mothers have always gotten abortions
on the deep roots of abortion in our nation's history and traditions
I’d always intended to include abortion in this newsletter about motherhood and mothering. When my co-editor Emily Perez and I were first describing our vision for the book that became our anthology, The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood, it seemed obvious to us that abortion would be included alongside poems about breastfeeding and c sections and stillbirth and maternal ambivalence and joy.
Lynn Melnick’s beautiful “Landscape with Clinic and Oracle” is one of the poems in the book that touches on abortion. It ends with this moving address to her younger self, which always reminds me how often abortion makes it possible to mother the children who are born after:
Lynn! they lied to you
don’t you know?
Your womb will be the first thing to heal.
What you smell is pleasure, not the rot of the thing
amid the waste.
You will have babies.
You will write poems about flowers that turn on in darkness.
All of that to say, I’ve thought a lot about the intersection of abortion and mothering. I just hadn’t hoped it would be so timely right now.
So many smart people have already written about the flawed logic and disastrous consequences of this reversal of a long-established ruling.
Here’s what I’ll add: if you’re going to make an argument, as Alito does, based on history, you had better get that history right. In the leaked draft, Alito argues that the “right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions.” While it’s true that the right to abortion was not legally recognized until Roe v Wade in 1973, the practice of abortion, and the widespread acceptance of that practice, particularly early abortion, before “quickening,” is basically as old as America itself.
As Amy Westervelt writes in her great book Forget Having It All, early abortion was widely practiced and perfectly legal up until the early nineteenth century. (I wrote about Westervelt’s book alongside Dani McClain, Sarah Knott, Kim Brooks, and more in Electric Literature a few years ago.) Through the mid-nineteenth century, you could buy “menstrual regulators” off the shelf. (A “menstrual regulator” returns your period; in other words, you’re not pregnant anymore.) The historian James Mohr, in his 1978 book Abortion in America, estimated that during this period, between 15-35% of all pregnancies ended in abortion. Moreover, as Westervelt argues, early abortion (before “quickening”) “was seen as an extension of the family-planning strategies women were increasingly deploying to limit the number of children they had and thereby ensure that they could remain good companions to their husbands and and involved, moral mothers to their children.”
In other words, abortion was a way for mothers to ensure they could be good mothers to the children who’d already been born.
There’s a certain strain of anti-abortion thought that suggests (or outright asserts) that there are two kinds of people: mothers who love and care for their children, and people who get abortions. People who seek abortions are often caricatured as monstrous, slutty, lazy, or maybe misled by the evil feminists at Planned Parenthood. But those two groups—mothers and people seeking abortions—have often been the same. Today, and historically, the majority of people getting abortions already have children at home. As Ushma Upadhyay, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, explains in the New York Times article linked above (it’s a gift article, so you can read it without a subscription),
The same people who become pregnant and give birth are the same people who have abortions at different points in their lives.
One of the main reasons people report wanting to have an abortion is so they can be a better parent to the kids they already have.
Abortion has always been deeply linked to mothering, whether that’s a mother deciding to terminate a pregnancy to better care for the children they already have, or an abortion that allows someone to become a parent later in life, when they’re able to take on caregiving. And this has always been true: as Mohr’s Abortion in America notes, the majority of people seeking abortions in the mid-nineteenth century were married and already parenting a child.
One underlying premise of this newsletter, and of my life as a writer and researcher and teacher, is this: when we understand the past more deeply, we’re more able to imagine a better future. The past is rarely what we expect, and it certainly isn’t the smooth and glowy progress narrative many of us were taught in school. Repealing Roe won’t send us back to a mythical past when every pregnancy was an unmitigated blessing.
Alito is certainly right that the Founding Fathers didn’t intend to give us an explicit right to abortion. They weren’t thinking of us, or of our bodily autonomy. But it seems likely that their wives and sisters and daughters were.
If you liked this newsletter and you’re interested in reading more about the intersection of motherhood and mothering, I’d love it if you would share.
I’ll be back in a day or two with a round-up of book suggestions. What have you read lately (motherhood-adjacent or otherwise) that you’d love to share?