Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Modern American Abortion Narratives and the Century of Silence

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Modern American Abortion Narratives and the Century of Silence

Article excerpt

"I finally found a doctor in West New York, New Jersey. The doctor was very sweet. He had pictures of crucifixes on the walls. It only cost $900. I went to a bank and took out a vacation loan. I am still paying it off."

"I found two psychiatrists who said that for $60 each they'd write a report which said I was mentally unstable and ought to have the abortion. I had to prove that I was crazy to get a legal abortion--and the abortion was the sanest thing I had ever done in my life."

"When you tell the man you're pregnant, he says, 'How do you know it was me? I'm not the only guy you ever slept with, am I?"

"I was just living with this middle class guy, and my life was just like his. We were just going along, together. I didn't do anything strange or unusual. I didn't make any decisions. But one day I was pregnant. Then there was a difference."

--Redstockings Abortion Speak-Out

On March 21, 1969, the women's liberation group the Redstockings organized the first public abortion speak-out, "Abortion: Tell It Like It Is," for a crowd of 300 people in Greenwich Village's Washington Square Methodist Church. "The idea," organizer Irene Peskilis explains, "was to get examples of different kinds of experiences--women who'd had the babies that were taken away women who went to the hospital for a therapeutic abortion, women who'd gone the illegal route, the different kinds of illegal routes" (qtd. in Brownmiller 108). Credited with taking "abortion out of the realm of private secrets and ma[king] it an issue that women could talk about in public," the speak-out has been hailed as "an important political tactic" (Reagan 230) and a "pivotal event in the development of the contemporary feminist discourse on abortion" (Dubriwny 396). What's forgotten in this tale of secrecy and outburst, though, are the large numbers of abortion narratives written and published by American writers in the 1910s, 20s, 30s, and 40s, narratives that helped set the stage for the later movement to decriminalize abortion by building new vocabularies and interested publics ready to speak out about abortion.

"The Century of Silence"

The story that historians usually tell about American abortion politics says that after the nationwide criminalization of abortion in the 1880s the issue of abortion fell silent. Early histories of American abortion practice and politics by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and James Mohr skipped over the 1890s-1950s, and sociologist Kristin Luker, the first to study the years of criminalized abortion, declared this era "the century of silence" (40), a time when "on the public level, abortion was rarely discussed" (54). More recently, historian Leslie Reagan has complicated the "century of silence" thesis by reminding us that women did have abortions during the years when abortion was a crime and did "speak of their abortions among themselves and within smaller, more intimate spaces" (21). But like Luker, Reagan finds little public discussion of abortion during the early twentieth century While Luker suspects that "medical 'ownership' of abortion" caused the public silence around it by "undercut[ting] potential opposition from all other quarters" (41-42), Reagan points to the red scare, arguing that "the association of legal abortion with Soviet socialism ... ensured that a public discussion of the idea never developed" (142).

It was not until the late 1950s, and early 1960s--or so the story goes--that people began speaking publicly about abortion. By the 1950s and 1960s, advances in obstetrical science had virtually eliminated the need to perform abortions to save the life of the mother. With this old justification for therapeutic abortions gone and new medical dilemmas at hand--namely, a rubella epidemic and new research linking the morning sickness drug Thalidomide to birth defects--controversy erupted amongst the medical community as doctors entered into new debates about the conditions under which they would perform legal therapeutic abortions (Luker 66-91). …

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