A few recent efforts have emerged to encourage women who have had an abortion to tell their stories. Take the 1 in 3 Campaign, for example, whose mission is to “start a new conversation about abortion” and to “create a more enabling cultural environment for the policy and legal work of the abortion rights movement.” Or New York Magazine’s “My Abortion” article in November of 2013 that allowed twenty-six women to give first-person accounts of their abortion stories. Or, more recently, the title essay in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, where she recounts the story of her abortion. Abortion rights advocates hope that this will change the minds of those who wish to restrict abortion.
These narratives indeed are more powerful than the dozens of op-eds that come out every week on abortion. The voice of the womanusually ignored or theorized awayis finally allowed to speak. But the pro-life movement has little to fear from this trend, and in fact ought to embrace it.
Abortion narratives can be used to condemn the practice as well as to create sympathy for a woman who has suffered an abortion. Indeed, one of the oldest stories written about abortionMaria: or, The Wrongs of Woman written by feminist forerunner Mary Wollstonecraft and published posthumously by her husband William Godwin in 1798accomplishes precisely that.
Like the tales of the 1 in 3 Campaign, the story begins with the discovery of pregnancy. In this novel, the story is being related by Jemima, a servant who has been forced into a sexual relationship with her married master: “I discovered with horrorah! What horror!that I was with child. I know not why I felt a mixed sensation of despair and tenderness, excepting that, ever called a bastard, a bastard appeared to me an object of the greatest compassion in creation.”
When Jemima informs the father of her child, he procures an abortifacent. But Jemima hesitates over it too long: Her pregnancy is discovered by her master’s wife; she is beaten and fired. She returns to her dwelling to take the abortifacent. Aside from the language, the abortion scene could have been written today:
I hurried back to my hole, and, rage giving place to despair, sought for the potion that was to procure abortion, and swallowed it, with a wish that it might destroy me, at the same time that it stopped the sensations of new-born life, which I felt with indescribable emotion. My head turned round, my heart grew sick, and in the horrors of approaching dissolution, mental anguish was swallowed up. The effect of the medicine was violent, and I was confined to my bed several days; but, youth and a strong constitution prevailing, I once more crawled out, to ask myself the cruel question, ‘Whither I should go?’ I had but two shillings left in my pocket.
Wollstonecraft used Jemima’s story as one of many instances of the “wrongs of woman”circumstances in which women have to defy the law, or their husbands, or propriety due to the difficulties imposed by them in an unjust society. Her aim was not to advocate for abortion but to show how poverty forces women into desperation, though she does ask her reader to witness the abortion in sympathy.
Like The Wrongs of Women, modern abortion narratives do more to condemn the world that supports abortion than to destigmatize abortion itself. By hearing women’s own stories, we understand the material as well as spiritual and societal deprivation that leaves pregnant women unsupported.
The stories I’ve heard first-hand from women I’ve worked with in crisis pregnancies echo Wollstonecraft’s story. They begin with a pregnancy test, a missed period, morning sicknessand an immediate sense of dread and fear. The woman often identifies with the child, even when she knows she wants an abortion. As Jemima says, “I thought it was killing myselfyet was such a self worth preserving?”
I’ve also witnessed the coercion Wollstonecraft describes: teenaged girls being dragged into the Planned Parenthood on Bleecker Street by fathers, mothers, or boyfriends; an eighteen-year-old who left home because her parents threatened to kick her out if she didn’t abort. I’ve heard a story from a woman who went to the hospital for her first pre-natal visit. The doctor assumed she wanted an abortion based on her circumstances: the color of her skin and the fact that she wasn’t insured and had a child already.
It reminds me of what I was told in my crisis pregnancy training, “It’s not about ‘choice.’ For the woman in the crisis pregnancy, society is telling her there is no choice.” It’s true: The initial reaction of the woman’s loved ones is critical in her decision on whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term, and so often the immediate reaction of those around her is in favor of the “practicality” of abortion, especially if the woman is from a lower economic class.
A society growing toward greater maternal support and respect for the dignity of all human life needs these narratives, even the ones that do not end in remorse. By giving women narrative, they are empowered in precisely the way their pregnancies left them feeling powerless. And they encourage those of us in the pro-life movement to view the woman with full sympathy. As Wollstonecraft’s Wrongs of Woman shows us, while political essays can persuade, narrative humanizes.
Lauren Ely lives and works in New York City. Her reviews have been published in Fare Forward and The Curator. Follow her at @laurenltg.