Home >Leisure >When literature is pro-life, pro-woman

A Supreme Court nominee with a fuzzy record on reproductive rights; worse, a dead doctor, killed by a Christian zealot for performing third-trimester abortions. It’s time for yet another nasty skirmish in the ongoing culture war in America.

Juno: An American take on pregnancy.

Barring a few Catholic exceptions, the US is one of the few Western nations where abortion remains an unresolved issue, its moral implications fiercely, sometimes violently, contested. So fraught is the subject that movies, for all their sexual bravado, rarely depict it on screen. Pregnancies, however unplanned or inappropriate (think Knocked Up or Juno), are never, ever, terminated. As it is in Bollywood, so it is in Hollywood.

Luckily for us, novelists are made of sterner stuff. Abortions are not hard to find in literature, including the classics. Earlier novels tended to be written by men, perhaps because they were freer to explore sexual matters than women. Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night (1932) featured a bloody, graphic description of a prostitute’s backstreet abortion that would make most so-called pro-lifers today wince. In The Age of Reason (1945), Jean-Paul Sartre mapped the morally precarious journey of a young couple as they attempt to get an abortion on the cheap. Theodore Dreiser made unwanted pregnancy the centrepiece in An American Tragedy (1925); there is no abortion but the reader can’t help but think it to be a better alternative for a woman than being abandoned, or, in Roberta’s case, drowned by a lover eager to rid himself of an unwanted child.

In these pre-legalization novels, abortion most often revealed the moral failure of men to face the consequences of their sexual desire. John Updike’s Piet Hanema in Couples (1968) agrees to allow his dentist to sleep with his wife, the price he demands for performing an abortion on Piet’s lover Foxy.

After abortion became legal in the US and Europe in the 1970s, its literary version has become almost entirely about a woman’s choice. Where male writers pen thinly disguised polemics advocating the right to choose—John Irving’s The Cider House Rules and the more recent Protect and Defend by Richard Patterson—women novelists ponder the after-effects of making that most difficult decision. Their stories are also more likely to be autobiographical. Sue Townsend exorcised the ghosts of her two abortions by writing Ghost Children, a haunting narrative that begins with a bag of abandoned foetuses and traces the relationship of two lovers unable to escape the ghost of a 17-year-old abortion. Marge Piercy more famously recreated her experience of a self-performed abortion at age 17 in Braided Lives.

But change the cultural lens and the issue of rights becomes a lot trickier. In Sisters of My Heart by Chitra Divakaruni, Sudha’s husband and his family attempt to force her to abort a female child. Gender selection is a primary theme in Shobhan Bantwal’s The Forbidden Daughter, which centres on its heroine’s struggle to deliver her second daughter. Indian feminism offers an instructive reminder that abortion is not merely about a woman’s right to choose, it is also about her right to be born. More importantly, this quick romp in comparative literature reveals the limits of the law. As long as we live in a lopsided world that devalues women, abortion can be used against us, whether it’s legal or outlawed.

Write to Lakshmi at postscript@livemint.com

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