“It started with the new president of Planned Parenthood talking about how abortion is what they do. She seemed unashamed to say the a-word, a word that for years abortion activists have largely suppressed, opting for euphemisms.” — ‘Seizing’ and ‘Pouncing’ . . . or the Truth about Life
“Republicans have had some embarrassing moments in recent years when abortion hard-liners talked too explicitly about their purist vision, horrifying [moderates]. Now pro-choicers are having a similar moment, thanks to events in New York and Virginia." — What the push for legal-until-birth abortion tells us about the abortion debate
We’re going to talk about abortion now and that’s going to be difficult, but not for the reasons you might think.
The conceit of this column (well, one of them) is that our current political debates can be better understood by looking at how genre writers have approached the issue. And while we’re explored the issues of reproductive health and contraception in genre before, we’re going to have a harder time doing the same thing about abortion, specifically because abortion just doesn’t come up that much.
This is one way in which genre reflects the worlds of fiction in general—literary or romance, western or fantasy, movies or television, comics or novels—depictions of abortion are rare; one study found that there have been just 87 storylines dealing with abortion in the entire history of prime-time television. When I racked my brain (and desperately Googled) for examples in genre, I came up with a lot of works that dealt with abortion by extension: your Handmaid’s Tale on the one hand and fearful fables about the cheapening of human life such as The Island on the other.
But, you know, abortion? Hard to find. In Google, I mostly got snippets of the urgent dialogue shouted during a failed mission: Abort! Abort! Abort! Beyond that? Well ...
The abortifacient “moon tea” is a euphemized plot device in Game of Thrones (Lysa Arryn’s father forces it on her after sex with Petyr Baelish gets her pregnant, Margaery Tyrell seems overly interested in it). Another abortion-by-another-name is the centerpiece of Prometheus. Noomi Rapace is forced to ask the self-contained surgery suite for a “Cesarean,” but she doesn’t want to give any kind of birth—Cesarean or otherwise—to the alien hybrid inside her, she wants to end it.
Genre’s most famous almost-abortion puts the woman in a similar quandary: In David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Geena Davis’ character (already leaning toward getting an abortion) sees no-longer-sexy Jeff Goldblum in full-deterioration mode and decides to move up the timetable: “I need it out of me! Now!” She makes it all the way to the operating table before the Brundlefly steals her back to his lab, where he plans to “fuse” with both her and the fetus: It'll be “the perfect family.” (Not the first time a man thought he could “solve” a pregnancy by getting married.) The Fly ends before we know if Davis follows through on terminating the pregnancy; it may say more about studio politics than American policy that The Fly II reveals she had a son.
Perhaps understandably, abortion is difficult to find even among all the dystopian depictions of worlds in which women’s bodies are not their own (it’s outlawed, of course). The re-imagined Scarlet Letter story When She Woke is an exception. In a flashback, the protagonist recalls her visit to a dark apartment where a kindly but disheveled (and boozy) practitioner talks her through an accurate description of an aspiration abortion (“the clinical terms he used, ‘speculum’ and ‘dilators’ and ‘pregnancy tissue,’ made it sound tidy and impersonal”).
Jessica Jones might be the first superhero to engage with an actual abortion plotline (though it hovers around the X-Men universe). Notably, it isn’t our lead who needs or wants one, but her client, Hope, who is pregnant after being raped by Kilgrave. In jail for murders committed while she was being controlled by Kilgrave, Hope needs Jessica to smuggle in pills to cause an abortion. One critic noted the irony that the fantastical Marvel universe gave mass audiences a look at the very real problem of incarcerated women’s access to reproductive healthcare; also realistic: Hope doesn’t struggle or do any hand-wringing over her decision. She gives no sign that she has second thoughts.
Because we don’t talk about abortion, because we don’t see it in the media we consume, you’d be forgiven for thinking that such equanimity was fantasy. In real life, however, the vast majority of women who end a pregnancy don’t find the process to be a moral quagmire; they are mostly relieved. One study found that women also move on from the procedure more quickly than stereotypes would have you think. After six months, they reported thinking about the abortion “sometimes,” after three years, “rarely.”
Indeed, the most unrealistic aspect of Jessica Jones’ abortion storyline is that the woman seeking the abortion was raped. While it might be true that many women who become pregnant due to a sexual assault do end the pregnancy (one study suggested it is the decision of about 50 percent of survivors), the vast, vast majority women who seek abortions haven’t been raped. Indeed, most women surveyed don’t cite the circumstances of their relationship to the father as a factor at all. They don’t even say they don’t want children. Rather, upwards of 60 percent of those surveyed give a reason related to why they don’t want to have a baby at that time: The “timing is wrong,” or “have completed my childbearing,” or “can’t afford it.”
The other unrealistic aspect of the Jessica Jones storyline is that it stands out. A quarter of all women in the United States will undergo an abortion procedure at some point in their lives. It is about as common as having more than one child, which is a situation you see in fiction all the time — even though it is increasingly rare as well.
One reason I love genre fiction is that it is fearless: "To boldly go" isn't just a mandate for a crew, it's the goal of the literature. Creators embrace the unthinkable multiple times a day, asking questions just don’t occur to most people, from “What if there was a university-style system for teaching children magic?” to “What if the Nazis won World War II?” The conventions of the form allow authors to unfold daring ideas about race and gender, sex and violence; being able to step outside the bounds of realism can make it easier to convey what moral quandaries and massive technical changes feel like. Yet, here at the edges of metaphor, people still seem reluctant to engage with one of society’s most pedestrian intersections of science and personal life.
Think about it this way: Authors regularly spend huge chunks of exposition explaining how technology has changed humans’ relationship to food, or to shopping, or to disease, and they delight in showing us how small tweaks in a culture can have momentous ramifications, but this one area of women’s physical health is just … mostly blank.
Abortion’s obscurity in genre is no doubt intertwined with the lingering effects of patriarchy (it determines who gets published if nothing else). Centering the male experience is the same reason every hard science fiction novel about interstellar travel I have ever read will go into great detail about food supply and power sources, and even address the disposal of human waste, but I have yet to come across a single one that answers the question of what happens when you get your period in space. (If I've aroused your curiosity, some answers are here.)
Genre audiences have proven themselves ready for all sorts of indelicate discussions, I hope this is the next one we get to have.