Too Real for Fiction: Abortion Themes in YA Literature
Our society, while purporting a need for cohesion, tolerance, and equality, is evolving into a fragmented, special-interest society where whole groups of people are displaced, fought over, disillusioned, exploited, and disrespected. Teenagers, to a great extent, fall into this category of the population. Teens need a safe place where they can examine, through the choices of fictional characters, the choices they make, and the lives they lead. Young adults need to discover and formulate values and opinions and learn to tolerate others by discussing all sides of relevant issues. My interest and earnest desire to help teenagers find themselves, improve their intellectual processing abilities, and integrate these abilities into everyday living and decision making motivated me to study the legitimate need for treatment of abortion as a theme in YA fiction.
Why abortion? In introducing her book What Do I Do Now? a nonfiction account of real teens grappling with the decisions they are forced by circumstance to make in the face of an unplanned pregnancy, Susan Kuklin, G.P., says, "Usually, how to deal with an unplanned pregnancy was the first major decision the adolescent had to make. Indeed it may be the most important decision they ever make. No matter what the outcome, it may well affect them for the rest of their lives" (p. viii).
Demographics show that of the estimated 406,400 teenagers who had abortions in 1988, 13,700 were younger than 15. The highest abortion rate, 64 per 1,000, occurred among women aged 18-19 (Family Planning Perspectives, March, 1992, p. 85). The April, 1992, Village Voice reported that in 1990 an estimated 54 percent of students grades 9 through 12 said they had had sex, 40 percent by 9th grade and 72 percent by the 12th grade (p. 38, April, 1992).
Living on Earth, a project of the World Media Foundation, reported in August, 1994, "In the U.S., 6% of women and girls between ages 15 and 19 give birth each year. These figures match those for Ecuador and Rwanda and represent a higher rate of births to teenaged mothers than in Asia. Triple the adolescent rate in Europe" (Living on Earth, August 19, 1994).
The March, 1992, issue of Family Planning Perspectives printed research findings by authors Rebecca Stone and Cynthia Waszak. Their study, conducted for the Center for Population Options, Washington, D.C. (CPO), concentrated on adolescent knowledge and attitudes about abortion. They report:
First, negative attitudes toward abortion were balanced by support for choice. Although the vast majority of the teenagers were opposed -- sometimes adamantly -- to women having abortions, they supported the continued legality of abortion and thought women should have a choice about abortion.
Second, although teenagers might trust their parents, they had negative attitudes toward parental permission laws. No matter how strongly the participants opposed abortion and even if they discussed their parents sympathetically, the teenagers did not feel that mandatory parental involvement would be helpful.
Third, the teenagers lacked knowledge about abortion and related laws. They expressed erroneous and anecdotal evidence about abortion more often than sound knowledge, portraying the procedure as medically dangerous, emotionally damaging and widely illegal.
Fourth, antiabortion views, conservative morality and religion were the primary sources of adolescent attitudes toward abortion. (p. 53)
Stone and Waszak also found that teenagers were eager to discuss abortion and wanted to learn all they could about the issue, its legality and procedure. However, they had not been afforded many opportunities to explore, to discuss, and to ask questions. Most importantly, Stone and Waszak found that they may have been the first adults to talk with these adolescents to discover their opinions, rather than to convince them of a particular point of view. They found adolescents' opinions about, and knowledge of, abortion had not been considered by adults.
Novels Dealing with Abortion
After reading this research, I was convinced of the need for some good YA fiction that focuses on the abortion issue, not only to educate students but also to allow them to expand their attitudes and to help them develop a sense of empathy and tolerance toward others. Reading novels in which the young protagonist experiences abortion was, therefore, my next step. Of the ten or so novels I found, only one was written after 1987, and this book, Our Sacred Honor by Morton L. Kurland, M.D., failed miserably to reach the high standards demanded by young readers. Called "flipside" fiction, that is, one side of the book deals with the woman's story and the other deals with the man's, Our Sacred Honor was didactic and presented a moralistic treatment of the issue, constantly reminding the female reader of its intent.
The first chapter of the female version ends like this: "Let me tell you more about my problem and how you can save yourself. That's why I'm writing this" (p. 10). Chapter 2 has a similar statement: "I'm trying to tell you how it all worked out so that you can understand and save yourself in case it should happen to you" (p. 16). This book contained very little dialogue and too much description; overall, the book was contrived and hardly measured up to what one would consider good YA fiction.
There is, of course, much better-written fiction, although most of it is dated. For example, Paul Zindel's My Darling My Hamburger treats the subject of abortion through the eyes of a friend. This novel, written in first person, recounts a best friend's almost-disastrous experience with pre-marital sex and an illegal abortion. The novel ends on a hopeful note for the young protagonist but on a hopeless note for the woman who was coerced into having sex with her boyfriend, and as a consequence had an abortion. Statements like "Just let me die," and the characters' talking about her in past tense, and her inability to show her face at graduation because of shame magnify that hopelessness. While the writing is good and fits the bill for good YA fiction, the attitudes are dated. Zindel's treatment of the boyfriend's feelings and attitudes is much stronger than the treatment of the one-dimensional character of the girlfriend.
Jeannette Eyerly's Bonnie Jo Go Home ends on the same hopeless note. Bonnie Jo reminisces about the teenage man she met on the airplane coming to New York, thinking, "Should she and Joel meet in a corridor now, he probably would not recognize her. Leaving New York eleven days after she had arrived, her face seemed to have aged a year for every day she had been there" (p. 141). Later she recounts that, "Two different nurses and one aide asked her if she wanted someone to go with her while she waited for the taxi to take her to the airport. She shook her head. It was almost easier when everyone was not so kind" (p. 141).
Norma Klein's It's Ok If You Don't Love Me was enjoyable, although a bit predictable. The young protagonist did not have an abortion but did mention the plausibility of one to a distraught pregnant woman who was horrified by her audacity.
The young protagonist in Ann Renaldi's Promises Are For Keeping is Nicki, an orphan, who lives with her older brother and his wife most of the time. Other times she lives with her brother Larry, a doctor. Both men are important community leaders. The girl's best friend, Meredith, comes from a strict Catholic background, has an abusive father, and suffers from very low self-esteem. Meredith wants to have sex with her boyfriend because she is afraid he will "drop her" if she doesn't, and he's the only one who has ever "loved her." She gets pregnant and goes to an unethical doctor for an abortion, which results in complications. Larry saves her life but has to perform a hysterectomy. Meredith refers to this as her punishment.
Beginning with a girl on her way to a home for un-wed mothers, Evelyn Minshull's I Thought You Really Loved Me traces the pregnancy of Koral. Koral doesn't have an abortion because her parents won't permit it even though they are a strong, loving family. The book is well written but extremely stereotypical and dated. There is a character at the "home" whose name is Jesabel, and continued reinforcement of the "bad girl" image is present throughout. The Headmistress says to Koral, "Perhaps the most important point I hope to make, and it's one a lot of the girls take a while to grasp, is the need for self-discipline... and please don't think me cruel, Koral, but the very fact of your being here indicates a need in your life for exercise of self-discipline. Even when it's very difficult" (p. 77).
Norma Klein's It's Not What You Expect is a story about two adolescents' summer business venture. Klein's writing style keeps the book interesting, but the unbelievability of the story undermines her writing skill. There is a 14-year-old boy who is a gourmet chef. The protagonist, Carla, his twin sister, has a vocabulary that would intimidate some of the most astute college professors. The abortion issue in this novel is just an aside that lends itself to the overall message of the work. Sara Lee, the pregnant teen, does not have dialogue with the other characters concerning her pregnancy. Her supportive boyfriend, as well as the young chef, make the decisions, gather the necessary money, and discuss the outcome. Carla refers to Sara Lee's stupidity in not having "used something," and the chef retorts with a lengthy philosophical lecture about "does it really matter all that much what she did or did not use" (p. 90).
There is some redeeming value in Klein's message though. Carla is thinking about and discussing the abortion with her mother, whom she has accidently told. Carla's private reflections result in extensive processing and empathetic thoughts, such as, "It's only in the old time movies that people lie around pale and fainting after abortions" (p. 113). The day after the abortion in Sara Lee's mother's kitchen, Carla thinks, "I know that even when things are calm on the surface, that doesn't mean there's no inner feelings" (p. 113). Carla is shocked but accepting when her mother recounts her personal experience with abortion. "I remember when I had an abortion the doctor was so nasty and cold. He made me feel so rotten, like I'd committed some heinous act. It was so humiliating! That was worse than the pain of it really" (p. 113). Her mother goes on to say, "You know, it's not easy to have an abortion...I felt so lonely when it happened" (p. 113).
These scenes show Carla and her mother coming closer together, convey hope for the characters, and show that there is life after abortion. However, the undercurrent of helpless women is evident in the writing.
The predictable treatment of abortion in these novels, as well as the stereotypical backgrounds of the women (three are from broken homes, two have wicked stepfathers and weak, bitter mothers), creates a blurred vision of abortion, promotes the establishment of "no-way-out" attitudes, and perpetuates the weak image of women in society. There is an overabundance of guilt, fault, and wrongdoing in these books, as well as an absence of the role males play in the unplanned pregnancy.
On the other hand, Growing Up in a Hurry by Winifred Madison is a well written YA novel that deals very successfully and sensitively with questions of abortion, sex, and loneliness. The young protagonist, Karen, is at odds with her affluent mother and father. She doesn't seem to fit in at school. Often she finds solace in her cat and her flute. She meets a young man who gives her the attention she yearns for, and she becomes pregnant. The pregnancy brings her closer to her family, particularly her mother. Madison has masterfully woven the nuances of relationship evolution into her first-person narrative. After having the abortion Karen says, "But I wept. I cried as if I would never stop. I wept for me, I wept for Martha and Ross, I wept for Steve whom I'd never see again, and I wept for his sad grandfather, I wept for everyone, but mostly for the tiny life that had just been snuffed out" (p. 167).
Winifred Madison does not moralize, proselytize, or judge in this novel. She ends on a hopeful note -- Karen is not only closer to her mother, she is closer to her little sister too, and she has learned something about life and herself.
The Bird at the Window by Jan Truss chronicles nine months of agony. Angela, a top student and valedictorian for her graduating class, travels from her home in Canada to London where she visits her grandparents whom she has never met. She seeks an abortion at a clinic there, but her request is ignored by the female physician. She is told she is pretty enough to go home and marry the father. "You are an extremely attractive young woman, I feel sure he would want to marry you" (p.100).
Truss deals with the subject honestly and with empathy. The book contains some wonderful images and symbols. It is an honest, realistic portrayal of a teen facing a monumentous decision.
Mia Alone by Gunnel Beckman, translated by Joan Tate, is a novel about Mia, who thinks she's pregnant. The novel takes an in-depth look at Mia's feelings. It is an excellent account of the fears and concerns that girls have when faced with the prospect of an unplanned pregnancy. There is deep introspection in the novel. One chapter is devoted to Mia's internal struggle with why she had sex with Jan, her boyfriend, and the peer pressures to have sex. She considers at length the other young girls she knows who have had children and now have to rely on their mothers to take care of them. She also considers how the mothers must feel.
Throughout the book Mia mentions wanting "to talk to an adult, some wise, experienced adult person" (p.85). She discusses the pregnancy with her boyfriend and her reaction to his reaction.
"Listen, let's get married," Jan had said in the elevator....
"You can't stay at school through the spring term and be pregnant, can you?"
"But what would I do then?"
"Well, you could stay at home in my kitchenette and cook my meals for me when I get back from work...or knit those small things that they have to have."
...But she did not want to get married, or leave school, or cook meals. Before she was eighteen. It was crazy. Mother would have a fit. (pp. 55-56)
Beckman's Mia Alone, Truss' Bird at the Window, and Madison's Growing Up in a Hurry are all well-written YA novels. Each book deals with the problems of loneliness, alienation, peer pressure, and parental pressure that teens experience daily as they reach for maturity and a place to fit in. These are the books that belong on the shelves in our English classrooms. Regretfully, I had to use inter-library loan services to find them.
One other novel I read, Isabelle Holland's The Search, was a disappointment. The young protagonist chooses not to have an abortion but gives her child up for adoption. The novel fits the YA criteria: plenty of dialogue, absent parents, youth solving youth problems, but it is too predictable and fairy-tale-like to be credible.
Some books do transcend time, but I doubt that a teenager caught in today's tumultuous times could find comfort or identify with the protagonists in My Darling My Hamburger and Bonnie Jo Go Home. The issue of abortion clearly has not been given the extensive treatment in young adult fiction that it deserves, perhaps because the theme is too real.
Nonfiction about Abortion
Two works of nonfiction -- What Do I Do Now? by Susan Kuklin (1991), which is a compilation of stories told by teens about their pregnancies and the decisions they made with the help of concerned sympathetic adults, and The Choices We Made edited by Angela Bonavoglia (1991), which recounts stories told by adults who had abortions in their teens -- were very informative and belong on the shelf of every school library and literature classroom. Indeed, many adolescents prefer to read nonfiction accounts of real-life situations. These books are honest portrayals of teens, and the messages are varied. The books help dispel feelings of isolation, the "bad-girl" attitude, the assumption that birth control is the female's responsibility and if she is pregnant then it's her own fault, the notion of pregnancy as punishment for wrongdoing, and the judgmental message that women who have abortions are not loving, concerned, moral human beings. If abortion is too real for fiction, then these nonfiction alternatives can be made available to our student readers to balance the lack of fiction.
Teen Magazine, Family Planning Perspectives, The Village Voice, and Adolescence have published interviews with adolescents about abortion. An article in the March, 1992, Teen Magazine, "Real Teens, Real Stories," gives accounts of two young women -- one who has an abortion and one who chooses adoption. One woman said of her active sex life, "I wasn't using any form of birth control; I never had. I'd heard all the lectures and stuff, but I just kept putting it off. I knew that I should, but I just didn't want to deal with it. I wasn't sure I could talk to anybody about it, and I didn't know how to come out and say, `I need birth control'" (p. 44). This comment is a perfect example of adolescent egocentrism, the "it-will-never-happen-to-me" attitude. From a linguistic perspective, the language indicates guilt, shame, embarrassment, and confusion. These indications alone should be enough for us, as English teachers and fiction writers, to include abortion in the issues and themes we deal with.
The young woman who had the abortion says of the experience:
I had the option of either being completely asleep or of being awake. Somebody had told me how easy it was if you chose to be asleep. I chose to be awake. I said you need to experience this so that you remember this forever so that you make sure that this never happens to you again. I needed to have the reality of what I was doing sink in. (p. 45)
This language indicates that the woman thinks what she is doing is wrong, that her predicament is her own fault and that she must suffer because of it. She feels this guilt despite the fact that she was taking all the necessary precautions and had attempted to rationalize her decision based on her age, her economic position, her education, and her life with a single parent. This woman's language includes suffering in order to learn a lesson, to punish herself. The language also includes overtones suggesting passivity; sex was something that happened "to her," abortion was happening "to her."
One of the adolescents in the focus-group studies done by Stone and Waszak said: "Abortions are selfish." One male participant said, "I would tell my girlfriend she had to have the baby." Another said, "Anything is better than killing it." Another said, "Leave it legal; let them leave it legal. I'm totally against it, you know, but let them leave it legal for the simple fact that it will be done in a proper manner."
Word associations led to responses like this: "Murder," "killing a baby," or "death" (p. 53). "I picture a girl that's pregnant that's gonna get her baby out -- it's not developed -- and they're gonna suck it out," and "I guess what it really means is, you know, when a girl doesn't want the baby she kills it" (p. 53).
The language in the The Village Voice was similar. Adolescents interviewed responded this way:
* "I wouldn't tell my mom if I got pregnant until it was too late to get an abortion. She would help me with a baby...after she screamed on me some."
* "All of them usually have the baby. Some try to get popularity. Say if your boyfriend is a big time drug dealer and you have his baby, you think that he's going to buy you all this stuff...and most boys want to have children. Least that's true of the drug dealers."
* "I don't see why they worry about abortion because drugs is worse."
* "I seen this book where a woman tried to do it with a hanger."
* "My friend he told about malia (a kind of soda). If you drink it constantly, you can lose your baby. That's what I heard." (p.38)
Jennifer Ludden, a reporter for Living on Earth, a radio program that airs on National Public Radio, in an interview with Betsy Ellis, a teen mother, recounts Ellis' story:
Ellis: "I got the pill when I was 14, but my father told me that that gave me permission to have sex...and took them away from me. But that didn't stop me `cause I was young and I was, you know, I just wanted to be loved like most teenagers." (p. 4)
Of her first pregnancy, Ellis says she didn't understand, didn't comprehend the details of sex or its consequences. She gave birth and continued on a rocky relationship with her daughter's father. Then, almost on schedule according to the statistics on teen mothers, Ellis became pregnant again. (p. 5)
Ellis says she wanted another baby. She thought that it "would bring our relationship closer together if we had another baby." Ellis was interviewed just after coming out of a battered women's shelter and her relationship had ended. (p. 5)
Ludden further reports in an interview with Lorraine Christensen of the Haverhill, Boston's Hale Hospital:
It's a need to be accepted. It's that changing of partners, or maybe this guy will come in, and he told me he wants me to have a baby. I don't really want to have a baby, but he told me that he'll be here for me. Well often, before the pregnancy is even done with, this guy's gone out the door. Or maybe I'll see the same father's name pop up on two or three different women. (p. 6)
These and other responses by the young adults interviewed point to a serious lack of correct information about abortion. Instead, information often reflects anti-abortion sentiments or generally reinforces sexist attitudes. The responses also show the inability of these adolescents to consider outcomes of their sexual activity. However, doubting the intelligence of adolescents is a mistake. They live in a real world, where they have been displaced, neglected, treated with suspicion and ignored as thinking, capable young people. If we as English educators and writers have a responsibility to address even the toughest emotional and controversial issues in the lives of our readers, why then is there such a conspicuous absence of YA literature dealing with this tumultuous issue?
YA Fiction with Abortion Themes
A graduate student in educational psychology at the University of Nebraska, Denise Banker is a secondary language arts teacher in the Nebraska Tri-cities area.