In the years before the US Supreme Court ruled that it was a constitutionally guaranteed right, the subject of abortion cropped up quite regularly in American popular fiction. It played a role in plenty of bestsellers, including Peyton Place and The Valley of the Dolls, and it factored into the plots of a number of fascinating lesser-known novels.
After 1973, however, the ethical dilemmas produced by an unplanned pregnancy began to fade from contemporary American fiction. When the topic did arise, it was usually in historical novels like The Cider House Rules, or in stories set in some dystopian future, like the one depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale. Alternatively, it was treated as a political subject, and not as a matter of existential dread. Now that the Supreme Court seems to be ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, that may be about to change.
Abortion was a hot topic in 1968. Use of the contraceptive pill had been approved in 1960, catalyzing the sexual revolution, and 1967 had brought the Summer of Love, which was arguably the apex of the women’s liberation movement, before radical feminism arose to take the movement in a more conservative direction. 1968 was also the year that Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, became pregnant with her third child at the age of 21. At the time, abortion was legal under various circumstances in some American states and entirely illegal in others. Two attorneys enlisted McCorvey in their attempt to challenge existing anti-abortion laws, but she played almost no role in any of the subsequent trials, none of which was resolved in time to be of any use to her. After giving birth, McCorvey put the baby up for adoption and moved on with her troubled life.
At the same time, the debate in which McCorvey’s case was to play a critical role was being hashed out in the popular culture, and it played a prominent role in the bestselling novel of 1968, Arthur Hailey’s Airport. A stewardess named Gwen Meighen discovers that she has been impregnated by her married lover. Getting pregnant could end a stewardess’s career back then, and the situation is further complicated by the fact that the baby’s father is airline pilot Vernon Demerest, who is, to all intents and purposes, Gwen’s boss (these characters were played by Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset in the 1970 film adaptation).
Here’s how Demerest responds when Gwen informs him of her pregnancy:
“Don’t be ridiculous; of course I’ll help you. You don’t imagine I’d walk away and ignore the whole bit.” The essential thing, he realized, was speed; the trick with unwanted fetuses was to get the little beggars early. He wondered if Gwen had any religious scruples about abortions. She had never mentioned having a religion, but sometimes the most unlikely people were devout. He asked her, “Are you Catholic?”
Well, he reflected, that helped. Maybe, then, a quick flight to Sweden would be the thing; a few days there was all Gwen would need. Trans America would cooperate, as airlines always did, providing they were not officially involved—the word “abortion” could be hinted at, but must never be mentioned. That way Gwen could fly deadhead on a Trans America flight to Paris, then go by Air France to Stockholm on a reciprocal employee pass. Of course, even when she got to Sweden, the medical fees would still be damnably expensive; there was a jest among airline people that the Swedes took their overseas abortion customers to the clinic and the cleaners at the same time. The whole thing was cheaper in Japan, of course. Lots of airline stewardesses flew to Tokyo and got abortions there for fifty dollars. The abortions were supposed to be therapeutic, but Demerest mistrusted them.; Sweden—or Switzerland—were more reliable. He had once declared: when he got a stewardess pregnant, she went first class.
Demerest spends much of the book contemplating pregnancy and abortion. At one point, he provokes an argument about the topic with his co-pilot, Anson Harris, a faithful husband and father of seven children. Demerest assumes that Harris must be a Catholic, but Harris insists he’s agnostic. Their exchange (which I've stripped of everything but the dialogue) unfolds like this:
Harris: Well, if you go through it all—history, that is—one thing stands out. Every bit of human progress has happened for a single, simple reason: the elevation of the status of the individual. Each time civilization has stumbled into another age that’s a little better, a bit more enlightened, than the one before it, it’s because people cared more about other people and respected them as individuals. When they haven’t cared, those have been the times of slipping backward…
Demerest: I’ll take your word for it.
Harris: You don’t have to. There are plenty of examples. We abolished slavery because we respected individual human life. For the same reason we stopped hanging children, and around the same time we invented habeas corpus, and now we’ve created justice for all, or the closest we can come to it. More recently, most people who think and reason are against capital punishment, not so much because of those to be executed, but for what taking a human life—any human life—does to society, which is all of us.
Demerest: Capital punishment is a long way from abortion.
Harris: Not when you think about it. It all relates to respect for individual human life…
Demerest: An unborn child doesn’t have a life—not an individual life. It’s a fetus; it isn’t a person.
Harris: Did you ever see an aborted child? Afterward, I mean. I did once. A doctor I know showed it to me. It was in a glass jar, in formaldehyde. … It was a fetus all right, just the way you said, except it had been a human being, too. It was all there; everything perfectly formed; a good-looking face, hands, feet, toes, even a little penis. You know what I felt when I saw it? I felt ashamed; I wondered where the hell was I; where were all other decent-minded, sensitive people when this kid, who couldn’t defend himself was being murdered? Because that’s what happened; even though, most times, we’re afraid to use the word.
The debate goes on like this until Demerest loses his temper and growls, “Anyway, people who think like you are on the losing side. The trend is to make abortion easier; eventually, maybe, wide open and legal.” To which Harris responds, “If it happens, we’ll be taking a backward step nearer the Auschwitz ovens.”
This focus would probably be odd in any novel about a male airline pilot. But in Airport, it seems even weirder because, before the novel ends, Demerest will find himself trying to keep a crippled plane aloft after a deranged passenger detonates a bomb in a bathroom and blows out part of the aircraft’s fuselage. Even in the midst of this drama, he continues to obsesses about abortion, and the mid-air crisis has the effect of changing his mind somewhat.
The blast that damages the fuselage seriously injures Gwen. A doctor on board treats her for her injuries and reports to Demerest that she will probably survive (assuming of course, that Demerest and Harris can manage to land the plane safely). Demerest discloses to the doctor and to Harris that Gwen is pregnant, and suddenly Harris understands the reason for all the abortion talk. The doctor assures Demerest that if Gwen survives, the baby will likely survive too. Notwithstanding his determination to have the pregnancy terminated, Demerest finds he is relieved to hear this. Hailey doesn’t spell it out, but the plane’s brush with disaster seems to have fundamentally altered Demerest’s thinking—Gwen’s unborn child is no longer just an inconvenient fetus, it is another vulnerable passenger aboard his badly damaged airplane who he feels duty-bound to bring home safely.
Abortion featured even more prominently in A Place Called Saturday, also published in 1968 and written by the actress Mary Astor, best known for her iconic roles in films like The Maltese Falcon and The Prisoner of Zenda. Astor was a staunchly progressive Democrat and a highly accomplished and independent woman. However, her novel offers a more complex exploration of the subject than the plea for abortion legalization that today’s audiences might expect her politics to predict.
The protagonist of A Place Called Saturday is Cora March, a married woman in her mid-20s. Her husband Rafael (whom she calls Rafe) works in air-traffic control at the airport in Tucson, Arizona. The couple have a nice home in a fictional town outside of Tucson called Sabado (“Saturday” in Spanish) and have been married for three years. However, they are still childless, despite repeated attempts to conceive.
When the novel opens, all four of Cora’s limbs are tied to her bed, her mouth is taped shut, and she is being raped by a stranger. After the stranger departs, she remains bound and gagged until Rafe returns from work. He releases her and calls the police and the local doctor. The cops sweep the place for prints (about the only evidence available to them in the days before hair and semen and blood could be used to catch a culprit), while Dr. Titus tends to Cora’s wounds.
A few weeks later, Cora discovers that she is pregnant. Rafe assumes that she will abort the child, even though the procedure is illegal in Arizona. “We can’t ask Titus to do the job, of course,” he tells her. “I’ll look into it. Find somebody good.” This suggestion is particularly painful to Cora because of how long she has been trying, and failing, to have a child of her own. “Well, we’ll just have to go on waiting, that’s all,” Rafe tells her. “It’s a damn shame.” Cora is a dutiful wife and somewhat intimidated by Rafe, but she refuses to countenance an abortion. The kind of abortion debate ensues that was probably pretty commonplace between men and women back before Roe v. Wade (see also, for instance, the Hemingway story Hills Like White Elephants).
Rafe: Is it because you’re afraid of the operation? It’s as simple as a tonsillectomy.
Cora: It’s against the law.
Rafe: Nuts. That law’s going to be changed someday. You’ll see.
Cora: And that will make it right. And then all our little cheating married women can run to a doctor and say, “My uncle seduced me.” That makes it a combination of incest and rape, so everything’s legal. It’ll never be right, Rafe.
Rafe: Cora, you are wrong. This potential child has no rights whatsoever because it violates my rights.
Cora: Tribal nonsense.
Rafe: I don’t understand why you can even think twice about ridding yourself of something—a few bits of cell tissue—that could wreck our whole marriage.
Cora: That’s kind of a contradiction, isn’t it? If those “few bits of cell tissue” can wreck our marriage, there must be something important about them.
Rafe: Well, of course it’s important—
Cora: It used to be a highly moral issue, but today, with the easing of morality, we say, “Let us use the tools of modernity and get rid of something that will inconvenience us.”
Rafe: It’s a little more than “inconvenient.”
Cora: What I’m trying to say is that instead of a blind morality, we’ve developed a kind of hypocrisy; we say we have no responsibility because it’s just a bit of cell tissue, that it isn’t even a human being yet. So why not do the expedient thing, the me-first thing. The trouble is, science is betraying us, it’s catching up with the old superstitious morality. Science now tells us that with the union of the first two cells, everything is settled, decided; it’s a boy with brown hair and blue eyes, or it’s a girl with red hair and brown eyes; it’ll be tall or short; there’ll be a small mole under the right eye; it’s all been programmed. It is something that will never be a sycamore tree or a bird or a rabbit. To me there is something horrible about the idea that just because we can’t see it, because it’s formless, we have the right to kill it, like a bug under our heel. It can’t talk yet. It can’t say, “Please don’t!” even though the apparatus for speech is potentially there. Of course, what does a bit of cell tissue know about killing or protesting being killed? I don’t suppose that has been programmed; that takes learning. So let’s be humane and kill it before it has feelings or knowledge. Ugh! The whole idea revolts me!
Rafe: Whom were you quoting? That was very impressive.
Cora: Damn it, Rafe, I wasn’t quoting. It’s something every woman knows instinctively. And I am not afraid of an operation. I know women who’ve had more than one, and they think no more of it than having a slightly painful menstrual period. That’s what they say, anyway. I wonder if sometimes, in those dark moments we all have when we face ourselves, if they don’t say, “I killed my baby.”
Rafe: How the hell can you want to bear the child of a criminal psychotic bastard is more than I can understand.
Cora: You don’t want his child and neither do I. But I want my child. And I think you could, with me, accept that separate entity, the person that this child will be, the individual that is neither mine, nor yours, nor his.
By today’s standards, Rafe comes across as a pushy anti-feminist, but in 1968 he wouldn’t have struck many readers as an unusually awful husband or human being, and Astor gives his view a fair hearing, refusing to weigh the argument in Cora’s favor. And despite her apparent sympathy with Cora’s view, she also acknowledges the dangers of forcing women to seek illegal abortions and allows that these dangers might be mitigated were safe abortions legally available.
Over dinner one night, Cora’s kindly physician Dr. Titus tells his wife that he wishes he could offer Cora an abortion himself. “Of course,” he adds, “I didn’t let on what was in my mind, just gave her some pamphlets on prenatal care and told her to come back in a month for a checkup. I have a hunch I’ll be getting a call from them in a couple of weeks, ‘Please, doctor, can you stop the bleeding!’ In a hell of a state of shock. Exsanguinated. Mass of infection. They ought to have a law—so we could take proper care of these cases. Not leave ’em to somebody like that lady butcher up in Phoenix. Simple little job like shelling a pea. Ought to have a law.”
The references to Phoenix in Astor’s novel and to Sweden in Airport were probably inspired by the famous case of Sherri Finkbine, a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, and the married mother of four children. In 1962, Finkbine sought a therapeutic abortion when she discovered that the thalidomide pills she had been taking were likely to have produced horrible deformities in the fetus she was carrying. No legitimate healthcare provider in Arizona would agree to perform the procedure, and so Finkbine wound up traveling to Sweden for the abortion. The case became a cause célèbre that led to Finkbine being fired from her job as the host of a children’s TV program. She received so many death threats that the FBI was called in to protect her.
The third prominent abortion novel to be published in 1968 was A Case of Need, credited to Jeffrey Hudson, a pseudonym for Michael Crichton, who had yet to publish a book under his real name. In 1969, the Mystery Writers of America handed A Case of Need the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Unlike Mary Astor, Crichton’s politics trended conservative, but A Case of Need is very much a pro-choice novel. Considered together, these two novels provide a reminder that, in the days before Roe v. Wade, abortion was debated as a complex matter of law and bioethics, and not as a matter of political partisanship. It was a time when a liberal like Mary Astor could write an anti-abortion novel, and a conservative like Michael Crichton could write a pro-abortion novel, and neither would face excommunication from their political tribe as a result.
Crichton’s novel is about the efforts of a Boston physician named John Berry to determine who performed the illegal abortion that claimed the life of a college student named Karen Randall. Berry’s best friend Dr. Art Lee has been arrested for the crime. Even though he is widely known in the medical community as one of only a handful of local doctors willing to perform the procedure (under the guise of administering a dilation and curettage), Lee insists that he didn’t perform the abortion that killed Randall. Still, Lee defends his willingness to break the law, arguing that denying a woman an abortion is “just as cruel as refusing penicillin to a sick man.”
Before Roe v. Wade, if a woman showed up in the emergency room suffering from the effects of a botched illegal abortion, hospitals were required to report them to the police. Crichton, who earned a medical degree from Harvard but never practiced, knew that big-city hospitals rarely reported these women, and that the doctors usually categorized these cases as miscarriages. As one of Crichton’s characters notes:
“We see quite a few self-induced or illegally induced abortions here. Sometimes the girls come in with so much vaginal soap they foam like overloaded dishwashers. Other times, it’s bleeding. … We just take care of it quietly and send her on her way. We’re doctors, not law-enforcement officers. We see about a hundred girls a year this way. If we reported every one, we’d spend all our time in court testifying and not practicing medicine.”
Another doctor notes, “The last figures I saw listed American abortions at a million yearly; it’s very common…” Crichton marshals statistics showing that abortions performed in hospitals by medical professionals are not only far safer than back-alley abortions, they were also far safer for the mother than childbirth.
Myron S. Kaufmann’s book, Thy Daughter’s Nakedness, another of 1968’s biggest novels (my paperback copy runs to 803 pages of small print), tells the story of Millicent Gordon, the 21-year-old-daughter of a Massachusetts rabbi. A recent graduate from the University of Chicago, she returns to her small hometown outside of Boston. She enters the dating scene, and the book unfolds as an 800-page discussion of American sexual mores. After landing a job at a Boston newspaper and moving into an apartment with two other single girls, Millicent finds herself pressured for sex from a variety of men. Eventually, she surrenders her virginity to a young surgeon named Leslie Hollander. Several months into their relationship, her period fails to arrive on time and she begins to fear she might be pregnant. She urges Hollander to marry her, and he urges her to get an abortion. A familiar debate ensues:
Millicent: I’m not gonna have an abortion. I don’t believe in it. I don’t approve of it.
Hollander: Are you a Roman Catholic or something?
Millicent: No, I’m not a Roman Catholic or something. I’m just a human being.
Hollander: And a typically female one at that.
Millicent: I know you think you don’t get your share of fun out of life, but how can you love life when you want to snuff out a life that’s here inside my belly?
Hollander: That’s a fine statement from a girl who used to resent being female.
Millicent: Well, abortion would make me more female than ever. To present a man with children when he wants them, or kill my children at his convenience if they don’t suit his convenience. Just because I’m a woman it doesn’t mean you can manipulate me. I’m not a piece of meat for your friends to go inside of with knives.
Hollander: It’s just a couple of cells. It’s not a person.
Millicent: I don’t care. It would be a person. How would you like it if someone had aborted you out of your mother’s belly?
Hollander: That has nothing to do with it. Suppose my parents hadn’t even gotten laid that particular night, or suppose my parents never met or never married—I wouldn’t have been conceived. You don’t worry about people that aren’t born. If you’re gonna worry about unborn souls, I’m depriving somebody of life every minute that I’m not having intercourse.
Millicent: I think you’re a prude, do you know it? That’s the real prudery, when people don’t want to face that babies come from it. … Men ought to see their children actually being born, that’s what I think. They ought to see women in childbirth. Then they’d know what it’s all about.
Hollander: I have seen it. I’ve delivered them.
The argument ends without agreement. Millicent wishes she could share her lover’s ideas about abortion, “But the thought of it, of the tampering, of the flesh, made her grimace. Who knew what a genius, what a great person she might let be scraped out?”
It is interesting to note that, despite the generally progressive and liberalising direction of political travel produced by that decade’s counterculture, so many of the books dealing with the termination of pregnancies at the close of the decade remained philosophically hostile to the idea of abortion. A possible explanation was provided by The Tenth Month, a novel by Laura Z. Hobson, best known for her 1947 book Gentleman’s Agreement, which dealt with antisemitism. The Tenth Month was published in 1970, but Hobson chose to set her story in 1968.
The protagonist, Theodora Grey, is a 40-something divorced New Yorker who has been told by her doctor that she cannot have children, but who finds herself pregnant following an affair with a married man named Matthew. He might be the father, but the child might also belong to one of her other occasional sexual partners. She isn’t sure. All she knows for certain is that this is probably her only chance to have a child, and she is determined to keep it.
Aware of the stigma attached to unwed mothers and their “bastards,” she decides to go away and keep her pregnancy a secret. Later, she’ll return to New York and tell her friends that the baby is adopted. Hobson blames this stigma for a variety of social ills, including abortion: “The shame factor—if it were absent, how few young lives would be wrecked, how few hideous abortions there would be, the awful self-inflicted ones, the slicing agony at the hands of the doctor who would not risk an anesthetic.”
But Hobson also believes that events in the surrounding political culture helped shape attitudes to this uniquely emotive issue. 1968 had been a horrible year for Americans. The Vietnam War was raging overseas, and the Tet Offensive was propelling it into a whole new level of violence. The My-Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers took place in March of that year. Campus unrest was rampant on the home-front and antiwar protestors were tear-gassed at the Democratic Party’s chaotic convention. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April. Robert F. Kennedy was murdered two months later.
For Theodora Grey, a journalist whose job it is to report on this violence, bringing a new life into the world is an act of defiance in a country convulsed by death and mayhem. She never seriously considers the possibility of abortion. Her decision is a pro-life protest in the most literal sense.
Probably the finest pre-Roe abortion novel of them all is Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, published in 1970 but set sometime before June 1967 when abortion was legalized in California. It tells the story of a 31-year-old Hollywood b-movie actress whose professional and personal lives are in serious decline. When the book opens, Maria (she pronounces it Mar-eye-a) Wyeth is in the midst of a divorce from her husband Carter Lang, the man who directed her first big film, Angel Beach, in which Maria played a teenager raped by the members of a motorcycle gang. Lang has had their four-year-old daughter Kate committed to a sanitarium where she is administered electroshock treatments for a medical condition that sounds like autism. Maria wants Kate released, but needs to rehabilitate herself first. Since the divorce, her life has become a downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse and loveless sex.
One of these sexual liaisons has left her pregnant. When she informs Lang, he tells her to get an abortion or she’ll never see Kate again. Today, abortion is usually defended as a “woman’s choice,” but in the abortion novels of the pre-Roe era, it was almost always the demand of the man. The morning after Maria tells Lang that she’s pregnant, he calls her from a nearby town where he is shooting his latest film. “I love you,” she tells him. She hopes he’ll respond with kindness, but her hopes are immediately dashed:
“Get a pencil,” he ordered. He was going to give her a telephone number. He was going to give her the telephone number of the only man in Los Angeles County who did clean work.
“Then we’ll see.”
“I’m not sure I want to do that,” she said carefully.
“All right, don’t do it. Go ahead and have this kid.” He paused, confident in his hand. She waited for him to play it through. “And I’ll take Kate.”
After he hung up, she sat very still. She had a remote sense that everything was happening the way it was supposed to happen. By the time she called him back she was calm, neutral, an intermediary calling to clarify the terms. “Listen,” she said. “If I do this, then you promise I can have Kate? You promise there won’t be trouble later?”
“I’m not promising anything,” he said. “I said we’ll see.”
The female protagonists mentioned above—Gwen Meighen, Cora March, Millicent Gordon—get their happy ending. Either the men in their lives relent on the issue of abortion or, in Millicent’s case, her period finally arrives and resolves her dilemma. But Joan Didion wasn’t in the happy ending business. And while there is some mention in Airport and A Place Called Saturday and Thy Daughter’s Nakedness of how an illegal abortion was performed, these are stories the women have heard second-hand. Maria Wyeth is the only character discussed here who actually has to endure the procedure.
Though the abortion is performed by a competent doctor and goes relatively smoothly, Didion does an excellent job of describing what a hellish experience it could be, even for a woman of means. Even before she undergoes the procedure itself, Maria is forced to navigate a hidden world populated by anonymous voices and contacts, and fraught with uncertainty and risk. Here in its entirety, is chapter 14:
At four that afternoon, after a day spent looking at the telephone and lighting cigarettes and putting the cigarettes out and getting glasses of water and looking at the telephone again, Maria dialed the number. A man answered, and said that he would call back. When he did he asked who had referred her.
“You want an appointment with the doctor,” he said.
“When could he see me.”
“The doctor will want to know how many weeks.”
“How many weeks what?”
There was a silence. “How advanced is the problem, Maria?” the voice said finally.
In the next chapter, we learn that, “The voice on the telephone had known what she wanted without either of them saying it. The voice on the telephone had said that this would be expensive. The voice on the telephone had said that on the day set she was to bring a pad and a belt and $1,000 in cash.”
Didion’s most brilliant piece of characterization comes when she describes Maria’s increasingly erratic behavior in the days before the abortion is scheduled to be performed:
Although the heat had not yet broken she began that week to sleep inside, between white sheets, hoping dimly that the white sheets would effect some charm, that she would wake in the morning and find them stained with blood. She did this in the same spirit that she had, a month before, thrown a full box of Tampax into the garbage: to be without Tampax was to insure bleeding, to sleep naked between white sheets was to guarantee staining. To give the charm every opportunity she changed the immaculate sheets every morning. She wore white crepe pajamas and no underwear to a party. She pretended to herself that she was keeping the baby, the better to invite disappointment, court miscarriage. “I’m having a baby,” she heard herself telling the parking lot attendant at Saks as they tried vainly to get a wicker bassinette into the Corvette. When it became clear that she would have to leave the bassinette for delivery she sat in the driver’s seat of the Corvette and cried.
It’s unlikely that Michael Crichton or Arthur Hailey (or any other man, for that matter) could have written that paragraph. Eventually, Maria gets another call from an unknown man who tells her that he will get in touch on Monday at five o’clock. “Where do I go?” she asks. But all he says is, “I said we’d be in touch, Maria. We will.” The book unspools like a crime thriller, which (given abortion’s illegality) is what it was:
“You want it in cash,” the teller said doubtfully.
“I’m taking a trip.” She did not know why she was saying this but she kept on. “Mexico City, Guadalajara.”
“You don’t want traveler’s checks?”
“Cash,” she said. And when the teller handed her the bills she ran from the bank with them still in her hand.
Finally the call comes:
“Get it right, Maria,” the voice on the telephone said. “You got a pencil there? You writing this down?”
“Yes,” Maria said.
“Ventura Freeway north, you got that all right? You know what exit?”
“I wrote it down.”
“All set then. I’ll meet you in the parking lot of the Thriftimart.”
“What Thriftimart?” Maria whispered.
“Maria, I told you, you can’t miss it. Under the big red T.”
The big T acts as a symbol, but of what exactly—Trouble? Trauma? Terror?—is left unclear. As Maria approaches her destination, Didion gives us a description of a desolate southern California landscape that might have come from Raymond Chandler, rendered hostile by her own sense of dread:
In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry, burning, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of firebreaks on distant mountain. Not even the highest palms moved. The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective, seemed to alter the perception of depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity. Taco Bells jumped out at her. Oil rockers creaked ominously. For miles before she reached the Thriftimart she could see the big red T, a forty-foot cutout letter which seemed peculiarly illuminated against the harsh unclouded light of the afternoon sky.
Beneath the T waits a man “wearing white duck pants and a white sport shirt and he had a moon face and a eunuch’s soft body” (Didion, who worked for years at Vogue, had an eye for the way people are often defined by their attire). He hops in, gives her directions, and she begins to drive. Her passenger chats breezily about cars until they reach their destination, where the scene becomes positively ominous:
The floor of the bedroom where it happened was covered with newspapers. She remembered reading somewhere that newspapers were antiseptic, it had to do with chemicals in the ink, to deliver a baby in a farmhouse you covered the floor with newspapers.
While the man in the white duck pants watches TV in the next room, the doctor begins the abortion. “This is just induced menstruation,” he tells Maria. “Nothing to have any emotional difficulties about, better not to think about it at all, quite often the pain is worse when we think about it, don’t like anesthetics, anesthetics are where we run into trouble, just a little local on the cervix, there, relax, Maria, I said relax.”
The man in the white duck pants turns up the volume on the TV in order to drown out Maria’s screams, so the neighbors won’t hear. “Hear that scraping, Maria?” the doctor asks. “That should be the sound of music to you … don’t scream, Maria, there are people next door, almost done, almost over, better to get it all now than to do it again a month from now. … I said don’t make any noise, Maria, now I’ll tell you what’s going to happen, you’ll bleed a day or so, not heavily, just spotting, and then a month, six weeks from now you’ll have a normal period, not this month, this month you just had it, it’s in that pail.”
After that grisly scene ends, the man in the white duck pants and Maria drive back to Thriftimart. A few weeks later, she begins to experience heavy bleeding. She doesn’t seek help right away because she has landed an acting role, for the first time in ages, on a cheesy TV series called Interstate 80, and she doesn’t want to jeopardize it. So, she slaps on a Maxi-Pad, takes some Dexedrine, and goes to work. At the end of the day, she removes the pad and finds “a large piece of bloody tissue.” Maria takes the tissue to her doctor’s office, and he tells her it is a piece of placenta.
For a long time after the abortion, Maria has nightmares about it, some of which are fairly heavy-handed in their symbolism. In one of these, the abortionist and the man in the white duck pants have invaded her house and are messing with the plumbing. Eventually, “the dream revealed its inexorable intention, before the plumbing stopped up, before they all fled and left her there, gray water bubbling up in every sink. Of course she could not call a plumber because she had known all along what would be found in the pipes, what hacked pieces of human flesh.”
Determined to spare her readers none of the gory details, Didion stared directly into a reality that Arthur Hailey, Mary Astor, and Myron S. Kaufmann could not bear to describe.
At a time when abortion was still illegal across much of America, it seemed to be ubiquitous in our fiction. Neither political tribe had yet made it a litmus test for its members, and in 1967, California’s Republican governor Ronald Reagan signed the state’s Therapeutic Abortion Act into law. According to “Reagan’s Darkest Hour,” an essay on the subject in National Review, he claimed he had “never given much thought to” the topic before that. It is inconceivable that any politician—Democrat, Republican, or independent—would make such a remark today.
Abortion might have remained a popular topic in cultural artifacts such as books, films, and TV shows had the Supreme Court not stepped in and ruled that it is a woman’s constitutional right. As abortions became legally available across the country, the dramatic potential offered by the dilemmas and anxieties explored in the novels of the late-1960s no longer pertained. Although couples might continue to disagree about the ethics of the procedure, it no longer involved criminality or the risks associated with obtaining a termination on the black market. And the issue had become partisan in a way it hadn’t been before. Rightly or wrongly, pro-lifers determined that an activist judiciary had usurped the law-making function of Congress. The only way to restore the status quo ante was to alter the makeup of the Supreme Court so that Roe could be reversed and responsibility for adjudicating the issue returned to elected state legislatures. Conservatives have been pursuing this project for nearly 50 years, and with a single-mindedness they have brought to no other political or cultural issue.
In the 21st century, American bestseller lists have been full of novels about women dealing with trauma. Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series of novels (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels) is raped and sodomized by her legal guardian. Kya Clark, the protagonist of Delia Owens’s mega-bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing, is abandoned by her mother, abused by her father, and sexually assaulted by an acquaintance. Alice Sebold’s 2002 bestseller, The Lovely Bones, is narrated by a teenage girl who has been raped and murdered. Lily Owens, the protagonist of Sue Monk Kidd’s bestseller The Secret Life of Bees, lives with an abusive father and has suppressed the memory of having accidentally shot her mother dead as a little child.
But rarely in a post-Roe popular novel set in contemporary America do you find a female character traumatized by an abortion she is contemplating or has already undergone. Once the procedure became legal and much safer, the prospect no longer inspired the same sense of dread it once carried, and since it enjoyed the constitutional endorsement of the highest court in the land, the stigma attached to its previous criminality largely disappeared. Now, when the issue is broached in popular fiction, authors are less likely to tackle the experience of the procedure itself than they are to tackle the issue in the abstract.
Charles Colson, who went to prison for his involvement in Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, later became a born-again Christian and published a post-Roe novel called Gideon’s Torch (co-written with Ellen Vaughn) in 1995. It tells the story of a liberal US president who uses the terrorist bombing of an abortion clinic as a pretext to chip away at the freedoms of conservative Americans, limiting what they can say and how they can protest abortion. No particular abortion is ever discussed.
In 1996, liberal novelist Noah Gordon published a novel called Matters of Choice, in which a successful Boston doctor named Rebecca Cole volunteers at an abortion clinic that serves underprivileged women. When her involvement with the clinic costs her a promotion at the hospital where she works, she moves to the country and sets up a solo family-medicine practice. The novel does actually describe several (legal) abortions, including one that goes disastrously wrong, but the main source of suspense is a subplot about an anti-abortion terrorist who seems to be stalking the protagonist. Unlike Colson, Gordon took pains to present the pros and cons of the abortion debate, but that didn’t prevent him from being assailed by online reviewers from both the Left and the Right for his perceived political biases.
More recently, in 2018, bestselling author Jodi Picoult published an abortion-themed novel called A Spark of Light. This novel, too, is mostly about abortion as an issue rather than abortion as a medical procedure. It unfolds over the course of a single day at a Mississippi abortion clinic targeted by a homicidal anti-abortionist who enters the premises with a gun and opens fire. He kills several people and holds several others hostage while the police try to negotiate a peaceful surrender.
Like most post-Roe abortion novels, A Spark of Light seems to view fanatical gunmen as the greatest threat to abortion rights in America. But if the leaked draft opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito becomes law, conservative states like Mississippi won’t have to worry about terrorists shooting up abortion clinics, because there probably won’t be any clinics left to shoot up. Instead, we are likely to see a return of the kind of abortion novel that proliferated in the late-’60s—stories filled with characters who are forced by carelessness and circumstance to make the kind of agonizing personal choices that adults who grew up in a post-Roe America were fortunate enough not to have to confront.
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