My novel, In Trouble, takes place in 1956. It’s about teen pregnancy, an acceptable subject in a teen novel. But one of my characters has an abortion. In Trouble takes place almost two decades before Roe v. Wade, in the days of back-alley abortions and the iconic image of coat hangers used by desperate women.
I’ve written more than twenty books, but was startled by what I learned: you can raise the possibility of abortion, but it must be rejected. I hit a wall of resistance I believe is self-censorship on the part of the publishers. When a character is pregnant, whether from rape, incest, etc., so long as a baby is born, that’s acceptable. The “Juno” scenario. Even as late as the mid-1990s, some editors published manuscripts in which an abortion occurred, although not central to the story; or was mentioned as a past event.
I’m certain there were editors who rejected my manuscript because they didn’t like the characters, the voice, etc. When you get the same questions about a manuscript, I pay attention. That didn’t happen with In Trouble. The rejections were all over the map. One editor told me they would never publish a book with an abortion in it.
What’s startling is that the avoidance is not just with teens’ books, but also in the world of adult media:
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“Sex and the City” – is there anything that show hasn’t covered or uncovered? Abortion. Raised and rejected.
Theresa Rebeck, NYPD Blue writer, couldn’t sell a script to that show with an abortion storyline. NYPD Blue with naked tushes!
“Friday Night Lights” did have an abortion story, and a New York Times article said this was an exception to the blackout on the subject.
Months after Roe v. Wade, the soap “All My Children” featured a legal abortion. Thirty-three years later the earlier show was rewritten—the abortion never happened because the embryo had been “kidnapped,” implanted in another woman, and brought to term!
In the U.S., one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, and we’re told in essence we can’t talk about it. Women’s stories, common to so many of us, are not being told. The charge, sometimes an accusation, is that the book is “political.”
Philip Pullman’s novel “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” was not accused of being political, but his answer is applicable: “No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book…. Nobody has to open it. [I]f you open it and read it, you don’t have to like it. [I]f you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, … you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book…. [B]ut there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read.”
The dictionary definition of “political” is mostly about government and social policy-making. But calling a book “political” is shorthand, meaning the writer has an agenda.
Would a book be written off as “political” if a teenager belonged to a conservative Christian church and wanted the ten commandments posted in his classrooms? That’s a story involving issues of conscience. If, however, other students fought that and the ACLU challenged it, the book becomes political, a polemic.
The one exception is about civil rights. No agenda there, just a good story. When the Watsons went to Birmingham, believe me the context was political.
When governments impose restrictions on abortion, that’s not censorship. Elected representatives pass laws voters allegedly want. One exception was the censorship of the McCarthy period. We are entering another period of restrictions, but not yet directly on speech. The object of government’s wrath today is abortion, and so far it’s an issue of limiting access. That, not my novel, is the politics of abortion—laws requiring forced counseling, what must or cannot be said by groups and doctors.
This has had a profound effect on the media world. Some silencing is accomplished with words: how did people, many of whom support capital punishment, a few of whom kill abortion providers, become “pro life”? How did “choice” become code for murder? And those advocating a woman’s right to choose can’t rush fast enough to say, “Nobody wants an abortion.”
Please. A woman doesn’t get up one morning and say, “What a lovely day for an abortion.” Does anyone face a medical procedure with cheer in her heart? Relief or gratitude, perhaps, but not joy.
The bottom line is I’m not running from what I’ve written. I think In Trouble is a strong story, and one that needs to be told.