Abortion Isn’t Beautiful

In this excerpt from Choice Words, Annie Finch's anthology of abortion literature, author Nicole Walker contemplates the beauty—or lack thereof—in abortion.

[Photo: An illustration of a sad person with long hair sitting solemnly.]
Maybe abortion cannot be beautiful because beauty is not something you can do. Shutterstock

It is hard to write anything beautiful about abortion. I can see the beauty in snapping off a couple of yellow flowers to give more energy for the current tomato plant to grow. I can see the beauty in pulling off the dead petals of geranium. I can see the beauty in cutting off a branch that sucks too much water from the main trunk of the apple tree, but it’s hard to see the beauty in the suctioning out of fetal tissue. Perhaps the image becomes too medical right off the bat. Make it narrative? Is there beauty in a waiting room? Beauty in stirrups? Beauty in ultrasounds?

I’ve had two abortions. One when I was 11 and one when I was 21. The one when I was 21 was much more beautiful than the first. In Portland, Oregon, there is some kind of advanced thought about abortion. The doctor inserts flags of seaweed inside your cervix to let it expand naturally. The lights are dimmed. It’s still not beautiful but it’s not punitive.

Perhaps it’s that abortion is not natural that makes it hard to find beauty, but the flower snapping, the petal pulling, the branch cutting isn’t natural either, and petals and branches are supposedly natural. A skirt can be beautiful. A blanket. A bowl.

If we called abortion “miscarriage,” or maybe “optional miscarriage,” would it be more beautiful? If you had to opt in to a pregnancy or you would automatically be opted out, like registering for the health benefits you may not have which might cause you to opt out of the pregnancy, would that make the choice easier or harder? If nature stopped pregnancy’s “progressing” and instead stayed still until you checked the “go-ahead pregnancy” box, would the choice seem as sinister? Why is choosing an ending morally more troubling than choosing a beginning?

I don’t think it is death that robs abortion of its beauty. Many deaths have poignancy and significance. To sit beside your mother as you hold her hand while her breathing slows and slows and stops is beautiful. Beautiful that you got to be there. Beautiful that the moment was charged with meaning. But the fetus doesn’t know it’s alive. Its hands are not holdable.

Is the choice “yes” always more beautiful than the choice “no”? Did I choose to have my current children? I mean these very children? I chose to try to get pregnant, or at least not try very hard not to. I didn’t know that a fetus would be Zoe. I didn’t know a fetus would be Max. They are beautiful to be sure but was the choice itself beauty? I can’t pinpoint the moment of choice so it’s hard to say. There were beautiful moments being pregnant, but I think I may have borrowed that beauty from a TV show I once watched, and who Zoe and Max are has very little to do with what beauty I pregnantly fantasized.

I cannot make abortion beautiful even when I think of my children that I would not have had had I not had the abortions I did. It’s still not beautiful that I went to college and that I went to Ph.D. school or that I am writing this right now. It’s not beautiful that I was 11 years old. It was not beautiful at all when the doctor said, you are too young to be having sex, and I was like, yes, that’s true, you should tell the guy who molested me, but she was right. I was too young. Maybe there’s something beautiful there?

If nature is beautiful then so is rain and snow and slippery snakes. Grass and gases and tardigrades and fluke worms and flat worms and round worms. How, if fluke worms are beautiful, can abortion not be? It’s not because it signals absence—vacuums and sleep and silence, space and time and free lunch are beautiful. It’s not the non-baby that makes abortion not beautiful.

It might be the stirrups and the blood that make abortion not beautiful but that is the stuff of women and some women are found to be beautiful even while lying back in stirrups and while bleeding. Perhaps beauty here just means fuckable but indeed every abortion signals some level of fuckability. Whether the fucking was by consent or by rape, the sex itself still worked.

Rape and abortion are two unbeautiful things that go together in many sentences. Some people won’t even let a raped refugee in the custody of ICE get an abortion. Those people might become Supreme Court justices. I would like to know those people’s opinion on beauty.

Maybe abortion cannot be beautiful because beauty is not something you can do. You can possess beauty and be beautiful. You can look for beauty and call truth beauty but you cannot beauty your day away. Choice is about verbs, and beauty does not move. Beauty is permanent, memorialized, stuck in a place. Choice winds its way through canyons and through fluttering trees, cutting down mountains and making mulch for next year’s buds. What a gift it is to be able to move like wind.

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.