Abortion fiction confronts the complicated history of gender, sexuality and women’s rights

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Recent debates around Roe vs. Wade in the USA sparked new conversations about abortion rights and what it means.

Members of the Abortion Caravan demonstrate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in May 1970.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Bregg

On the one hand, the anti-abortion movement views a fetus as an individual with rights.

On the other hand, pro-choice supporters believe that people with a womb should be in control of their own reproduction and their future.

Before and after abortion decriminalized in Canada in 1969, the writers explored how abortion taps into networks of meaning and our cultural imagination about women’s bodies and the future. In fiction and literary scholarship, abortion draws on the complicated history gender, sexuality and women’s rights.

Figuratively, to abort is to expel or miscarry. Abortion tangles with our perceptions of how we shape the future.

‘No Clouds of Glory’ / ‘Sarah Bastard Notebook’

Although several of her works explore motherhood, the Canadian novelist Marianne Engel first novel No clouds of glory (1968), later renamed Notebook by Sarah Bastard (1974), pivots on an abortion.

In retrospect, the protagonist Sarah names her first unborn fetus Antonio. Sarah’s abortion is complicated by social pressure to keep an affair with her sister’s husband a secret. Choosing to name the fetus sums up his search for love and identity. She imagines herself as the “near-mother” of a strong, loving boy with whom she can share the world. Antonio becomes an antidote to his loneliness.

But Sarah’s desire to be a writer marks her as an atypical woman, a monstrosity. The aborted fetus also personifies her fear of finding value in the world as an author rather than a mother. As literary scholar Cinda Gault suggests, Sarah is someone who imagines the domestic sphere as a prison and incarcerating women on the basis of “assumptions about sexuality and reproduction.”

Sarah’s multiple abortions are literally linked to her discomfort with gendered expectations. They also figuratively represent his self-sabotage as a writer. It is only when she comes to understand her identity, seeking another abortion to maintain her independence, that she can overcome her abortive tendencies as a writer.

Reproductive future

Abortions are caught up in morality, in sexuality, and in what literary critic and queer theorist Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurism— the heteronormative cis-gendered investment of mainstream society in the figure of the innocent child. The fetus, he argues, is seen as the future and potential of what heteronormative narratives wish society to be. As historian Jennifer Holland argues, abortion advocates have ‘made fetal life personal for many Americans.”

Lee’s discussion demonstrates the complexity and charged nature of abortion as a cultural metaphor. He asks, when a particular fetus is seen as embodying our collective future: “Who would haveafter all, go out to abort or stay up versus the reproduction, versus the future, and therefore against life?

In asking this question, Lee examines how “queer,” seen as aligned with pro-choice advocacy, is positioned to embody “a relentlessly narcissistic, antisocial, and future-denying drive.”

Abortion replaces monstrosity. Cells that have the ability to express themselves as nerves, bones and organic tissues (read: brain and heart) are imaginatively designed like a wriggling, breathing baby, the hope for our future and our survival.

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

In The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), the future of novelist Margaret Atwood dystopian american stateGilead, shows how cultural anxieties about female infertility intertwine in the politics of abortion.

Copies of 'The Handmaid's Tale', seen in a bookstore.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is set in a dystopian future world.
(Shutterstock)

Afterword of the novel links abortion to birth control and “falling birth rates among Caucasians”. Gilead, it seems, restricts women’s independence within a highly structured white supremacist, theocratic and totalitarian society. Here, Atwood associates abortion with a reproductive technology stories of racist and religious oppression.

But critics of the novel note that his avoidance of directly addressing race ultimately erases the voices and struggles of black and racialized women, as writer Melayna Williams argues. Writer Noah Berlatsky notes that if “America has always been a dystopia for people of colorthis acknowledgment is absent from Atwood’s novel.



Read more: Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ casts Canada as a racial utopia


Abortion riots

The omission of racist stories of oppression and violence against black and racialized women, including oppressive stories of sexual and reproductive controlstands out given the place of reproductive rights in the novel.

The character Janine admits to having been traumatically “raped in a gang at fourteen”. She bears witness to have had an abortionwhile the narrator, June, remembers her pro-choice mother returning from the “abortion riots” bruised and bleeding.

Although she is not seeking an abortion, June still wants the right to choose not to be raped and to choose when, how and with whom she shares her reproductive abilities as they impact her future. In Atwood’s novel, Gilead ends the freedom of individuals with viable wombs – he “aborts” the future of women.

Engel, Atwood and other writers are not just interested in whether abortion is good or bad. They want to know how abortion intertwines with love, hate, despair and joy, sexuality and desire, abuse, violence and stories of colonialism and patriarchy.

They examine how abortion becomes part of the analogies and metaphors through which we imagine the future. And, as women, they want to know if they will have a choice in how their own future develops.

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