Abortion and Birth Control in Literature Analysis

At Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

For centuries, abortion, artificial termination of pregnancy, was one of the few ways to prevent the birth of an unwanted child. In the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, researchers made tremendous progress in understanding the physiology of reproduction, and other methods of birth control gradually became available. Abortions are still practiced as a means of birth control, but people also have access to a wide variety of reliable birth control methods, such as condoms, diaphragms, IUDs, birth control pills, and surgical sterilization.

During the last two hundred years a controversy has arisen between proponents of birth control, who emphasize its beneficial effects, and its enemies, who oppose birth control on moral, religious, or political grounds. Birth control advocates argue that it benefits society at large because it limits population growth and therefore helps to ensure against widespread starvation and political unrest. Advocates also argue that birth control benefits families because it gives them the ability to control the number and spacing of offspring, and hence maximize the family’s economic resources and ensure the greatest amount of personal freedom for parents, particularly mothers, by making parenthood a choice. Opponents of birth control contend, however, that it encourages lax standards of sexual behavior, and that these in turn undermine the strength of the family and trigger a general decay in public morality. Conservative Christians and others have opposed the use of abortion—and in some cases other means of birth control—on religious grounds as an unjustifiable deprivation of an unborn infant’s God-given right to life.

In Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Although abortion and birth control have constituted an important theme in relatively few mainstream works of literature, extreme forms of birth control have figured prominently in three of the twentieth century’s most important and controversial novels of social criticism: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Central to the vision of each of these novels is the issue of direct societal intervention and control of individual sexuality. Brave New World, a critique of modern Western culture, depicts a world state that has succeeded in completely separating sexuality and reproduction. Lower-caste women have been sterilized, while upper-caste women have been trained always to use contraceptives. All fetuses are produced through artificial fertilization of eggs, which are then placed by the state in huge, assembly-like incubators until gestation is complete. The newborns are “decanted” and raised in state-run nurseries and schools. The family has ceased to exist. Only the individual human being remains, freed from the physical and emotional pain that has always marked the traditional family. This new individual is ready to enjoy physical and sensual pleasure to the fullest, through government-sponsored games, entertainments, and orgies. Ironically, the price of this individual freedom is a striking lack of individuality: The members of each caste are conditioned and trained from the time of conception onward to feel and think alike. Huxley then introduces a character, John Savage, who was born to his own mother, has lived in a traditional society, and has taken part in religious rites. Savage is alienated from the carefree, sexually unrepressed, and materially affluent life of the world state. Savage, horrified by the lack of individuality and sickened by the moral and spiritual degradation of those around him, eventually commits suicide. In effect Huxley argues that...

(The entire section is 822 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Cozic, Charles P., and Stacey L. Tipp. Abortion: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1991. A representative sampling of the arguments put forth on both sides of the abortion controversy.

Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. The Population Explosion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. A review of trends in world population growth since the publication of The Population Bomb, followed by projections of food crises in the twenty-first century and emphasis on the continuing need to curb population growth.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971. Argues that sexual and reproductive autonomy for women is necessary for the advancement of society as a whole.

Meunsch, Elizabeth, and Alan Freeman. The Politics of Virtue: Is Abortion Debatable? Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993. An attempt to break new ground in the controversy over abortion.

Mitchell, Juliet. Woman’s Estate. New York: Pantheon, 1971. Part 1 is a history of the woman’s movement of the 1960’s; part 2 presents classic feminist discussions of work, reproduction, sexuality, and the socialization of children.

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race. New York: Eugenics Publishing Company, 1920. Argues for the benefits for women and for society as a whole of using birth control methods to separate sexuality and reproduction.