Abortion Now, Abortion Forever

Edited by Margaret Ronda, Jeannette Schollaert, and Jena DiMaggio

Introduction: Abortion Now, Abortion Forever

Margaret Ronda, Jeannette Schollaert, and Jena DiMaggio

Three Vasectomies, or, What is an Abortion Story?

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

Abortion After All: A Dialogue on Reproductive Justice in a Post-Dobbs World

Heather Latimer and Karen Weingarten

In a State of Expectancy: Writing Against the Abortion Plot

Jess Cotton

Producing Abortion Epistemologies: Knowledge in / as Community

Jena DiMaggio

The Author of the Abortion Is “I”: Against Redemptive Forms and Genres

Alina Stefanescu

Without Opening My Mouth

Lindsey Webb

Grow Abortion Power: Herbal Abortifacients and Abortion Storytelling

Jeannette Schollaert

From Deep Care: The Radical Activists Who Provided Abortions, Defied the Law, and Fought to Keep Clinics Open

Angela Hume

Subjects and Verbs: The Past, Present, and Future Tenses of Abortion Rhetoric

Leila Easa and Jennifer Stager

Stories from the “Safe, Legal, and Rare” Era

Molly Geidel

Labor and Restitution in Emma Campbell’s Abortion-Seeking Art Work

Emma Crowley

Abortion Stories for Accomplices

Sara Matthiesen

“Cultural Problems Demand Cultural Solutions”: Performing Abortion Stories for Culture Change

Rosemary Candelario

Feminist Eugenics: Coerced Sterilization and Mandated Maternity

Kim Adams

Abortion’s Poetic Figures

Margaret Ronda

Introduction

"Abortions will not let you forget." 

The opening line of Gwendolyn Brooks's famous poem "the mother" compels its reader to recognize and remember the fact of abortions now, in the past, and in the future. Beginning with this powerful declaration, "the mother" offers a prismatic consideration of abortion not only as fact, but also as experience, memory, source of self-knowledge, and condition of affective response. One of many persona poems that Brooks gathers in her 1945 collection, A Street in Bronzeville, which chronicles the everyday struggles and daily life of postwar Black life on the South Side of Chicago, "the mother" refuses to reduce abortion to a single meaning or truth. That refusal animates this cluster, too.

We begin with "the mother" because we share its speaker's impulse to unfold the complex facts and feelings of her abortion story by insisting on this sense of conditional, changing response as central to its storytelling form. The second stanza, for example, invokes the imaginative power of the subjunctive "if" as the speaker considers various rhetorics and projections of abortion as a moral or religious wrong "if I sinned," "if I stole," "if I poisoned." Notably, Brooks does not give these perspectives on abortion the weight of the declarative, instead positioning these more negative affective responses as possible, but not inevitable, responses. Brooks ultimately questions the premise of abortion storytelling itself as a truthtelling venture: "oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?" A singular truth implies one way to tell an abortion story, an idea incongruous with the conditional language and shifting temporal frames of the poem. Instead, the poem ends with a deeper recognition of the speaker's sustaining feeling, centering love as a kind of hard-won knowledge accumulated over time and through experience.

That Brooks's poem expands and questions the very parameters of an abortion story is a fitting way to introduce this cluster. Brooks's poem both embodies and addresses the difficulties of defining one singular form of the abortion story, even as it insistently gives voice to the undeniable fact of abortion. In this cluster, writers explore the many forms, temporalities, and claims of abortion storytelling, before and after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022). Abortion stories can outline a politic, dissect an emotion, and experiment with storytelling methods to circulate knowledge about abortion, particularly in contexts of state criminalization and lack of abortion access. An abortion story can be a record of an individual event; it can be an account of particular abortion strategies or techniques. It can chronicle experiences of caregiving and medical intervention. An abortion story can be a public narrative, sometimes anonymized on social media and told in the first-person to add one's own voice to a collective account.

Abortion stories often attempt to account for gaps in public discourse about abortion, and they can serve to counter discourses that highlight forms of shame and secrecy surrounding abortion, creating complex vocabularies that counter the dominant terms in which hegemonic accounts of abortion are couched. They can gesture toward other stories that haven't been told, or to hidden histories that are passed down below the official record. They can illuminate the powerfully divergent experiences of pregnancy and reproductive health across different populations and backgrounds.

In the face of hegemonic moralizing about abortion and its moral implications, abortion stories can argue for a forceful pro-abortion position, offering defenses of abortion as a necessary freedom and collective right. As Maggie Doherty writes in her powerful recent essay, "The Abortion Stories We Tell," the abortion story she finally wants to tell is one that claims "that the principle of bodily autonomy applies to everyone, regardless of their circumstances; that no one should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term; that people are ends, not means." Such forms of abortion storytelling reflect the complexities of abortion as an experience as irreducibly individual and collective, embodied and social and its broader cultural meanings in a time of intensified struggle over reproductive rights and justice. 

Our cluster takes Dobbs as a pivotal moment in the history of abortion storytelling, which precedes Roe and extends beyond the U.S. context. Though in the United States abortion was banned in both practice and print in the 1873 Comstock Act (a piece of legislation that has resurfaced in recent months as the conservative right's historical reference point of choice), this censorship legislation did not stop the circulation of information and stories about abortion through creative, inventive, and nimble means, including coded language and euphemisms.

After the decriminalization of abortion in 1973's landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, abortion storytelling took shape across contemporary media in the genres where we see it now: in the "abortion comedy" and "abortion road trip" in film; in speculative fictions that grapple with variously imagined futures for abortion rights; in memoirs and fictional coming-of-age stories; as well as in more experimental formal practices like those exemplified by recent Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux and work by photographers, performers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers. Activist organizations like Shout Your Abortion and We Testify draw on abortion storytelling in an endeavor to normalize abortion and center abortion storytellers, respectively, and both organizations gained momentum in advance of the Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt decision in June 2016. The hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion helped popularize the abortion story as a first-person genre on social media in the context of the 2010s attack on abortion rights. Post-Dobbs, the abortion story as an activist genre continues to challenge the narrative conventions of public testimony and of storytelling forms.

This cluster is being published on the one-year anniversary of the Dobbs Supreme Court decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade and removed the constitutional right to abortion. Since this decision, extreme limitations to abortion access have taken effect across the U.S.: statewide bans, criminalization and surveillance of those seeking abortion and all those who assist them, the widespread closing of reproductive health clinics, forced travel to seek reproductive health care, denial of health care to pregnant persons facing life-threatening conditions, and forced birth. These effects fall disproportionately on already marginalized populations immigrant, Indigenous, Black, disabled, working-class persons whose reproductive rights and healthcare access have historically been threatened and precarious. We are witnessing a violent new spasm of state-sponsored patriarchal control over pregnant persons and all those capable of becoming pregnant.

This erosion of the right to an abortion, along with the criminalization of pregnancy, feels overwhelming. It is hard to know how to act, what will make an impact. Nevertheless, writers, artists, and critics continue to create artwork and testimony about the realities and necessities of abortion, and abortion care providers continue to do the essential work of serve those in need. (Abortion aid funds and reproductive health collectives can always use more assistance, and we encourage everyone reading this cluster to donate if they can! https://abortionfunds.org/; https://www.sistersong.net/ ) We offer this cluster in the spirit of this ongoing, necessary collective work of knowledge production, action, and caregiving in the service of holistic reproductive freedom freedom that stretches far beyond simply "the right to choose."

This cluster emerged as a means of gathering scholarly and creative responses in the face of this urgent political present. By writing collectively about abortion storytelling, we aim to highlight the elements of our shared and divergent social experience of abortion and to testify against repressive silencing and surveillance as we also make demands for reproductive justice and freedom. Our contributions include readings of plays, short stories, films, photographs, art installations, poetry, activist performances and practices, as well as a dialogue between two scholars of abortion representations. The cluster also includes creative meditations that themselves enact forms of expressive storytelling. Post45: Contemporaries will feature one essay at a time on its website, rolling this cluster out over sixteen days as a form of contemporary Scheherazadean storytelling.

These essays offer new modes for undertaking abortion scholarship in the present. Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan's "Three Vasectomies" is at once an essay on method and a wide-ranging examination of the form of abortion stories told and untold, personal and collective. Karen Weingarten and Heather Latimer open a shared dialogue on changes in the cultural representations and rhetorics of abortion across a variety of popular culture portrayals. Jess Cotton's essay, "In a State of Expectancy: Writing Against the Abortion Plot," charts a genealogy of abortion writings across various genres that move beyond the language of possessive individualism. Jena DiMaggio's piece engages with questions of abortion epistemologies via the fiction of Dorothy Parker and Gloria Naylor, exploring narratives that sidestep language of legality and choice to insist on the power of experiential knowledge. Alina Stefanescu's meditation on rhetorics of abortion explores alternative forms of abortion speech outside confessional atonement.  Lindsey Webb offers a searching reflection on a family story of her great-grandmother’s abortion and the gendered language and silences of the Mormon Church. Jeannette Schollaert's piece, "Grow Abortion Power: Herbal Abortifacients and Abortion Storytelling," explores the history and present of activist invocations of plants as abortifacients. Angela Hume places the activist work of Black lesbian feminist poet Pat Parker in a larger history of clinic defense and revolutionary feminist abortion “self-help.” Jennifer Stager and Leila Easa's essay, "Subjects and Verbs: The Past, Present, and Future Tenses of Abortion Rhetoric," develops a reading of Lena Chen's participatory art installation "We Lived in the Gaps Between the Stories" and its exploration of plants as a reproductive management technique. Molly Geidel's essay charts the ethos of "safe, legal, and rare" in the long 1990s across a series of pop culture narratives.  Emma Crowley offers an exploration of the photography and visual testimony of photographer Emma Campbell, who developed a public art project on the streets of Belfast in response to the decriminalization of abortion in Northern Ireland in 2019. Sara Matthiesen's essay, "Abortion Stories for Accomplices," offers a window into various stories of pre-Roe activism, insisting on the importance of the kinds of stories we tell about what abortion activism and care looked like. Rosemary Candelario's piece describes a series of performances and activist happenings in the era before Roe. Kim Adams's essay explores the complex eugenicist language in abortion activism. Margaret Ronda's essay closes the cluster with a turn to poetry, examining the figures, forms, and fragmented temporalities of abortion poetics as an alternative to narrative modes of abortion storytelling.

The anniversary of Dobbs prompted our contributors to write in ways that are exploratory, bold, searching, historically grounded and speculative, opening new archives and excavating stories that need to be told. Taken together, these essays underscore the necessity of forging new interpretive vocabularies to marshal the power of narrating reproductive freedom. Central to the creation of this cluster is its editors' belief that the stories we tell produce knowledge, and that this knowledge has material effects. These texts, and the essays elucidating them, function for us as an artifact and a road map, an understanding of where we've been and how we arrived at the present, a testament to the linguistic, political, and epistemological power of abortion experiences, and a blueprint for future struggles. Following Gwendolyn Brooks, we're here to say "Abortions will not let you forget."


Past clusters