to his effort to categorize Chinese literature.  Stephen Owen writes:

This anthology is organized to represent the literary tradition, not as a static arrangement of “monuments” in chronological order but as a family of texts that achieve their identity and distinctness in relation to one another.  As in any interesting family, not all the voices sing in harmony.  (xli)

[11]  Here and throughout, all numbers of WorldCat holding libraries are as of 9-30-13.

[12] Although there is an Epilogue to the volume which is clearly written after the Roe v. Wade decision, this work must be considered a pre-Roe work since the copyright is expressly 1972.  Moreover, the majority of the essays were all written to counter arguments that legalizing abortion would constitute good public policy.

[13] Williams may have been ahead of his time in mentioning another idea.  “A reverence for life within the womb is ultimately one with a reverent sense of responsibility and accountability for our global environment in the ecological concern of our time” (xviii).  Citing the ecology movement of the 1970s is an idea not enunciated in pro-life literature until decades later as a response to ecofeminist misuse of the idea as a basis for abortion.

[14] In an “Author’s Update” found in the eighth printing of this work, Summerhill mentions that she wrote The Story of Birthright in 1972 (x).  Since the copyright is 1973 in all original publications and electronic bibliographic records, I follow that date.

[15]  Summerhill explained the history of the organization in a 1988 interview: “I founded Birthright in 1968 after working in a pro-life organization for three years, the Emergency Organization for the Defense of the Unborn.  We were a small group, but we worked hard, wrote letters to MPs, collected 80,000 signatures on a petition across Canada, and presented a brief to the Committee of Health and Welfare in the fall of 1967” (“Offer”; unnumbered page).

[16]  Lawrence Lader, Nathanson’s associate in the pre-legalization years, appears in two documents available on the NARAL website; Nathanson, however, who played such a crucial role in the formation of the organization, is absent (search conducted 23 September 2013).

[17]  As of September 2013, the publication of titles in the eighties reached 31% of the total number of 321 works catalogued in the comprehensive listing.  While publication of pro-life titles in the first decade of the twenty-first century reached a percentage of 17% of the total, further research may increase that number slightly.

[18] Works on infanticide were especially pronounced in the early eighties, including Effie A. Quay’s And Now Infanticide (1980), Joseph R. Stanton’s Infanticide (1981), Dennis J. Horan and Melinda Delahoyde’s Infanticide and the Handicapped Newborn (1982), James Manney and John C. Blattner’s Death in the Nursery: The Secret Crime of Infanticide (1984), and Melinda Delahoyde’s Fighting for Life: Defending the Newborn’s Right to Live (1984).  After the death of Baby Doe in Bloomington, Indiana in 1982, works on the subject were subsumed within larger monographs.

[19]  This anthology was revised in 2005.

[20]  Ownership by five libraries in the WorldCat system may not qualify Jean Blackwood’s Beyond Beginning and Other Poems (1982) as a title worth mentioning in terms of commercial success.  However, what the book lacks regarding publishing accomplishments is compensated by being the first book of poetry concerned with abortion.  The poem “Generation” is especially important as a challenge to those who schizophrenically advocate certain humanitarian and rights causes yet ignore the first civil right to life.  The persona looks at the paradigm presented by his or her own experience of rights and finds that it contrasts against the established view of history.

[21]  An earlier fictional effort includes Gail Patrick Brennan’s Alone…A Story for Children…About Abortion! (1979).

[22] An excerpt from King’s letter precedes the first chapter (unnumbered page 25).


Reception Theory, Political Correctivity, and Literary Analysis of Abortion in Literature from The People’s Republic of China

Abstract: This study reviews two literary works on abortion from the People’s Republic of China, the poem “Abortion” by Zhang Zhen and the short story “Explosions” by Mo Yan.

A review of any literary work on abortion in the People’s Republic of China presents researchers with an immediate problem.  Does or should discussing the topic of abortion rely on sociological documentation of abortion as practiced on the mainland, or does another perspective apply?  Can one take strictly a political view towards the matter, or does one need to consider factors usually associated with other literary theories (such as the role of women from a feminist literary viewpoint or the interaction of ideologies from a Marxist perspective—the latter being the literary theory one would almost automatically think would apply when speaking about life in Communist China)?  For purposes of this study, the practices of reception theory seem to be the optimum means by which several literary artifacts will be evaluated, primarily because the theory can afford American researchers and students of literature insights into the interaction or juxtaposition of the ideological confrontation between official, received statements on one of the most controversial matters in the Chinese world (national policies on birth control and reproductive rights when confronted with failed birth control leading to abortion) and the notions held by millions of Chinese whose attitudes and opinions towards compulsory birth control and forced abortion are now becoming evident in the West.

Abortion and Demographic Concerns in the PRC

          The number of annual abortions performed in the People’s Republic is staggering, estimated by John S. Aird at eight million per year between 1971-1985 (111,960,987 total; Slaughter 40) and by other sources to be about thirteen million annual abortions currently (versus twenty million live births; thus, about one-third of all pregnancies per year are aborted) (Canaves).  What is perhaps most curious about the number of abortions performed is that China has neither a history of abortion agitation, nor conflicting official pre-1949 medical commentary on the acceptance of abortion as an ordinary medical practice.  In fact, if the exploration of Jing-Bao Nie into Buddhist and Confucian respect for pre-natal life is accepted, then Chinese history argues against such an openness towards abortion.[1]  Countering claims that abortion in China was implicitly allowed because there was no clear prohibition against it, Nie further argues that

While it is true that the early medical literature rarely if ever explicitly proscribes performing abortion, this should probably not be interpreted as representing a permissive attitude on the part of ancient doctors.  Rather, the silence is likely to indicate that medical abortion was regarded as so obviously unethical that there was no need to include it in lists of professional precepts, just as medical ethics documents whether ancient or modern rarely explicitly state that physicians should not murder or kill.  (78)

          As early as the late 1970s scholars had discussed demographic changes in the PRC and considered the consequences of several official policies designed to curtail population growth, including compulsory birth control and abortion of a second child.  While pointing out that official population figures were difficult to determine (since the PRC had not devoted sufficient resources to determine the extent of population growth after the founding of the nation and because of censorship[2]), in 1982 Aird had commented on the disastrous effects that complete implementation of the one-child policy would have on China.  He writes,

there are some disadvantages to a too-rapid reduction in fertility.  Sudden changes in the size of age cohorts cause similar changes in the demand for age-related goods and services, in the facilities and personnel that provide them, and in the allocation of resources that they require—changes that can result in dislocations and inefficiencies that adversely affect national development.  Both Lin and Liu have indicated that the Chinese family planning authorities do not expect or want to achieve the sudden, universal adoption of the one-child family because they are aware of the problems of a distorted age-sex structure; but family planning propaganda and some of the provincial family planning regulations convey a different impression.  (“Population” 289)[3]

          Contemporary scholars often elaborate the effects of these policies within the larger context of their areas of studies, whether political or social criticism.[4]  Pronouncements from the PRC itself ratify the notion that China is experiencing a dire population situation.  An online posting from the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America states that “Some lawmakers and family planning officials support [a law explicitly banning sex-selective abortions] because of the serious imbalance in the ratio of genders in the population.  China has 119 boys born for every 100 girls, much higher than the global ratio of 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls.”  The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences confirmed this gender imbalance in a January 2010 report, which “indicates the figure has climbed to 120 boys born for every 100 girls as of 2006 and says that, by the end of 2008, there were 38 million more men in China than women born after 1980” (Ertelt).

Silence Surrounding Abortion in the PRC

          What is perhaps the most striking feature of abortion in the PRC is the silence attending it at the popular level.  In virtually every other nation abortion as a political issue rouses intense passions; demonstrations on both sides of the issue and legislative efforts to address abortion matters are standard events in other nations.  One could think that, because the PRC has pronounced on the matter, all dissent is effectively silenced because the people themselves agree with the national pronouncements completely without qualms or nuances expressed whatsoever.  Such an absolutist view toward popular support of a national policy is, of course, as facile as it is ridiculous.  Many scholars have tried to address the reasons why popular attitudes towards the abortion policy of the PRC seemingly signify only support from citizens.[5]

          There are, however, emerging voices of dissent towards the national policies on reproductive matters, and their presence is significant given the new liberty of thought finding its expression in literary matters, which is a relatively recent phenomenon in the PRC.  Mo Yan, China’s most famous author known to the West, asserts this renaissance of liberated thought about controversial issues in his discussion of how China moved from having writers produce politically-correct work to a literature in tune with their own sensibilities:

As the 1970s wound down, our Chairman Mao died, and the situation in China began to change, including its literary output.  But the changes were both feeble and slow.  Forbidden topics ran the gamut from love stories to tales of Party blunders; but the yearning for freedom was not to be denied.  Writers wracked their brains to find ways, however roundabout, to break the taboos.  This period saw the rise of so-called scar literature, personal accounts of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.  My own career didn’t really start until the early 1980s, when Chinese literature had already undergone significant changes.  Few forbidden topics remained, and many Western writers were introduced into the country, creating a frenzy of Chinese imitations. (Shifu, xv)

          Wondering why the Chinese are silent about abortion specifically, Nie quoted a fellow researcher who said that “The fact that people don’t speak out doesn’t mean they have nothing to say” (7).  Nie further asserts that

creative writers enjoy greater freedom of speech in China today than scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and literary works often constitute the best window into the concerns and opinions of ordinary people on many social issues.  While a medical humanities scholar may fail to find an outlet for an article that argues that abortion is ethically wrong, a fiction writer may sometimes be able to express a similar opinion without falling afoul of the authorities.  (29-30)

In fact, the apparent Chinese silence on abortion seems to negotiate two principles—first that “guarding one’s tongue is a basic survival strategy in an authoritarian regime” (35) and, second, that “the bitter pain of abortion for many Chinese [is] a pain that goes beyond what words can describe”  (36).  The latter is eminently challenging for writers.  Critics, however, may have an easier time.  As deconstructionists have demonstrated, the meaning of what appears to be absent itself is commentary and can be excavated; it thus remains the task of the critic to determine what is being said about abortion in the literary works available.

          Finally, of all the literary theories that could help to make certain Chinese works more meaningful to Western readers, especially on the controversial topic of abortion, reception theory will seem the most obvious as the works themselves are reviewed below.  The dissent against abortion is the most challenging for literary critics to evaluate, embedded as it is in works which still struggle to stay within the cultural and mostly political norms attendant on literary production within the PRC.  Formalist and feminist concerns in the literature can be developed, historical themes abound (certainly, reaction against the excesses of the Cultural Revolution is still considered a viable topic for Chinese writers), and one can revel as a deconstructionist would in the word-play of certain Chinese poets.  However, one aspect of literary concern that needs to be developed is the interaction and juxtaposition of official pronouncements on abortion in the PRC and writers’ responses to those pronouncements.

The Poem “Abortion” (1986) by Zhen Zhang

          Poetry in the PRC may be on the forefront of a revolutionary trend that Western scholars are commenting on with greater frequency, and the trend apparently began post-Cultural Revolution.  John A. Crespi’s work in the area of Mao-era poetry is especially perceptive.  Commenting on developments of modern poetry in the PRC, Crespi writes that:

[O]fficially sanctioned Mao-era poetry recitation, while unique in terms of the pressures placed on performers to measure up to extreme ideological standards of the times, represents just one episode in a continuing history of poetry recitation as a cultural practice.  Even as the theorists and practitioners of recitation invoked a quite modern idea of pure revolutionary passion, the concept of expression informing that invocation derived from China’s earliest poetic theory.  Moreover, examining official poetry recitation also gives the lie to the myth of a uniquely monolithic revolutionary culture, especially when one considers reciters’ own reception of these poems.  Instead of the transparency and assured purity of intent that one generally experiences when reading the era’s officially sanctioned poems in written form, reciters’ accounts of giving concrete voice to the poetry intimate a sense of self-doubt spurred by formidable ideological dilemmas—dilemmas that eventually even appear in print on the pages of poetry recitation primers. (166-7)

It is especially interesting that any deviation from the accepted script of government-acknowledged poetic production occurred in the vocal production of such poetry—vocal delivery perhaps being a freer mode than print, which could more readily affect an artist’s career.

          While many poems discuss abortion,[6] the poem “Abortion” by Zhen Zhang is a representative example of Chinese authors who begin to broach the topic as a way of responding to official PRC positions.[7]  Although some critics may find the subject challenging to identify,[8] the poem has marked similarities with other post-abortion syndrome poems with which Western readers are familiar, such as Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother” or Lucille Clifton’s “the lost baby poem.”  One item in the critical commentary about the poet is repeated consistently: mysteriousness.  The “self” that Zhang writes “is spontaneous, capricious, sometimes mysterious,” one critic states.  She “remains very much herself as a woman in her creation of mysterious urban worlds” and is credited with “a type of metropolitan women’s writing in which the self remains mysteriously private” (Tao 23).

          This mysteriousness could obscure the resistance implied in the poem by one key term: “I looked long into my uterus at your unwarranted being” (132).  That the child should have been called “unwarranted” and not “unwanted” or “undesired” suggests a deeper conflict at work in an otherwise straightforward poem manifesting the trauma of post-abortion syndrome.  Moreover, what is absent from the poem is especially telling.  Nowhere can an allusion be found to the abortion as having been essential to the survival of the nation, an idea found in other texts which suggest abortion as the “remedial measure” [9] meant to guard against excessive population growth.  Instead, the narrator speaks of how the unborn child’s “brothers and sisters will all be informed / that you are the oldest son” (132), a damning claim that the one-child policy does not apply in her case.

The Short Story “Explosions” (1985) by Mo Yan

          While many short stories could be discussed in this study,[10] “Explosions” by Mo Yan is perhaps the clearest literary work on abortion to be considered which responds to official PRC positions.  The narrative concerns a man in the Chinese armed forces whose wife is illicitly pregnant with a second child.  Against the wishes of his father and his wife, the husband forces her to abort the child.  This simple reduction of a fifty-page short story ignores several elements that illustrate the conflict between official pronouncements on the forced abortion policy and implementation of that policy and its effects on ordinary Chinese.

          The story is notable for containing three “official” references to abortion as a population control measure.  While the first and second references are announced early in the story and then halfway through the narrative,[11] the third reference invites more commentary.  In the abortion clinic’s waiting room, the narrator reaches in a drawer for a book that a nurse had consulted and recounts:

In my tense gropings, my hand bumps into Obstetrics; Obstetrics bumps into my hand.  I can’t wait to open it.  It smells of iodine and hand cream.  Nurse An has made red and blue marks to highlight the black lines of text and has scribbled notes in the white margins.  The obstetrics expert writes: Knowledgeable people world-wide have expressed grave concern over the rapid growth of population.  The accelerated pace of population growth has already seriously destabilized the planet.  Humanity is heading for a devastating outcome: a population explosion ….  Nurse An notes: How I envy you, Liu Xiaoqing!  The obstetrics expert writes: Induced abortion is an effective measure in the thorough implementation of birth control policy.  We must rid the masses of women of their horror of it.  At the same time we must recognize that abortion is not minor surgery.  Neither the one performing it nor the one undergoing it should take abortion lightly.  Nurse An notes: Zorro is a great guy.  Anna is a fine girl.  I’ve got to …  (51-2; ellipses in original)

          This passage contains several elements worthy of attention vis-à-vis literary responses to the PRC policies regarding forced abortion.  The first item which is immediately noticeable is the use of the palindrome in the first sentence, a literary figure of speech that had not been used heretofore in the story and which is thus obvious on first reading.  The suddenness alerts the reader that the passage is significant.  The Western reader may not realize the importance of the use of the title of the obstetrics book; in the United States publication by the United States Government Printing Office is restricted to official federal documents, whereas all publication in the PRC is controlled by the state.[12]  Instead of identifying the source for the “information” which follows as the government of the PRC, the author chose to represent the government by the title of a volume officially sanctioned by the government.  Thus, the use of synecdoche becomes especially important as a safe, politically-correct instrument of reaction to the PRC policies.

          Moreover, the “obstetrics expert” is significantly anonymous, in contrast to the interpolation, twice, of a clearly identified human being, Nurse An, whose commentary after each of the expert opinions has nothing to do whatsoever with the official statements.  Whether Mo intended Nurse An’s comments as a comical interlude cannot be ascertained, but the effect on the reader is certainly comic relief interjected into an otherwise serious situation.  The anonymous obstetrics author him- or herself even proclaims in a stand-alone sentence that “Neither the one performing it [abortion] nor the one undergoing it should take abortion lightly.”  One wonders whether the admonition to maintain sobriety in the performance of abortion extends to the literary performance as well, which, in this case, has obviously been abrogated by not one, but two instances of humor.

          Finally, the absence of quotation marks throughout the story (which does not impede determining who is speaking) does have an ancillary effect in this passage.  The ostensibly objective claim by the obstetrics expert about a “population explosion” (bolstered by an ambiguous source called “knowledgeable people world-wide”) is as unsubstantiated as the claim that “Induced abortion is an effective measure in the thorough implementation of birth control policy.”  The lack of an identifiable source of these bold claims reduces them to mere slogans, a linguistic artifact with which many Communist Chinese are familiar.  Nurse An’s claims, in contrast, are much more personal and subjective.  The reader would tend to believe the nurse’s claims for several reasons: they are “revolutionary,” having been written in the margins of a politically-correct medical textbook; they are personalized, containing the high human emotions of envy and love; lastly, they are inviting in the sense that a reader, if female, could identify either with Liu Xiaoqing, a popular film star, or, if male, with Zorro, a swashbuckling hero.  Who could identify with the impersonal claims of an official textbook when one is offered identifiable humans?

          Perhaps the reticence to target official PRC material and sources indicates that the liberty of thought which Chinese authors strive for is still emergent.  Even Mo, who asserted so forcefully in a 2001 anthology of his short stories that contemporary Chinese writers aim “to break the taboos” of the Mao era, finds it difficult to challenge state orthodoxy directly.  In “Abandoned Child,” a short story written in the mid-1980s which concerns infanticide more than abortion, the narrator, who saves a newborn girl abandoned in a field, relates a near apology for government ineptitude:

The period after Liberation, owing to improvements in living standards and hygiene, saw a significant drop in the occurrences of abandoned children.  But the numbers began to rise again in the 1980s when the situation grew very complicated.  First, there were no boys at all.  On the surface, it appeared that some parents were forced into acts of inhumanity by rigid family planning restrictions.  But upon closer examination, I realized that the traditional preference for boys over girls was the real culprit.  I knew I couldn’t be overly critical of parents in this new era, and I also knew that if I were a peasant, I might well be one of those fathers who abandoned his child.  (Shifu, 172)

Three matters in this passage are worthy of attention.  First, “infanticide,” the deliberate abandonment of a newborn child with the intent to have the child die, is euphemistically called an “act of inhumanity.”  Second, the revolutionary fervor of the Mao era seems to have held everything in place, for it was “after Liberation” that “living standards and hygiene” improved; however, it is significant that “the situation grew very complicated” a decade safely removed from the Mao era (“in the 1980s”).  Finally, responsibility for the intended infanticide rests neither with the government nor provincial family planning cadres notorious for overzealousness in forcing abortion on peasants; the “real culprits” are not even the parents, but the “traditional preference for boys over girls.”[13]

Future Research and Questions

          What is striking is that, unlike American literature, no full-length novel or film devoted to the issue of abortion is available for study—“available” in that either it has not been written, has been written but is censored and will need to wait for a more open political environment, or will not be written because mainland Chinese do not yet see abortion as a literary topic worth their consideration.[14]  Similarly, no full-length drama has been discovered that can merit study as an example of abortion discussed in that genre.  The dearth of abortion narratives may change, however, when Chinese women find their “voice” to express their feelings and thoughts about their abortions.  Western readers are familiar with the empowerment that women experienced during the twentieth century feminist movement when women could speak freely about their marriages, their employment, and—most importantly—their sexual dissatisfaction and past abortions.  Although it was skewered to philosophies which disrespected life, voicing such concerns led to important developments for American women.  Thus, Mosher’s A Mother’s Ordeal could qualify as a narrative on the forced abortion policy within the feminist tradition.  Similarly, the Chinese women who either aborted or performed abortions who responded to Nie’s sociological surveys may become freer to express their feelings and thoughts on abortion in longer literary works—such thoughts and feelings still trapped behind the phrase “so bitter that no words can describe it” (135).[15]

          While many questions remain and must be relegated to future research, two can be offered here in closing.  First, where is the samizdat, the underground literature, from Chinese women on the first life issue of abortion?  Exploring such literature may help all of us to appreciate these women’s experiences and to share in their suffering.  Second, how will the West respond to narratives depicting the Chinese forced-abortion situation?  One hopes that, besides responding to the extremely poignant situations of women living in the harshest of totalitarian regimes, Western critics and readers will act to alleviate their suffering.

Works Cited

Aird, John S. Slaughter of the Innocents: Coercive Birth Control in China.

          Washington, DC: AEI P, 1990.

—. “Population Studies and Population Policy in China.” Population and

          Development Review 8.2 (June 1982): 267-97.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “The Mother.” Literature for Composition:         Essays,

          Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 5th ed. Eds. Sylvan Barnet, Morton

          Berman, William Burto, William E. Cain, and Marcia Stubbs. New

          York: Longman, 2000. 430.

Canaves, Sky. “China’s 13 Million Annual Abortions Flagged as a Cause of

          Concern.” China Real Time Report; The Wall Street Journal. 30 July

          2009. <


China Since Tiananmen: Political, Economic, and Social Conflicts. Ed.

          Lawrence R. Sullivan. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1995.

Clifton, Lucille. “the lost baby poem.” Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir,

          1969‑1980. Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1987. 60‑1.

Crespi, John A. Voices in Revolution: Poetry and the Auditory Imagination

          in Modern China. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 2009.

Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America. “Abortion law amendment to be abolished.” 6 June 2006. 5 Feb. 2010 <>.

Ertelt, Steven. “Report: China’s One-Child, Pro-Abortion Policy Creating

          Nation of Bachelors.” 11 Jan. 2010. 5 Feb. 2010


Feeley, Jennifer L. “Re: Abortion and related topics in Chinese literature.”

          Email to the author. 7 Jan. 2010.

Hong, Ling. “Fever.” Red Is Not the Only Color: Contemporary Chinese

          Fiction on Love and Sex Between Women, Collected Stories. Asian

          Voices. Ed. Patricia Sieber. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield,

          2001. 149-51.

Ku, Hok Bun. Moral Politics in a South Chinese Village: Responsibility,

          Reciprocity, and Resistance. Asian Voices. Lanham, MD: Rowman &

          Littlefield, 2003.

Mo, Yan. Explosions and Other Stories. Ed. and trans. Janice Wickeri.

          Hong Kong: Chinese U of Hong Kong, 1991.

—. Red Sorghum: A Novel of China [A Family Saga]. Trans. Howard

          Goldblatt. New York: Viking, 1993. Trans. of Hung kao liang chia

          tsu. Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Publishing House, 1987.

—. Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh. Trans. Howard Goldblatt. New

          York: Arcade, 2001.

Mosher, Steven W. A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s

          One-Child Policy. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1993.

Nie, Jing-Bao. Behind the Silence: Chinese Voices on Abortion. Asian

          Voices. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

Sieber, Patricia, ed. Asian Voices.” Red Is Not the Only Color:

          Contemporary Chinese Fiction on Love and Sex Between Women,

          Collected Stories. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Tang, Min. “I Am Not a Cat.” Running Wild: New Chinese Writers. Eds.

          David Der-Wei Wang and Jeanne Tai. Trans. Amy Dooling. New

          York: Columbia U P, 1994. 158-67.

Tao, Naikan. “Introduction: The Changing Self.” Eight Contemporary

          Chinese Poets. Eds. Naikan Tao and Tony Prince. U of Sydney East

          Asian Stud. 17. Sydney: Wild Peony, 2006.

Voicing Concerns: Contemporary Chinese Critical Inquiry. Asian Voices.

          Ed. Gloria Davies. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Xiu Xiu [The Sent Down Girl]. Dir. Joan Chen. Perf. Lu Lu, and Lopsang.

          1998. Videodisc. Paramount, 2004.

Zhang, Zhen. “Abortion.” Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese

          Poetry. Ed. Tony Barnstone. Hanover, NH: U P of New England,

          1993. 131-2.

[1]           See especially chapters three, four, and seven wherein Nie evaluates the positions of the major religions toward abortion and respect for pre-natal life in imperial and Republican eras.

[2]           Writing in 1982, Aird states:

The main reason so few national population data appear in Chinese sources, however, is central censorship.  No national population figures can be made public without prior authorization by the State Council.  Even officials of the SSB [State Statistical Bureau] cannot use such figures in their articles and speeches until they have been cleared.  This policy has been in effect since the earliest years of the PRC.  It was applied more stringently between the collapse of the Leap Forward in 1959 and the fall of the “gang of four” in 1976, but it has never been relaxed entirely.  To this day, the full results of the 1953 census have not been made public.  The very brief census communiqué issued upon the completion of the work in November 1954 gave only the national total, breakdown by sex, ethnic group, rural and urban residence, and province, and a few details about age composition and the extent of errors in enumeration.  (“Population” 271)

            Government censorship of scholarly activity is well-known, but the following example by Aird vis-à-vis the issues of concern in this paper illustrates its disastrous effects:

After the start of the Leap Forward in spring 1958, Mao reaffirmed his earlier views that a large population was an asset for China’s national development, adding that poverty was beneficial for China because it made people more revolutionary and inclined toward change.

            For the next four years birth control work languished.  Other spokesmen echoed Mao’s sentiments, and all but one of the Chinese scholars who had stressed the importance of controlling human fertility were silenced.  The economist Ma Yinchu, who had argued the urgent need for control of population growth on grounds very similar to those now used to justify the same policy, courageously refused to abandon his convictions, despite some 200 attacks on him in 1958 alone, and continued to defend his position until 1960, when he was obliged to surrender his post as president of Beijing University and was refused further access to the public print.  (“Population” 283)

[3]           See also his endnote 78: “A recent study has shown that the sudden adoption of the one-child family throughout China could seriously distort China’s age-sex structure by the year 2000 and even more so by 2050 and cause wide swings in dependency ratios” (“Population” 296).

[4]           See, for example, the following anthologies and monograph: Gloria Davies, ed., Voicing Concerns: Contemporary Chinese Critical Inquiry (2001), Hok Bun Ku’s Moral Politics in a South Chinese Village: Responsibility, Reciprocity, and Resistance (2003), and Lawrence R. Sullivan, ed., China Since Tiananmen: Political, Economic, and Social Conflicts (1995).

[5]           The West has experienced one voice of opposition relatively recently; Stephen W. Mosher’s seminal 1993 work A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy brought to the attention of the West the emotional horrors of the forced-abortion policy in a riveting narrative mixed with sociological documentation.  Mosher’s work qualifies as a “first voice” of opposition against the policy.

[6]           The author thanks Andrea Lingenfelter for various suggestions for this study, including ‘Unborn Child” by Zhai Yongming and Yin Lichuan’s poetry.

[7]           The author thanks Jennifer L. Feeley, assistant professor of Chinese Literature at the University of Iowa, for suggesting this work.

[8]           See, for example, Tao, who may simply have used inappropriate diction when describing the poem as an example of “the conflict between the mother and the unborn child [and] the guilt of infanticide” (22)—“infanticide” used instead of “abortion.”

[9]           Abortion is euphemistically called a “remedial measure” by family planning operatives (Aird, “Population” 285; Nie 44).

[10]          The short story “Fever” by Hong Ling could be included were it not for two factors: first, the author is Taiwanese and thus necessarily beyond the scope of this study, which focuses on authors in the PRC; second, the genre of the short story is essentially fantastic, which, although not incompatible as a vehicle of resistance to PRC policies on compulsory birth control and abortion, could obscure the level of resistance.  Criticism of the story could enhance the obscurity, reaching the bathetic, which, however wonderful as an exercise in verbal gymnastics, offers no elucidation of the story’s narrative beyond the penultimate sentence of the following passage:

Hong’s fiction often revels in a tongue-in-cheek exultation over the sheer inventiveness of it all.  Yet while Hong’s stories may celebrate the disappearance of the real, they also register a profound terror over the implosion of all categories of perception.  In their insistent examination of impending states of annihilation. Hong’s literary explorations, including “Fever,” bespeak a profound sense of cultural displacement and alienation, which is, as some would have it, symptomatic of the postmodern predicament of having had to renounce all grand narratives without being able to resign oneself to the piecemeal state of being that such renunciation seems to entail.  Despite its apocalyptic sensibility, Hong’s story “Fever” also brings to life a strange new creature, a Chinese feminist vampire.  The story vividly illustrates the spirited promiscuity of cultural categories in a globalized world.  (Sieber 189)

[11]          The first reference occurs when, questioned by his father regarding why his wife must abort, the narrator refers to official orthodoxy: “Think I wouldn’t like to have a son?  But I already have a daughter; I’ve already been issued a one-child certificate.  As a government cadre, I have to take the lead in responding to the nation’s call.  How can I avoid it?” (3).  The rhetorical question is unanswered.  The second reference is even smaller in terms of words.  Trying to reason with his wife, the narrator says, “Just think, there are a billion people in China.  If everyone has two children, what’s going to happen to China?”  This rhetorical question, too, is unanswered.

[12]          One work of Mo Yan’s not used in this study suffered state censorship, but the work was published as originally intended, thanks in part that a Western (Taiwanese) publisher existed to print it.  The note by Howard Goldblatt, the translator of Red Sorghum, states,

At the request of the author, this translation is based upon the Taipei Hongfan Book Co. 1988 Chinese edition, which restores cuts made in the Mainland Chinese edition, published in 1987 by the People’s Liberation Army Publishing House in Beijing.  Some deletions have been made, with the author’s approval, and minor inconsistencies, particularly in dates and ages, have been corrected.  (copyright page)

[13]          Mo ends this section of the story, an enumeration of “four general categories” of “abandoned children” (170) with a statement that seems to apologize for any challenge to the political orthodoxy of the preceding paragraphs: “No matter how much this concept tarnishes the image of the People’s Republic, it is an objective reality, one that will be difficult to eradicate in the short term.  Existing in a filthy village with foul air all around, even a diamond-studded sword will rust” (172).

[14]          The film Xiu Xiu [The Sent Down Girl] (1998) could be included in this paper as an example of directorial response to the abortion policy of the PRC but has been excluded for several reasons.  First, the abortion episode purely illustrates a reaction to an undesired pregnancy resulting from multiple sex partners, not a pregnancy resulting either from failed contraception or a target of the PRC’s one-child policy.  Second, the abortion episode, although depicted as an obviously negative choice on the part of the mother, speaks more about the changed character of the young woman send from the city to the steppes during the Cultural Revolution than it says anything as a statement against PRC policies.  Finally, the abortion episode is altogether much too brief and does not amplify the failed relationship between the aborted mother and the man who platonically loves her.  The author thanks colleagues on the University Faculty for Life listserv for recommending this and other film titles.

            According to Feeley, Frog, is about a woman whose job is to enforce the one-child policy.  It was recently released in Chinese and is not yet translated into English.”

[15]          The short story “I Am Not a Cat” by Tang Min,  originally published in 1990, may be one of many such narratives, reading not so much as a fictional account as much as a diary entry.  The narrator uses first-person pronouns as she relates the miscarriage that her cat suffers and her own abortion at a provincial clinic.  The story openly speaks of the “One Child Per Family policy” (159).  The narrative concerning the abortion itself is similar to other accounts with which Western readers may be more familiar.  This short story, then, may be one of many forthcoming explorations of abortion experiences that Chinese women may come to write.


Abortion in Modern Arabic Literature

Abstract: The author examines themes in Arabic literature as identified in contemporary scholarship.  After a survey of late twentieth-century works which address the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, the author conducts a close reading of the abortion passages in Leila Aboulela’s short story “Make Your Own Way Home” (2001) and then evaluates the literary merits of the story.  Finally, the author considers Qur’anic passages and aspects of Arabic history that may account for the differences in how abortion is treated in modern Arabic literature and its Western counterpart.

The West’s exposure to Arabic literature, beyond the secondary school practice of referencing fantasy tales like those found in The Arabian Nights (The Thousand and One Nights) is a relatively new phenomenon.  Cultural criticism has encouraged colleges and universities to diversify its literature programs by incorporating global (“multicultural”) authors, and so the academy has embraced the Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani as much as Keats and the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz as much as Milton.  However, modern Arabic literature on the three right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia is an area still unknown to most Westerners.  Arabic works have been considered from the variety of literary theories still practiced in academia, to the chagrin of some.[1]  Many more Arabic works, especially those concerned with the life issues, need an analysis from a right-to-life perspective, and I intend to begin the discussion by focusing on fiction by contemporary Arabic authors whose works have been translated into English.

Review of the Scholarship

While social science scholars have written extensively about abortion in Islamic countries (and often do so from an anti-life perspective[2]), scholarship on modern Arabic literature is relatively silent when mentioning the first right-to-life issue.  Moreover, locating literary works for study is challenging for at least three reasons.  First, as many scholars have stated, Westerners are only now beginning to immerse themselves in literature from the Middle East.  According to Denys Johnson-Davies, “the birth of the Arabic novel is dated to 1929, with the second (and more successful) printing of Zaynab by Muhammad Husayn Haykal” (xiv).  Mohammad Shaheen brings the chronology of Western interest closer, writing in 2002 that “different genres (in the Arab world) such as the short story, the novella, the novel and free verse emerged almost at the same time.  We can assume that the short story proper is not more than four decades old” (153).

A second reason to account for the difficulty in finding modern Arabic literary works on abortion is that many fictional works are still available only in Arabic.  For example, a short story apparently concerned with abortion in the anthology On the Long Road by Hind Azzuz (originally published in 1969 yet republished in 1978) is unavailable for purposes of this study because it still has not been translated into English.[3]

Third, it may be that the concerns we have in our Western literature are not as compelling as those for writers from Egypt, the Levant, or other regions of the Arabic world. Stefan G. Meyer concluded in 2001 that

The Arabic novel […] has not exhibited many of the social themes central to Western modernism [….]  Arabic novels have tended to focus more on social conditions experienced within a particular class—whether bourgeois, peasant, or urban—and the relationships among members of the various classes, than on the movement of individuals from one class to another.  Within this framework, Arabic experimentalism has focused on exploring ways of reconciling its deeply embedded cultural heritage (turath) with modernity, as well as on a quest for a renewed cultural and historical self-image. (12; emphasis in original)

Even as recently as 2006 Johnson-Davies wrote that

Sex and love, for example, are handled differently in Arabic fiction than in Western fiction, for it should be remembered that Arab society is by and large conservative and conventional, with most marriages arranged, and sex outside of marriage regarded as sinful.  When a writer oversteps the bounds as set by society, the work is often banned. (xix)[4]

When scholars do discuss abortion as a topic in modern Arabic literature, the results are minimal.  Writing in 1993, M. M. Badawi identified several themes in the literature, collecting them in “pairs of opposites or polarities: for instance, town and country, tradition and modernity, East and West, or Arab and European, freedom and authority, society and the alienated individual” (4).  His survey lists only one fictional work which considers abortion, and its brief mention in Suhayl Idris’ The Latin Quarter (1953) suggests that abortion is not a significant part of the plot (16).  By 2001 Saad Elkhadem makes no mention of abortion in any of the novels discussed in “The Representation of Women in Early Egyptian Fiction,” a chapter of his study of Egyptian novels.  Although Egypt is considered the more literary avant-garde of the Arab nations with a significant literary history in the twentieth century, Elkhadem ends the essay with a reason that may account for the void of such controversial topics:

Egyptian novelist [sic] have, like their European counterparts, often included women in their stories, and some have even put women at the center of their tales.  However, the social and religious climate of this Islamic country has imposed certain moral and stylistic restrictions on the authors of this early period [from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s].  Also, the fact that all the writers who have contributed to the rise and development of the Egyptian novel were men has given these works a biased, if not a sexist, attitude.  Many of them have chosen non-Egyptian women for the love stories, or have depicted their liberated heroines as misguided women and neurotic creatures, thus reassuring their readers that in spite of the unconventional tales they have just witnessed, they still live in a proper and righteous society. (44)[5]

Analysis of a Representative Work of Fiction on Abortion

          Some fictional works seem to address the right-to-life issue of abortion—“seem” is necessary here, for it is often uncertain if the action justifies the claim that a story concerns abortion.  Ghalib Halasa’s short story “Fear” documents a female character’s plea that God will “not let it happen” (85) and her hope that God would “make it all right” (87).  Whether the woman uses “it” to refer to her love for a man or to her possible pregnancy is unclear.  Similarly, other works appear to address infanticide and the value of imperfect human life, if not euthanasia explicitly.  In her 2001 Coloured Lights anthology Leila Aboulela writes lovingly about handicapped children in “Visitors,” the treatment that a visually-impaired man receives at the hands of his peers in ”The Ostrich,” and the emotion felt for the handicapped in “The Boy from the Kebab Shop.”  However, these works are decidedly tangential vis-à-vis the life issues.

          Other references to the life issues can be found in a popular current anthology.  The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction, edited by Denys Johnson-Davies, contains 486 pages of representative writing from the Arab world.  Some references to the life issues are unimportant, such as Nawal El Saadawi’s specific mention of “abortion” in the excerpt from Woman at Point Zero (371) or the casual mention of “right to live” in the excerpt from Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door (463).  Infanticide is not the topic in Elias Khoury’s excerpt from The Journey of Little Gandhi, where a reference to “the babies [who] died before being born” are obvious stillbirths (257).  [6]  Daisy Al-Amir’s entry, “The Doctor’s Prescription,” documents a woman’s effort to commit suicide; her justification for suicide does not overpower the ironic purpose of the story.  While Mohammed Barrada’s “Life by Installments” celebrates life in general, death is a welcome relief to a tired old woman in Brahim Dargouthi’s “Apples of Paradise.”  Some stories depict mothers in danger of being forced into abortion or murdered probably because of their pregnancies.  In Sabri Moussa’s “Benevolence,” a mother three months pregnant is murdered, and a pregnant daughter and her mother discuss the complicated situation surrounding her pregnancy in Alifa Rifaat’s “An Incident in the Ghobashi Household”; the solution is to send her to Cairo instead of stay in her home town.  Other stories celebrate the unborn.  An old man’s second wife is pregnant in Bensalem Himmich’s excerpt from The Polymath, and they are happy about it.  Similarly, Haggag Hassan Oddoul’s “Nights of Musk,” a man’s reminiscence of his courtship, contains respectful imagery of the unborn.

          These citations, however, remain relatively minor items in the canon of Arabic literature concerned with the life issues.  In contrast, another short story by Leila Aboulela, “Make Your Own Way Home,” (2001) is entirely devoted to the study of abortion in the characters’ lives.  The narrator relates the experiences and thoughts of Nadia, who is Muslim, and Tracy, her British friend who has aborted.  The action of the story progresses from a Friday afternoon after Tracy has aborted to the next day when she will leave the nursing home in which the abortion has occurred.  While there are many minor characters, the attention is clearly on Tracy and her abortion.  Interspersed in the chronological order of the story are flashbacks to episodes and statements which indicate key decisions and influences behind Tracy’s choice to abort the unborn child.

In some respects, Aboulela’s work parallels the premiere abortion story known to Western readers, Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”  There are two minor similarities and one significant comparison in both stories.  The first surface similarity is that both stories deal wholly with abortion.  Second, both stories are short; Aboulela’s fifteen pages nearly double the quantity of Hemingway’s masterpiece (eight).

The major comparison between both stories is the ambiguity of key terms.  Hemingway uses two such key terms in “Hills”: “fine” and “it.”  Jig’s ambiguous use of “fine” refers either to her true state of being all right or her flip response to the American man for the purpose of stopping his talking.  Likewise, the even more ambiguous use of “it” can refer either to the situation between the American man and Jig, to the abortion which he would like her to choose, or to the baby him- or herself.  Such linguistic ambiguity is evident in two sections in Aboulela’s story, both of which help the reader determine the impact that the abortion has had on the characters.

When Nadia accompanies her friend as they leave the abortion center, Tracy’s language is as brief and as ambiguous as Jig’s.  “No, I’m all right” is Tracy’s response to Nadia’s helpful “Let me carry your bag” (93).  The burden that Tracy is experiencing becomes increasingly evident after only one substantial paragraph.  Aware that her friend is waiting for her, Tracy says, “Go ahead, don’t wait for me”—as though everything is “fine” with her.  This response, of course, begs the question whether one who leans against a wall in such a pensive posture, smoking a cigarette whose purpose is either to enhance the pensiveness or to lessen anxiety, is feeling “all right” or not.

There are some stylistic features about Aboulela’s story which differentiate it from Hemingway’s.  Unlike other stories in Aboulela’s anthology, no direct dialogue is quoted.  If it were not for new line indentation, it would be difficult to determine when one character’s statement ends and another’s begins.  Moreover, Aboulela freely combines omniscient and limited narrative perspectives.  The first page of the story makes it seem as though the narrator’s attention is on Nadia (83), yet in a pivotal section when Tracy reflects on the abortion of the past day, the narrator interjects Tracy’s thoughts as efficiently as was done for Nadia, switching between perspectives and even crossing verb tenses: “It seems to Tracy that the station is too far away.  Was it that far when she came yesterday?” (93).

There is a significant difference, though, between Hemingway’s classic tale of abortion and Aboulela’s; while Hemingway’s prose is minimalist, leaving, if not hiding, a moral interpretation, Aboulela’s short story does not mask the moral considerations.  One paragraph especially declares the moral urgency of the situation, the sentences of which, since they will be explicated in detail below, are preceded by bracketed numbers.  The omniscient narrator records Nadia’s reaction to Tracy’s abortion in language that is either condemnatory or an indication of the first effect of the post-abortion environment, the loss of friendship between the women:

[1]  Pity for Tracy is superseded by illumination.  [2]  Nadia can see the silver drop earring nestle in Tracy’s earlobe, entwined by a single stray hair. [3]  She can see Tracy’s eyebrow ruffled, the little hairs disturbed, askew.  [4]  Nadia can see Tracy’s womb.  [5]  Bewildered, its mouth agape in a round full O.  [6]  It murmurs and drones reproach.  [7]  Pulses its defeat, retreats.  [8]  Grudgingly contracts, adjusts.  [9]  Sheds, expels, but there is little left to shed. (95)

This paragraph of nine lines (“line” being a better term than sentences since four are not complete sentences and read more as poetry than as prose) is a concentrated mass of semantic and linguistic cohesion that conveys the deepest respect for the unborn child, mirrored in the image of the earring shaped as an embryo, as much as it reenacts the abortion itself and comments on the aftereffects.  While the first sentence is a prelude to the abortion itself, the shock of the language is hidden in a passive voice verb (“is superseded”).  Nadia would feel sympathy for Tracy, the aborted mother, were it not for a moment of epiphany that Nadia now reaches, twelve pages into the story, only two pages before its end.  If Nadia is “illumined,” then she realizes what has occurred only at this late stage in the narrative, and the balance of the paragraph shows how shocking the event must now seem for Nadia.  The second sentence encapsulates the mother and unborn child in the safe image of the earring, its shape a perfect metaphor for the unborn child carried safely in his or her protected world.

The third sentence of the above passage is a metaphor for the abortion procedure itself.  Abortion is always a disturbance in the setting of any narrative, and the language reflects the disorder.  The perfect syntactical pattern N-V-N (although the noun subject is replaced by a pronoun) becomes confused by the time the direct object is reached.  Is it accurate to say “eyebrow ruffled” or “ruffled eyebrow,” the past particle usually preceding the noun which it describes?  Since this is a case of abortion, though, how appropriate it is to have used this change in syntactical pattern.  The intensity of this one line of the abortion procedure is enhanced further because, of the remaining two past participles, only one has its noun specified, the last participle bereft of its necessary noun (another linguistic microcosm of the abortion procedure itself).  The rhetorical effect of this sequence of participles is powerful for two reasons.  First, the connotative value of all three participles is negative.  Second, “ruffled,” “disturbed,” and “askew” gain in intensity, showing a chronological progression from merely being lightly touched (ruffled) to dislodged (disturbed) to being out of kilter (askew).

By the time the narrative reaches this third participle, of course, the reader can presume that the abortion has occurred, and the remainder of the paragraph documents the post-abortion environment.  Interestingly, Nadia sees, not the aborted remains, but Tracy’s “womb”—a safe vision, displacing the reality of what has occurred.  After this fourth sentence in the paragraph, the language further deteriorates.  While the fifth sentence lacks a verb, the rhetorical intensity gains from the personification of a womb now described as shocked at what has happened.  The womb becomes slightly depersonalized again in the sixth sentence only because it is referred to as an “it,” but the actions of this entity masked in the third-person pronoun are anything but nonhuman.

“It murmurs and drones reproach” is not only a clever a way to personalize the nonhuman; it is also the beginning of a poetical rendition of the aftereffects of abortion.  Although it may not have been the author’s intention to have produced lines so poetic, an argument can be made that the poetry of the line helps to organize the facts of the aftereffects of the abortion into a literary masterpiece.  If “It murmurs” is considered an amphibrach for purposes of scansion of the lines, then the remaining words in this sixth sentence begin the largely iambic rendering that carries across two more lines:

–  /  –          –  /          –  /

It murmurs and drones reproach.

          The seventh and eighth lines of this paragraph read like a heartbeat that has suffered assault.  Each of the lines begins with a dactyl, which is a poetic foot designed to contain an abrupt and emotionally heavy action.  After these dactyls, though, the presence of two consecutive iambic feet in both lines makes it seem as though the body is attempting to restore its tranquility after the shock it has experienced.  It is further significant to note that the subject for these lines is absent, as though the repetition of the pronoun “it” would defeat the effort to personify the womb:

/ – –          – /          – /

Pulses its defeat, retreats.

/ – –          – /          – /

Grudgingly contracts, adjusts.

The last line of this paragraph can be scanned as a dominantly iambic line quite easily.  The first word of this ninth line constitutes a monosyllabic foot to emphasize the term (“Sheds”).  The second term (“expels”) continues the iambic pattern of the sixth through eighth lines, but there is a notable difference.  A caesura, a significant pause, occurs immediately afterwards, signifying that the action of the abortion is finished.

          /          – /          – /          – /          – /          – /

Sheds, expels, but there is little left to shed.

That the last clause following the coordinating conjunction is perfectly iambic should convey the idea that life has returned to normal after the abortion.  In fact, the final clause of this paragraph, lilting in its alliteration of “l” sounds, not only mourns, but also hides the fact that an abortion has occurred; the “little left to shed” refers to the uterine contents, the most important part having been the unborn child him- or herself.[7]

          A subsequent paragraph illustrates the abortion’s effect on the women’s friendship, and the author makes no attempt to mask its didacticism:

When friendships run their course there are no rituals of mourning.  There are no tears.  There is not even a premonition of finality.  So in the train as Tracy and Nadia sit in front of a woman in a sari reading the last pages of a library book, a man with a mermaid tattooed on his arm, they promise each other meetings and telephone calls.  They will meet in college after the Easter break.  Tracy wants to get a job with the Body Shop during the holidays, she will tell Nadia what it is like.  Nadia will work in her father’s travel agency; she will get Tracy brochures of Australia.  They are not insincere in their promises but they will not keep them. (97)

          Finally, these paragraphs are especially important because the cumulative effect of the negative connotations, the characters weakened by the abortion experience, and the loss of friendship between the women is a judgment against abortion.  Hemingway’s story is bereft of moral bearings, and some critics have been quite creative in trying to determine its moral background.[8]  One could argue that Aboulela’s religion (Islam) colors her perception of the issue as much as evangelical Protestant writers would have their fiction colored by tenets of their religion.  Conjecturing about an author’s religion, however, especially when he or she writes about abortion, is tantamount to a literary red herring, distracting the reader from the text at hand. In my estimation, even if she were not a practicing Muslim, Aboulela’s short story would make those Western feminists who choose to be anti-life extremely uncomfortable.


          This beginning study of modern Arabic literature on the life issues raises other speculations that cannot be accommodated in significant detail here, and so they must be relegated to those who not only have greater access to primary materials, but also more leisure in pursuing the topic.

Perhaps literary scholarship on modern Arabic literature is silent because, as some scholars have indicated, the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, while controversial for some in the West, are not so in the Levant, the Middle East, or other regions of the Arab (Christian and Islamic) world.  Certainly, this is not to say that the entire Arab world affirms the first civil right to life.  There are efforts to permit destruction of unborn and aged life in Islamic countries as much as there is a concerted effort by population control groups to target ostensibly Catholic countries for the public relations coup that would occur when one of them abandons its protection of the first civil right to life.  However, there is a remarkable consistency in teaching on abortion within Islam which is dominantly protective of life.  Admittedly, Islamic interpretation of the Qur’an on the issue of abortion is comparable to Judaism’s understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures vis-à-vis ensoulment and formation.  It would take mammoth efforts to persuade Islam to adopt Christianity’s position that ensoulment occurs at the moment of fertilization.[9]  However, Arabic authors familiar with the Qur’an’s clear respect for the unborn child would find abortion legal throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever as it is in the United States as one of the most reprehensible features of Western democracies.

Perhaps Qur’anic passages which speak so lovingly of the poor, the handicapped, and the elderly have made such an indelible impression in the Arab world that it would seem almost sacrilegious to write anything opposing such core values by suggesting that infanticide and euthanasia could be solutions to humanity’s problems.  When the Qur’an chastises a man in sura 16 for contemplating burying the newborn girl “in the dust” (169) and, in sura 81: 8-9, “when the baby girl buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed” (unpaginated 411), how can one advocate infanticide?  When the Qur’an is conscious of issues affecting the elderly, speaking in sura 16 about those who “will be reduced, in old age, to a most abject state” (170) or admonishing in sura 17, “be kind to your parents” (176), how can one advocate the killing of the elderly?

          Perhaps Arabic literature is focused on the juxtaposition and resulting conflict between Western and Islamic cultures for one primary reason: Islam has not yet reached the crucial historical development that Christianity had in the West.  Medieval Europe twelve hundred years after Christ was a culturally cohesive society, such unity lasting until the effects of the bubonic plague in the thirteenth and the exposure in the Renaissance to new ideas challenged the reigning milieu.  Islam, twelve hundred years after Mohammed, seems locked in its own version of medieval unity and cultural cohesiveness.  Islam needs the exposure to a globalism, the paradigm dominant now in the West, to challenge its beliefs.  Aboulela’s anthology contains stories set in the Sudan, her native land, for the purpose of expressing her devotion to her homeland, to its humble ways of life, and to her religion.  However, could Aboulela’s “Make Your Own Way Home” have been set in Iraq, in Palestine, in the Sudan?  Her story, set in a society which bears not even a residual sign of the Christianity which is Britain’s heritage, is evidence of at least one Arabic and Islamic author’s exposure to and conflict against the sordid side of Western life, the killing of the unborn.  The result is a life-affirming masterpiece of world literature.

          Perhaps American scholars shy away from modern Arabic literature on the life issues like Aboulela’s story because it would be unfashionable to promote works whose messages run counter to the dominant anti-life ideology in the academy.  Perhaps, to counter this entrenched life-denying ideology, we should identify, translate, and share such life-affirming modern Arabic literature with our students.

Works Cited

Aboulela, Leila. “Make Your Own Way Home.” Coloured Lights. Edinburgh: Polygon, 2001. 83-97.

Al-Amir, Daisy. “The Doctor’s Prescription.” The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. Ed. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York, Anchor, 2006. 23-5.

“Arabic, North African Literature: North African Writers Convey Their Ideas in French and Arabic in a Variety of Literary Genres.” 28 May 2007 <>.

Asman, O. “Abortion in Islamic Countries—Legal and Religious Aspects.” Medicine and Law 23.1 (2004): 73-89.

‘Azz¯uz, Hind. F¯i al-darb al-taw¯il [On the long road]. 2nd ed. Tunis: al-D¯ar al-

          Tunis¯iyah lil-Nashr, 1978.

Badawi, M. M. “Perennial Themes in Modern Arabic Literature.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20.1 (1993): 3-19.

Barrada, Mohammed. “Life by Installments.” The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. Ed. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York, Anchor, 2006. 66-72.

Dargouthi, Brahim. “Apples of Paradise.” The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. Ed. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York, Anchor, 2006. 89-97.

Elkhadem, Saad. On Egyptian Fiction: Five Essays. Arabic Literature and Scholarship. Toronto: York, 2001.

Ercevik-Amado, L. “Sexual and Bodily Rights as Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa.” Reproductive Health Matters 23.23 (May 2004): 125-8.

Halasa, Ghalib. “Fear.” Under the Naked Sky: Short Stories from the Arab World. Trans. Denys Johnson-Davies. Cairo: American U in Cairo P, 2000. 74-94.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men Without Women. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927. 69-77.

Himmich, Bensalem. The Polymath. The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. Ed. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York, Anchor, 2006. 157-60.

Johnson-Davies, Denys. The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.

Khoury, Elias. The Journey of Little Gandhi. The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. Ed. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York, Anchor, 2006. 254-7.

Lane, S. D., J. M. Jok, and M. T. El-Mouelhy. “Buying Safety: The Economics of Reproductive Risk and Abortion in Egypt.” Social Science Medicine 47.8 (Oct. 1998): 1089-99.

McKee, Elizabeth. “The Political Agendas and Textual Strategies of Levantine Women Writers.” Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives. Ed. Mai Yamani. New York: New York UP, 1996. 105-39.

Meyer, Stefan G. The Experimental Arabic Novel: Postcolonial Literary Modernism in the Levant. Albany: State U of New York P, 2001.

Moussa, Sabri. “Benevolence.” The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. Ed. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York, Anchor, 2006. 316-8.

Natour, Ahmad, Baha’eddin Bakri, and Vardit Rispler-Chaim. “[The Beginning of Life] An Islamic Perspective.” The Embryo: Scientific Discovery and Medical Ethics. Eds. Shraga Blazer and Etan Z. Zimmer. Basel: Karger, 2005. 53-73.

Oddoul, Haggag Hassan. “Nights of Musk.” The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. Ed. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York, Anchor, 2006. 339-48.

Organ, Dennis. “Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants.” Explicator 37 (summer 1979): 11.

The Qur’an. Trans. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Rifaat, Alifa. “An Incident in the Ghobashi Household.” The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. Ed. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York, Anchor, 2006. 360-4.

El Saadawi, Nawal. Woman at Point Zero. The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. Ed. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York, Anchor, 2006. 371-3.

Shaheen, Mohammad. The Modern Arabic Short Story: Shahrazad Returns. 2nd ed., rev. and expanded. Houndsmills (England): Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Singh, S. “Hospital Admissions Resulting from Unsafe Abortions: Estimates from 13 Developing Countries.” Lancet 368.9550 (25 Nov. 2006): 1887-92.

al-Zayyat, Latifa. The Open Door. The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. Ed. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York, Anchor, 2006. 462-7.

Works Consulted

The Ancient Novel and Beyond. Eds. Stelios Panayotakis, Maaike Zimmerman, and Wytse Keulen. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum 241.

Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Islamic Ethics of Life: Abortion, War, and Euthanasia. Ed. Jonathan E. Brockopp.

Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2003.

al-Musawi, Muhsin Jassim. The Postcolonial Arabic Novel: Debating Ambivalence.

Studies in Arabic Literature 23. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Rispler-Chaim, Vardit. Islamic Medical Ethics in the Twentieth Century. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993.

[1]   Asserting his status as a “traditional humanist,” M. M. Badawi challenges the tendencies of most literary theories to divert attention away from the entertainment and didactic purposes of literature while succinctly referencing the more prominent literary theories in the following passage:

At a more fundamental level, I cannot dismiss as irrelevant the question of value [….]  Nor am I capable of reducing to the status of a mere game of words, however intricate the rules, a work that grapples with the baffling mystery of human existence, exploring the dark recesses of the mind, trying to make sense of the intensity of human passions and suffering, or even endeavouring to lessen the misery of the wretched of the earth by advocating political or social action.  Literature is much more than entertainment: this was once regarded as a truism, but sadly it has to be repeated now, even at the risk of sounding too solemn.  Modern fashionable French-inspired academic literary criticism, particularly in the United States of America—what Frank Kermode recently described as “high-tech, jargoned and reader alienating”—has, in my opinion, with its neo-scholasticism done a considerable disservice to literature by robbing it of its seriousness, even though as a rule it suffers itself from unbearable solemnity. (5-6)

[2]  See, for example, Lane et al. whose abstract for their analysis of abortion in Egypt ends with this decidedly anti-life statement: “Wealthy women can literally buy safety, while poor women’s lack of financial resources put [sic] their lives at great risk.”  There are three things wrong with this statement; first, of course, the lives of the unborn children are ignored; second, abortion is considered as a benefit instead of the symptom of social ill health that it is; finally, while the focus of the abstract is on “poor women,” the more obvious factor is ignored (that abortion is a moral and biological wrong for women in any financial category).

Similarly, S. Singh of the Guttmacher Institute uses research to recommend the typical abortion agenda instead of life-affirming services to mothers at risk.  While the abstract for the article suggests that there is a “need for improved access to post-abortion care,” the typically life-denying recommendations (written in highly connotative anti-life language) are that “increasing access to safe abortion services is the most effective way of preventing the burden of unsafe abortion, and remains a high priority for developing countries.”  More examples of anti-life activities of conferences and research designed to legalize abortion can be found in abstracts of the Asman and Ercevik-Amado articles.

[3]   My thanks go to Dr. Mohammed Khadre not only for his kindness in reading Azzuz’ anthology, but also for his assistance in collecting social science references.

[4]  Moreover, some claim that Arabic authors are not ready to discuss controversial issues such as abortion, and this opinion has force by virtue of its placement on a web source frequently used by students:

Of the three countries of the Maghrib, Tunisia has the largest number of women writing in Arabic.  Although the mere fact of their writing is a reflection of change in society, the women do not always promote complete emancipation.  Slowly but progressively their tone has become more daring.  Raising certain questions is in itself a revolutionary stance: Subjects such as birth control and abortion, discussed by Hind Azzouz (b. 1926) in Fi al-Darb al-Tawil (1969; On the long road), are a novelty. (“Arabic, North African Literature”)

[5]  I noticed a disturbing tendency in some critical commentary on the fiction to reduce modern Arabic fiction as backwards in its view of women simply because it may not advocate the issues that concern certain categories of Western feminists.  Sometimes the criticism is merely cautionary.  For example, while praising Arab novelists who “felt free to experiment with techniques of narrative fragmentation,” Meyer suggests that

this may not necessarily be read as reflective of progressive thinking in other respects.

An example of this gap between formal innovation and ideology can be seen with respect to the expression of male Arab writers regarding gender issues and sexuality [….]  Formal experimentation is the particular obsession of male writers in the Arab world, and this experimentation is used more as a way of avoiding issues of gender and sexuality than as a vehicle for expression on these topics. (12-3)

Another critic was bold enough to identify the backlash that Arab women authors mount against their Western feminist counterparts who try to impose their version of “feminism” on the Middle East.  Elizabeth McKee claims:

Several Arab women writers that I know (including Layla Ba’albakki, Hanan al-Shaykh and Emily Nasrallah), have expressed their irritation at the way in which Western feminist critics have appropriated their works and manipulated their contents to serve a feminist agenda that is largely alien to the authors themselves.  They are disturbed not only by what they perceive as the antagonistic, overtly anti-male stance of some feminist critics, but also by a sense of frustration that their writing is somehow being marginalized, almost ghettoized, into a female literary enclosure in which they are disenfranchised from mainstream literature.  They complain of not wanting to be known as “feminist” writers, but just as writers; not wanting to be renowned for their stance on women, but for their general outlook on life [….]  (133-4)

[6]  The biography preceding Yusuf Idris’ entries briefly mentions a case of possible infanticide in the novel The Sinners, concerned with “the story of a young peasant woman from a group of migrant workers who accidentally smothers her illegitimate child” (181).

[7]   Tracy herself commented on a variation of these words earlier in the story.  When she recounts the details of her abortion to Nadia, Tracy says,

They sucked it out.  The vacuum roared and sucked and gobbled.  It’s a very loud noise, I told the nurse.  Not really, she said, you must be imagining it.  All the painkillers that you took.  She held my hand and chatted to me to distract me.  I lay down and it was like an initiation rite in those weird ceremonies they have in horror films.  The contents of your womb, she called it.  This is what they call it here.  So many words for such a tiny thing. (87; emphasis in original)

[8]   I recall Dennis Organ’s creative effort to determine that Jig is Catholic because, after all, the setting for the story is Spain and Jig is fondling beads which, of necessity in the author’s estimation, are symbols of the rosary.

[9]  Natour, Bakri, and Rispler-Chaim note that the Qur’an has much to say about the creation of the unborn (56-7), and many suras address formation.  “We created you from dust,” sura 22 states, “then a drop of fluid, then a clinging form, then a lump of flesh, both shaped and unshaped: We mean to make Our power clear to you.  Whatever We choose We cause to remain in the womb for an appointed time” (209).  From my own reading of the Qur’an, the concept, and often the same language, is repeated in suras 23 (215), 32 (264), 35 (277-8), 39 (295), and 40 (305).


Abortion in Canadian Literature: Comparisons with American Literature and Canada’s Unique Contributions

Abstract: After reviewing the scholarship on abortion in twentieth-century Canadian fiction written in English, the essay discusses various abortion scenes in major Canadian works by comparing and contrasting them with major works from the United States. The essay then discusses post-abortion syndrome and illustrates passages in Canadian fiction on abortion where numerous characters display features of that syndrome.

          Locating Canadian novels concerned with abortion often approximates an archaeological dig since compilations of literary criticism frequently obscure, minimize, or lack references to abortion.  Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) has much to say about babies being an inappropriate solution for a plot’s denouement, calling this technique the “Baby Ex Machina” (247),[1] but the closest she comes to the abortive tendency in many female characters is to use the phrase “life-denying” in answer to her speculation regarding

why most of the strong and vividly-portrayed female characters in Canadian literature are old women.  If you trusted Canadian fiction you would have to believe that most of the women in the country with any real presence at all are over fifty, and a tough, sterile, suppressed and granite-jawed lot they are.  They live their lives with intensity, but through gritted teeth, and they are often seen as malevolent, sinister or life-denying, either by themselves or by other characters in their books.  (237)

          Joseph Jones and Johanna Jones refer to abortion once in their Canadian Fiction (1981), and that only as a quotation of other criticism by Roberta Rubinstein of Atwood’s Surfacing (1972), where the critic considers that the number nine which occurs as a motif in the novel “suggests the human gestation period that [the narrator] never completed, either literally with her own child, or psychologically with her self” (123).  By the time of the second edition of John Moss’ A Reader’s Guide to the Canadian Novel (1987), abortion could be mentioned openly, as in his discussion of Atwood’s Surfacing, where the narrator “is haunted by” many events in her life, including “the child she aborted” (3).[2]  While Dallas Harrison’s 1995 essay on Sandra Birdsell in Canadian Writers and Their Work has much to say about the author’s “symbolism” which is “clear” and that “this story […] comes close to meeting a feminist agenda,” abortion is not explicitly discussed.  Finally, Karen S. McPherson has confirmed that “there is nothing on abortion” in her 2007 monograph, Archaeologies of an Uncertain Future: Recent Generations of Canadian Women Writing (email to author).

          Perhaps the absence of critical discussion about abortion in Canadian literature can be attributed to greater attention to other themes which have occupied writers since the foundation of the country; one hopes that the absence of critical commentary on abortion is not due to squeamishness or lack of interest.  Perhaps the absence is a symptom of a more serious literary illness: evidence of a national literature which still has not yet “arrived.”  Critics have suggested that such an inherent inferiority complex controlled late in the nineteenth century and continued until the first third of the twentieth.  Research on the production of Canadian literature by Gordon Roper shows that “up to 1880, some 150 authors had published little more than 250 volumes”; however, the number of Canadian authors nearly tripled before 1920, and their published works increased by over 500% to 1,400 volumes (qtd. in Jones and Jones 35).  Despite the increased Canadian literary output in the rest of the twentieth century, Jones and Jones conclude their survey of Canadian literature in a section emphatically titled “Searching for THE Canadian Novel” with borrowed poetic license that defines Canadian literature:

The poet John Robert Colombo had added (in 1967) his […] “Recipe for a Canadian Novel,” specifying one Indian, one Mountie, one Eskimo, one Doukhobor, to which should be added “one smalltown whore,” “two thousand miles of wheat” complete with farmer “impotent and bent” and his fair-haired daughter, “then a Laurentian mountain and a Montréal Jew.”  Other ingredients include “a young boy with a dying pet,” “a mortgage unmet,” “exotic and tangy place names” (Toronto, Saskatoon, Hudson Bay).  There is further mention of maple syrup, maple leaves, “one Confederation poet complete with verse,” all of which is to be garnished with a sauce of “paragraphs of bad prose that never seem to stop.”  When simmered (but not brought to a boil) and baked, this concoction “Serves twenty million all told—when cold.” (140-1)[3]

          Despite the absence of critical commentary explicitly identifying the topic, numerous Canadian novels contain characters who have experienced abortion, and, like its American counterpart, the historical progression shows that abortion was not a topic of late twentieth-century concern.  By the publication of Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh (1925), characters freely discuss abortion; one woman in the novel discloses at least three self-abortions and a possible fourth in the span of four pages (110-3).[4]  By the 1960s, abortion became a frequent topic in Canadian literature, playing a significant role in character development in Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman (1969), Graeme Gibson’s Five Legs (1969), Atwood’s Surfacing (1972), Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners (1974), Audrey Thomas’ Blown Figures (1974), David Helwig’s The Glass Knight (1976), and David Adams Richards’ Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (1990).  Abortion plays a less significant role in several other works, including Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (1971) and Sandra Birdsell’s Ladies of the House (1984).[5]

Canadian Literature on Abortion Contrasted Against the American Experience

          Given the essential national comparisons between Canada and the United States (linguistic being primary, allowing persons in both countries to read controversial works written in English regarding the rights of women and their changing roles in the family),[6] there are many parallels between Canadian fiction on abortion and its American counterpart, especially when one reviews the general philosophical ideas of the abortion movement.  Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh implies that women knew about self-abortion techniques and that they spoke of them only among themselves; the novel explicitly records one woman’s techniques (“lift heavy things […] take the plow and walk behind it for a day” 110).   Atwood’s The Edible Woman contains the idea that a mother is not in possession of her body when she is pregnant (122)—the bifurcation between “her” body and that of the unborn child being a creation of the mid-twentieth century.  Gibson’s Five Legs lists traditional abortifacients, focusing on ergot (4, 20, and 80).  Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women cites traditional causes that were used as justification for abortion in the 1960s: mothers dying from childbirth (88) or “crazy women [who] had injured themselves in obscene ways with coat hangers” (132).  This same novel contains perhaps the longest section in Canadian literature, offering traditional images that were used to argue for legalizing abortion:

I read about a poor farmer’s wife in North Carolina throwing herself under a wagon when she discovered she was going to have her ninth child, about women dying in tenements from complications of pregnancy or childbirth or terrible failed abortions which they performed with hatpins, knitting needles, bubbles of air, I read, or skipped, statistics about the increase in population, laws which had been passed in various countries for and against birth control, women who had gone to jail for advocating it.  (182-3)[7]

Atwood’s Surfacing contains the idea that the child of the narrator was her “husband’s” (30), an idea that is unique in literature of the time (that the father has, in the context of abortion, any rights over the child he creates).  The narrator in Laurence’s The Diviners is afraid of becoming pregnant; her first husband calls children “accidents” (164), symptomatic of the 1960s when sexual activity was viewed as the paramount reason for marriage and that any child conceived indicated more a failure of birth control or contraception than a salutary transmission of life.  Birdsell’s Ladies of the House conveys the impression that women could be driven to abortion because “nothing worked” whether contraceptive or other to alleviate women’s fear of pregnancy (75), a defeatist position used by the early feminist movement to encourage support for abortion.  Finally, Ruby, a character in Richards’ Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace, views abortion as an act of rebellion, a pose dominant in the abortion movement since early agitation:

It was not inherent in Ruby to forgo anything that was new or irreverent—and this is primarily what attracted her to abortion.  What umbrellaed her concern was not so much that it would be right, but that it would be rebellious and gain attention.  Like everything else Ruby did.  (133-4)

          Often, Canadian similarities with American counterparts operate at the linguistic level.  One recalls the American man’s and Jig’s word play surrounding the pronoun “it” in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the quintessential template for abortion narratives.  The use of this third-person pronoun to refer to the dehumanized unborn child can be found in Atwood’s Surfacing, although the word “child” is introduced into the exchange as well (187).  Atwood weaves the affectionate term for the fetus (“child”) and the depersonalized “it” in another novel.  Confronted by the mother of his unborn child, who wants him at least to stay in the child’s life if not marry her, Len in The Edible Woman exclaims that he does not “want any son at all!  I didn’t want it, you did it [become pregnant] yourself, and you should have it removed” (233).[8]  A more recent example of linguistic comparison between American and Canadian fiction on abortion is Cindi’s assertion in Richards’ Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace that she is “fine” after her abortion, which recalls Jig’s ambiguous assertion in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” (192).  “I’m fine,” Cindi asserts one page after her abortion is performed (141); the assertion of health becomes suspicious when the same phrase is repeated fifteen pages later (156), just as Jig’s repetitious use of the phrase challenges the claim made in Hemingway’s story.[9]

Differences Between American and Canadian Literature on Abortion

          Despite these similarities, Canadian fiction on abortion differs significantly from its American counterpart in several respects, one being the step-by-step description of abortion procedures, whether those which occurred before or after legalization, which is relatively absent in Canadian work.  Granted, there are examples in American fiction of abortion episodes told “off stage.”  For example, Annabelle Marie Strang relates the details of  her abortion to J. Ward Moorehouse in John Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel, the third part of his U.S.A. trilogy (1937), in such a way that the narrator simply says that “He heard the details in chilly horror” (198).  Even Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971), a work written when the turbulence of abortion agitation was at its height before legalization in the United States, relates the intimate details of Vida’s abortion occurring off stage as well.

          While characters in Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy relate their abortion scenes ex post facto, other abortion scenes in American fiction became increasingly more detailed, and subsequent authors placed the readers in the immediacy of the abortions being performed.  Although Charlotte’s abortion in Faulkner’s The Wild Palms (1939) occurs off stage, the amount of detail accorded the preliminaries to the event has increased:

          She boiled the water herself and fetched out the meager instruments they had supplied him with in Chicago and which he had used but once, then lying on the bed she looked up at him.  “It’s all right.  It’s simple.  You know that; you did it before.”

          “Yes,” he said.  “Simple.  You just have to let the air in.  All you have to do is let the air—”   Then he began to tremble again.  “Charlotte.  Charlotte.”

          “That’s all.  Just a touch.  Then the air gets in and tomorrow it will be all over and I will be all right and it will be us again forever and ever.”  (220)

Similarly, the abortions described in Book Five, titled “My Three Abortions,” in Brautigan’s The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 occur off stage, but they are mentioned with significant attention to detail; for example, the narrator of the novel, the father of Vida’s unborn child, sees the abortionist’s teenaged attendant take a bucket to another room and hears a series of toilet flushes, after which the attendant returns with the bucket empty.  By the time of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules (1985) the depiction of abortion becomes not merely routine, but a moment of philosophical speculation and apotheosis for Homer Wells, the abortionist:

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

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

          In contrast, Canadian instances of abortion are mostly retrospective events with little detail supplied.  Grove’s self-aborted mother in Settlers of the Marsh gives no details about her abortions except for the barest of facts.  Naomi in Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women is barely able to relate her failed attempts to self-abort.  The main character in Atwood’s Surfacing describes not so much the procedures of her abortion as much as she depicts in quick succession the arrangements for the abortion and the immediate aftereffects.  Eva’s self-abortion in Laurence’s The Diviners is reduced to one quick “sentence” divided over two paragraphs: “Eva shivers, cries a little but not much. / And aborts herself that night with a partly straightened-out wire clotheshanger” (123).  Isobel, the main character in Thomas’ Blown Figures provides more of a traditional description of a surgical abortion than any other author considered thus far:

          Scrap.  Small detached piece of something, fragment, remnant (pl.) odds and ends, useless remains, allied to scrape.

          Dr. Biswas was going to scrape her out.  How tiny he was.  She could have reached out from the trolley and held him between her forefinger and thumb.  A few scraps left.  An embryonic finger maybe, or a toe.  A little lost eye.  It doesn’t—always—all come away at once.  (132; italics in original)

Elizabeth in Helwig’s The Glass Knight glides over significant details of her abortion.  After an initial impression of “It had come out of her body.  The doctor had probed her more deeply than she had thought possible.  He had torn something in her, something he didn’t know or care that he had touched,” Elizabeth then advances in her narrative to time immediately after the abortion procedure: “She had curled up in the back seat like a child beginning to grow.  She would grow back whatever it was she had lost” (134-5).  Cindi’s abortion in Richards’ Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace is denoted only by the briefest phrases spanning two paragraphs: “when the procedure started,” “from behind the door,” “as if she was being hurt,” “She kept looking out the window because she couldn’t look at Dr. Savard,” and “’How do you feel?’ he said finally” (140-1).

          Canadian fiction which concerns abortion is in further contrast against its American counterpart in three sociopolitical areas.  I have commented elsewhere on three frequent themes in contemporary American fiction on abortion: devaluation of parenthood and children, a bias against the Roman Catholic Church, and demonization of right-to-lifers.[10]  Canadian fiction does not display these negative tendencies as its American counterpart.

          This is not to say that literary evidence does not exist to support some of these three negative features.  With the notable exception of children being metonymically reduced to “accidents” (as in failure of contraception) in Laurence’s The Diviners, Clara in Atwood’s The Edible Woman, for example, is adept at calling her children dehumanizing and vulgar names, as when she compares a newborn to an “octopus” (28) or calls another child a “bastard” (34).  Although her own life is in shambles, Elizabeth in Helwig’s The Glass Knight acknowledges that her parents had a good marriage and a good life together (133-4).  Regarding attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church, there is neither the vituperation against well-meaning Catholics who espouse a pro-life position, nor narratological hostility against the institution of the Church.  A character in Atwood’s Surfacing attributes the large number of children she sees in a village in Quebec to “They must fuck a lot here […] I guess it’s the Church,” to which she immediately becomes mock- (or perhaps seriously) penitent: “Aren’t I awful” (9).  Atwood’s casual comment about the Catholic Church extracted from an interview supplied at the back of the Surfacing volume may help readers understand the activities of the unnamed narrator, but does not persuade the reader to adopt a negative view against the Church.[11]  Similarly, in Gibson’s Five Legs the discussion that Felix has with his parents about his desire to convert to Catholicism shows the reader more the parents’ bias than the view that readers should take toward Catholics and their position on abortion.  Richards’ depiction of the abortionist Armand Savard in Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace is noteworthy for the anti-Catholicism which informs the Quebecois abortionist’s character more than the life-affirming positions of the Church which are not attacked in the novel.  Finally, regarding the third negative feature of contemporary American abortion fiction (demonization of right-to-lifers), I find no evidence in Canadian fiction of attacks against those who advocate the pro-life position to the degree that, for example, Howard Fast and Mary Logue attack those who oppose abortion in their novels, The Trial of Abigail Goodman (1993) and Still Explosion (1993) respectively.[12]

The Unique in Canadian Abortion Literature

          In final contrast, the Canadian might be the first world literature which documents the deleterious effects of abortion on women.  American fiction, especially since the 1980s, has tended to be dogmatic about abortion as an issue of rights, as though all feminist thought should view abortion as the highest good and a matter only pertaining to women themselves.  Canadian literature, in contrast, reflects much more on abortion’s effects on women, their relationships, and their lives.  One can categorize discussion of the effects of abortion on women under the rubric of “post-abortion syndrome” (PAS), a concept which has gained currency in the psychological literature and which has practical use for literary study.

          A relatively recent item in the psychological literature, David C. Reardon began discussion of PAS with his Aborted Women: Silent No More (1987); although primarily written for an American audience, his research concludes that women could suffer a range of five consequences after abortion, including “guilt and remorse,” “broken relationships and sexual dysfunction,” “depression and a sense of loss,” “deterioration of self-image and self-punishment,” and suicide (121ff).[13]  Researchers on PAS in Canada include Elizabeth Ring-Cassidy, whose Women’s Health After Abortion: The Medical and Psychological Evidence (second edition coauthored with Ian Gentles in 2003), can help to elucidate the behavior and thought of aborted women in Canadian novels.  Summarizing their research of psychological risk factors and complications following abortion, these researchers report that

Women who have abortions are at risk of emotional difficulties after the procedure, especially those with pre-existing factors such as relationship problems, ambivalence about their abortion, adolescence, previous psychiatric or emotional problems, pressure by others into making a decision to abort, or religious or philosophical values that are at odds with aborting a pregnancy.  (149)

Evaluating the effects that abortion has on interpersonal relationships specifically, these same researchers conclude that

Women’s marital or partner or family relationships can be significantly affected by abortion.  […]  When a woman or adolescent girl has been coerced into having an abortion, typical reactions include feelings of betrayal (by partners or family members), anger, depression, sadness, and breakdown of trust and intimacy in relationships.  […]  “Suppressed mourning” has very negative outcomes, often leading to feelings of numbness and/or hostility and anger, and to difficulties in forming future relationships and in bonding with later-born children….  (232)

          Professional organizations are ambivalent about the existence of PAS, and the reasons for such temerity are obvious; abortion is not only controversial as a political issue, but also an economic force in the Western world.  Proving that abortion is big business or that it is a political question inspiring fear in some circles is not the purpose of this paper.  One can, however, learn the attributes of the theory and determine whether women in Canadian literature who engage in abortion manifest those characteristics.

          The post-abortion evidence from the novels—especially remorse, anger, and sense of loss—is obvious.  One paragraph in Atwood’s Surfacing directly recounts the narrator’s abortion episode:

He said I should do it, he made me do it; he talked about it as though it was legal, simple, like getting a wart removed.  He said it wasn’t a person, only an animal; I should have seen that was no different, it was hiding in me as if in a burrow and instead of granting it sanctuary I let them catch it.  I could have said No but I didn’t; that made me one of them too, a killer.[14]  After the slaughter, the murder, he couldn’t believe I didn’t want to see him any more; it bewildered him, he resented me for it, he expected gratitude because he arranged it for me, fixed me so I was as good as new; others, he said, wouldn’t have bothered.  Since then I’d carried that death around inside me, layering it over, a cyst, a tumor, black pearl; the gratitude I felt now was not for him.  (145-6)

The anger in the above passage may be evident only when one verbalizes the words, and a dramatic rendering is necessary since, except for the absence of punctuation which rushes some phrases together, there are no linguistic markers to emphasize one word over another.  Moreover, the pain and guilt that the narrator feels is matched only by her resentment against her lover for arranging, persuading, or coercing her into an abortion.  Certainly, the literary creation is wonderful to behold; the narrative torques between the narrator’s present experience in Quebec and her reminiscences, a loss of linearity in narrative design which challenges the reader’s certainty regarding what time period the narrator is in or to whom she is speaking.  How unfortunate that the reader sees that the clear statement of the narrator’s abortion should come three-fourths of the way into the novel, nine years after the event.  It has taken that long for the main character to express her anger and to identify the source of the distresses in her life.

          Although Morag in Laurence’s The Diviners does not have an abortion,[15] the self-abortion that Eva, her childhood friend, performs is cited often throughout the novel.  The abortion occurs after more than one hundred pages into the work, to be recollected about sixty pages afterwards; thirty pages later, the reader learns that the main character of Morag’s novel self-aborts much like her childhood friend Eva did.  Eva’s aborted child is mentioned a final time towards the end of the novel.  Thus, Eva’s self-abortion is a loss which has profoundly affected others.

          The narrative structure of Thomas’ Blown Figures is not as unique as it first seems; Brautigan’s style, for example, often combined long passages with smaller ones, and the abortion episodes in his novel are minimized by the interpolation of seemingly unrelated chapters.  Thomas’ novel, however, is a more radical departure from traditional narrative style.  Nearly 70% of the novel (373 of the 547 pages) consists of brief one-line statements; rarely does the text reach a half page.  While the details of Isobel’s abortion have been mentioned above, what remains are the literary features that manifest PAS features.  The narrator questions Isobel regarding her two abortions, and the use of a narrator questioning the main character is further evidence that the main character herself cannot yet address her own abortions.  The questioning occurs within parentheses, adding one more layer of remove from the questions, in a rapid, punctuation-free, stream-of-consciousness style that precludes objective consideration of the abortions:

([…]  How does it feel, lying there in the hot, oppressive room, remembering.  Where is your baby Isobel, the one you wanted, your little dead tot?  The lamp does not light, the door does not open the windows are mirrors the mirrors are doorways, the flowers are children the children are dying—what happened to your little dead tot whom you last saw curled in the silvery basin?  And the other one, Richard’s son—where is he now?)  (153)

It seems appropriate in terms of a satisfactory dénouement that, sixty pages from the end of the novel, Isobel can describe her abortion in semi-expository, yet still poetic paragraphs.

          Elizabeth’s abortion in Helwig’s The Glass Knight, recounted about halfway through the novel, blends present actions with past over several paragraphs.  The absence of subjects or predicates for many of the “sentences” in the passage which follows further challenges the reader to an easy understanding of the emotions that the main character feels.

          The body curled around its wound.  Curled like a secret child, like Elizabeth curled on the floor in sunlight on a white rug.  In a suburb of Montréal.  A doctor with a strange accent and eyes that looked friendly although he didn’t say one friendly word, as she left said Try not to come back and the nurse smiled.

          She hadn’t imagined.  Couldn’t imagine the pain.  All she knew was that she must hold it inside herself, hold her pain like a rich gift, that if she screamed the world could come apart in the pieces of her scream.  […]

          She sat up and went to the radio.  Turned it off.  Went and lay down on the bed, lying on her back, straight and still.  He fucked her, dim and insistent.  She must get rid of him somehow.  Decided to phone and tell him she wouldn’t see him again.  (97-8; italics in original)

A characteristic of PAS is that the emotional force of the abortion event will recur repeatedly; nearly forty pages later, the reader learns that Elizabeth’s abortion occurred four years earlier.

          As a final example, the reader could have interpreted a passage in Birdsell’s Ladies of the House merely as the alienation that Truda feels in a complex world, until three words alter the scene: “And Truda saw the tiny white coffin” (131; emphasis added).  At the mention of “tiny white coffin” the reader must reevaluate the passage before and after this notation.  Had Truda aborted?  The pages before and after this notation are ambiguous and uninformative.  Like the abortion episode in Atwood’s Surfacing, it takes the narrator much time to disclose even this alienation effect of a possible abortion.  Perhaps Truda is a character who still cannot reach the point of disclosure about her abortion and thus still suffers.

          This study began with a facetious list of elements deemed necessary for Canadian novels circa the 1960s.  Besides the fact that more works are now established in the Canadian canon, fictional representation of abortion has altered the list considerably.  While the references to the impact of historical  influences on the nation, tawdry items aligned with popular sentiment about Canada, and an appreciation of the land itself will always inform Canadian literature, some new items can be added to the list, many of which are connected with aborted women.  An updated list of characteristics of Canadian fiction would include, first, a rejection of the American tendencies to engage in ad hominem attacks against those who hold opposing views on abortion.  Second, it would include those women who reflect deeply on the great sorrow caused by their abortions.  Finally, the updated list would include those who ponder how their abortions have affected not only themselves, but their lovers and relationships with others.  These three items may qualify Canadian literature on abortion to fit the category of  tragedy as the dominant literary mode; it is this tragic sense that may constitute Canada’s greatest contribution to the world’s literature on abortion.

Works Cited

Allen, Grant. The Woman Who Did. 1895. Ed. Nicholas Ruddick. Toronto:

          Broadview Editions, 2004.

Atwood, Margaret. The Edible Woman. New York, Anchor Books, 1969.

—. “Giving Birth.” We Are the Stories We Tell: The Best Short Stories by North    American Women Since 1945. Ed. Wendy Martin. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. 134-49.

—. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

—. Surfacing. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1972.

—. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1972.

Birdsell, Sandra. Ladies of the House. Winnipeg: Turnstone P, 1984.

Bodsworth, Fred. The Sparrow’s Fall. New York: NAL, 1967.

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

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

Cobbs, John L. “Alien as an Abortion Parable.” Literature/Film Quarterly 18:3 (1990): 198‑201.

Dos Passos, John. U.S.A.: I. The 42nd Parallel; II. Nineteen-Nineteen; III. The Big Money. New York: Modern Library, 1937.

Fast, Howard. The Trial of Abigail Goodman. New York: Crown, 1993.

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

Ferriss, Lucy. The Misconceiver. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Gibson, Graeme. Five Legs. Toronto: House of Anansi P, 1969.

Gardiner, Anne Barbeau. “The Interrelated Defense of Abortion and Pornography in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.” Life and Learning XIII: The   Proceedings of the Thirteenth University Faculty for Life Conference at Georgetown University, 2003. Ed. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J. Washington, DC: University Faculty for Life, 20034. 87-101.

Grove, Frederick Philip. Settlers of the Marsh. 1925. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2006.

Harrison, Dallas. “Sandra Birdsell.” Canadian Writers and Their Work. Eds. Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley. Fiction Ser. 12. Toronto, ECW, 1995.

Helwig, David. The Glass Knight. [Ottawa]: Oberon P, 1976.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men Without Women. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927. 69-77. 2006.

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

Jones, Joseph, and Johanna Jones. Canadian Fiction. TWAS 630. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Koloze, Jeff. An Ethical Analysis of the Portrayal of Abortion in American Fiction: Dreiser, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Brautigan, and Irving. Studies in American Literature 78. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen P, 2005.

Laurence, Margaret. The Diviners. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974.

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

McPherson, Karen S. Archaeologies of an Uncertain Future: Recent Generations of Canadian Women Writing. Montreal & London: McGill-Queen’s U P, 2007.

—. “Re: Information needed on ‘Archaeologies of an Uncertain Future’.” Email to the author. 15 Apr. 2009.

Moss, John. A Reader’s Guide to the Canadian Novel. 2nd ed. Toronto:

          McClelland and Stewart, 1987.

Munro, Alice. Lives of Girls and Women. New York: Vintage

          Contemporaries/Vintage Books, 1971.

—. Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: Thirteen Stories. New York: NAL, 1974.

Reardon, David C. Aborted Women: Silent No More. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1987.

Richards, David Adams. Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace. Toronto:

          McClelland & Stewart, 1990.

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

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. New York: Norton, 1938.

Swiggart, Peter. The Art of Faulkner’s Novels. Austin: U of Texas P, 1962.

Thomas, Audrey. Blown Figures. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1974.

Works Consulted

Abortion Politics in the Unites States and Canada: Studies in Public Opinion. Eds. Ted G. Jelen and Marthe A. Chandler. Westport, CN: Praeger, 1994.

Aitken, Johan Lyall. Masques of Morality: Females in Fiction. Toronto: Women’s P, 1987.

De Mille, James. A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. 1888. Ed. Malcolm Parks. Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts Ser. 3. Oshawa, ON: Carleton U P, 1986.

de Valk, Alphonse. Morality and Law in Canadian Politics: The Abortion

          Controversy. Montreal: Palm, 1974.

Greenglass, Esther R. After Abortion. Canadian Social Problems Ser. Don Mills, ON: Longman Canada, 1976.

Hebert, Anne. Kamouraska. 1970. New Press Canadian Classics. Toronto: Stoddart, 1973.

Markoosie. Harpoon of the Hunter. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s U P, 1970.

McLaren, Angus, and Arlene Tigar McLaren. The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1980. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986.

Tatalovich, Raymond. The Politics of Abortion in the United States and Canada: A Comparative Study. Comparative Politics Ser. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.

Women, Law and Social Change: Core Readings and Current Issues. Ed. T. Brettel Dawson. Canadian Legal Studies Ser. North York, ON: Captus P, 1990.

[1]   The “Baby Ex Machina” denouement is well-established in Canadian fiction.  Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh (1925) ends with two instances of children bringing closure to an otherwise disastrous plot: Bobby, a young man befriended by Niels, the main character, and encouraged to do well, has five children; Ellen, the love of Niels’ life, realizes at novel’s end that she needs to be a mother (215, 231-2).  The “baby ex machina” is even used by Atwood herself in The Edible Woman (1969), where the pregnant Ainsley rejects the idea of abortion as a solution to her pregnancy and runs off to marry another man.  Alice Munro’s vivacious narrator in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: Thirteen Stories (1974), originally bold enough to say that she “meant to have lovers and use birth control and never have any children,” immediately corrects herself, saying “actually I wanted to make an enviable marriage, both safe and passionate, and I had pictured the nightgown I would wear when my lover-husband came to visit me for the first time in the maternity ward” (202).  Cindi, whose abortion causes the rupture in her marriage with Ivan in Richards’ Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (1990) is pregnant at novel’s end by her new lover.

            In a further variation of this deus ex machina, the main character in Fred Bodsworth’s The Sparrow’s Fall (1967) is a hunter in the great Canadian north who fears that his wife and newborn child would die if he does not find food quickly.  Returning to them after a prolonged hunt, his wife shares the joyous news that the child is still alive (176).

[2]   A 1998 reprint of the novel boldly asks the following question in a section of “Questions for Contemplation or Book Group Discussion”: “What clues in the novel suggest that the narrator is struggling to suppress memories of an abortion?” (204).

[3]   The 1960s may have been the decade for introspection about Canadian literature.  Graeme Gibson alludes to the problems of Canadian literature in his Five Legs (1969).  Contained within a narrative style that borders on extreme abbreviation of dialogue if not psychobabble, characters in the novel discuss the problems of writing in this exchange:

“You’re doing some writing?”  Sudden pain and glaring, I … Nodding, and.  It’s crap, all crap he.  […]  “How’s it going?”  […]  “Difficult, yes.”  Rocking he bends, he smiles with laughter in the room.  “Particularly in Canada it seems,” what?  […]  “It’s difficult alright [….]  The problems of a real Canadian literature.”  […]  “Goddamn Puritan mentality doesn’t simply you know, inhibit the development of naturalism or anything no!  No, sir.”  […]  “It fears, that’s the thing, it demeans the very role of art itself!”  (236-7)

[4]   Another Canadian author could precede Grove’s entrance into the abortion discussion.  Although he speaks of motherhood as fulfillment for women (89) and apotheosizes the unborn child (106-7) in his 1895 novel The Woman Who Did, Grant Allen is decidedly a minor Canadian writer, his only claim to being Canadian is that he was born in Canada.  Nicholas Ruddick, editor of a newly-released version of his novel, asserts that, although he “never hid his Canadian roots,” Allen never lived in Canada beyond age fourteen (14).  Besides this historical fact, the novel functions as didactic fiction arguing for sexual license and illegitimacy more than as an argument regarding abortion or, as it was often called in the nineteenth century, infanticide.

[5]   While abortion plays a significant role as a basis for the theme in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), no significant abortion episode is worth mentioning here.  However, readers will find an extensive commentary about the novel in Gardiner’s work.

[6]   Cf. supplementary material provided after Allen’s novel The Woman Who Did and Margaret Sanger’s formulation in her 1938 autobiography of “seven circumstances under which birth control should be practiced” (193).

[7]  The idea that abortion is a foreign matter, as evidenced here by the citation of a book read about a “North Carolina” mother, is repeated in Munro’s Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, where abortion is viewed as something done in Crete and Spain (168).  Closer to Canada, Thomas’ narrator in Blown Figures mentions an abortion in New York.

[8]  Moreover, the idea that the unborn child is alien to the mother’s body or less than human (an essential step in the depersonalization that, as William Brennan demonstrates, must occur before abortion can be performed with impunity, occurs rarely in Canadian literature.  American critics may be more concerned with the “alien” or “otherness” nature of the unborn child than their Canadian counterparts.  In fact, American critics often use the first term to depersonalize the unborn child by equating it with the extraterrestrial denotation of the term.  See, for example: Peter Swiggart’s The Art of Faulkner’s Novels (1962); John L. Cobbs’ 1990 study, where he expresses the proportion that the alien within the body of the astronaut in the film Alien is “like an embryo within a uterus” (200); and Lucy Ferriss’ 1997 novel The Misconceiver which, like Cobb, again conjures up the image of fetuses being similar to space aliens (82).

[9]   A briefer use of this signal term in abortion stories can be found in Margaret Atwood’s short story “Giving Birth,” published in the 1990 anthology We Are The Stories We Tell: The Best Short Stories by North American Women Since 1945 (139).

[10]   See especially chapter nine of my An Ethical Analysis of the Portrayal of Abortion in American Fiction: Dreiser, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Brautigan, and Irving (2005).

[11]   Her full remarks are that “ever since we all left the Roman Catholic Church we’ve defined ourselves as innocent in some way or another.  But what I’m really into in that book [Surfacing] is the great Canadian victim complex.  If you define yourself as innocent, then nothing is ever your fault” (210).

            Another instance of possible anti-Catholicism occurs in Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women.  When Garnet’s mother identifies one of his former girlfriends as a Roman Catholic, she asserts that “’Married her you would have been poor,’ said his mother significantly.  ‘You know what the Pope tells them to do!’”; Garnet counters this attack by responding, “You did okay without the Pope yourself, Momma” (246).

[12]   Both of these novels can be dismissed as didactic if not propagandistic efforts to demonize opponents of abortion, whose actions respond to the fact that abortion is legal in the United States throughout the entire nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever.

[13]   Other American researchers into PAS include Priscilla Coleman (Bowling Green State University) and Vincent Rue.

[14]   Forty years earlier, Ellen’s mother in Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh calls herself a “murderess” for having self-aborted (113).

[15]   She does become pregnant and considers abortion, but Morag is freed from the need to decide on whether to abort or not when she menstruates.


Abortion Distortion: Correcting Literary Criticism’s Misreading of Early Twentieth-Century Abortion Fiction

Abstract:  This article discusses literary works on abortion from the first half of the twentieth century, identified by Meg Gillette in recent (2012) research.  Gillette’s analysis considers the works (mostly novels) using standard feminist literary theory, which views abortion primarily from the mother’s perspective, ignoring the father and the unborn child.  This article, however, expands the feminist interpretation by including a life-affirming perspective.  Thus, a more inclusive reading of the fictional works is obtained which necessarily considers the perspective of the mother, the role of the father, and the status of the unborn child.  The article suggests areas for future research of the works for a further right-to-life literary appreciation.

          Researchers studying how the right-to-life issues were presented in the early twentieth-century owe a debt of gratitude to Meg Gillette, whose 2012 analysis considers how the first life issue, abortion, was treated in numerous fictional works from the first half of that century.  While many of her selections are often categorized as feminist manifestations affirming reproductive “choice” but which are obviously (from the perspective of a life-affirming literary criticism) myopic perceptions of feminist principles, the fictional works which Gillette identifies are substantial—not only in terms of literary merit, but also in terms of quantity.  The works total over 15,000 pages, and the effort to use the New Critical method of close reading (the most challenging methodology in literary criticism) would consume a significant amount of time for any faculty member, for his or her students, or for a critic presenting a paper within the standard half hour.[1]

          Although the literary works may be restricted by a myopic application of the feminist label, the benefit of Gillette’s research is significant, if only as an opportunity for pro-life enhancement of an already sound literary foundation.  The concluding paragraph of Gillette’s essay identifies the focus of her research:

Today abortion is not just a transitive act in a woman’s life, but the political issue on which nearly everyone has an opinion.  Modern abortion narratives helped pave the way for this politicization of abortion.  While, no doubt, modern abortion plots aren’t just about abortion—they deal with a host of other issues ranging from “spiritual sterility” to “modern individualism” to “female creative power” to the “failure of left-wing politics”, etc.—certainly, one of the things modern abortion narratives are about is abortion.  Taking advantage of its generic possibilities—its creative license to draw connections and invest symbolic meaning, its cloak of authorial innocence (i.e., the writer isn’t speaking publicly about abortion, the fictional characters are), its broad audience of diverse reading publics—modern literature created a significant abortion discourse during the early twentieth century, one that moved abortion into the realm of social reality, shattered the medical community’s hold on abortion, and created interested publics ready and authorized to judge abortion for themselves.  (680; citations omitted; italics added)

Of course, the italicized apposition at essay’s end leaves much to be desired and is a site where faculty using right-to-life literary theories can challenge the anti-life feminist stranglehold on academic discussion of the literature.  For example, while early twentieth-century literature “moved abortion into the realm of social reality” is a redefinition on which both anti- and pro-lifers can agree since, in order to solve the problem of mothers killing their unborn, the issue must be faced directly, that modern literature “shattered the medical community’s hold on abortion” is obviously a negative consequence, for it was the medical profession which worked to save both the unborn child and his or her mother from a procedure fatal to one and harmful to the other.  The jargon of contemporary feminist literary criticism dominant in academia would relegate pro-life physicians to the ranks of despised patriarchal forces, oppressing women so that they could not exercise their so-called “freedom of choice” to kill their unborn children.

Moreover, whether modern literature on abortion “created interested publics ready and authorized to judge abortion for themselves” can be considered a public good only if the public making such judgments does so after being educated.  Recent social history demonstrates the power of an uneducated and an educated citizenry.  An uneducated electorate (categorized as “the low information voter” by political theorists) brought Obama and his disastrous policies twice to the US presidency.  In contrast, the power of an educated population is similarly easy to illustrate, especially vis-à-vis the life issues.  As abortion activists in the United States can testify, the seeming success of the anti-life philosophy in the United States was predicated on an uninformed public; it was imperative to deny the humanity of the unborn child conceived by rape or incest so that abortion exceptions could be promoted on the emotional level, just as hiding the extent of the initial Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions which legalized abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever was imperative to maintaining the extent of the killing.  That the rapid erosion of the anti-life philosophy can be attributed to better education on the life issues, especially through web technologies, is a serious concern for abortion activists who control anti-life groups and entities like the Democratic Party and the mass media.

More importantly, Gillette’s work can be improved by considering several significant pro-life themes in the literature of the early twentieth century which have been overlooked.  Instead of demonstrating the liberation of women from oppressive patriarchal structures (the traditional, outdated, and tiresome claim of customary anti-life feminist analysis of literature), passages from the novels which Gillette identifies illustrate the collapse of interpersonal relationships (familial and societal) when abortion is contemplated, especially in the area of social contracts such as that existing between a physician and his or her patient.  This essential characteristic of the fiction bifurcates into two effects.  First, the literature portrays a dehumanization of both conspirators in the abortion and the aborted mothers.  Second, an aspect which is disturbing to the contemporary anti-life narrative in academic circles which claims that the literature promotes abortion, in many abortion works identified by Gillette from the first half of the twentieth century the joy attending the fertilization of a child often transcends the drastic socioeconomic circumstances into which he or she is born.  That the joy surrounding the creation of human life occurs at all in novels whose plots often aim to end the child’s life by abortion is rarely noted by literary critics, and the absence of a discussion of the literary merit of these events will be partially redressed here.

However, while the rhetorical premise of Gillette’s work is commendable (she incorporates Tasha Dubriwny’s “work on the 1969 abortion speak-out” as an example of “new work on multi-authored collective rhetorics by communication theorists”), a summary claim needs to be challenged with evidence from the literature itself:

Long overlooked by  both scholars of modern literature and scholars of reproductive history, modern abortion narratives played an important part in American abortion politics, teaching readers about criminalized abortion and calling them to judge for themselves America’s anti-abortion laws.  (667)

This author believes that the abortion works which Gillette cites say much more about the sexual attitudes of characters involved, social conditions which underpin a mother’s consideration of abortion as the only choice available to her, and the disastrous consequences of an abortion contrasted against a life-affirming choice.

Works Which Casually Mention or Briefly Concern Abortion

Some items from Gillette’s list have already been considered from a right-to-life literary perspective elsewhere and need not be repeated here.[2]  Other works already have a substantial body of critical commentary, much of it waiting for right-to-life reevaluation to be provided by specialists.[3]  Other items must be relegated to future research when they are published or become more readily available.[4]  A large number of works on Gillette’s list (thirty-five) can be immediately disposed of as inconsequential and not only because Gillette herself either only casually mentions the works in her notes or briefly cites or quotes from them within her article.  This is the case with seven poems, seven short stories, five dramas, and sixteen novels.[5]

The seven poems include Mina Loy’s “Parturition” (1913), which contains such lugubrious imagery that the reader might wonder how the poem concerns abortion unless the topic is extricated from its heavy symbolism; not even the hyperbatonic “Mother I am” (7) could suggest anything but a life-giving persona.  Edgar Lee Masters’ “Editor Whedon” (1914) mentions abortion explicitly only in the last line: “here close by the river” is the place where “abortions are hidden” (132).  The mention of abortion in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) is just as brief and seems only to give Gillette an opportunity to compare it with another abortion-related work:

Other abortion narratives use literary allusion to draw together a community of women having abortions.  In Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, for example, Dewey Dell’s father uses her abortion money to buy his new teeth, recalling Lil in Eliot’s The Waste Land using the money to fix her teeth for an abortion instead.  (675)

E. E. Cummings’ “This Little” (1935) casually recounts the abortion of a “pair [who] had a little scare [which] was aborted” (18).  Ruth Lechlitner’s “Lines for an Abortionist’s Office” (1936) is an apostrophe to the “State”, and the reason why a mother would choose abortion is purely economic, as the persona in this parenthesized couplet indicates: “(Better to let the unborn die / Than starve while others feast).”  William Carlos Williams’ “A Cold Front” (1944) documents a mother’s efforts to obtain abortifacient pills; the physician persona’s response to her request (“In a case like this I know / quick action is the main thing” 131) is, as Gillette mentions, ambiguous: “will he perform an abortion quickly, or throw her out of the office quickly?” (682).  Lastly, Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” (1945) only metaphorically concerns abortion, where the gunner could, but may not necessarily, be compared to an unborn child.  If these poems concern abortion, then their suggestion or explicit mention is used more as a literary device instead of a contentious social issue explored at length in a larger literary form such as a short story, a drama, or a novel.

The seven short stories include Gertrude Stein’s “The Good Anna” (1909).  Although Gillette identifies it as a work involving lesbians concerned with abortion, certain details of the short story do not suggest that it is a feminist tract of abortion as a liberating force in the life of an oppressed woman.  Mrs. Lehntman suffers a psychological conflict between her career and her relationship with her husband.  A midwife who “loved best to deliver young girls who were in trouble” (repeated twice, 31 and 52), Mrs. Lehntman married a doctor who “got into trouble doing things that were not right to do” (64).  That she eventually left her husband indicates that she has resolved the psychological conflict by dropping her abortionist husband.

Six other short stories mention abortion in just as much scanty detail as Stein’s, but emphasize more the social effects of the abortion decisions.  William Faulkner’s “Hair” (1931) mentions a girl who is in “trouble” and that she tried to self-abort (143-4).[6]  Claude McKay’s “Truant” (1932) briefly mentions that a woman is considering abortion, but, because a lover will support her having the child, she gives birth.  Langston Hughes’ “Cora Unashamed” (1934) functions as an African-American rebuke to social values which would deem the child of a white Southern mother and a Greek father as unworthy to live.  After the aborted mother euphemistically tells Cora that “the baby’s gone” (42), Jessie dies, and it is Cora who bravely speaks about the abortion at Jessie’s funeral, chastising her family and the community.

          Meridel LeSueur’s “Annunciation” (1936) is a refreshing break from the standard narrative of mothers who seek abortion as a solution to dire economic circumstances or social disgrace.  The narrator, four months pregnant, notes that many are unemployed.  A further discouragement is that her husband often comes home drunk; worst of all, he encourages her repeatedly to abort.  In contrast, the narrator asserts that her writing is a “kind of conversation I carried on with myself and with the child” (214).  She does not tell anybody she is pregnant because she “didn’t want to be pitied” (215).  She further writes that “I’ve never heard anything about how a woman feels who is going to have a child” (218).  The story ends with a metaphoric birthing episode; the narrator writes that it was “as if it [the child] suddenly existed” (219).

          The final two short stories from the forties (both from Dorothy Parker), however, return to life-denying fiction.  The eponymous main character in “Mr. Durant” (1944) impregnates his stenographer; unlike the mother in McKay’s story, Rose aborts at the hands of “a woman” (41).  “Lady with a Lamp” (1944) features the appropriately named Mona, abandoned by the father of the child after her abortion.  Abortion is mentioned as “the only possible thing” that a mother in her situation could have done, so the unnamed narrator asserts (251).  Even the word abortion is unmentionable; the narrator’s intention in saying “Even if you didn’t have an—” (252) is obvious, given the form of the indefinite article used before words beginning with a vowel, and abortion is the only word which completes the thought.

The five dramas include Eugene O’Neill’s Abortion (1914).  Jack, the main character, seems to be a successful young college man who has everything going for him; he is a “star player” at baseball, and Evelyn, his fiancé, is such a demure young woman that she blushes at the mention of her future marriage.  This idyllic romance is shattered when Jack’s lust manifests itself.  He asserts that he was not the same man who made Nellie, a young working girl, pregnant; “it was the male beast who ran gibbering through the forest after its female thousands of years ago” (154-5).  Jack argues that the culture’s ethics (especially the one principle that he should save his sexual urges for marriage) are wrong, not his own moral behavior which is based on simple animal instinct.  After the killing of the unborn child, Nellie’s brother, Murray, indicates that Jack, also, is a victim insofar as he abandoned his fatherly responsibilities by encouraging Nellie to abort.  “She might’a lived,” Murray asserts, “if she thought yuh cared, if she heard from yuh; but she knew yuh were trying to git rid of her” (159).  Even though Jack replies in a moment of redemption that Nellie’s death “was an accident; that I would gladly have given my own life rather than have it happen” (163), the drama ends with his gunshot suicide.  Given such sorrow, it would be difficult to conclude that O’Neill’s drama asserts that abortion is a liberating social force instead of a destructive one.

The four remaining dramas refer to abortion is much less detail.  Theodore Dreiser’s The Girl in The Coffin (1916) opens with the death of Mary, who died of complications from an “operation” (20).  The father of the child is unknown, and the plot concerns more the identification of the father instead of disclosing Mary’s motivations to abort.  (It is presumed that Ferguson, the strike leader whom Mary’s father respects, is the father of the aborted child.)  In even sparser detail, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928) contains a curiously feverish dialogue between a “Man” and a “Woman” who talk about and eventually decide on abortion.  Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White (1933) relates the love affair of Barbara, a nurse, who falls for Ferguson, an intern, who is already engaged.  After a brief love affair of three months, Barbara becomes pregnant and has an abortion.  Although Ferguson presumed that Barbara “knew how to take care of herself” (105), the idea of abortion as a “help” occurs repetitively over several pages (106-8).  Eventually, Barbara dies.  The final drama, Irwin Shaw’s Sons and Soldiers (1944), set in 1915, involves a situation where medical authority would consider killing the unborn child to save the life of the mother.  When John tells his wife Rebecca that she should abort, the unborn child, Andrew, appears to her as an adult.  Several scenes show how Andrew would grow up to be brokenhearted, and on this basis Rebecca wants Andrew aborted.  Andrew appears again, asserting the value of his life, and Rebecca finally chooses life.

The sixteen novels include Edith Wharton’s Summer (1917), which depicts a more impure side of New England life.  Royall has had sex with Charity, a young woman under his guardianship, who has a “tainted origin”; she does not know who her mother was (114).  Although he confesses that he raped Charity, Royall wants to marry her.  Charity finds more fulfilling sexual love with another, younger man, by whom she becomes pregnant.  Given that the setting is at the turn of the twentieth century and that the environment is a backwards New England village, it is plausible that Charity “had come to this dreadful place [an abortionist’s office] because she knew of no other way of making sure that she was not mistaken about her state” (183).  If there were any doubt about the outcome of the contest between the life of the unborn child, it is resolved when she goes to the Mountain where she was born because “she only knew she must save her baby” (188).[7]

          Although the abortion dialogue between the main characters is also discussed elsewhere,[8] this discussion will highlight Gloria in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned (1922) more than any other character since she represents the liberated woman of the flapper era whose pronouncements about quality of life correspond with most anti-life thinking of the early twentieth century.  The claim that Beauty will come to America as a “society girl” (27-30) is a fitting introduction to Gloria, whose list of attributes fits well with the American version of the New Woman of the early twentieth century.  At twenty-two, Gloria does not want to marry or have children; for Gloria, “motherhood was also the privilege of the female baboon” (393).  She refers to “one’s unwanted children” (147), and her response to a suggestion that her husband and she have a child is “we can’t afford it” (299).  Gloria’s opinion of the elderly is just as negative; her attitude toward the old (things and people) is expressed thus: “‘trying to preserve a century by keeping its relics up to date is like keeping a dying man alive by stimulants'” (167).  Gloria says ordinary people are “people […] who haven’t any right to live” (360; italics in original).  In a delirium induced by influenza, Gloria said that she would “sacrifice a hundred thousand of them, a million of them [people] for one palace full of pictures from the Old World and exquisite things” (394).

Gloria marries Anthony Patch, primarily because of the expected fortune from his millionaire grandfather.  Although Gloria, now twenty-three, wants to have a child three years forward, she is pregnant, and the conversation about the baby is like that between the lovers in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”:

          “Do you want me to have it?” she asked listlessly.

          “I’m indifferent.  That is, I’m neutral.  If you have it I’ll probably be glad.  If you don’t—well, that’s all right too.”

          “I wish you’d make up your mind one way or the other!”

          “Suppose you make up your mind.”

          She looked at him contemptuously, scorning to answer.

          “You’d think you’d been singled out of all the women in the world for this crowning indignity.”

          “What if I do!” she cried angrily.  “It isn’t an indignity for them.  It’s their one excuse for living.  It’s the one thing they’re good for.  It is an indignity for me.”

          “See here, Gloria, I’m with you whatever you do, but for God’s sake be a sport about it.”

          “Oh, don’t fuss at me!” she wailed.  (204; italics in original)

This interchange develops Gloria’s character and philosophy more than the plot, for it is disclosed a few pages later that Gloria was never pregnant in the first place.

          Arthur Stuart-Menteth (A. S. M.) Hutchinson’s This Freedom (1922) concerns childrearing practices more than abortion.  Developing another aspect of the New Woman of the early twentieth century, Rosalie rejects the idea that a woman’s career should end with marriage.  She even abandons her distaste of men altogether when she marries and has children.  Rosalie resents her third child, whom she originally did not want, and goes to work instead of staying home with her children.  Abortion is only mentioned when her daughter is dying after aborting, and it is only at this point that Rosalie realizes the importance of sacrifice.  At novel’s end, renouncing their modern views, Rosalie and her husband raise a grandchild in the old-fashioned way.

          Edith Summers Kelley’s Weeds (1923) is replete with anti-life statements and actions.  Coming from a family with no religion, Judy and her lover fornicate with impunity: “Accident was kind to them and did not thrust upon them with untimely speed the physical results of the sweet intimacy that they enjoyed” (103).  When Judy’s eventual “sickness” is discovered as pregnancy, the negative images of the unborn and disastrous effects of too frequent maternity permeate the novel.  “So many babies” contribute to aging a thirty-year-old man (167); a child “eats up” another man’s capital (172).  Judy reflects that a wandering horse trader’s life “would be a jolly one, if one had no babies” (179).  She has “an unwelcome pregnancy” (189).  Judy “would slap him [Bill, her son] savagely” (208).  She views another of her unborn children as “a vampire” (208).  Care for her children is “bondage” (217 and 219).  When she is pregnant again, Judy’s concludes that she did not want to be pregnant with an “unwelcome baby” (245).  When she becomes pregnant by a visiting evangelist, Judy tries to self-abort by riding horseback and using a knitting needle and other abortifacients.  While a reference to “blood-soaked clothes” probably indicates that she has miscarried (288), Judy vows never to have more children (299-300).  Judy reflects on her daughter’s life and “the sordid burdens of too frequent maternity” (321).  At novel’s end, Judy is resigned to her nature as a “child bearing” woman (331).  Even in an unpublished scene of her son’s birth, which would have followed chapter eleven, the joy of childbirth is doubted.

          The next two consecutive novels say more about the effects of sexual licentiousness than they do about how abortion affects a mother.  Although Katharine Faraday, the main character in Frances Newman’s The Hard-Boiled Virgin (1926), suspects she may be pregnant, her period would eventually come, so the need to explore abortion as an option to resolve her crisis is eliminated.  What is distressing at novel’s end is that, even though Katharine asserts that “she was as glad to be rid of her virginity as she was to be rid of her religion” (284), the uncertainty of the victory is obvious: “she knew she would go on discovering that one illusion had been left to her a minute before and that she would discover it every time she heard another illusion shattering on the path behind her” (285).

          Similarly, Josephine Herbst’s Money for Love (1929) depicts another woman’s sexual licentiousness, although abortion affects the main character’s sexual activity dramatically.  Having wanted the baby whom she aborted, Harriet’s sexual license increases substantially afterwards; in fact, she becomes whorish after her abortion (“It got around in Indianapolis that she was easy and she became very popular” 117).  The denouement of marrying her lover and sailing for Europe seems like an escape rather than the attainment of a mutually-desired goal, especially when the decision to marry was based on mere proximity and not deep love or intense philosophical principle: “He said that as long as they were in the building they might as well get a dog license and a hunting license and then they would be fixed” (285).

          Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth (1929) illustrates how deeply an anti-life philosophy can affect a character’s life.  Apparently, the bias against life that Marie, the main character, exhibits throughout the novel is a family trait; her sister Helen is sterile “because I’ve had two operations” (97).  Marie calls her unborn child “the enemy within me” (205).  For her first abortion, a doctor devises a spurious case of Marie’s having tuberculosis to justify aborting her; there is no such compunction for her second abortion.  Her epideictic for freedom and especially, life (“life itself is the one glorious, eternal experience, and that there is no place here on this spinning ball of earth and stone for nothing but freedom”) becomes ironic and accusatory, “For we reach scarce a hundred before we take our place by the side of those whom we have directly or indirectly injured, enslaved, or killed”—her two unborn children, of course, falling in the last category (280).  Ultimately, Marie affirms, “I hate life….  I hate love!” (405; ellipsis in original) and, thus, at novel’s end, wallows in being alone.  In the Afterword Nancy Hoffman claims that Marie’s views are not merely fictional, but biographical, for Smedley’s personal beliefs were that “childbearing […] must not happen” (410) and that “Love expressed in sex enslaves and humiliates married women” (412).

          The next two novels provide an African-American perspective on the topic of abortion, both adding the possibility of infanticide to the plot.  The only reference to abortion in Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry (1929) occurs when Geraldine is pregnant and has “tried everything and now it’s too late” (805).  Since the child is born with abnormalities, the parents think of infanticide: “both wanted to kill it” (812).  The child’s condition, however, is curable.  George S. Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) considers the success of a chemical product that changes African-American skin color to that of whites.  Although the first inclination of the formerly black Matthew is to encourage Helen, his white wife, to abort so that they can enjoy the financial success created by the anti-black product, she gives birth to a black child.  Matthew contemplates having the doctor kill his son, but it is Helen who manifests a liberal view of race, knowing she had “a beautiful, brown baby” (154).

          Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed (1934) illustrates the devaluation of individuality and human life in general.  Telling a lover “You’re just a parenthesis, darling, in life’s long dreary sentence” (110) is matched by another declaration that “life is the longest distance between two points” (127).  The final chapter, “Missis Flinders,” details Margaret’s self-abortion (339-57), wherein a unique perspective of the role of the father of the aborted child is offered, Margaret acknowledging that Miles, also, “had had an abortion” (353).

Kay Boyle’s My Next Bride (1934) presents a main character whose ambivalence about aborting or carrying a child to term runs throughout the novel.  Victoria may be persuaded to abort because she thinks how her deceased mother would react to news of her being single and pregnant.  She contemplates taking abortifacient pills: “Two of them six times a day until the murder is committed” (280) and then “Four of them ten times in the day” (285).  “For two cents I’d have the baby” (285) is countered ten pages later by “I’m taking some pills [….]  I’m trying not to have a baby” (295).  The abortifacient pill count increases—“Six of them twelve times a day and it doesn’t make any difference” (296).  Ultimately, she has “an operation” (311).

          Two novels by Josephine Herbst follow in the chronology.  Herbst’s The Executioner Waits (1934) repeats the archetype of a mother who wants to abort who dies before the decision to abort can be made.  Rosamond has “fears of pregnancy” (190), and, when she becomes pregnant by her lover, considers it an “awful thing” (208).  Jerry, the weak-willed father, says, “’You have to decide, it seems to me,’ said Jerry, biting his fingers.  ‘It’s your life.  I haven’t the right’” (209).  Although Rosamond finds an abortionist, she dies in a truck accident, thus eliminating the need to decide the morality of her abortion choice.  At novel’s end, Rosamond’s mother is deluded into thinking that her daughter wanted the baby.  Herbst’s Rope of Gold (1939) concerns miscarriage more than voluntary abortion.  Victoria lost her baby and continues to think of her miscarried child throughout the novel.  Abortion may be considered when Steve regrets putting his girlfriend Lorraine “into so much trouble” (280).

          Meridel LeSueur’s The Girl (1939) testifies to the enduring trauma of post-abortion syndrome.  Belle is a secondary character who frequently discusses her thirteen abortions throughout the novel (10, [53]-54, 75, and 139).  Despite urgings by other women and her lover, Girl affirms she will have the child and delivers her daughter.  This life-affirming ending is consistent with LeSueur’s idea that “This should be the function of the so-called writer, to mirror back the beauty of the people, to urge and nourish their vital expression and their social vision” [149].

          Dawn Powell’s A Time to Be Born (1942) documents the effects of Amanda’s view of sex as “currency” (788) and the romantic exchange between characters becomes as complicated as the financial world.  When she becomes pregnant by her lover, Ken, her friend Vicky (who is Ken’s girlfriend) makes an appointment with an abortionist, yet it is Vicky, not Amanda the mother, who reflects that “Under these dark imaginings ran the sickening knowledge that it was Ken’s child that was being denied birth” (1005).  Post-abortion syndrome manifests itself periodically when Vicky recalls her abortion as the “nightmare” (1006, 1007, and 1008).  Vicky and Ken marry at novel’s end, but they are both uncertain that he would never resume a relationship with his former lover Amanda.

          Finally, Ruth McKenney’s Jake Home (1943) illustrates conflicting views of marriage and childbearing.  Jake thinks that “maybe just being afraid of a kid” is the reason why he and his wife Margaret are childless (60); she uses Lysol as a birth control measure and calendars her periods.  Jake’s lover, Kate McDonough, thinks marriage is “a chain around my soul” (238); Jake wants the child, but Kate does not, for she resents being “any man’s property” (409).  Although Jakes defines how life should involve children, Kate reaffirms that she does not want a child.  Finding her drunk, Kate aborts, even after an apparent reconciliation with Jake.  Despite his pro-child philosophy, Jake tells her, “if you didn’t want it, you did the right thing” (444), but there is remorse after the abortion (445-6).

Works Which Significantly Concern Abortion

Although the remaining items in her catalog significantly discuss abortion in their plot development, Gillette either only casually mentions the various works in her notes or briefly cites or quotes them.  This last section, therefore, will not only examine how a right-to-life literary perspective applies to five novels which are significant markers of the topic of abortion, but also suggest pertinent questions for future research.  Proceeding chronologically, they are Pearl Doles Bell’s Gloria Gray, Love Pirate (1914), being representative of the second decade of the twentieth century; Floyd Dell’s Janet March (1923) and Viña Delmar’s Bad Girl (1928), to represent the twenties; Christopher Morley’s Kitty Foyle (1939), representative of the thirties; and Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women (1942), which contains ideas emergent in the forties which had great impact on subsequent decades.

          The intriguing title of Pearl Doles Bell’s Gloria Gray, Love Pirate (1914) may be attributable to a marketing strategy aimed for the young female reading audience who could identify with the eponymous heroine of the novel.[9]  What is more surprising is that Gillette does not feature the novel at all in her review of abortion works; certainly, a complete work of 333 pages written early in the century should have its abortion passages mentioned in detail.

          Gloria is the prototype of the young woman who comes to the big city for employment and adventure and is employed by a businessman who, unbeknown to her, is married.  One passage depicting their sexual passion must have been outrageously bold for the 1914 audience:

          “Stop,” I cried.  “Stop!”  You mustn’t talk so!”

          But he didn’t hear me.  He was taking the hair pins from my hair and when I tried to rise he held me back.  He was still on his knees at my side and when finally my hair tumbled in shimmering waves over the side of the bed the man seemed to go utterly mad.

          He was something primeval; a man of the stone age.  This mad, wild thing seemed to fit in with the storm outside.  He was a cave man of the time when brute strength was the only law.  He was anything but Mr. Cunningham of Chicago.

          I tried to scream but like one in a nightmare no sound seemed to come or if it did, no one heard it above the howl of the storm.  Almost roughly he tore the lace from my neck and his lips were hot against my throat.

          I cried and beat against his face, but he didn’t know it.  I had kindled a fire that I could not extinguish and my frightened nerves cried out against my folly.  Unwittingly I had put the cave man in power and brute strength was Law.  (164-5)

          The abortion chapter in the novel is as packed with emotion as the above passionate love scene.

          I had been taking treatments from a downtown physician who was none too reputable, and the day I was taken to the hospital I had gone home at noon with a chill.  Fifteen minutes after I had arrived at home one of the city’s prominent surgeons called, whispering to me at his first opportunity that Mr. Cunningham had sent him.

          I do not know what he told mother was the cause of my illness, nor what sort of an operation would have to be performed, but I do know he did not tell her the truth and that the maid was told that I had appendicitis.  (234)

Casual readers may be more interested in the question of whether duplicity and secrecy should be features of a liberated woman like Gloria.  From a right-to-life literary perspective, however, the reader needs to evaluate several other aspects.  A first question concerns whether Gloria’s quest to abort the child is a valid means of securing her economic and social happiness.  Second, while sexual ethics is not strictly a concern of right-to-life literary theory, considering this aspect is relevant when sexual activity results in a child.  Why, therefore, must it be taken for granted that married businessmen must prey on unmarried young women for sexual satisfaction and not be able to control their lustful urges?  Why do these men not understand their good fortune in being fathers?  Third, unless active anti-Catholicism prevented such support, why was there no assistance suggested for Gloria, when by the time of the novel’s composition, nascent pregnancy support services were available by Catholic orphanages such as that provided by Fr. Nelson Baker of the Our Lady of Victory complex of services in Lackawanna, New York?[10] 

Fourth, a right-to-life literary critique would ask why Gloria, the heroine, would value her sexual libertinism over the child created with her lover.  Taking “treatments” at the hands of a “downtown physician” implicitly shows that Gloria has relegated the unborn child to the status of a disease.  Perhaps the dehumanization of the unborn child is self-reflexive, the abortion episode showing the degree to which her own dehumanization occurs, for she herself has become, not a wife for a fellow human being, but just a sexual object for a male who is merely a “cave man” lover.

          Floyd Dell’s Janet March (1923) is a significant compilation of dating, sexual, and childbearing practices at the beginning of the flapper era.  Dating practices are documented and form a basis for Penelope expressing her concern about “the relentless and endless process of childbearing” to which a friend “enlightened” her about ways “to keep from having them [children]” (54).  Janet, Penelope’s daughter, is irreligious, writing in her diary that “I do not think I believe in God” (99), and a secular view informs her friend’s view on marriage; Janet’s friend and her fiancé would not marry until they had money.  Janet argues for pre-marital sex without having the “church and state interfere” (142); birth control is addressed enigmatically as “there are ways—” (152).  The nineteenth century belief in “law and order” (198) continues in Janet’s view of sex as “’Biology,’ thought Janet. / Not love” (204).  Suspecting she is pregnant, Janet approaches her cousin Harriet, who talks vaguely about abortion.  Janet subsequently has an abortion, and the longest paragraph in the novel ensues, an elaboration of the opening sentence that her abortion “wasn’t sin” (212-6).

          When she is pregnant again, Janet affirms that she will have the baby as emphatically as she claimed that her first abortion was not sinful: “And I’m going to have this one,’ she said defiantly, ‘whether you like it or not!’” (455; italics in original).  Speaking about the baby with Roger, the father, Janet proclaims, “at last you know what everything’s all about!” (456).

          A contemporary reader may find the denouement standard fare of a romance novel trying to end as happily as possible.  From a right-to-life literary perspective, however, as with Gloria Gray above, even though religious ethics is not primarily a concern of right-to-life literary theory, once a child is conceived, acting on the thought to abort him or her should be considered sinful as a moral check against the commission of an inhuman act.  Thus, while Gillette mentions that Janet March and Kitty Foyle explicitly consider their abortions not sins, the denotation of sin as a violation of a religious principle which breaks the bond between the human being and the Creator is not eradicated simply by a character asserting that aborting a child is not sinful and then supplying a unique denotation of the term to justify the killing, followed by yet another negation, and followed by still another definition by synonym, as Janet March does when she asserts, “Sin?  No, sin was something strange and terrible and mysterious.  It wasn’t sin.  What was it, then?  It was—freedom” (213).  This maze of definitions may be an effective rhetorical ploy in literature to show the spiritual distress that an aborted mother feels when confronted by the cognitive dissonance of her act, but it should not be construed as an example supporting Gillette’s claim that, “Unapologetic and committed to women’s reproductive autonomy, these narratives sound much like the arguments made by the 1960s women’s movement, which years later would also hold controlling one’s reproduction was a right, not a sin” (672).

          Secondly, why the narrator is unable to recognize that the pagan delight in the body which the March circle of friends espouses could be the Catholic joy of the body and not mere reduction to Janet’s “Biology [….]  Not love” distinction is a formidable question for future research.

Third, while it is commendable that Janet’s father discusses “the unmarried mother” and that the attendant shame which such a mother feels would not be removed by future social changes that the family discusses, why care for such mothers is not perceived as readily available from religious institutions of the day is a glaring gap in the narrative, a gap which may have been necessary to convey the dire circumstances of the unwed mother, thus confirming Janet’s abortion (which had occurred 200 pages earlier).

A final question for a future right-to-life researcher is the curious philosophical revelation that Janet, an atheist, reaches at novel’s end.  If having a child helps a woman to “know what everything’s all about!”, then does such an exclamation verify the existence of a natural law which pertains to men and women?  If such a natural law exists, then voluntary abortion, which breaks the normal progression of that law, is an evil which must not be experienced for the benefit not only of the unborn child, but also for the mother and father of the child.

          Viña Delmar’s Bad Girl (1928) closes literary discussion of dating, sexual, and childbearing practices at the end of the flapper era.  Dot Haley and Eddie Collins are irreligious, racist, and anti-Semitic.  They fornicate, and, quickly marrying, Dot becomes pregnant.  Dot seems to consider abortion as birth control.  When abortifacients fail, Maude, Dot’s friend who has a secular view of life, suggests “an operation” (107) and even recommends an abortionist.  Dot visits the abortionist for a check-up and finds a standard dirty office and slovenly abortionist.  In contrast to Maude, Edna, another of Dot’s friends, advocates a pro-life position, and Dot decides to have the baby and investigates a sanitarium where she would deliver.  Afterwards, Dot vows that she “would try not to have any more children” (266).

           A contemporary reader would find the experiences of a young couple in love and faced with an untimely pregnancy a simple narrative, repeated throughout the twentieth century in books and films.  (Bad Girl was a commercially successful book and film.)  From a right-to-life literary perspective, however, several elements of an otherwise life-affirming narrative are disturbing and indicate deeper problems about the value of human life that the apparently happy young couple manifests.  Racist and possibly bigoted comments pepper the novel, with explicit references to “niggers” occurring twice (162 and 241) and an episode of being “contaminated” by an African-American person shortly after the baby’s birth (266).

African Americans are not the only ones who suffer indignity in the novel.  Although there is the customary comment about Al Smith not being electable “because he’s a Catholic” (176), more negative attention is given to a Jewish aborted mother, who, instead of being shown compassion, is viewed as an artifact for observation: “The Jewess had a sister-in-law who had had eleven abortions.  Dot was promised a glimpse of her [….]  Dot would know her by the big diamond she wore” (233).  With such derogatory and stereotypical statements, can a life-affirming act such as the birth of a child be celebrated?  Weighing this literary challenge needs to be evaluated at greater length by future researchers.

          Christopher Morley’s Kitty Foyle (1939) continues the exploration of, if not racial, then ethnic diversity involved in abortion narratives.  The narrative is obviously a retrospective of her abortion since it is mentioned early in the work: “that baby, if it had been born” ([27]).  Since she and Wyn, her lover, had sex without “precautions” ([257]), Kitty is pregnant.  Before she is able to tell Wyn about the baby, Kitty reads in a paper that he is engaged.  Her employer gives her the name of an abortionist, and she has an immediate post-abortion reaction.  Fortunately, she rebounds from her first love affair when she meets her new beau, Dr. Mark (Marcus) Eisen, who is Jewish and, besides being “so hairy”, is identified as a different “race” (280).

Seven years later, Kitty matures significantly.  She sees Wyn’s son and remarks “that might have been my baby” (288; italics in original).  Even though Kitty has no religion of her own (her family heritage is Orange Irish), her maturity manifests itself in an ecumenical tone.  Unlike other abortion novels mentioned above, Kitty expresses admiration for Catholic support of a maternity hospital:

[Her friend Fedor] was telling me about the Cardinal in Chicago who instead of bawling in the pulpit about contraceptions and abortions went ahead and got an inexpensive maternity hospital started.  Of course you’ve got to be legally wedlocked before you can use their delivery room, that’s a disadvantage, but the point is they sell you the whole doings for $50 and people that couldn’t afford it otherwise can throw a baby there and like it.

          That’s what I call citizenship.  (311)

Despite, or perhaps because of, such maturity, Kitty reflects on the life of her aborted child often.  She calculates that her aborted child would have been seventy in 2000.

          Made into a successful film as was Viña Delmar’s Bad Girl, a contemporary reader or film aficionado may consider this novel as the progression of the liberated woman into a wider social circle, overcoming obstacles such as post-abortion syndrome and social prejudices.  From a right-to-life literary perspective, however, the reader would rejoice that post-abortion syndrome frames the entire work to make it coherent.  That Gillette focuses on Kitty Foyle’s exclamation that her abortion was not sinful (“I couldn’t feel any kind of wrongness.  I did what I had to do” 672) is interestingly one-sided, but what were neglected were Kitty’s expressions of post-abortion syndrome and regret—carried to the end of the novel—for killing her unborn child.  The entire work is a retrospective, the abortion being mentioned on unnumbered page 27, and the post-abortion reflection on page 272 is a literary pivot necessary to lead the protagonist to her future love.  Moreover, unlike Delmar’s Bad Girl, ethnic and racial prejudice are resolved in the narrative, a few years before the United States tested its unity in fighting first a world war and then a cold one while rising to economic and military power.  The resolution of such ethnic prejudice, which means that a crucial change occurred in the understanding of the value of human life, must be reserved for future pro-life research in race theory.

          Finally, Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women (1942) connects the experiences of several women whose sexual passions and life ambitions converge: Leda March, whose distinguishing characteristic is her love of solitude and social success; Maizie Jekyll, who has a continuing and unhealthy relationship with Lambert Rudd; and Betsy, Maizie’s sister.

While all three women have either promiscuous sexual or abortion experiences, it is Maizie’s activity throughout the novel which is the most detailed regarding the effects of her abortion.  When Maizie thinks she is pregnant, Lambert suggests “a man” who could “do something about it” (57).  Later, Lambert grudgingly marries her.  Maizie seeks a doctor for abortion information and is given a prescription for quinine and castor oil; he also drops the name of an abortionist.  Maizie eventually aborts and immediately experiences post-abortion syndrome; she also has a second operation post-abortion to control an infection.  Lambert complicates the narrative with several contradictory statements: he says that the abortion was Maizie’s idea and that Maizie tricked him into marriage.  Maizie becomes pregnant again, but Lambert wants it “stopped” (187); Leda’s friend, Nicola, also thinks Maizie should have the baby “stopped” (191).  Facing such pressure, Maizie tells her sister Betsy she had an “operation” (256), and Maizie thinks of herself as “evil” (337).  Maizie relates a litany of grudges against Lambert, most dating from the time of her abortion.  Even though she is able to express her grudges, when recalling her abortion, Maizie pleads, “nobody must know” (531; italics in original). 

          A contemporary reader may find Hale’s novel familiar; a trinity of women desiring either career success or sexual pleasure not resulting in pregnancy is a common scheme in contemporary literature and films; one thinks, for example, of both the book and film version of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.  Leda and the other women in Hale’s novel recapitulate major ideas of the four decades of the twentieth century and can suggest the negative social terrain into which women were headed in the second half of the century.  They are physically abused by men; in a passage as revolting in 2015 as much as it was in 1942, Betsy lets Hector slap her twice, throw his drink in her face, and call her “bitch” (378).  Women harbor deep resentments, as Maizie demonstrates, when she utters her grudges against Lambert.  Ultimately, women are alone, an idea to which Leda testifies in an awkward syntax, “I only love alone” (556).

A right-to-life literary perspective, however, would bring new questions for consideration.  Leda’s love of nature and being alone punctuate the novel frequently; she enjoys the solitude of woods in snow (49), her love of nature becomes rhapsodic at one point (115), she delights in the snow at Christmas (394-5), and the novel ends with love for nature in October (555) and a clear reiteration that Leda prefers being alone (555-6).  Are such descriptive passages mere pauses in the narrative, breathing spaces in an often violent narrative, or do these depictions of natural beauty contrast the unnatural activity of the human characters?

Even more curious for a future researcher is Hector’s (Betsy’s lover) sudden desire to return to Catholicism.  This, also, is unexpected (there is no indication that organized religion plays a significant role in any of the characters’ lives), so the shock value of such a plot development gains the reader’s attention.  Perhaps Hector finds something in the religion which can make sense of the actions of the various disordered lives detailed over the course of five hundred pages.  Perhaps there is a stability in the faith which Hector realizes, which Leda could yet realize since she prefers immersion in solitude, which Maizie might also experience if she overcame her sense of being evil, and a future pro-life researcher could develop as the connection between the value of unborn and born life.

It is no wonder, given the disheartening versions of abortion narratives of the early twentieth century, that Simone de Beauvoir and American abortion activists like Betty Friedan found such a fertile population in which to grow their life-denying version of feminism.  Fortunately, both current research and the subsequent waves of pro-life researchers can develop the corpus of anti- and pro-life fiction to an even higher degree so that, besides enjoying the works as literature, society can learn from the mistakes of fictional characters in the past to protect and improve human life in the future.

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[1] The author wishes to thank David Mall, a rhetorician colleague, who took time from working on his sixth book to present this paper at the annual conference of University Faculty for Life in Minneapolis on 30 May 2015.

[2] See, for example, a discussion of Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1925) and Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927) in the author’s An Ethical Analysis of the Portrayal of Abortion in American Fiction: Dreiser, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Brautigan, and Irving (Studies in American Literature 78; Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen P, 2005).  Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “The Mother” (1945) is considered briefly in two other papers: “Abortion in the African-American Community: Sociological Data and Literary Examples” and in “Poetry on the Right-to-Life Issues of Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia: Commentary from Scansion of the Poems.”  Arnold Zweig’s novel Young Women of 1914 (translated from the German and published in the United States in 1932) is considered in “European Abortion Novels: Documenting a Fidelity to the Milieu.”

[3] Such is the case with the following works by canonical authors: John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer (1925), William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun” (1931), Sinclair Lewis’ Ann Vickers (1932), Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937), Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (published as The Wild Palms in 1939), Robert Penn Warren’s At Heaven’s Gate (1943), Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit (1944), Sinclair Lewis’ Kingsblood Royal (1945), and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943).

[4] Throughout the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, the following three items listed in Gillette’s catalog were either unpublished or unobtainable: Josephine Herbst’s Following the Circle (1922), which remains unpublished; Dorothy Day’s The Eleventh Virgin (1924) and Margery Latimer’s This Is My Body (1930), both held in a non-circulating collection at The Ohio State University.

[5] Three items from Gillette’s catalog are classified as autobiography and contain minor references to abortion.  Lester Ward’s Young Ward’s Diary (1935) documents that in 1864 his wife took an abortifacient, that the “pills” and “the instrument” (150) she took were “ineffective” (151), and that he saw a doctor “concerning secret affairs between me and my wife” (152).  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek (1942) contains ambiguous language where references to “a remedy” for a mother with many kids, a woman who “needed a minor operation” (136), and a character needing an “operation” which is clearly not an abortion (203-4) are balanced by a reference to ergot as “killer of human unborn” (360), a woman of the town getting a “remedy” (a tubal ligation?) (361), and a summary assertion that life is better than death (364-5).  Besides references to “contagious abortion” of Holstein cattle (43 and 99), Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I (1945) mentions human abortion.  A townsman offers to abort the narrator with “a plain old-fashioned buttonhook” (99); the narrator thinks he should be arrested, but another person just laughs at his suggestion (100).  Asafetida bags are used either as a contraceptive or an abortifacient, and there is a final reference to “home-aborting” (224).

[6] Towner and Carothers do not mention abortion at all in their 2006 research, but instead focus on how “’Hair’ has often attracted readers interested in identifying and tracing various patterns of character, technique, and theme in Faulkner’s fiction” (74)—abortion, apparently, not being one of the themes.

[7] Carl Sprague reports that Yale Hill Pictures’ script “is very faithful to Wharton’s extraordinary book” and that “Current plans are to shoot in July 2015.”  Interested persons may contact him at

[8] See the author’s An Ethical Analysis of the Portrayal of Abortion in American Fiction: Dreiser, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Brautigan, and Irving (Studies in American Literature 78; Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen P, 2005). 

[9] In this regard, the marketing approach has withstood the test of time, for popular paperback romance novels geared for the female reading public still feature glossy covers of buff young men grappling svelte young women in a variety of poses meant either to be sensuous or (in a more comical vein) laughable for their back-breaking possibilities.

[10] See Gribble’s discussion of Fr. Baker’s work to prevent abortion and infanticide (112ff).


Making Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia Funny: Determining Whether Five Principles of Comedy Derived from Ancient Writers Apply to Attempts at Humor by Contemporary Comedians

Abstract:  After reviewing sources on comedic theory from the ancient world to the present, this research collates five principles which constitute comedy as a category of literature distinct from tragedy.  This study then determines whether the principles apply to contemporary instances of humor attempted by professional comedians on the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

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

          How then did the culture get to the point where comedy includes something much less innocent (or indecent, vulgar, or offensive), like Michelle Wolf’s relatively flaccid abortion joke: “Mike Pence is very anti-choice.  He thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don’t knock it til you try it.  And when you do try it, really knock it.  You’ve got to get that baby out of there” (qtd. in Romm)?[1]  Similarly, how does one account for the following more aggressive abortion joke by Louis C.K.?

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

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

          For now, though, the astute reader of these attempts at comedy would wonder how these quotes qualify as examples of comedy.  While the popular culture would place these attempts at humor in a subcategory of comedy called jokes, pro-life people would find these feeble attempts at humor offensive and not worthy of the designation of joke at all.  Thus, any interest in comedy and the life issues, therefore, should begin with two areas of research: ascertaining what constitutes humor and determining whether contemporary comedy on the life issues comports with millennia-accepted standards and definitions of this ancient mode of literature.

          An objection can be raised that jokes are entirely different from comedy in general.  After all, maybe the history and the standards for jokes are not the same as the history and criteria for comedy (which is one of two major categories of literature, whether the comedy is conveyed in poems, dramas, or entire novels).  This central objection is easily answered.  All literature is a series of two bifurcations before specifics within the categories can be determined.  That is, literature is first divided into either fiction or nonfiction.  Although nonfiction works could employ irony or jokes to make a rhetorical point, the entire division of nonfiction literature involves the communication of information, data, statistics, position statements, abstract thinking, and speculation on other serious matters.

Similarly, fiction can be bifurcated into two genres, tragedy and comedy.  The specific forms of comedy include comedies proper (as in ancient Greek works such as Lysistrata), written or verbal jokes, or other manifestations of humor.  While the ancient, classical, and medieval worlds considered “literature” to consist of written materials, even of dramas performed and eventually written, our contemporary world includes many more forms of comedy beyond the written word, such as television shows and Internet sources, like Mark Dice’s masterly YouTube commentaries on leftist media and popular culture.  Comedy in contemporary society is still one unified category of literature, albeit displayed in many formats.

          No matter in what format comedic material is found in contemporary culture, the varieties of comedy embody the essential aspects of that category, distinct from tragedy.  A joke is not a nonfiction work like a biography or a philosophical treatise; a joke is such because it partakes of the essential aspects of its parent, comedy.

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

Principles of Comedy from Ancient Greece

          Comedy can boast of a history two and a half millennia old; scholars have identified comedy as an art form which evolved simultaneously with tragedy, whose origin “came into being sometime during the sixth century B.C.” (Casson 3).  Although the exact origin of comedy itself is obscure, most scholars are able to generalize the circumstances behind the historical roots of the genre.  For example, Whitney Jennings Oates and Charles Theophilus Murphy write that “The origins of the form are the subject of an endless debate; but whether the immediate predecessor of comedy was the phallic song (as Aristotle says) or a ‘beast-comos’ with a chorus of revelers disguised as animals is a question which need not be argued here” (383).

          Postwar research continued to provide similar generalizations of the history of comedy.  Lionel Casson notes that “Crude comic performances that formed part of rustic festivals very likely go back to society’s earliest history” (3).  Moses Hadas asserts that “About the early history of comedy we know little—mainly because Aristotle did not like comedy and scanted it in his Poetics—but there can be no doubt that its origins are to be connected with a fertility cult, in which the element of sex would naturally be central” (5).  F. L. Lucas writes that, while “The origins of Attic comedy were already obscure to Aristotle[,] he supposed it to have arisen from phallic processions and dances.  But, until the fifth century opens, comedy has left even dimmer traces of its growth than tragedy” (364).

          What these researchers have in common is a reliance on Aristotle, who established the essential features of comedy, differentiating it from tragedy.  Aristotle provides the following extended definition of “comedy” in Poetics (335 BC):

As for Comedy, it is […] an imitation of men worse than the average; worse, however, not as regards any and every sort of fault, but only as regards one particular kind, the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly.  The Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others; the mask, for instance, that excites laughter, is something ugly and distorted without causing pain.  (1449a 32ff; 229)

Regarding comedy’s history, Aristotle further writes, in a series of negations which may confuse contemporary readers, that “Though the successive changes in Tragedy and their authors are not unknown, we cannot say the same of Comedy; its early stages passed unnoticed, because it was not as yet taken up in a serious way” (1449a 32ff; 229).

Beyond these points, determining what else Aristotle had to say about comedy cannot be accurately determined since “the section of the Poetics dealing with comedy seems to have been written but lost [although] Aristotelian scholars (including Lane Cooper and Elder Olsen) have attempted to reconstruct what a poetics of comedy would be like” (Richter 63).  One can, however, surmise what else Aristotle may have written about comedy.  Since the section on comedy in Poetics is lost, while Aristotle may seem to have little to say about the principles behind comedy, later literary critics and scholars have been able to read much into his work and that of other ancient writers.  For example, Dryden asserts that, “Of that book which Aristotle has left us [Poetics] Horace’s Art of Poetry is an excellent comment, and, I believe, restores to us that second book of his concerning comedy, which is wanting in him” (qtd. in Richter 167).[2]

Although it is interesting that some scholars omit comedy in their discussion of ancient Greek literature,[3] there is sufficient commentary from the last two millennia to identify major principles of this significant area of literature.  One scholarly consensus, for example, is that ancient Greek culture established comedy as an important element of human life, separate from tragedy, and the effort to determine comedy’s chronology acknowledges not only its secular, but also its religious practice.  This first principle should be evident, even if scholars’ claims about ancient Greek comedy may be incomprehensible to contemporary culture, bereft of knowledge of the ancient world because of a deficit in the common knowledge base and, supposedly, ignorant of major religious ideas which form the bases of Western culture.

Contemporary understanding of this first principle may be further hampered if the language of literary critics studying comedy is more florid than explanatory.  For example, Lucas summarizes the ancient origins of Greek comedy thus:

Comedy, curiously enough, is the child of religion.  So is Tragedy; but that seems less surprising.  Yet, after all, to the moods of man Nature herself appears a thing of moods, now grim, now gentle, now gay, now sinister [….]  And since Nature brings forth birth and death—the joy of her inexhaustible fertility, the melancholy of her insatiable massacres—it was understandable that the Nature-worship of primitive Greece should embody both aspects […].  Comedy (k­omoidia) is “the song of the revelers”—of merry mummers for whom grossness was not merely amusing, but a religious ritual to arouse Nature’s fecundity.[4]  And since the primitive temperament is not only gross but also aggressive, these early mummers were not only indecent, but also scurrilous….  (363)

Unfortunately, Lucas’ language could confuse a contemporary reader and obscure the otherwise straightforward explanation of the etymology of comedy and the lucid yet poetically-worded summary of its philosophy.

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

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

Similarly, Hadas reiterates not only the political element of comedy, but also its call to action as when, discussing “Aristophanes’ mature commentary on perennial problems of political and social life”, he notes that

All the classic poets were looked upon and looked upon themselves as serious teachers  [….]  The tragic poet might explore large questions of the ways of God to man; the comic poet told his audience what was wrong with foreign policy or politicians, or how educationists were corrupting sound learning or neoteric poets corrupting good taste, and he invited immediate action, not merely a change in attitude.  (7) [5]

The second constituent element identifies one activity of human life which is often the basis for much ancient (and contemporary) humor, sexuality: “Where the tragic actor was heightened and padded to heroic size, his comic counterpart in the fifth century was made grotesque, not only by his mask, but also by an exaggerated belly and rump, often with phallus as well” (Lucas 366).  Where Lucas suggests by the use of the adverb “often” that the phallus was optional, Casson asserts that its inclusion was essential: “The actors of comedy, in addition, were grotesquely padded about the belly and buttocks, and, of course, wore the phallic symbol” (6; emphasis added).

Although Oates and Murphy refer briefly to “the essence of the constant and startling indecency in early comedy” (383), Hadas expands the catalog of what is indecent and the cognitive process at work in that expansion:

Intellectual fun, needless to say, is not necessarily lofty.  Pie-throwing and prat-falls are intellectual jokes, not humor.  The basis of the intellectual joke is manifest incongruity.  Very often, as notably in Rabelais as in Aristophanes, the incongruity depends on kinds of word play: a pun is funny because it brings together two meanings of a word that are really incongruous.  But puns are not the only kind of incongruity.  […]  If it were habitual with us to keep the queer members which flap at either side of our heads scrupulously swathed, nothing could be funnier than to see them unexpectedly exposed.  That is why the phalluses and talk about them which are ordinarily discreetly covered are funny when exposed to an audience.  (3-4)

Whether the pun was intended or not, Hadas proves the point by making the reader aware that the two senses of the term “expose” involve both the innocent and the indecent.

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

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

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

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

          To recapitulate, the following are principles of comedy culled from ancient Greek authors which shall form the basis of this study’s analysis of contemporary attempts at comedy on the life issues:

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

While the intent of this research is to focus on comedy, whether the above principles distilled from the scholarship about the ancient world’s view of comedy are valid or not can be justified by comparing and contrasting comedy’s relationship with tragedy, especially as manifested in contemporary culture.  Thus, some further commentary can be provided for each of the five principles.  Moreover, it can be shown that the ancient ideas about tragedy and comedy persist in contemporary literature, “contemporary” here meaning not only literary works of the modern period since the sixteenth century but twentieth-century dramas specifically with which most educated readers are familiar.

On the first principle, it must be granted that tragedy has maintained its distinction from comedy, which not only the ancient Greek authors stated, but also Roman and subsequent comic dramatists considered as a foundational principle.  This strict division between the genres even applies for the Roman dramatist Plautus and literary critics after him who created the “tragicomedy” category.[6]  Objecting to attempts at humor on the life issues by comedians who transgress the boundary between the genres will be an important aspect of this study.

Regarding the second principle, some further comment should be made about the difference between tragedy and comedy in that the former does not “allow great liberty in examining and commenting on ordinary matters in human life.”  Ancient Greek drama displayed the actions of monarchs, characters associated with the Greek pantheon, and aristocratic persons.  Ordinary characters in tragedy represented functions, not common folk; they were servants, messengers, shepherds, etc.  While contemporary tragic drama may not concern the lives of gods and royal persons, even with the dominant realism in contemporary tragic drama dating from the nineteenth century, the audience cannot identify with most tragic characters.  Characters in such dramas—whether in film or television shows—often do not match the ordinary lives of most moderns.  How many persons are as bereft of hope as Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman?  The extreme circumstances, sexual escapades, and financial fortunes of soap opera characters alone are leagues away from most people who are content to have one spouse and a couple of jobs until retirement and who have financial hardships and a few medical problems.  Susan Lucci deserved her Emmy award for decades of acting which involved numerous lovers, financial extremes, and medical problems in All My Children, but how many persons can match the byzantine episodes of her life?

On the third principle, ancient tragic drama involved sexual content, but the content was addressed implicitly, unlike ancient comic drama, where sexuality was addressed explicitly.  Oedipus’ sexual experiences with his mother are not acted on the stage, but related by Jocasta, his mother and wife, as something understood by the ancient audience as an ordinary psychological matter, albeit one which Freud later developed into his theory of the Oedipus Complex.  Similarly, modern dramas undoubtedly engage in sexual content; however, unless the drama dwells on the pornographic, the focus is not on the sexual activity itself, but on the consequences of that action.  For example, if indulging in fornication or adultery may lead to an untimely pregnancy, the contemporary drama addresses such illicit sexual behavior much more seriously than a comedic form would.  Neither Eugene O’Neill’s Abortion (1914) nor Peyton Place in its film or television forms would succeed as comedies because the topics of the dramas could not possibly be comedic.

Fourth, like ancient Greek drama, contemporary comedy does include political persons because they are safe to criticize or excoriate as public servants.  Oedipus was safely criticized in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex for his hamartia of rash anger, but there is nothing essentially comedic about his description of the murder scene of his father and attendants.  Similarly, contemporary audiences would watch in horror as human beings are rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the film Schindler’s List; no one could possibly find anything comedic about the events or fault Schindler in trying to save Jews from the Nazis.

Finally, most obviously, watching a tragedy creates negative emotions (fear, sadness, or something similar) which are purged from the viewer by means of the drama, and this catharsis is essential according to Aristotle.  Unless a reader or viewer were most perverse, who would laugh at the description of Oedipus’ gouging out his eyes or a Christian being beheaded by an Islamic terrorist?[7]  In contrast, comedy is able to induce an audience to laughter, no matter if the work is as old as a Shakespeare situational comedy or how many times a comedy is viewed.  The wooing of Kate by Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1592) is still endearing, and it is noteworthy that our appreciation of the humor of the wooing obtains despite decades of feminist attempts to condemn the scenes as manifestations of heteropatriarchal oppression of women.  Similarly, Lucille Ball’s “Vitameatavegamin” episode on the I Love Lucy comedy show maintains its status as a comedic masterpiece, even though television audiences have since enjoyed nearly seven decades of other skits after Ball’s famous episode was broadcast in 1952.

Principles of Comedy After Ancient Greece

The chronology of literary theorists who, while not elaborating, then certainly ratifying or reiterating the essential principles of comedy from its Greek origins can be quickly summarized.  Greek comedy developed these principles over at least several hundred years, and most scholars maintain that Roman comedy merely appropriated Greek dramas and comedies and the theoretical principles behind them to the point of repetition.[8]

By the thirteenth century, however, in his Letter to Can Grande della Scala (1314-1317 or 1319-1320) Dante provides a clearer point-counterpoint definition of comedy for his era:

Comedy, then, is a certain genre of poetic narrative differing from all others.  For it differs from tragedy in its matter, in that tragedy is tranquil and conducive to wonder at the beginning, but foul and conducive to horror at the end, or catastrophe, for which reason it is derived from tragos, meaning “goat,” and oda, making it, as it were, a “goat song,” that is, foul as a goat is foul.  […]  Comedy, on the other hand, introduces a situation of adversity, but ends its matter in prosperity, as is evident in Terence’s comedies.  […]  And, as well, they differ in their manner of speaking.  Tragedy uses an elevated and sublime style, while comedy uses an unstudied and low style, which is what Horace implies in the Art of Poetry where he allows comic writers occasionally to speak like the tragic….  (qtd. in Richter 122-3)

          Two centuries later, after prefacing his remarks on comic poets as those “whom naughty play-makers and stage-keepers have justly made odious”,[9] Sir Philip Sidney defines “the comedy” in his An Apology for Poetry (1583) as

an imitation of the common errors of our life, which he representeth in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one.

Now, as in geometry the oblique must be known as well as the right, and in arithmetic the odd as well as the even, so in the actions of our life who seeth not the filthiness of evil wanteth a great foil to perceive the beauty of virtue.  This doth the comedy handle so in our private and domestical matters, as with hearing it we get as it were an experience [….]  So that the right use of comedy will (I think) by nobody be blamed….  (qtd. in Richter 147)

          Nearly two more centuries after Sidney, Samuel Johnson affirms Sidney’s claims about the coarseness of comedy in his Preface to Shakespeare (1765).[10]  In the early nineteenth century, Percy Bysshe Shelley has stronger words about the decline of the dramatic arts of both tragedy and comedy in his A Defence of Poetry (written 1821, published 1840), focusing on how social decay and obscenity affected the genres.[11]  By the end of the nineteenth century, George Meredith’s 1877 essay expands the study of comedy slightly.  He shifts criteria for the appreciation of comedy from the literary form itself or from the comedian to the audience, and he does so early in the essay, in its second paragraph:

There are plain reasons why the Comic poet is not a frequent apparition; and why the great Comic poet remains without a fellow.  A society of cultivated men and women is required, wherein ideas are current and the perceptions quick, that he may be supplied with matter and an audience.  The semi-barbarism of merely giddy communities, and feverish emotional periods, repel him; and also a state of marked social inequality of the sexes; nor can he whose business is to address the mind be understood where there is not a moderate degree of intellectual activity.

Later in his essay, Meredith clearly stipulates the moral force of comedy[12] and affirms the ancient idea of comedy being concerned with ordinary events in human life: “Comedy thus treated may be accepted as a version of the ordinary worldly understanding of our social life; at least, in accord with the current dicta concerning it.”[13]

Twentieth-century literary criticism of comedy reaffirms the ancient ideas, refining them slightly.  Bakhtin’s discussion of “common language”, defined as “usually the average norm of spoken and written language for a given social group” in a passage from “Discourse in the Novel” (1934-1935), may be most instructive when analyzing the role of the comic as author and his or her audience as the targeted social group (qtd. in Richter 588).  Moreover, if some substitutions were made in the passage below, Bakhtin’s further commentary about the interaction between author and his or her language can be read as directly pertaining to the comic and his or her audience:

The relationship of the author to a language conceived as the common view is not static—it is always found in a state of movement and oscillation that is more or less alive (this sometimes is a rhythmic oscillation): the author exaggerates, now strongly, now weakly, one or another aspect of the “common language,” sometimes abruptly exposing its inadequacy to its object and sometimes, on the contrary, becoming one with it, maintaining an almost imperceptible distance, sometimes even forcing it to reverberate with his own “truth,” which occurs when the author completely merges his own voice with the common view.  (qtd. in Richter 588)

Northrop Frye continues the sexual function of comedy as one of his essential four archetypes, although its categorization undergoes a significant shift.  In the essay “The Archetypes of Literature” (1951), Frye includes the “archetype of comedy, pastoral, and idyll” under the second phase (“The zenith, summer, and marriage or triumph phase”); Richter notes that “In Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye shifted romance to the summer season and comedy from summer to spring” (698).  This shift seems more in tune with the natural order of events, presuming that sexual activity occurs in spring, leading to its fruition of new life throughout the “summer” season.

Late twentieth-century literary criticism on comedy has little to offer the twenty-first century reader regarding how this genre of literature addresses the right-to-life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.[14]  This lack of scholarly attention is surprising since the life issues became prominent political matters after the violation of the first civil right began in the last third of the twentieth century.  Perhaps critiquing the efforts of comedians who attempt to make the life issues funny is not worthy of scholarly attention, especially since the anti-life sector of the scholarly community is itself aligned with life-denying values.  That is, many anti-life academics think that abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are solutions to topics that academia thinks are vitally more important issues, such as overpopulation (so-called), often referenced as a support for the killing of the unborn child, or concern with one’s quality of life and autonomy—these two concepts often cited in support of killing the handicapped newborn in infanticide and killing the elderly and medically vulnerable in euthanasia.

Even contemporary literary guides either ignore the principles of comedy or ignore them so that comedy is defined simplistically, avoiding the rich detail of ancient authors who defined the genre and subsequent authors who refined it.  For example, M. H. Abrams defines “comedy” in his 1999 glossary as:

In the most common literary application, a comedy is a fictional work in which the materials are selected and managed primarily in order to interest and amuse us: the characters and their discomfitures engage our pleasurable attention rather than our profound concern, we are made to feel confident that no great disaster will occur, and usually the action turns out happily for the chief characters.  (38)

Such a reduction of the purposes of comedy omits several key ideas from the ancient world’s understanding of the genre, and the omissions will have a profound effect on criticism’s ability to evaluate comedic works by persons who oppose the right to life of the unborn, the handicapped newborn, and the elderly.

          Now that some key principles of what constitutes comedy have been identified, the task remaining for this study is determining whether contemporary comedy on the life issues, manifested most succinctly in jokes, meets the criteria suggested by those principles.  Excepting research within the past half century on the “dead baby joke” cycle, and granting that comedy on infanticide is rare,[15] there are a larger number of attempts to make the remaining two life issues comedic.  For brevity’s sake, Louis C.K.’s joke will be considered as an attempt at abortion comedy, five of the dead baby jokes will be reviewed as attempts at infanticide comedy, and the episode involving Teri Schiavo in the Family Guy television series will be analyzed as an attempt at euthanasia humor.

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

          Louis C.K.’s abortion joke has been criticized for its stark and offensive treatment of abortion, yet audiences laugh at his humor.[16]  Here again is the joke as recorded by Felsenthal:

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

          Tackling Louis C.K.’s joke according to the ancient principles may be difficult because one is struck immediately by logical fallacies obvious throughout the joke.  The multiple negations in the joke, from the first line (“should not get an abortion unless”) to the simpler “It is or it isn’t”, impede the understanding of the attempt’s possible humor.  Also impeding an easy understanding of the meaning behind the joke is the vulgarity throughout.  Louis C.K. does not use “fuck” as the low register term for marital sexual activity; instead, he uses it as an alternative to “hesitate”, where “Don’t fuck around” means more “Don’t wait” than the sexual denotation of the term.  Similarly, Louis C.K. does not use “shit” as the low register term for excrement.  He uses the terms as interjections, which may appeal to the audience as a shock value, but the terms do nothing to advance the intent of the joke.

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

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

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

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

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

“Dead Baby Jokes” as Attempts at Infanticide Comedy

          Alan Dundes’ research on dead baby jokes is noteworthy not only for having collected several popular jokes in the cycle, but also for providing commentary on the sociology behind such jokes.  Dundes notes that the jokes are delivered as riddles, often beginning with the interrogative “what”, as in that example which he identifies as “probably the most common dead baby joke […] What’s red and sits in a corner?  A baby chewing (teething on, eating, sucking on)[17] razor blades” (151).[18]  Gruesomeness is characteristic of these jokes, as in the following example, which aligns itself with the innocuous joke which begins this study: “How did the dead baby cross the road?  He was stapled to a chicken” (Dundes 152).

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

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

Dundes’ conclusion about the dead baby jokes is trenchant: “Folklore is always a reflection of the age in which it flourishes and so whether we like it or not, the dead baby cycle is a reflection of American culture in the 1960s and 1970s.  If we do not like the image, we should not blame the mirror.  If anything is sick, it is the society which produces such humor” (155).  It is not anachronistic, but prophetic to say that this statement applies to the culture of 2020 as much as it did to the culture of 1979 when his research was first published.[19]

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

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

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

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

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

What’s red and swings?  A baby on a meathook.

The first matter to address regarding the above sample dead baby jokes is that they are not entirely about infanticide since they concern mutilation of corpses of newborns.  The first three jokes meet this criterion while the remaining two properly involve a born child being killed or in the act of dying; whether the narrator is a participant in the killing is irrelevant.[20]  Thus, on the first principle from ancient Greek comedy, it could be correct to place the jokes in the category of comedy instead of tragedy since the death of the human being, the newborn child, has already occurred.  That is, it is “safe” to find humor when the person who might suffer from the attempt at humor is no longer living.[21]  The ability to classify these jokes as comedy is enhanced because, like many abortion jokes, the dead babies are not named.  That is, the joke does not involve the threat to the life of an actual human being named Miroslav when he plays with razor blades or to the dying or dead body of an actual human being who is or was once named Catherine which is impaled on a meathook, but a nondescript, unnamed baby, identified only by either the definite or the indefinite article.  Even with such tortured rationalization, however, abuse of a corpse is inherently a tragic and not a comedic act.

The dead baby jokes nuance the second principle (commenting on ordinary matters in human life) since they invariably place ordinary objects in extraordinary situations.  This juxtaposition is a typical comedic strategy, where the expected use of an object becomes unexpected and therefore humorous.  For example, the many uses of a whipped cream pie include displaying it in a bakery window, eating it, having it accidentally fall onto the floor, etc.[22]  Comedy results when such a pie is not being eaten but thrown into the face of one of the Three Stooges.  In dead baby jokes, however, the extraordinary placements of things like staples, bowling balls, pitchforks, nails used to affix things to walls, razor blades, and meathooks are used not within, but beyond their ordinary classifications.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although the visual rhetoric of the show must be relegated to future research, since this study is focused on determining if the five principles culled from ancient Greek comedy apply to this contemporary example of euthanasia humor, considering the linguistic component only must suffice.  The following is a transcription of the opening sequence of the episode:[23]

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

Child 2 (Doctor): She’s a vegetable.

Child 3 (Doctor): I hate vegetables.


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

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

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

This one keeps her liver clean.

This one checks her pee.

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

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

Chorus: Ha ha ha

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

This one checks her veins.

And this dispenses gravy for her mashed potato brains.

Chorus: Oh oh oh

Terri Schiavo is kind of alive-o.

What a lively little bugger.

Bass child doctor: Maybe we should just unplug her.

Chorus: Terri Schiavo is kind of alive-o.

The most expensive plant you’ll ever see.


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

It’s in the Constitution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          This examination of attempts at humor on the life issues of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia by contemporary comedians has documented specific examples showing that such efforts have failed.  Not only that, but modern comedians’ attempts at comedy on the life issues indicate that what passes for humor on these issues is inconsistent with basic principles derived from ancient Greek comedy, the source for the theory on which all comedy rests.  Granted, twenty-first century life may be technologically, materially, and culturally different from how humans lived in the ancient world, but the psychology behind comedy as an art form providing education and entertainment different from tragedy has not changed over the past two thousand years, an insignificant amount of evolutionary time in which humanity’s essential nature could have changed.  Moreover, the addition of vulgarity and illogical statements presented by contemporary comedians as decisive argumentation to advance the killing of the unborn, the newborn, or the elderly or medically vulnerable in lieu of logical and creative literary effort neither adds to nor negates the five principles of ancient comedy discussed here.

Perhaps contemporary comedians are simply ignorant of what constitutes comedy.  If so, then modern comedians need to study the fundamental principles of their profession; they could begin their ascent from leftist indoctrination by reviewing the cartoons of Wayne Stayskal, cartoonist of the life issues extraordinaire, especially those found in his “—Till Euthanasia Do You Part?”: Cartoons.  Perhaps contemporary comedians are simply hack partisans in a life-denying movement which believes that adherence to leftist ideology devoid of respect for human life replaces established principles of comedy and logic in the creation of literary items meant to create laughter.  If this is the case, then modern comedians need to abandon their illogical anti-life positions and support the lives of their fellow human beings—which is the existential purpose of all great literature, in either category of tragedy or comedy.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed., Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

Aristotle. Rhetoric; Poetics. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bywater, Modern Library, 1984.

Brunschwig, Jacques, and Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd, editors. Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge. Translated by Catherine Porter, Belknap Press, 2000.

Burbach, Harold J., and Charles E. Babbit. “An Exploration of the Social Functions of Humor among College Students in Wheelchairs.” Journal of Rehabilitation, vol. 59, no. 1, Jan. 1993, p. 6. EBSCOhost,

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

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

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

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

Hays, Gabriel. “Comedian Michelle Wolf Jokes Killing Her Baby in an Abortion Made Her More ‘Like God’.”, 17 Dec. 2019,

LaughPlanet.  “Hilarious Abortion Jokes: Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Bill Hicks.” YouTube, 29 Feb. 2020,

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

Meredith, George. “An Essay on Comedy.” Project Gutenberg, 13 May 2005,

Mulder, Tara. “Female Trouble in Terence’s Hecyra: Rape-Pregnancy Plots and the Absence of Abortion in Roman Comedy.” Helios, vol. 46, issue 1 (spring 2019), pp. 35-56.

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

Plautus. Amphitryon, or Jupiter in Disguise. Henry Thomas Riley, editor. Greek and Roman Materials,,0119,001:1:prol#note-link5.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

Romm, Cari. “How to Make an Abortion Joke.” The Cut, 2 May 2018.

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

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

Watson, Walter. The Lost Second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics. University of Chicago, 2012.

[1] Gabriel Hays’ study of Wolf’s attempt at humor is a lucid analysis of how having aborted her child made Wolf feel “like God.”

[2] Since later literary critics have affirmed and elaborated only slightly the ancient principles of comedy, relying on Aristotle’s lost book may be unnecessary.  However, future researchers may be interested in Walter Watson’s The Lost Second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics.

[3] For example, the 1,025-page Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge, edited by Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd, published by Belknap Press of Harvard University (2000), virtually omits comedy in its review of Greek literature.  The briefest mention about Aristotle and comedy occurs on page 456, while the balance of the section on Greek poetics discusses tragedy.

[4] Aristotle expounds on the etymology of “comedy” at length in Poetics, focusing on the competing interests of the Greek city states in claiming the origin of the genre; see 1448a 30ff (226).  Dante includes the etymology of “comedy” in his Letter to Can Grande della Scala when he discusses why his poem is titled Divine Comedy more simply: “To understand the title, it must be known that comedy is derived from comos, ‘a village,’ and from oda, ‘a song,’ so that a comedy is, so to speak, ‘ a rustic song’” (qtd. in Richter 122).

[5] Horace notes in his The Art of Poetry that the ability of dramatists in Old Comedy to engage in such civic-minded criticism eventually ended because of its inherent freedom to critique policy:

            These tragic arts

Were succeeded by Old Comedy, whose many good points

Should be noted.  From freedom that form declined into license

And fell upon violent ways that required regulation.

The law was obeyed and the chorus then lapsed into silence,

Deprived of its right to insult and abuse its victims.  (qtd. in Richter 90)

[6] Plautus is credited with the concept of a “tragicomedy” when Mercury begins the prologue to Amphitryon, or Jupiter in Disguise (190-185 BC) with the following:

Now, the matter which I came here to ask, I’ll first premise, after that I’ll tell the subject of this Tragedy.  Why have you contracted your brows?  Is it because I said that this would be a Tragedy?  I am a God, and I’ll change it.  This same, if you wish it, from a Tragedy I’ll make to be a Comedy, with all the lines the same.  Whether would ye it were so, or not?  But I’m too foolish; as though I didn’t know, who am a God, that you so wish it; upon this subject I understand what your feelings are.  I’ll make this to be a mixture–a Tragi-comedy.  For me to make it entirely to be a Comedy, where Kings and Gods appear, I do not deem right.  What then?  Since here the servant has a part as well, just as I said, I’ll make it to be a Tragi-comedy.

Sir Philip Sidney later summarized the “tragicomical” category in his An Apology for Poetry (1595) thus: “it is to be noted that some poesies have coupled together two or three kinds, as tragical and comical, whereupon is risen the tragicomical” (qtd. in Richter 146).

[7] This rhetorical question was suggested by Horace two thousand years ago in his The Art of Poetry when he addressed the essential emotional differences between tragedy and comedy:

            A good comic sequence

Just won’t submit to treatment in the meters of tragedy.

Likewise, Thyestes’ feast resents being told

In strains more nearly like those that comedy needs

In the vein of everyday life.  Let each of the styles

Be assigned to the places most proper for it to maintain.  (qtd. in Richter 86)

[8] Casson summarizes the chronology of the ancient world thus: “Ancient comedy had three great periods, each about seventy-five years long: Old Comedy between roughly 475 and 400 B.C., New Comedy between 325 and 250, and Roman Comedy between 225 and 150.  By 250 B.C. the creative spirit of Greek comedy and, a century later, that of Roman comedy were exhausted” (423).

[9] Sidney later refutes the charge that “They say the comedies rather teach than reprehend amorous conceits” with the reverse proposition: “not […] that poetry abuseth man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuseth poetry” (qtd. in Richter 151).

[10] Discussing comedic playwrights of his day, Johnson writes: “In his comic scenes he is seldom very successful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of smartness and contests of sarcasm; their jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners” (qtd. in Richter 222).

[11] Shelley writes that

in periods of the decay of social life, the drama sympathizes with that decay.  […]  Comedy loses its ideal universality: wit succeeds to humour; we laugh from self-complacency and triumph instead of pleasure; malignity, sarcasm and contempt, succeed to sympathetic merriment; we hardly laugh, but we smile.  Obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life, becomes, from the very veil which it assumes, more active if less disgusting: it is a monster for which the corruption of society for ever brings forth new food, which it devours in secret.  (qtd. in Richter 353)

[12] Meredith supports the moral force of comedy as enunciated by the ancients, albeit itself couched in joking terms:

Whether the puppet show of Punch and Judy inspires our street-urchins to have instant recourse to their fists in a dispute, after the fashion of every one of the actors in that public entertainment who gets possession of the cudgel, is open to question: it has been hinted; and angry moralists have traced the national taste for tales of crime to the smell of blood in our nursery-songs.  It will at any rate hardly be questioned that it is unwholesome for men and women to see themselves as they are, if they are no better than they should be: and they will not, when they have improved in manners, care much to see themselves as they once were.  That comes of realism in the Comic art; and it is not public caprice, but the consequence of a bettering state.  The same of an immoral may be said of realistic exhibitions of a vulgar society.

[13] My concern with contemporary comedy rendered as jokes more than lengthy dramas or entire novels is supported by examples from Meredith’s essay, the following being a four-line joke to illustrate Meredith’s commentary about Congreve’s “surface wit” in The Way of the World.  Meredith writes that Congreve

drives the poor hack word, “fool,” as cruelly to the market for wit as any of his competitors.  Here is an example, that has been held up for eulogy:

Witwoud: He has brought me a letter from the fool my brother, etc. etc.

Mirabel: A fool, and your brother, Witwoud?

Witwoud: Ay, ay, my half-brother.  My half-brother he is; no nearer, upon my honour.

Mirabel: Then ’tis possible he may be but half a fool.

[14] Exceptions occur, of course, and include Harold J. Burbach and Charles E. Babbit’s 1993 research, documenting how humor fulfills seven social functions for persons who use wheelchairs, the third being turning tragedy into comedy.  Their research contributes a new idea to comedy: “The primary function of this kind of humor is to build morale for groups who are enduring a severe hardship by joking about their predicament” (8).  Thus, comedy as a lifesaving strategy is new in the literary criticism of the genre.

[15] Scholarly research on infanticide comedy is rarer.  An exception would include Tara Mulder’s research on Terence’s drama Hecyra.  This Roman work is apparently the only drama in the ancient world which attempted to make infanticide humorous.  Perhaps the topic is rare because the ancients knew what twenty-first century moderns apparently do not: there is nothing funny about killing a newborn child.

[16] While the joke to be considered here is not contained in a compilation of jokes about abortion posted by LaughPlanet to YouTube on 29 February 2020, the segment which features Louis C.K.’s routine is apparently appreciated by the audience, either for its vulgarity or for the political content of the jokes.  It should be remembered that, although analyzing the written words of these attempts at humor gives both the researcher and the reader certain advantages unavailable to an audience, the absence of an audience responding immediately to the presentation of the comedic effort is a distinct disadvantage.  Hearing an abortion joke is not the same as reading it.  The laughter which Louis C.K.’s joke generates from the audience may be unconscious; one must admit that even the darkest and most brutal dehumanizing joke could generate a spontaneous reaction like a giggle or a laugh.  Of course, the audience could simply be either ignorant of the political impact of his humor or inebriated, in which cases they would not be culpable for transgressing the moral implications of laughing at the killing of fellow human beings.

[17] These parenthetical variations are provided by Dundes.

[18] An older “what” dead baby joke is even more gruesome, especially for pro-lifers who are familiar with the Woodland Hills tragedy, where thousands of aborted babies’ bodies were discarded in a dumpster: “What’s harder to unload, a truck full of bowling balls (or bricks) or a truck full of dead babies?  A truck full of bowling balls because you can’t use a pitchfork” (Dundes 151).

[19] Dundes’ final sentence of his research is just as prophetic: “Having sexual relations without wishing to have babies or even the very knowledge of the fact that abortion clinics are a part of modern society has provided a source of anxiety which I believe is clearly a factor in the generation and transmission of dead baby jokes” (157).

[20] Dundes does include specific infanticide jokes which identify the person who commits the crime, such as this Harry Graham poem from 1899:

O’er the rugged mountain’s brow

Clara threw the twins she nursed,

And remarked, “I wonder now

Which will reach the bottom first?”  (qtd. in Dundes 147)

[21] I trust that the use of the modals “could” and “might” qualifies this conjecture and shows that I would defer to moral theologians to evaluate whether it is proper to laugh after someone has died.

[22] See the quote above by Hadas on pie throwing.

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


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

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

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

Methodology and Structure of the Paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I.  Academic Jargon or Psychobabble?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.  Political and Religious Bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.  Key Ideas of Critical Disability Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.  Applying Critical Disability Studies to Various Literary Works

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

Carlos Fuentes’ Christopher Unborn (1987)

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

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

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

Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          The authors then elaborate on the psychological effects of color.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killer Caduceus (1987)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1

Sorrow Without Tears: Post-Abortion Syndrome

Source credit: Private collection of Dr. Samuel Nigro

Figure 2:

Femicidal National Organization Woman’s

Planned Parentless Selfish Movement

Source credit: Private collection of Dr. Samuel Nigro

Figure 3:

Killer Caduceus

Source credit: Private collection of Dr. Samuel Nigro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[15] Zelanski and Fisher, p. 42.

[16] Zelanski and Fisher, p. 42.

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

[18] Zelanski and Fisher, p. 49.

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

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

[21] Smith, “Artist’s Comments.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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