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Case Study of Contemporary Abortion Fiction: Applying Right-to-Life Literary Theory to Lisabeth Posthuma’s Baby & Solo

Abstract:  This study examines Lisabeth Posthuma’s Baby & Solo, a contemporary abortion novel (2021) geared for the young adult audience.  After applying principles of some of the major literary theories used to explicate literature, the five questions of right-to-life literary theory are used to evaluate the life-affirming content of the work.

          Many contemporary abortion novels geared for the young adult audience are written by authors who openly profess their support of the anti-life movement, particularly the abortion enterprise Planned Parenthood.  One thinks, for example, of Christine Heppermann’s Ask Me How I Got Here (Greenwillow Books, 2016) or Bonnie Pipkin’s Aftercare Instructions (Flatiron Books, 2017).  Absent an explicit affirmation of abortion in her author’s biographical statement either on the book jacket or following the text, however, Lisabeth Posthuma’s Baby & Solo (Candlewick Press, 2021) may be an exception to the rule.

          Posthuma’s Baby & Solo is a well-written, complex work of fiction which follows a template which authors have used for decades to structure their abortion plots, consisting of a mother who wishes to abort and a young man who joins her in the journey motif of locating an abortionist willing to do the killing.  Posthuma’s novel, however, alters the template by describing the odyssey of a male teen, Joel Teague, who presents to the reader a possible case of a gender identity problem; this young man befriends a teen mother, Nicole Parker, who seems to accede to the abortion killing at first, but who ultimately rejects it.

          Posthuma’s rendition of the standard abortion plot has achieved some popularity.  [slide 3]  Amazon shows that Posthuma’s novel has earned a rating of 4.8 out of 5 with 59 customer reviews.  Although the novel ranks #835,186 in the best sellers category, it occupies spot #1,486 in the “Teen & Young Adult LGBTQ+ Fiction” category, #1,052 in “Teen & Young Adult Fiction about Death & Dying”, and #507 in the category “Teen & Young Adult Fiction on Depression & Mental Health”—all respectable numbers for a novel published in May 2021 (“Baby and Solo”).  Moreover, Goodreads.com gives the book a 4.38 rating from a wider field of 504 ratings (“Baby & Solo”).[1]

          The above brief summary of Posthuma’s work does not, nor should it, satisfy contemporary readers living in a fast-paced culture as ours who want to spend their time wisely.  That is, readers want to spend time on reading contemporary fiction to accommodate the ancient principles not only of entertaining them, but also of educating them.  Thus, contemporary literary theories can expand readers’ appreciation of a given literary work by offering different perspectives from which the work can be viewed.

[slide 4]  This study will consider some aspects of twelve of the more common literary theories used in the academy to help students appreciate contemporary fiction: archetypal or Jungian criticism, biographical criticism, critical disability studies, critical race theory, deconstruction, feminist literary criticism, formalist criticism, gender criticism (gay and lesbian or queer studies), historical criticism, Marxist literary criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, and reader-response criticism.[2]

Archetypal or Jungian criticism

          An archetypal or Jungian critic could focus on the age, religious, and employment stereotypes of Posthuma’s characters: young people who are seemingly irreligious and who work in a 1990s video store.  The archetypal elements of the novel are enhanced by the unique naming strategy of the store’s employees; instead of using their real names when dealing with customers, the workers must identify themselves by names of movie characters whom they admire.  Thus, Joel Teague is known as the Star Wars hero Han Solo throughout the novel.  The young woman whom he befriends, Nicole Parker, becomes Baby; it is ambiguous whether she is named because she was admonished not to be a “baby” about associating herself with a film character or whether she is named after the character Baby in the film Dirty Dancing (which, appropriately, further alludes to the abortion element in that iconic film’s plot).

This unique naming strategy demonstrates a cross-fertilization of literary theories at work in the novel.  Joel’s identity as Han Solo suggests the personality of the hero character of the Star Wars film, which further suggests the psychological component of a human being identifying himself more with a fictional character than his own ordinary humanity.  Similarly, that Nicole becomes Baby indicates not only the archetypal standard of an infant (helpless, reliant on parents, and ostensibly the object of love from those parents), but also a key principle of anti-life feminist literary criticism (that a woman’s life is subordinate to the life of an unborn child, especially if that child is unwanted).

Biographical criticism

          A biographical critic would wonder what connection the plot has with Lisabeth Posthuma’s life.  The author’s website contains two biographies written for “the press”, both of which may appeal to the young adult audience for whom she writes, but, for biographical literary critics, present significant obstacles since the humor of the biographies obscures the facts of the author’s life.  [slide 5]  For example, “Press Bio 1” succinctly conveys only the author’s likes:

Lisabeth Posthuma is a devotee of obscure documentaries about drive-ins, a lover of rotary telephones, and a trophy-winning champion of TV trivia. She lives in Michigan with her two parakeets, Tiki Bon Jovi and Alaska Riggins. Her favorite story is probably Frankenstein.  (“Media”)

[slide 6]  “Press Bio 2” provides more biographical information, some of which justifies a one-to-one correspondence with the novel under examination:

Lisabeth Posthuma was a high school teacher, a photographer, and most importantly, a video rental clerk before becoming a writer.  She holds an English degree from one of those really expensive private liberal arts colleges that no one can afford (including her).  She grew up obsessed with teen soaps, which her therapist says explains a lot, and likes to brag about that one time she attended the cast party for The OC.  Orange is her favorite color because in first grade no one chose it, and she felt sorry for it.  She currently lives in Michigan where the winters are too long.[3]  (“Media”)

Readers who like to determine whether aspects of an author’s life informed his or her work would find the above entries challenging.

          Even more challenging for the abortion-minded (either anti- or pro-life) biographical critic, determining Posthuma’s position on the first right-to-life issue is difficult.  Some bloggers, like Kelly Jensen, have jumped to the conclusion that Posthuma is promoting an anti-life perspective.[4]  However, the excerpt which Jensen includes on her blog post wherein Posthuma discusses abortion as a topic in young adult fiction is ambiguous.

[slide 7]  Knowing abortion affects so many people who make up the young adult demographic, it’s a disservice not to acknowledge the subject’s necessary place in YA media.  Though public discourse about abortion continues to be divisive and heated, young adult content creators can provide our audiences with low-stakes avenues through which to wrestle with their difficult feelings about difficult subjects.  Realistic fiction is a valuable gateway to rediscovering the lost art of uncertainty, for recognizing the gray within the false narrative of a black-and-white world.  In fact, it might be the most fertile soil for empathy to grow in.

[slide 8]  I’m learning that the hypothetical is the safest space to feel unsure.  It’s seemingly the only place where there’s no urgency to form the “right” opinion.  It’s where people can privately challenge their own thoughts, explore nuances, and ultimately grow in their understanding about the issues that affect them.  I wish that at thirteen I’d had more safe places to contemplate issues like abortion, but I didn’t.  As an adult, however, I’m grateful that I can join with other writers who want [to] change things for this generation’s YA audience.  I am hopeful that as abortion continues to be a relevant subject, even more authors will seize the opportunity to create these spaces for teens, too.

Posthuma’s language affirms neither the anti- nor the pro-life sides of the controversy, but reads merely as a defense of freedom of speech, arguing for the inclusion of controversial issues in literature for young adults so that they can explore those issues freely.  In fact, one can argue that Posthuma’s argument would benefit anti-lifers more than pro-lifers.  Since pro-abortion persons have blocked themselves from a life-affirming choice, anti-lifers can use works which have a life-affirming content as sites “where [they] can privately challenge their own thoughts, explore nuances, and ultimately grow in their understanding about the issues that affect them.”

Critical Disability Studies

Those who use critical disability studies would offer much to enhance readers’ appreciation of Posthuma’s characters.  Although no character has a physical disability, all suffer from emotional and psychological trauma.  Joel’s supervisor at the video store, Scarlet, suffers from post-abortion syndrome, which most likely accounts for her being so angry later in the novel that Baby is giving birth to her unborn child.  Joel’s psychological trouble, documented throughout the novel, is sometimes described in language which suggests that emotional trauma has a physical effect.  [slide 9]  When he describes the impact that his brother’s suicide at age sixteen had on him, Joel’s language conveys more physical disability than psychological: “It wrecked me.  It broke me in half.  And it ruined my fucking life” (368).

          Moreover, it is interesting that there are many instances where a character’s psychological problems are described with religious imagery.  For example, when he confides his mental illness to Baby, Joel compares the disclosure of such personal information to a key sacrament: “I ended my confession” (226).  The confusion between psychotherapy and religion is repeated when Joel mentions that his mother brought him to a priest for an exorcism regarding his mental illness.  Joel’s father spends Sundays “at the nearest AA meeting” (unpaginated 83).

Critical Race Theory

          Proponents of critical race theory would face a severe challenge in applying their literary theory to Posthuma’s novel, except for one crucial element: all the characters are white, which could be construed either as white oppression of minorities or, a particularly egregious form of oppression, a perception that abortion does not concern minority groups.  Pro-life activists, of course, know otherwise and have been alarmed at the abortion rates of African-American and Latina mothers, so critical race theory could offer much to draw the reading public’s attention to the genocide against minorities which is legalized abortion.  However, since most critical race theory proponents are politically leftist and since a prime political strategy of the leftist movement is to secure the abortion policies of the Democratic Party, one fails to see how critical race theory could abandon its pro-abortion focus and recognize that abortion is significantly reducing minority populations.

Deconstruction

          A deconstruction literary critic could delve into several statements which demonstrate the essential concern of the theory, the instability of language.  When he realizes that he is a tabula rasa at the video store, Joel implicitly affirms the idea that language is not an essential element of being human; he enters his employment at the video store and, by extension, his life, without language, without any markers common to all humans, without the vocabulary necessary for human beings to function in the world.

The word play which deconstructionist critics delight in can be further evidenced even when the characters use the language common to all English speakers.  When Indiana Jones, the father of Baby’s unborn child, gives an envelope to Joel to forward to Baby, saying that Baby is “expecting something” (34), the reader is uncertain to what the term “something” refers.  (The pun on “expecting” adds further delight to the expression.)  It is only later that the reader understands that the “something” is not a thing at all, but an unborn human being, Baby’s child.  It would be interesting for a pro-abortion deconstructionist critic to consider the pro-life implications of this passage on the further erosion of language, an effort to which deconstructionists have contributed, since the goal of destabilizing the language affects the human relationships which the language denotes.

Feminist Literary Criticism

          Applying feminist literary criticism to the novel seems obvious, given the plot details; this novel does, after all, concern abortion, the quintessential political issue for a feminism which is fast becoming irrelevant because of its refusal to recognize the right to life.  Besides that, the traditional concerns of anti-life feminist literary criticism (the oppression of women, the dominance of patriarchy putting women in a “subject” position, and even newer phrases of feminist theory such as heteropatriarchal oppression) become feeble concerns, given the independent women depicted in the novel and the men who are either weak because they accede to the women’s desires or have same-sex attraction.  For example, Joel does not question Baby’s request to drive her to an abortion clinic, and his father is obviously not “the man” in the house; Joel’s mother has significantly more dialogue and controls the family more than his father.

However, whatever attention a feminist literary critic could give the novel must face the many life-affirming statements from women characters, which will be discussed in the section on right-to-life literary theory below.

Formalist Criticism

          Formalist critics would appreciate the irony, let alone ignorance, of several characters’ statements, which manifest their attitude towards religious values.  For example, responding to Baby’s claim that he could have objections to abortion, Joel asks, “What kind of morals would I have if I made a girl take a cab to her own abortion?” (59).  While non-religious contemporary readers may not see the irony in such a statement, educated readers would immediately understand that the rhetorical question which Joel offers indicates his warped values; not driving a mother to an abortion clinic is not a moral concern of greater priority than stopping that mother from having her child killed in an abortion clinic.

          Since they are intensely aware of the unity of a literary work, formalist literary critics would revel in the progression of the novel from its exposition; to several crises; to climax moments not only regarding the relationship between Joel and Baby, but also Joel and the integration of his seemingly fragmented self; and ultimately to the denouement, where all the remaining issues in the novel are resolved as neatly (and happily) as a compact mystery novel.

Gender Criticism (Gay and Lesbian or Queer Studies)

          Gender criticism, also called gay and lesbian or queer studies, would focus on a variety of elements evident in Posthuma’s work.  For example, from the beginning of the novel, Joel expresses his desire to be “Normal” (5; capitalization in original).  Even though the novel is set in 1996, contemporary readers must deal with the connotations of the word signifying not merely the mean of opposing standards, but also the possibility of characters having same-sex attraction which was emerging as a force against heterosexual normativity in the 1990s and which, for the contemporary reader in 2022 and beyond, is the dominant social construct, forcing people against their moral principles to accept gay and lesbian sexual activity as equivalent with heterosexual activity.

Historical Criticism

          A reader aware of the tenets of historical criticism would have much to say regarding the setting of Posthuma’s novel.  Why Posthuma would place her characters in the 1990s in an outdated technological industry with characters who have no ambition and, apparently, no transferrable skills once technological advances destroy their livelihoods are matters which a historical literary critic could resolve.  Posthuma herself explains that she set the novel in the 1990s for two reasons: first, doing so helps us understand the history behind social issues which began in that decade and which persist today, and, second, she happens to like this period of twentieth-century literature; she states that she is “obsessed with twentieth-century pop culture” (Author).

Absent the expressed opinions of the author, of course, a historical literary critic might conjecture that Posthuma places the action in August 1996 because that time may have been the “golden age” of pro-abortion history.  Clinton had been in the White House for a disastrous four years, trying to force his pro-abortion policies on the nation and the world, rolling back the pro-life advances of Presidents Reagan and Bush.  In a few months, he would be reelected, and the pro-life community would suffer through four more years of a virulently pro-abortion president.  Abortion businesses like Planned Parenthood were receiving federal tax dollars.  A vibrant anti-life activism was emerging in academia as professors and the media became more strident in their support of abortion.  No wonder some abortion-minded writers chose the decade of the 1990s as the setting for their works.

Marxist Literary Criticism

          If they are not blinded by support for abortion, Marxist literary critics could isolate the financial transactions in the novel as evidence of underlying power structures at work in the characters’ lives.  One such passage of the display of economic power is especially telling in terse prose.  While Joel seems oblivious to the meaning behind the money in the envelope that Joel received from Indiana Jones, Baby immediately realizes that the money is meant not to assist her in giving birth to the unborn child, but to procure an abortion.  Joel stupidly remarks not in irony but in bland reportage that “Somehow this was enough information for Baby to figure out the answer, because a few seconds later she said, ‘Oh’” (44).  Baby’s single-term interjection demonstrates that she has more wherewithal than Joel in perceiving the choices available to her.

Furthermore, a Marxist literary critic would also point out the competing ideologies at work in the unstated conversation(s) which must have occurred between Baby and Indiana Jones, the father of the unborn child.  Unlike other abortion novels, where the mother confronts the father with news about her pregnancy and engages in a dialogue about options for or against abortion, Posthuma’s novel contains no such encounter.  In Marxist terminology, Baby must have tendered her ideology to Indiana Jones, who must then have countered her belief about the possibility of raising the unborn child with him with his own worldview of being single and unfettered by the responsibility of caring for a child or the child’s mother.  Indiana Jones’ proffer of a packet of money to be used for the abortion closes any option other than his desire to maintain his ideology, the single life and its economic status that he wishes to maintain.  The absence of the exchange between the ideologies can thus be construed in Marxist terms as one economic power struggle dominating another, Indiana Jones’ ideology winning the struggle.

Psychoanalytic Criticism

          The repertoire of concepts from psychoanalytic criticism would generate much interesting, albeit contorted reading.  The reader quickly becomes aware that the character Crystal may be Joel’s alter ego, and, if so, the disintegration of personality can be appreciated by a study of psychological concepts inherent in the theory.[5]  Furthermore, Joel’s stipulative definition of “the girl you sometimes hallucinate is more in line with a schizoaffective disorder” (45) is a small bit of literary evidence that Freud’s ideas have continued force in contemporary literature.

          Of course, as the common knowledge perception renders it, psychoanalytic literary criticism is heavily based on Freudian theories and is often reduced to (in the classroom, certainly) an analysis of phallic and yonic imagery evident in a literary work.  The novel does not disappoint the more salacious aspects of this theory by providing some instances of phallic imagery which should titillate, if not educate, the eager young minds reading the novel for intellectual pleasure.  For example, when Joel says, “After a few minutes outside in subzero temperatures, my balls retracted into my body, and I was able to think about what had just happened with my brain instead of my dick” (unpaginated 260), an adult reader might guffaw at the adolescent use of vulgarisms, while a young adult reader, the novel’s target audience, may think that the passage demonstrates how relevant and “hip” the character and the author are.

Reader-Response Criticism

          Reader-response critics can use one key concept of the theory to assist contemporary readers to appreciate the novel more: the idea of the competent reader.  Unless they are active members of pro-life groups, readers in 2022 may be unaware of the long history not only of abortion in the United States, but also of the pro-life efforts to restore the first civil right to life.  Perhaps this accounts for Baby’s complete ignorance of pregnancy support groups which flourished during the anti-life Clinton administration to assist mothers like herself who are unmarried and abandoned by their lovers because of untimely pregnancies.  Similarly, contemporary 2022 readers may be ignorant of the large body of literature which, by 1996, had already countered anti-life claims.  The absence of any pro-life entity in the novel makes it seem as though the pro-life movement was non-existent.[6]  Whether this lack of knowledge is deliberate on the author’s part to show the ignorance of the characters or whether the ignorance is an effort by the author to ignore the pro-life movement’s effects on anti-life culture are research questions proper to a detailed biographical literary critic’s study.

Right-to-Life Literary Theory

          Even the above applications of contemporary literary theories should not suffice for readers who want to learn more about Posthuma’s novel, however, since all contemporary literary theories are deficient in two areas: first, they focus only on one aspect of human life; second, they fail to address several key questions which precede any literary discussion, all of which concern the value of human life.

          The archetypes that archetypal or Jungian criticism stresses are not the paramount concern of human life, nor are the details about an author’s life, the focus of biographical criticism.  Whether one is able-bodied or differently abled as Critical Disability Studies suggests is important, but not the essential criterion of being human.  Nor is the race of a human being as Critical Race Theory demands, or the stability of the language that deconstruction is concerned with, or the gender of a human being as feminist literary criticism or gender criticism demands.  The milieu in which a human being lives, the focus of historical criticism, is important but not a defining element of human life, nor is the economic status of a human being as Marxist literary criticism suggests, nor is the psychological state of that human being as psychoanalytic criticism asserts.  Finally, neither formalism nor reader-response criticism, both of which focus on the literary work itself, either by examining the words themselves or the reader’s understanding of those words, falter as comprehensive literary theories since reading and writing, albeit key markers of human activities, are not essential for the existence of human life.

          [slide 10]  Since these literary theories are all deficient, applying right-to-life literary theory should enhance discussion of Posthuma’s novel because the five questions which the theory asks address foundational matters about human life before any written work can be produced which illustrates some aspect of that life.

The Pricelessness of Human Life

          First, does the literary work support the perspective that human life is, in the philosophical sense, a good, some “thing” which is priceless?  There is overwhelming evidence in the novel that this first question of right-to-life literary theory can be answered affirmatively.  (This sets aside the principle that whether the author herself is anti- or pro-life is beside the point; she has written a work which per se is a life-affirming artifact.)  Joel’s wish at the beginning of the novel to be “Normal” (5; capitalization in original) is itself an affirmation of human life.  So, too, is Baby’s response to receiving the envelope of cash from Indiana Jones for an abortion.  Her simple interjection “Oh” (44) implies sadness obviously that the father of the child does not want to help her either give birth to the baby and release him or her for adoption or give birth and help her raise the child; her simple interjection, therefore, is a further testament to her valuing human life as priceless.

Respect for the Individual’s Paramount Right to Life

          Second, does the literary work respect the individual as a being with inherent rights, the paramount one being the right to life?  This question can be answered affirmatively, thanks to the gender dysphoria topic which the novel incudes as a subplot, but which is not crucial for this discussion of the first life issue of abortion.  The gender confusion which Joel’s brother, Brian, experienced at a young age until his suicide at sixteen illustrates a philosophical position which the pro-life community has adopted since its inception: that one’s right to life is not predicated on age (whether at the moment of fertilization or beyond birth), location (in or out of the womb), condition of dependency (able-bodied or not), or sex (whether the unborn child is male or female).  Posthuma’s novel, then, comports with the pro-life perspective that, even though he committed suicide as a teenager, it was correct for Brian to have been born, if only to try to resolve his gender dysphoria.  The novel further shows that Brian’s life, although brief, had a severe effect on someone who loved him deeply, his brother Joel, who declared that Brian’s suicide “wrecked me.  It broke me in half.  And it ruined my fucking life” (368).

Heterosexual Normativity and the Integrity of the Family

          Third, if the literary work covers the actions of a family, does it do so respecting heterosexual normativity and the integrity of the family?  Answering this question of right-to-life literary theory involves a pro-life interpretation of quotes and passages which would be overlooked by many other critics, whose perspectives are restricted to certain aspects.  For example, soon after Baby decides not to abort, about halfway through the novel (243), a passage illustrates the burgeoning affection, if not love, between Joel and Baby.  [slide 11]  Before she gives birth, Baby implicitly acknowledges the emotional bond inherent in the heterosexual family when she says, “I think I’m going to feel lonely afterward, once it’s gone” (275).

          The emergence of the heterosexual family unit works to restore the love which should exist between its members.  About three-fourths of the way into the novel, there is a long (seven page) and touching scene between Joel and his father (319-25).  The pain of giving her child up for adoption is lightened for Baby when Joel’s psychiatrist, Dr. Schwartz, and his wife agree to adopt the child, and the adoption scene makes it clear that Baby would remain active in the child’s life (341-4).  To signify further that a helpless newborn baby can bring more joy than anxiety to an unmarried mother and her circle of friends, even Scarlet, Joel’s supervisor who aborted the child fathered by her live-in boyfriend, reacts lovingly to Baby’s child.

The Inherent Right to Exist of Unborn, Newborn, and Mature Human Life

          Fourth, does the literary work comport with the view that unborn, newborn, and mature human life has an inherent right to exist?  Scattered throughout the second half of the novel are numerous references to Baby’s unborn child, and these remarks are dominantly life affirming instead of the dehumanizing language used by explicitly anti-life authors.  The respect which Baby shows the unborn child begins early in this second half of the novel (page 244) when she gives Joel an envelope that contains a notation about the sex of her unborn child; she does not want to know the child’s sex (the baby is a girl).  Showing a character who is unwilling to know the sex of an unborn child may be bizarre for contemporary readers, familiar with gender-reveal parties, a practice which began in the first decade of the twenty-first century.  In this instance, however, Baby is following the practice of previous generations, and her decision not to know can be interpreted as acquiescence that there is something more important than knowing the sex of the unborn child: letting him or her develop in the womb.

          The life-affirming statements continue in rapid succession.  Referring to her eventual labor pains, Baby remarks that “the godawful amount of pain will be all the clue I need that the person inside of me is trying to break out” (264).  Unlike fiction written by anti-life authors, the unborn child is personalized as the following passage between Joel and Baby indicates:

“Was that a kick?”

“Or an elbow.  I can never tell.”

I was completely amazed.  “It has elbows?”  I looked down at Baby’s stomach and then back at her face.  “There are elbows in there?”  (274)

It is after this brief conversation that Baby asks the rhetorical question “Did they not show you the Miracle of Life video in homeschool?” (275).  After she gives birth, the newborn is not denoted as a burden to Baby, the single mother, or as a non-human entity in dehumanizing legal terms, but respectfully; the baby, now named Daphne, is described as “an impossibly small human” (341) and a page later “such a small person” (342).

The Divine Presence in the World

          Fifth, when they are faced with their mortality, do the characters come to a realization that there is a divine presence in the world which justifies a life-affirming perspective?  Answering this last question of right-to-life literary theory is especially challenging since religious references are scarce in the novel.  When he realizes that he “really did have a blank slate at this job” (24; italics in original), Joel does indeed seem to be bereft of any religious or moral institution which could ground his biological beliefs about abortion or other aspects of human life.  Although Joel’s mother is ostensibly Catholic, it is obvious that Joel’s parents are cultural Catholics if anything; remember that his father spends Sundays “at the nearest AA meeting” (unpaginated 83).  Furthermore, when characters reference God, the noun is always lower case.

          How, then, can an answer be supplied to this last question of right-to-life literary theory?  Throughout the novel, Joel engages with “Crystal” who, to the reader, seems as though she is his alter ego or a manifestation of his fragmented, perhaps schizophrenic personality.  [Recall that Joel himself suggests the possibility of such a mental disorder when he declared that “the girl you sometimes hallucinate is more in line with a schizoaffective disorder” (45).]  It is only towards the novel’s conclusion that it is clear that Crystal is truly a manifestation of Joel’s brother Brian, who committed suicide at age sixteen, most likely because of his conflict over his gender dysphoria.  It is significant that, at novel’s end, Joel concludes that his own life is “Normal: (380; capitalization in original) only after he was able to visit Brian’s grave and experience a final appearance of Crystal.

          Other than this episode, the characters—young, rejoicing over the birth of Daphne, and blissfully unaware of the collapse of their employment because of technological innovations soon to come—do not address the larger existential questions of human life.  It would take another novel, perhaps, to demonstrate their maturity.

          Anti-lifers who think that Lisabeth Posthuma’s novel Baby & Solo could be used as a literary artifact to advance an anti-life, specifically pro-abortion, agenda on the cultural scene would be seriously mistaken.  Using the many literary theories to which students have been exposed for decades (some theories, like formalism, for nearly a century) and the newer principles of right-to-life literary theory, an objective reader must conclude that the novel has a stronger life-affirming perspective than an anti-life one.  This conclusion is remarkable, given the characters’ secular outlook (no character is either grounded in religious teachings or expresses any piety) and seeming obliviousness to the pro-life movement which, by the time of the novel’s setting, had established itself as a political force in the nation despite anti-life political victories.

Since the customary logical arguments for and against abortion are not presented in this work of fiction in passages of dreary didacticism (a feature which makes most anti-life fiction propaganda pieces for the pro-abortion movement), Posthuma’s novel, therefore, can be a site where both anti- and pro-life readers can explore the controversial issue of abortion in a fictional environment, bordering on fantasy, where, as the author herself hopes, “people can privately challenge their own thoughts, explore nuances, and ultimately grow in their understanding about the issues that affect them.”  Her novel could be the means by which anti-life readers are able to challenge their ideology that unborn human life is worthless, explore the ways in which an approach to life which affirms and does not destroy it is most satisfactory, and ultimately mature in their understanding about how abortion affects mothers, unborn babies, and fathers.

[slide 12]  Works Cited

“Baby & Solo by Lisabeth Posthuma.” Goodreads.com, www.goodreads.com/book/show/44084731-baby-solo. Accessed 8 June 2022.

“Baby and Solo Hardcover – May 11, 2021: Product Details.” Amazon, www.amazon.com/Baby-Solo-Lisabeth-Posthuma/dp/1536213039. Accessed 8 June 2022.

Heppermann, Christine. Ask Me How I Got Here. Greenwillow Books, 2016.

Jensen, Kelly. “’The Hypothetical Is the Safest Space to Feel Unsure’: Lisabeth Posthuma on Abortion in YA Lit.” Newsletters Dev: Getting It Done!, 2022, https://newsletterdev.riotnewmedia.com/2021/10/18/the-hypothetical-is-the-safest-space-to-feel-unsure-lisabeth-posthuma-on-abortion-in-ya-lit/.

Pipkin, Bonnie. Aftercare Instructions. Flatiron Books, 2017.

Posthuma, Lisabeth. Author Lisabeth Posthuma Discusses Her Book Baby & Solo. Vimeo, uploaded by Candlewick Press, 14 October 2020, https://vimeo.com/468304935.

—. Baby & Solo. Candlewick Press, 2021.

—. “Media Kit.” Lisabethposthuma.com, 2021, https://www.lisabethposthuma.com/media-kit.


[1] Statistics for both services are current as of 8 June 2022.

[2] Several other literary theories could be applied to Posthuma’s novel, but doing so would expand the scope of this paper from a conference presentation to a dissertation topic.  Besides, contemporary readers (and I am thinking not only of ordinary students of literature but also of readers who consume novels like Posthuma’s for some didactic value certainly, but more for entertainment) would slide into somniferous boredom if any professor, lecturer, or television personality began applying postcolonial literary criticism, post-Structuralism, Structuralism, or semiotics to the work.  It is not that these theories are passé, especially now that newer and “sexier” theories like critical disability studies have emerged on the academic scene.  It is the case, however, that some literary theories serve no benefit or practical use for students who still approach literature with the formalist questions of what the literary work means before they can enjoy it, which are themselves formulations of the ancient principles that literature has a didactic and an entertainment value.

[3] Both biographies were obtained from the author’s website on 8 June 2022.

[4] Jensen concludes her excerpt of Posthuma’s discussion by saying, “Whether or not abortion is a choice they agree with for themselves or others, the reality is abortion is healthcare and should not be outlawed.”  Such a conclusion cannot be obtained from Posthuma’s remarks.

[5] The disintegration of Joel’s character becomes more apparent to the reader and, accordingly, a plot feature when Joel is visited by Crystal and when Joel’s mother discovers a dress in his closet; shortly after that, Crystal manifests herself to Joel.

[6] Baby’s query to Joel, “Did they not show you the Miracle of Life video in homeschool?” (275) cannot be cited as evidence of a pro-life group’s educational effort since no such group is identified.  Besides that, Baby makes it clear that the 1983 documentary (a publication not of a pro-life group, but of NOVA) was offered not in a school setting, but at home.

Categories
Papers Presentations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principles of Comedy from Ancient Greece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dead Baby Jokes as Attempts at Infanticide Comedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Child 2 (Doctor): She’s a vegetable.

Child 3 (Doctor): I hate vegetables.

(laughter)

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

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

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

This one keeps her liver clean.

This one checks her pee.

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

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

Chorus: Ha ha ha

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

This one checks her veins.

And this dispenses gravy for her mashed potato brains.

Chorus: Oh oh oh

Terri Schiavo is kind of alive-o.

What a lively little bugger.

Bass child doctor: Maybe we should just unplug her.

Chorus: Terri Schiavo is kind of alive-o.

The most expensive plant you’ll ever see.

[….]

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

It’s in the Constitution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] These parenthetical variations are provided by Dundes.

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

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