We can all agree, I think, that a woman’s reproductive choices and freedom belong to her and her alone, and that she has total autonomy over her body.
Why, then, is it so rare to find a woman in fiction who:
1) has had an abortion
2) is completely okay with the fact?
(Warning: possible rape, abuse and sexual assault triggers.)
Abortion by itself isn’t uncommon in fiction; every now and again it rears up to boost drama, but I can count on one hand, in fact at the moment of writing this I can count one such instance, the times I’ve encountered female characters who walk away from an abortion with a spring in their steps and a song in their hearts. Instead most of them suffer ever after. They wallow in guilt and self-loathing. They are traumatized and every time they see another woman with a child, they look on with bitter envy. Rape or abuse survivors? Better keep the fetus. It shows you’re strong and worthy of healing and approval; get rid of the fetus and well, you’re just a worthless demon-bitch-whore, aren’t you? No really, that’s the case for almost all instances I’ve encountered: carrying the pregnancy to term is seen as a signal that the woman is a fantastically tough individual—and it can be, true, but the alternative is simply not considered. Abortion is seen as “taking your hatred of the rapist on an innocent unborn child” (see Now and Then, Here and There). Women get reproductive choices, but only as long as the choice is “keep the baby.”
This is Hinako Aikawa from the manga Bitter Virgin. Spoilers: she spends the entire series haunted by the guilt of having had an abortion and having put up the baby for adoption the second time her stepfather impregnates her. Whenever she encounters a mother or a baby, she looks on tragically wondering what the baby she never got to raise might have been like. The kicker? She carried the baby to term the second time because the doctor informs her that if she aborts, she’ll never be able to bear children again in the future.
Which she really wants to, of course. All women are maternal by instinct. Everyone wants a baby. It’s our natural role and anyone who deviates from this either doesn’t exist or is a psychopath. Joan D. Vinge’s The Summer Queen, while otherwise female-positive, falls into the same trap: every single female character in it wants to be a mother. One of them, Jerusha, repeatedly miscarries and is devastated over this. Once a policewoman, she had to contend with an extremely sexist work environment:
She had spent years trying to force [her male colleagues] to accept her as a human being instead of a woman, and all it had done was turn her into a man. In leaving the force, she had believed she was reaffirming her humanity. She wasn’t a man… but now when she wanted to be a woman, she couldn’t be that either.
Yeah, not having kids makes you less than a woman. I’m not even sure what “turn her into a man” is about, because Jerusha in The Snow Queen was a competent, hard-boiled policewoman who always had to talk some sense in her younger colleague. This passage is followed by a conversation between Jerusha and her husband Miroe, who tells her to use contraceptives seeing that the miscarriages are going to be the death of her. She wants to keep trying—“I’m forty-three, I don’t have much longer,” she insists (her bio-clock is ticking!). He ends the exchange by telling her that if she doesn’t agree to use the “childbane,” he’s not going to have sex with her anymore.
Twenty kinds of fucked up.
Tellingly, the only woman in the Snow Queen Cycle who doesn’t have or want to have children is portrayed as cold and ruthless, and ends up being thrown into the sea: Arianrhod has herself cloned, but only as part of her scheme to retain power—a scheme that’s portrayed quite sympathetically, admittedly (up to the part where she plans the genocide of half her planet’s population), but out of all women in these books Arianrhod is furthest along the black end of the morality scale. She also doesn’t have much of a maternal instinct, seduces her clone’s lover, and makes it clear that if her clone doesn’t want to join her in power then she can quite literally take a leap. Joan D. Vinge is considered a feminist writer, if you were wondering.1 Which yes, I suppose she is, but…
: and honestly, I’m still really fond of the Snow Queen Cycle—it contains a lot of positive relationships between women, and women being the movers and shakers of the world, and women empowering one another. But on reflection and close examination, some of the things in them are horribly off. Like the “Indians purposefully keep a planet of Caucasoids technologically inferior so they, the Indians, can exploit and oppress said planet” plot. That’s Indians as in people from India, for those playing at home.
I want to be clear: I’m not saying that women who don’t abort are failing their duties to fight against patriarchy or any such silly thing, or that women who decide to keep children in the event of abuse and sexual assault are wrong—I’d never ever suggest such a thing—but I find it troubling that “keep the baby” is often presented as the only possible choice, that good girls avoid abortion (and consequently only evil girls and bitch-demon-whores from hell take the option), and that all other options—adoption or otherwise—are either invalid or will traumatize you for life, because rejecting motherhood is a Bad Thing that women should never ever do. And that’s not an okay message to get across. Not okay at all.
Fertility as a Weakness to Exploit
Pregnancy is one of the things that is, as far as media representation is concerned, unique to women: I rarely see it handled in any way other than this, apart from the rare cases of male pregnancy being played for laughs, and trans folks are elided entirely. And because we live in a patriarchal world, pregnancy is used to reduce, marginalize and weaken women.
Hands up. Seen any of these lately? I bet you have; “my mom died giving me birth” is like one of the most overused character backgrounds known to man. How about this one? It’s practically required to throw in a pregnant woman in a hostage situation because that makes it extra scary or something. But I’m here to discuss something that’s a little less obvious: pregnancy as an exploitable weakness.
The Basanos is a sentient, incredibly powerful tarot deck from the Vertigo comic Lucifer. They can see the future. They have many plans. One of them is to breed the next generation, and they do this by raping the woman they’ve been using as a host, Jill Presto. Much of Jill’s subplot is taken up with her pregnancy; many beings of great power are concerned over what she will give birth to, and she fights nail and tooth to get rid of her pregnancy. She manages to abort one of the twin fetuses with much vindication and no regrets (hooray!). In Richelle Mead’s Dark Swan paranormal romance series, the protagonist Eugenie Markham is the daughter of Storm King and it is prophesied that a son born of her womb will conquer the human world. Subsequently she spends much of her time fending off would-be rapists. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series revolves around the idea that the protagonist, fairy princess Meredith, must race to conceive a child before her cousin does in order to inherit the Unseelie throne: initially not because she wants to be queen, but because taking the throne is the only way for her to stay alive.
In all of these stories, the woman is not entirely reduced to her uterus, but they certainly spend an awful lot of time being regarded as, or indeed being, breeding apparatuses; it’s problematic in the same way that defining women as “mother/maiden/crone” is. It’s not quite as all-out awful as the Broodmothers from Dragon Age and the rape isn’t the crux of my argument—though in many cases rape is certainly part and parcel with the deal—but it’s getting there. Eugenie Markham does indeed get kidnapped and raped in the series, and though she doesn’t get pregnant the rape was partly due to the prophecy associated with her uterus. Later on, when she does conceive through consensual sex with a partner she enjoys, it instantly becomes a wedge between them. The father, aware of the prophecy and entirely protective of the human world, pokes and prods and urges her to abort (“You promised!”). But because we live in a world where all women must be mothers or they are Bad Girls, she hears the heartbeats of her twin fetuses (what is it with twins? Merry Gentry has freaking triplets) and instantly decides that it’s worth risking the prophecy after all. Women, man, we all go mushy at the thought of babies.
At this point, it all goes to hell. The father decides Eugenie must die and, though she is otherwise a ridiculously powerful shaman and half-fairy capable of defeating centuries-old elven kings, she finds herself on this occasion curiously depowered and flees to seek the aid of her other lover.
Funny how pregnancy takes away all your capabilities and puts your fate in the hands of men, eh?
Even Jill Presto, who comes out of this much better than either Merry or Eugenie, ends up saddled with a Basanos offspring who has every intention of murdering Jill as she comes out. There are a few complicated things that happen after that, but toward the end when the new god of the cosmos, Elaine, tries to give everyone a happy ending, she hands Jill this:
It doesn’t occur to Elaine to give Jill a clean slate or even simply leaving Jill as is. No. Rather than entirely erasing the rape—which objectively did happen, it’s only Jill’s memory that is removed—she decides, well, better keep Jill pregnant. Whether or not she wants to. It bears mentioning that Noema has already been born once, and emerges from the womb a sentient and powerful entity. She’s also under threat from, among others, Lucifer’s wrath and flees from this: Jill doesn’t so much as bat an eyelash or attempt to protect her daughter. She made a truce with Noema, but there’s not much of a relationship here and Jill doesn’t give a damn when Noema disappears.
Once the circumstance has been rewritten and Noema is born the second time (sans her previous personality and powers), Jill does turn out to be a good mom, but prior to the rape she never expressed interest in motherhood; was, if anything, focused on making a career for herself and didn’t feel the least bit deprived for not having a husband or a kid. It wasn’t a “career woman is sad and bitter she doesn’t have time for a family” cliche by any means. So it’s more than a little odd, more than a little random, that when Elaine presses motherhood on her (without her knowledge) she turns out perfectly happy with it. Conveniently, an old flame turns up not long after she’s given birth, so she doesn’t even get to stay a single mother for more than a few months.
Pregnancy in fiction, then, is like sexual assault in that it is a vulnerability exclusive to women (gay men get their share of rape but, obviously, not pregnancy): it’s something used to weigh a woman down, take away her power, and moreover forces her to become dependent. And because writers don’t really like the idea of women’s autonomy over their own bodies, they take away the choice of abortion or adoption, or make them evil, horrible things that are only done by evil, horrible people (or else traumatic to good people). While this is probably empowering to women who decide to keep the fetus, or women who are inclined to motherhood, it does so at the expense of women who don’t and aren’t when this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case: media are varied enough, numerous enough, that both can be represented equally positively–as indeed they should be, because they are all valid choices.