A long-established swing vote on reproductive rights, Justice Anthony Kennedy had often disoriented pro-choice and pro-life groups alike with his profound ambivalence toward abortion.
He was consistently outspoken against post-abortion regret, opening the door for those keen on restricting the procedure in the name of women’s physical and psychological health; yet, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 case that upheld Roe v. Wade, he was the author of the pivotal controlling statement that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning...of the mystery of human life.”
Despite this muddled track record, Kennedy’s recent retirement from the Supreme Court definitively does not bode well for existing abortion law. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin tweeted that “abortion will be illegal in twenty states in 18 months.” SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh, meanwhile, already has a major abortion ruling under his belt that insofar is in line with Toobin’s bleak forecast.
While the future of abortion rights remains frighteningly uncertain, the following four novels are now more relevant than ever.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
“She was just quietly teaching history when it happened. Woke up one morning to a president-elect she hadn’t voted for.”
Responding to the actual proposals of our country’s most powerful politicians, Zumas imagines a United States where fetuses are recognized as full citizens under the Personhood Amendment. The Every Child Needs Two Act prohibits unmarried people from adopting children, and Canada’s Pink Wall prevents girls from having their desperately needed abortions elsewhere. The stories of four women from a small town in Oregon interweave as they each bear the crushing weight of these laws. The Biographer, an unmarried high school teacher who dreams of motherhood despite a high likelihood of infertility, and The Daughter, a teenager terrified by her undesired pregnancy, are particularly affected, but all of their emotional states are intentionally disjointed and hard to pin down. They are bound by the sense of isolation that The Daughter so poignantly refers to when, reflecting on the imminent need to “push it out,” she wonders, “but she has a self. Why not use it?” Though unable to choose their own paths, these characters find their true selves by supporting one another through their respective struggles. They are thoughtful and spiteful, strong and imperfect, and they are a dynamic force against their country’s repressive political regime
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
“The book, I think, is about this central question of how girls grow into women when the female figures who are supposed to usher you into womanhood aren’t there.”
Throughout the story of Nadia (who has lost her mother to suicide,)The Mothers from the Upper Room reminisce on the seventeen-year-old’s tryst with Luke, the local pastor’s son. They are influential representatives of their black, Christian community, ever-ready to judge the girls if they deviate from the societal norms that uphold their families’ reputations. These older church women are also more nuanced than the average gossipy narrator; they can be as supportive as they are malicious, drawing upon their life experiences as they follow Nadia’s decision to get an abortion. “We were girls once,” they admit, “it’s exciting loving someone who can never love you back.” The crux of this novel is absence, whether it be presented through Luke’s inability to support Nadia after her procedure or their mutual wonderment at what their lives would have been like had they raised the baby. Nadia foregoes motherhood and pursues her education beyond the realm of her community, but the novel actually reveals little of her college career. Rather, it brings to the foreground adult Nadia’s homecoming and the ensuing reflection on her mother’s loss, her abortion, and the religion that remains a big component of her black womanhood.
Crazy Horse's Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth
“I don’t want to be a teenage mother! Another fucking Indian statistic. I don’t want my mother’s life.”
Margaritte is a Native American teen determined to escape from the poverty of her ill-fated reservation. Despite the big move to Idaho Springs, Colorado, drugs, codependency and physical abuse doggedly follow her and her parents. Mike, Margaritte’s wealthier schoolmate, is perhaps the most dangerous influence of all; as they become more intimate, her native background is increasingly fetishized, as is forewarned when he caresses her thunderbird tattoo and whispers, “I love this thing.” Margaritte’s incisive commentary is formidable as she reflects on the common perceptions toward her class and race, but her pregnancy throws her off-kilter. Her well-developed shell of toughness starts to crack as she struggles with the ensuing, time-sensitive decision, and the role that her family plays in it only complicates the ending of this exceptionally gritty YA novel.
My Notorious Life by Kate Manning
“[The newspapers] called her 'hag of misery,' 'evil sorceress."'I kept thinking: Was she really that bad?”
Manning’s New York neighborhood, what with its rich, 19th century history, inspired this historical fiction account of real-life abortionist Ann Lohman. The book is set in the 1860s, when viable contraceptive options were far less accessible than they are now. Women back then were so desperate for some semblance of control over their own fertility that they flocked to Ms. Lohman’s miscarriage inducing medicine. In the novel, Axie Muldoon, otherwise known as the Notorious Madame X, is as wildly controversial as the midwife on which she is loosely based. Her own mother died from childbirth fever, so her response to her clients’ suffering is deeply personal. At the same time, even as she specializes in abortions and different contraceptives, she often has to contend with her discomfort around the physical side effects of her procedures. Axie’s male counterparts, meanwhile, initiate the plot’s fascinating turning point when they try to undermine her business. The irony of their relentless campaign is far from lost on her; after the newspapers deem Axie’s work “filthy and extremely disgusting,” she brilliantly retorts, “These judges, these police, these reporters are squeamish bloodworms…consorting with cancan girls. How do I know this because them girls come to me. So do their mistresses. Also their wives.” Even when Axie’s “impudence” earns her a brief stint in jail, she is fierce and unflinching in her stand against the sexually coercive and irresponsible bigwigs of her time.
Sofiya Joseph is a Copy Editor at the Rational Creature. Email her if you have any questions.