Monday, April 16, 2007

Two books on pre-Roe vs. Wade USA that I must get hold off

The Atlantic Monthly has a book review by Caitlin Flanagan of the book The Choices We Made. Normally Flanagan's writing is the worst kind of psuedo-liberal pseudo-feminism around, but this time I actually am somewhat impressed by her writing (even if the last couple of paragraphs makes me want to scream).

In the middle of a hot New York summer 60 years ago, my mother and her two roommates were invited to spend a weekend at Fire Island. The three girls, recent nursing-school graduates, worked together at Bellevue and were sharing the rent on their first apartment. When a fourth young nurse of their acquaintance overheard them talking about the trip, she asked if she and her young man, a resident at the hospital, could borrow the apartment while they were away. In those days, lovers had to seize on those kinds of opportunities to be alone together. The apartment key was given to the friend, no big deal, and my mother and her roommates left for the beach.

They returned late Sunday evening, in a commotion of kicked-off shoes and set-down carryalls and switched-on lights. One of them pulled the string on the kitchen bulb, and her cry brought the other two. At first they thought a crime had taken place. Strictly speaking, one had: The boyfriend, a kid with a year or two of medical training under his belt, had performed an abortion on his girlfriend. Literally, a kitchen-table abortion. There was blood on the table and the floor, and there were wadded-up bloody towels in the sink.

What happened next, I don’t know. Probably two of the girls cleaned up (they were nurses, remember; they would not have been horrified by such a task once they had the nature of the thing sorted out), and probably the third went to the friend’s apartment to check on her. All three were accomplices to a crime, and they would have been keenly aware of that. At Belle­vue, my mother had twice attended dying young women who were victims of botched abortions, young women—“girls,” she called them—who spent their last hours on earth being interviewed by policemen. Terrified, alone, dying, neither would reveal the name of the abortionist; “they were too frightened,” my mother said. If I had to put money on which of the roommates bravely went to the girl’s apartment, I’d put it on my mother.


If Flanagan wrote with this kind of compassion, passion and power all the time, I would not have any problem with her writing, unfortunately she doesn't (which shows up in passages in the review).

Now, to her description of the book.

The history of abortion is a history of stories, and the ones that took place before Roe v. Wade are oftentimes so pitiable and heartbreaking that one of the most powerful tools of pro-choice advocates is simply telling them. The Choices We Made is a compendium of such stories, and while you could read it in an afternoon, you should not make the decision to do so lightly: It will trouble you for a long time afterward. In it, women whom we know for the large space they occupy in the world—writers Grace Paley, Linda Ellerbee, and Ursula K. Le Guin, and actresses Polly Bergen and Rita Moreno among them—tell us about a time in their lives when they were reduced to begging for a simple medical procedure that, because of the circumstances in which it was performed, almost killed several of them and left at least one infertile. Abortionists in those days included a handful of merciful and scrupulous doctors willing to risk prison, and more than a few monsters who considered groping or sexually assaulting their patients a droit du seigneur. Who would complain? And who didn’t have it coming? In those days, it was not uncommon for a woman to receive a D & C without anesthetic shortly after being lectured about the wages of being a slut.

The history of abortion is a history of stories, and the ones that took place before Roe v. Wade are oftentimes so pitiable and heartbreaking that one of the most powerful tools of pro-choice advocates is simply telling them. The Choices We Made is a compendium of such stories, and while you could read it in an afternoon, you should not make the decision to do so lightly: It will trouble you for a long time afterward. In it, women whom we know for the large space they occupy in the world—writers Grace Paley, Linda Ellerbee, and Ursula K. Le Guin, and actresses Polly Bergen and Rita Moreno among them—tell us about a time in their lives when they were reduced to begging for a simple medical procedure that, because of the circumstances in which it was performed, almost killed several of them and left at least one infertile. Abortionists in those days included a handful of merciful and scrupulous doctors willing to risk prison, and more than a few monsters who considered groping or sexually assaulting their patients a droit du seigneur. Who would complain? And who didn’t have it coming? In those days, it was not uncommon for a woman to receive a D & C without anesthetic shortly after being lectured about the wages of being a slut.

Most of the abortions recounted in the book occurred sometime between the late ’30s and the early ’60s, a time when so many American young women were ignorant of some of the most basic facts of reproduction, and when an unmarried woman’s sexual life was, by definition, a shameful and secret thing. It was also a time in which pregnancy could destroy a young woman’s prospects: She could be thrown out of college, fired from her job, removed permanently from the marriage market. Criminal abortions, of course, were dangerous business, and among the women who survived the procedure, many were rendered infertile.


I think books like The Choice We Made are incredible important to show that there is a very real cost of the lack of freely available abortions, when needed. Flanagan goes on a bit about how society was different back then, and how women now can have children out of wedlock without the same stigma, but that's nonsense. There are very large parts of the US population where having a child out of wedlock brings with it some very large stigmas - this is of course especially the case in religious families.

And while adoptions, which Flanagan also gets into, since she also reviews The Girls Who Went Away, might be acceptable for some people, it still doesn't removes the stigma. My grandmother on my father's side had a child out of wedlock some time during the thirties - the child was adopted away straight away. It was something she kept as a secret for her whole life, and it only became known to the rest of the family when that child (now an elderly man) contacted her ten years ago. That's about seven decades that she had been hinding that secret, afraid that someone might find out (especially afraid that her deeply religious parents would get to know it, back when they lived).
To be fair, Flanagan doesn't claim that adoption is a good alternative to abortion, though she makes clear that adoption is an easier choice now than it was back then.

Go read the review, and buy the books - it seems like they are worth reading. I certainly intend to get hold of them.

Edit: Just after having posted this, I went to Feministe and saw them linking to a story about how these sorts of things are still going on outside the US. Abortion Rights in Mexico.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Kaethe said...

I've read The Girls Who Went Away. It's moving and painful. I'm sure The Choices We Made will also be so.

I'm surprised at the choice of Caitlin Flanagan as the reviewer, though. Apparently, she lives in the same alternate world as Tony "there is no racism today" Snow, or Bill "no woman dies of childbirth today" O'Reilly:

Today, no young woman can be thrown out of college, or fired from her job, or cast out of “society” for becoming pregnant

"A record 4,901 pregnancy discrimination complaints were filed nationwide with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state and local fair employment practices agencies in fiscal year 2006" reports the Sun-Sentinel in March

No birth mother needs to feel that her child is lost in the woods; she can decide to pursue an open adoption, she can change her mind about relinquishment, days—and in some states, months—after giving up the baby

Here's an article on a Department of Human Services taking away a woman's babies as soon as they're born. Not surprisingly, parental rights are much more likely to be terminated (both in the US and UK that I know of) when the parents are poor and/or already involved in social services.

Furthermore, even illegal abortion would look very different today than it did four decades ago.

Actually, illegal abortion doesn't look one bit different in any of the nations which currently criminalize abortion.

Every month, a woman’s womb slowly fills with blood in anticipation of an event that she wants to occur only a few times at most

I guess she hasn't heard of the QuiverFull movement, either.

April 18, 2007 6:13 PM  

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