In July, "Strange Animals" author Chad Kultgen made headlines when he used a website he created, prolifeantiwoman.com, as a way to promote his novel by pretending to be his protagonist: a woman demanding $100 million in donations, who will have the child if she receives the money, and have an abortion if she doesn’t. On the site, as in the book, the woman was pulling this stunt as part of her dissertation. Needless to say, her take on abortion is extreme, calculated and highly unrealistic. There’s a glibness to Kultgen’s treatment of abortion that doesn’t abate even when the character in question starts to reconsider her adamant stance. While I don’t expect fiction to hold up an exact mirror to real life, this treatment of abortion felt hollow to me as a reader, and made me want to find more nuanced, relatable outlooks. This is especially relevant in light of the recent attacks on Planned Parenthood, which are intent on making it seem like an amoral abortion mill rather than a women’s health service provider.
Just as "Obvious Child" was an important representation on film of a woman having an abortion and not having it ruin her life, we need similar stories in our fiction and nonfiction, and we are starting to get them. So where can readers turn for protagonists who face unintended pregnancies, have abortions, and go on to live productive, happy, healthy lives?
Three books from the last few years -- romance "The Girlfriend" by Abigail Barnette, "’89 Walls" by Katie Pierson and new graphic novel "Not Funny Ha-Ha: A Handbook for Something Hard" by Leah Hayes -- all offer important takes on the procedure. The women aren’t caricatures hell-bent on having an abortion because they “want” to, but women who are clear on why they need to, who ask for help with the process and who allow themselves a range of emotions, even though they never waver in what their choice will be.
None of these authors talk down to their heroines, infantilize them or put someone else in control of their decision. The first two are fiction, while the latter, billed as nonfiction, uses the story of two characters having different types of abortions to offer practical advice for women about how to handle the process safely and know what to expect.
What impressed me about all three is that none of these author flinches from describing the procedure itself, walking readers through the clinic experience alongside these characters. In the case of "The Girlfriend" and "’89 Walls," their partners join them, and we get to see how going through an abortion impacts their relationship, as well as their relationship with others close to them. While their abortions do change the heroines’ lives, we don’t see them spending the rest of the book lamenting or agonizing over their choice, though it does come up several times in the course of each plot. Both are novels where abortions happen, but neither could truly be called “abortion novels,” although abortion laws being discussed in the news are used in "’89 Walls" as a plot point.
"Not Funny Ha-Ha" has more of a serious message, and while we don’t get to know as much about the emotional lives of its characters, its tone is upfront, conversational and helpful, breaking down medical terminology into easy to absorb language; the graphic novel format lends itself to the comforting tone of the book.
These aren’t, of course, the only books to deal with the subject, but they are worthy additions to the bookshelves of readers who want to see abortion portrayed as a normal act that’s not overdramatized. Rather than abortion as a political issue, abortion is simply a fact of life, worthy of examination as part of a larger story. No, they aren’t a substitute for honest, first-person accounts, but rather, a useful supplement to them.
While I can’t do justice to the full complexity of these stories with a single scene alone, here I wanted to highlight how each book handles the actual description of abortion, because it’s something we don’t see as often on the page as we should. But the true value in each of these books is that abortion is treated as something that does not hinder these women’s and girls’ lives, but advances them. They have feelings about it, both before and afterward, and those feelings are treated as valid and worthy. They decide who they want to tell, and who they don’t. None of these authors treat abortion lightly or facetiously; instead, all present it as the right option for these characters at this time in their lives, sans judgment.
"The Girlfriend" by Abigail Barnette
Barnette is the pen name for author and blogger Jenny Trout. This is the second in "The Boss" series, which finds 24-year-old protagonist Sophie Scaife pregnant and estranged from her billionaire boyfriend, Neil, who’s twice her age (yes, he’s a billionaire; no, he’s not as robotic as Christian Grey). At the end of the previous novel, "The Boss," Sophie makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be pregnant, and adoption isn’t right for her. "The Girlfriend" opens with Sophie having already scheduled her abortion appointment on her own. When she does tell Neil, even though he isn’t as resolute in wanting to end the pregnancy, he is fully supportive, joining her at her appointment and supporting her every step of the way. This is how Sophie’s abortion is described:
I stared up at the ceiling, my eyes drifting closed under the effect of the sedative. Every minute seemed drawn out, but the initial confusion and panic had given way to an odd feeling of blankness. I was my own calm little center of the universe.
“Okay, you’re going to feel a pinch,” the doctor warned.
My fingers crushed Neil’s, and I practically jumped off the table. Little pinch my ass!
After that, I couldn’t feel anything. I gripped Neil’s hand super hard, and heard myself saying things like, “ow,” but if anything hurt, it was news to me. I heard comforting words from Neil, and Julie and Dr. Jacobson telling me I was doing a good job and it was nearly finished, but mostly I just drifted in a weird pink sedative haze. Everything was happening over there, and everyone was making far too big a deal about it. But it did seem to take a long time.
“All right,” I heard Dr. Jacobson say cheerfully. “You’re all finished, Sophie. Julie is going to help you to recovery.”
Though Sophie has come across as incredibly strong in her conviction that she’s done the right thing for herself, we see that she’s been harboring a fear that catches up with her. Moments later, she asks Neil, “Do you hate me?” He replies, “No, no. Never. I don’t want you to ever think that.”
Since this happens very early on in the book, we get to see Sophie and Neil deal with the immediate physical aftermath, discuss what birth control methods they will use, find out how the abortion affects their sex life, and, later, see Sophie deciding whether to share this news. The abortion is a catalyst to bring them closer together, but, while not forgotten, does not remain the focal point of the entire novel.
"’89 Walls" by Katie Pierson
Set in 1989, this teen romance finds protagonist Quinn discovering she’s pregnant about halfway through the book, despite having used condoms with her ex-boyfriend, Jason. She’s also already started dating a new guy, Seth, whom she does tell, along with her best friend and her mother, who’s disappointed but firmly supportive; she opts to not tell her father. Her mother drives her to the clinic, where Seth helps them navigate the protesters trying to block their way. Quinn meets with an abortion counselor who prescribes her the pill, even though having sex again is the last thing on Quinn’s mind. Here’s how Quinn’s abortion is described:
It took four minutes. It hurt, but no worse than her monthly cramps. The friendly nurse told Quinn to breathe with her. She did, and it helped. The worst part was the horrible slurping sound, like a straw on the bottom of a milk shake. Then it was over. The doctor, a beefy guy with a gray beard, patted her trembling knee as he rose from his rolling stool. “You take care,” he said.
“You too,” Quinn whispered.
Pierson gives us a heroine who doesn’t berate herself for having gotten pregnant, comes to terms with having judged other girls for doing so, and lets the burgeoning sexual tension between Quinn and Seth unfold at a slower pace than it would have otherwise, since Quinn is understandably hesitant about having sex again. While her abortion certainly affects her, especially her political views, which contrast with her father’s around the issue, aside from her holding off on sex with Seth, she quickly becomes swept up in other dramas that are far more pressing.
Pierson has said that her depiction of abortion as an everyday event that impacts, but does not in any way derail, Quinn’s life, was quite deliberate. She told Cosmopolitan:
I just wanted to be one of the voices out there that shows that this is actually quite normal…. I took care to detail what an abortion clinic is like, what a boring doctor's office it really is. It's not this clandestine, creepy place. I tried to be detailed about what the procedure itself is like. I think maybe an older audience doesn't need to have that explained. I tried to put in as much detail as I could and try to normalize it to make it what it is: a very safe, standard procedure that is safer than carrying a baby to term, especially when you are a teenager.
"Not Funny Ha-Ha" by Leah Hayes
"Not Funny Ha-Ha" uses the graphic novel format to share the stories of two fictional characters, Lisa and Mary, each facing an unwanted pregnancy, and opting for, respectively, surgical and medical abortions, terms that are detailed in the book. Billed as nonfiction, "Not Funny" offers the two women’s stories, interspersed with advice from Hayes about how and when to go about getting an abortion and what factors to consider when doing so. Unlike the novels above, she does not get into how or why the women got pregnant, only that they have made the decision to have an abortion. After going over the two abortion options and why some women prefer one or the other, we see each women choose one of them.
In Lisa’s case, she decides on a surgical abortion. We see her lying down, her eyes closed, with this description:
Lisa felt like she was at a visit to the gynecologist at first. Everything happened pretty fast. But things seemed different when the nurse gave her the local anesthesia. Suddenly she could not feel anything between her legs. She looked at the ceiling and waited for the procedure to start.
There was a lot of cramping...kind of like getting a pap smear, but at times, more intense. She tried to be very brave every time it hurt. The procedure takes a very short amount of time.
She could hear the humming of the instruments.
After about 15 minutes, the doctor told her she was “all set,” and helped Lisa sit up. The nurse walked her to another waiting room-like placed called the “recovery room.”
In Mary’s case, she gets the necessarily pills for a medical abortion at the clinic, takes one there, and the rest at home. She has bad cramps, throws up, sleeps and then:
At one point, the bleeding got very heavy all at once. She knew that this meant that the abortion had happened. It was intense and made her a little sad. She didn’t know why.
Hayes then lets the reader know that larger blood clots are perfectly normal at this point.
While we don’t get to know Lisa and Mary’s interior lives very well, as "Not Funny Ha-Ha" is not a character-heavy book, but an information-rich one, the tone of her text and drawings is straightforward and comforting, with repeated reminders to consult a medical professional, not friends or Hayes, if you actually are in need of an abortion.
Hayes told Salon about her reasons for creating the book: “I wanted to write about abortion because I felt like I had something that I could add to the conversation, expression-wise. I've always been influenced by graphic novels that try to tackle complicated issues, and I noticed that there was a bit of a void of visual 'commentary' on this topic. It's an experience that so many girls, women (and their families and partners) go through all around us, all the time, yet it can feel scary and lonely at times. I wanted to offer my interpretation of the procedures and the feelings that surround them. I wanted to make it feel like an open, warm conversation about something potentially hard and scary.”