Today’s guest post comes from author Tess Sharpe and it takes a keen look at the messages and insights YA books that explore abortion offer. Where it’s been said abortion is the last taboo of YA fiction, perhaps that’s not really the case. Rather, there’s still a lot of room for exploration.
Born in a backwoods cabin to a pair of punk rockers, Tess Sharpe grew up in rural northern California. She is the author of FAR FROM YOU and SOMEWHERE BETWEEN RIGHT AND WRONG (out Fall 2016). She lives, writes, and bakes near the Oregon border.
When I was a little girl, my father volunteered as an escort at our local abortion clinic. “Escort” is the nice way of saying “bodyguard” or “human shield.” They lead the women into the clinic, putting their bodies between the women and the protestors, just in case. But they can’t block out the garish signs, the accusations of baby killer and whore or the God loves yous. They can’t hide the women from the protestors—who might be friends, family members, neighbors, or fellow church members.
In the ’90s (and now), my conservative small town was one of the few places you could get an abortion, and escorting—like working or volunteering there—was (and still is) dangerous work. One day, there was a knock at our door, and one of the protestors was standing there on our porch, wanting to “invite” my father and our family to church. The message was clear: we know where you live.
There was reason to fear: By the time I was a teenager, the clinic had been firebombed five times, and has been destroyed, totally flattened, twice.
When I was in college, the fear got personal: My only sister now ran that clinic, and would do so for a decade. I once asked her to carry pepper spray. She just shrugged and said pepper spray wasn’t going to help her against a bomb or bullets.
Fighting for reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy runs in the veins of all the women in my family. Which is why, when Kelly asked me to write a post for Women’s History Month, I latched onto the idea of exploring YA’s abortion narratives. I put out a call for titles and talked with several clinic workers who have heard thousands of women’s stories to learn what they consider the most important factors in an abortion narrative. Armed with this knowledge, I was ready to read and identify any themes or patterns I found—as well as enjoy a bunch of great books.
Not a lot of YA books mention abortion, and even fewer feature characters who choose to have an abortion or point-of-view characters having an abortion. I compiled a list of around 20 titles, and got my hands on about 15 of them to read.
After my talk with the clinic workers, I identified three important factors:
Economics: How the books address the financial burden of abortion—from the cost of the actual procedure (around $500, on average) to the many associated costs of actually getting to a clinic—often not an easy feat, especially if you’re a girl or woman living in the U.S., where many states have recently closed down and severely restricted clinic operations under the false pretext of “making them more safe.”
Because most teenagers aren’t working full-time and aren’t mothers already, I removed the job factor as well as the childcare factor from my analysis. But in reality, with the draconian laws that have been passed, especially in the last few years, many women must travel hundreds of miles, take days off work (often risking their job), and sleep in their car if they can’t afford a motel—if they have a car—all of this just to get a legal medical procedure. Many of these women are already mothers, so child-care is yet another crucial factor.
Accessibility: How accessible is the abortion? Does the character need to travel? Does she need to hide what she’s doing from authority figures? Does she need help to get to the clinic/location where the abortion takes place? Who transports her to and from the abortion provider?
Support: Who is helping the character getting the abortion? Her boyfriend? Her best friend? Parents? Aunt? (Aunts, it turns out, are kind of big in abortion books. When I discussed this with the clinic workers, they agreed. Often, teen girls will be accompanied by their aunts, best friends, or older sisters).
What kind of support is being offered? Positive or reluctant? Parental? Monetary? Emotional?
Overwhelmingly, the books I read did not address the economics of abortion at all: The cost is never mentioned in most, and isn’t a genuine problem in most that do bring it up. For example, in GINGERBREAD, Cyd reconnects with her estranged father to get the money to pay for her abortion, unwilling to tell her mother about it. He’s an affluent man who is easily able to afford it.
Accessibility is also not deeply discussed or even touched upon in most of the books. In most contemporary YA abortion narratives, it’s assumed that there’s an abortion clinic in town. I did not come across any books that included an actual scene in a clinic, though, through poetry and a few flashbacks, we see hints in AND WE STAY. Emily, the main character, also does travel to Boston with her parents to stay at her aunt’s to get the abortion there, but there are no scenes of the procedure itself—only before and after.
IN TROUBLE is the exception when it comes to accessibility. It goes deeply into the subject of abortion access, and that’s because it’s set pre–Roe vs. Wade, in the world of back alley abortions. Here, accessibility is discussed constantly because abortion was still illegal at that time. There is talk of women throwing themselves downstairs (something the character tries in desperation) and of downing 7-Up and vodka in a bid to miscarry. There is talk of neighbors who “know someone” who can help a girl “in trouble.” It examines in depth the coded language women had to use with doctors who were willing to risk their licenses to perform abortions. It also describes pregnant women who fake mental illness, hoping to be deemed unfit so that the hospital is forced to give them an abortion.
Support is an interesting aspect of YA abortion narratives. Almost always, the teenagers tell one or both of their parents, often quite soon after finding out the pregnancy. Interestingly, I found several books featuring divorced parents in which the teen confesses to one parent—who decides not to inform the co-parent.
Most of the books have a “confession” scene in which the parents are told about the pregnancy. Almost always, the parents react with initial anger but then accept the situation, moving straight to support. Even in AND WE STAY, where Emily’s parents come off as cold in many ways, they immediately get to work on fixing the “problem.”
In these books, parental awareness of the pregnancy ties directly into the lack of consideration regarding the economics of abortion as well as problems with transportation: If the parents know, it’s assumed they’re paying for it (and providing transport to the clinic), so the cost is never mentioned.
The difficulties that many girls and women face in reality are rarely addressed in the fictional world of YA abortion narratives. Lying to one’s parents, going without support, finding the money, finding the transportation, and finding the time (many states have waiting periods, and often clinics only perform abortions on one day of the week).
With the exception of a few, most of the books that have a character getting an abortion feature white, privileged, “good girls”—affluent girls who were virgins and are going to college… girls who aren’t “that kind of girl.” This pattern avoids the stigma and myth of the “slut who uses abortion as birth control” perpetuated by the anti-choice movement, as well as the lit community’s own problem with judging girl characters much more harshly than boys.
Interested to see how readers perceive characters who had abortions, I read through many positive and negative reviews of the books. Over and over, in both positive and negative comments, the boys who had impregnated the girls were called “sweet” and their pain and heartbreak over the girl’s choice was lauded and focused on. The girls, however, were judged as “cold” and “selfish” and “bitches” for acting, like, well, young women in an incredibly difficult situation. I must admit, it pained me to see these judgments about fictional characters, mostly because I know that much worse is assumed about real girls making the same choice.
The most prevalent theme I found in most of the books was this: Abortion ruins romantic relationships and leaves you alone. While it’s true that many young couples facing an unplanned pregnancy break up, many others stay together. In I KNOW IT’S OVER, which is fascinating in its exploration of male privilege by way of an abortion narrative, we’re treated to the possible new romance of the boy narrator at the end of the book. This is a boy who is so steeped in his male privilege that he repeatedly reveals his ex-girlfriend’s pregnancy to his friends without her permission. Despite some really questionable treatment of his ex-girlfriend, he gets a potential new romance and keeps his ex-girlfriend as a friend. She, however, does not find a new romance. At the end of the book, she is alone, existing in the periphery of his bright and now unburdened future.
Many feelings come up before, during and after an abortion. But relief is an emotion that is not explored very deeply in the YA abortion narrative. Grief, loneliness, and romantic isolation of girls specifically seems to be the prescription. And although terminating an unplanned pregnancy can be isolating, when there are so few abortion narratives to draw from and even fewer with a point-of-view character who undergoes the procedure, the repeated message of isolation and romantic brokenness can be limiting—especially when 11% of women in the U.S. who get abortions are teenagers, and 21% of all pregnancies in the country end in abortion.
IN TROUBLE is the only book I read that features another woman sharing her own abortion story with the character who is considering an abortion. It’s a beautiful moment of bonding, and I found myself wishing more of these books had more scenes like this to offset the message of isolation that many perpetuate.
The girls and women who get abortions are our sisters, our daughters, our friends, our mothers, our readers. It is the stigma of abortion that prevents us from sharing these stories with our fellow women and the world, and it is that same stigma that might make us cautious, as writers, to approach the subject in ways that diverge from the acceptable abortion narrative: the good, unpromiscuous girl whose birth control failed or whose boyfriend convinced her that just this one time without a condom would be OK. This girl usually tells one or both of parents about her pregnancy. She agonizes over her decision. She has a bright future that must be saved through abortion. That kind of abortion is acceptable. It makes sense. She won’t make that mistake again. She learns. She’ll be better at being a good girl in the future.
But a girl who never even tried to use birth control? Who wasn’t in love or a virgin? Who doesn’t tell her parents? Who slept around? Who might not know who the father is? Who doesn’t agonize over her choice? Who doesn’t have a bright future? Who has to wait until the last minute because she doesn’t have the money? Who hitches a ride to the abortion clinic because she has no other option? Who is getting her second, her third, her fourth abortion? Her story remains largely untold—it isn’t acceptable. This girl, she makes bad decisions. She might not learn a lesson. Her story may be complicated, but it deserves to be told just as widely and boldly.
YA titles considered in this piece:
THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE by Jennifer Mathieu
GINGERBREAD by Rachel Cohn
UNWIND by Neal Shusterman
MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS by Varian Johnson
GABI A GIRL IN PIECES by Isabel Quintero
EVERY LITTLE THING IN THE WORLD by Nina de Gramont
WHISPER OF DEATH by Christopher Pike
THINGS I CAN’T FORGET by Miranda Kenneally
TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan
LIKE SISTERS ON THE HOMEFRONT by Rita Williams-Garcia
IN TROUBLE by Ellen Levine
LOVE AND HAIGHT by Susan Carlton
BORROWED LIGHT by Anna Feinberg
NEWES FROM THE DEAD by Mary Hooper
SMALL TOWN SINNERS by Melissa Walker
AND WE STAY by Jenny Hubbard
I KNOW IT’S NOT OVER by C. K. Kelly Martin
Far From You is available now.