What is an example of a literary treatment of abortion and birth control?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A particularly striking and memorable depiction in literature of the topics of abortion and birth control occurs in a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks titled “the mother.” In this poem, the female speaker begins by asserting that

Abortions will not let you forget.

You remember the children you got that you did not get . . .

The speaker, apparently drawing on personal experience, suggests that abortions are not casual actions, done and then forgotten. Those who have had abortions (she implies) think of their babies not simply as fetuses but as “children,” remembered (or at least imagined) even though they were not actually born. The speaker imagines the various futures and treatments the children might have experienced if they had actually been born alive (3-6); in a way the unborn children seem just as vivid to her as if they really had survived. This is a “mother” who seems in love with motherhood as she imagines mothering children she has never had a chance to actually raise.

By the tenth line of the poem, various important questions remain unanswered. Is the speaker of the poem a real “mother” who actually has given birth and who actually has raised children? She seems to be (because she speaks so specifically of the experiences of motherhood), but we are still not sure.  Even more important, since she does seem so committed to the idea and ideals of motherhood, why did she apparently have abortions? The opening section of the poem, then, creates a certain amount of curiosity and suspense. We feel eager to learn more about this apparently childless mother who knows so much, and so specifically, about motherhood.

The questions just mentioned continue to linger as the poem proceeds. The speaker now seems to feel and express deep guilt for the abortions she has undergone, but we are still unsure why she had those abortions in the first place (11-33). Could she not afford to raise the various children with whom she was pregnant? Was she forced for some other reason to endure multiple abortions? Was she motivated by a desire to use abortion as a form of birth control?  This last possibility seems doubtful, if only because she mourns so keenly for the children she never raised. She seems to have genuinely wanted to be a mother, and indeed she seems to have had personal experience with motherhood despite her multiple abortions.

In the final analysis, the poem is an intensely memorable piece partly because of the speaker’s vivid imagination of what might have been but what never was.  The speaker herself has been unable to “forget” her abortions, and she makes it difficult for us, as readers, to forget them as well.  Few works of literature deal so explicitly (and potentially controversially) with the issue of abortion as Brooks does here. The poem is as intriguing as much for what it leaves unclear as for anything it openly says.



William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" deals with the subject of abortion as it affects the feelings of the young woman involved and the relationship between her and the man who has fathered her unborn child. This excellent short story has been extensively covered in eNotes, perhaps more than anything else ever written by Hemingway.

The social, medical, religious and legal attitudes about abortion in America in the 1920s are all explored by Theodore Dreiser in his magnificent novel An American Tragedy. A summary of this long work is available on eNotes. Dreiser's attitude towards abortion seems to be that the very strict laws against it created tragedies by compelling women to have children neither they nor the children's fathers wanted.

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