Why We Need Literature on Abortion

In this excerpt from Choice Words, Annie Finch's anthology of abortion poems, stories, and essays, she reflects on how literature on abortion is necessary on both a personal level and a larger societal one.

[Photo: An illustration of a person with long hair reading a book on a windowsill.]
We count on writers to illuminate our feelings, to help us claim and integrate the unacknowledged parts of ourselves and the aspects of others that feel alien or threatening, and to play out the complexities and paradoxes of our thoughts. Shutterstock

I had an abortion in 1999.

Searching for literature to help me absorb my experience, I realized that I had rarely read anything about abortion (and I have a Ph.D. in literature). I was astounded to discover that there was no major literary anthology about one of the most profound experiences in my life and that of millions of others. A physical, psychological, moral, spiritual, political, and cultural reality that navigates questions of life and death, abortion should be one of the great themes of literature.

My anthology, Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, which was published recently, was the result of the 20-year search that grew out of this initial sense of shock and loss. As I put out calls for poetry, novels, short stories, and drama and reached out to writers and scholars for recommendations and leads, I discovered that major writers had indeed written about the subject, but that much of the literature was hard to find, unpublished, or buried within larger literary works. The project was dispiriting at times, and I had nearly given up when a traumatic presidential election and an enraging Supreme Court appointment renewed my energy to complete the book.

Over the years, it grew to encompass lyric and narrative poems, plays, short stories, tweets, memoirs, flash fiction, rituals, journals, and excerpts from novels—writings that invoke grief, defiance, fear, shame, desperation, love, awe, tenderness, sorrow, regret, compassion, hope, despair, resolve, rage, triumph, relief, and peace. Writers from the 16th through 21st centuries across ethnicities, cultures, genders, and sexualities have written on the topic of abortion, including writers of diverse backgrounds and voices sharing how class, patriarchy, race and ethnicity, wealth, poverty, and faith traditions impact our understanding and experience of abortion.

Some of the pieces included are moving first-person accounts ranging from contemporary high schoolers in Pakistan to feminist legends such as Audre Lorde and Gloria Steinem. Others express the imaginative literary vision of major writers such as Margaret Atwood, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Ursula LeGuin, Gloria Naylor, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Sexton, Ntozake Shange, Leslie Marmon Silko, Edith Södergran, Amy Tan, Mo Yan, and so many more.

These stories depict the collective courage of our struggle to gain back reproductive freedom and make clear that bodily autonomy is necessary to human freedom and integrity. They describe the tragic emotional and physical toll of cultural, political, and religious attempts to force us to have children, to force us to have abortions, or to surround our reproductive choices with shame, silence, and isolation. These are the words we need to learn from now.

We count on writers to illuminate our feelings, to help us claim and integrate the unacknowledged parts of ourselves and the aspects of others that feel alien or threatening, and to play out the complexities and paradoxes of our thoughts. That is one reason literature has such a vital role to play in the conversation about abortion right now. The political arguments have been made repeatedly; in some ways there is nothing else left to say, and yet so much more needs to be said.

These writings on abortion bring exact insight, body-knowledge, compassion, strength of will, and intuitive blessing to bear. They don’t provide simple answers, but they do offer patterns:

Abortion as an act of love 

In a perceptive and forward-thinking article, “Abortion, Killing, and Maternal Moral Authority,” the philosopher Soran Reader points out that mothers choose abortion as a loving act of caretaking, whether for existing children or for the child they choose not to have. That our current social structure surrounds abortion with the opposite stereotype shows the gulf between women and those who make the laws and precepts. Yet if the many accounts of violence suffered by women at the hands of government and religion incite anger and grief, note the glimmers of light emerging from the shadows, the premonitions of the way it could be better. With courage and tenderness, it is possible to support empowering and respectful abortion amid loving community.

Though suspicion and discomfort about women and about death combine into a toxic cloud around the act of abortion, the harrowing experiences described in some literary works are caused not by abortion itself but by its control, compulsion, criminalization, censoring, or condemnation. Whether the outcome is unnecessary death, as in the contributions by Langston Hughes and Amy Tan, or the shame and alienation caused by enforced silence, it is the loss of sovereignty over the truth of one’s own body that haunts and destroys. Reproductive choices are uniquely individual and complex—and should therefore never be legislated by anyone for another. Abortion is normal; violent control over it is not.

Abortion as symbol and archetype 

Like death and birth, abortion has huge symbolic power that can enlarge a writer’s canvas. For some writers, abortion is not so much the topic as a way of talking about a different topic; for example, a connection between putting oneself ahead of a pregnancy and moving to the center stage of one’s own life is evident in numerous pieces including those by Rita Mae Brown, Angelique Imani Rodriguez, and Lindy West. Male writers have often used abortion as a symbol for sterility and alienation. Langston Hughes’s “Cora, Unashamed” can be seen to continue this tradition, though in a way made more nuanced and complex through issues of race.

Only freedom is nonviolent—and freedom depends on justice 

There is violence in anything that forces reproductive choices against a person’s will. While in the United States and most of Europe we think of the freedom to have an abortion as a basic liberty, there are millions of women struggling desperately not to have abortions—usually of female babies. Choice is only possible when there is reproductive justice, and differences based on poverty, wealth, politics, ethnicity, class, religion, marital status, age, geography, or nationality unjustly restrict reproductive freedom. Yet for all the dazzling variety of differences that patriarchy exploits to justify imposing reproductive injustice, the cross-cultural truth-telling in this book exposes core similarities among the injustices themselves. To recognize such widespread patterns can be as bracing and illuminating as it is horrifying.

Reproductive freedom can be emotionally complex 

While my personal view is that access to safe, legal abortion is a fundamental human right, I chose to include many poignant expressions of grief and regret over the choice to terminate a pregnancy, or ambivalence about the ethical and spiritual nature of abortion. There is no contradiction here. The fact that we may have negative emotions about a particular abortion doesn’t mean that abortion is wrong. The possibility of negative feelings is part of the responsibility of choice.

Feelings about an abortion can evolve 

The aftermath of abortion is as various as the experience itself, and recovery can be a dynamic and changing process. As Ava Torre-Bueno’s valuable book Peace After Abortion explains, the need some of us feel for emotional healing after an abortion may offer a doorway to confronting other, far older wounds that have nothing to do with abortion. Several contributors told me of the peace of mind they found in writing about an abortion thirty, forty, or even fifty years later; some felt that this anthology gave them permission to write about it for the first time. But by contrast, some of the writings describe moving on nearly immediately—with a flirtatious dance in a lesbian bar, a glass of wine in Bulgaria, or a pastrami sandwich in Greenwich Village.

The role of connection and support 

Many writings portray the crucial importance of a caring supporter. On the other hand, the absence of such support can be wrenching. One subtle, sad discernible truth is that the patriarchy’s wounding of women and gender nonconforming people resonates down through the generations, compromising our ability to tend and cherish one other during our life-and-death moments.

My vision for the role of Choice Words takes the form of three concentric circles: individual experience, collective understanding, and social change. On the individual level, I hope the book will be helpful to people who are dealing with abortion in their own lives or who seek to understand it more deeply, offering compassion, support, companionship, and insight.

But this is only a beginning. I felt this deeply during the editing process, when my prolonged and diligent hunt for literature from some writers whose perspectives badly need to be heard—including imprisoned and transgender writers—yielded nothing. As Gillian Branstetter of the National Center for Transgender Equality told me, “stigma and silence make it difficult for any person to talk about their abortion, and it is frequently worse for people who feel excluded from the conversation—including transgender men and nonbinary people. That is just why their stories are so important.”

Many are beginning to recognize that control of sexual and reproductive autonomy is integrally related to other forms of authoritarianism and exploitation. Literature on abortion can be used for book club discussions as we take the first step towards change, raising awareness; it can be used as a source text for abortion healing circles and consciousness-raising groups as we take the next step towards change, healing ourselves; and it can be used as the focus of community discussions across ideological lines.

I wrote these words sitting in the main reading room in the Library of Congress at a profoundly challenging time for reproductive rights in the United States and in many other parts of our planet. Yet I am heartened and moved by the continuity of this chorus of literary voices across eras and continents.

Today’s circumstances are driving new voices to speak up without hesitation or shame about the central importance of reproductive justice for human rights all over the world. To bring the power of literature to bear on the topic of abortion at this hinge time in the resurgence of our full and complete human rights has been my privilege and my joy.

Edited by poet Annie Finch, Choice Words: Writers on Abortion was published by Haymarket on April 7, 2020. Twenty years in the making, the literary anthology is a collection of essential poems, stories, and essays that reflect our collective struggle for reproductive freedom.