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Find more The Rights of All Women
In a roundabout way, I was named after the protagonist of Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger. It was one of my mom’s favorite books. She talked about it a lot when I was younger (that title really stuck with me), so obviously I had absolutely no interest in reading it. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that the story, about two friends during their senior year of high school, centers an abortion plotline—and that the book, which published in 1969, was one of the first books in the YA canon that featured abortion at all.
My Darling, My Hamburger was released the year before Roe v. Wade was first filed in Dallas, and in the 50 years since, abortion has remained a contentious political, social, and religious issue on and off the page. In her newest book for teens, Jane against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights, Karen Blumenthal documents not just the case itself but the history of abortion—and its restrictions and stigmas—from the 1800s to the present.
As Blumenthal addresses, the battle to allow women to make their own choices regarding their own bodies has rarely been straightforward and is still ongoing. In fiction for young adults, teen pregnancy has been a regularly occurring story line, but abortion appears much less frequently; often, as in life, it is a choice that is shamed and hidden. Only in recent years have novels begun to deal with abortion directly and sympathetically from all sides. While Jenny Hubbard’s Printz Honor book And We Stay (2014) poetically follows the anguish and recovery of a girl pressured into an abortion, E.K. Johnston’s Amelia Bloomer book Exit, Pursued by a Bear (2016) takes a different tack. This story’s protagonist, Hermione, seeks an abortion after she’s raped, a decision portrayed frankly and without judgment; the abortion itself is a simple medical procedure, and Hermione a young woman fully capable of making her own life choices. Abortion and its aftermath are also front and center in Bonnie Pipkin’s Aftercare Instructions (2017), which follows 17-year-old Genesis’ physical and emotional recovery after her boyfriend leaves her during her abortion.
Even among pro-choice activists, the issue is more divisive than it initially seems. Throughout Jane, Blumenthal hits hard on all the ways in which the narrative around abortion and reproductive health has always been both a class and a race issue. At different points in time, she says, abortion access has fluctuated more for upper-class white women than it has for poor women or women of color. In the mid-1900s, Blumenthal writes, doctors often refused to tie the tubes of white and upper-class women, purposely wanting them to procreate—but they would sterilize women of color without their consent, a procedure so commonplace that Fannie Lou Hamer referred to it as a “Mississippi appendectomy.” But in later years, Blumenthal points out, poor, lower-class women would struggle to find a doctor to perform a legal abortion, while procedures for the wives and daughters of doctors were routinely approved.
So, how are these issues represented in YA fiction? Largely, they aren’t. Most of the girls having abortions in YA are white and upper-class, and though reproductive rights are talked about as something that effects all women, the nuances haven’t yet been deeply explored. Isabel Quintero’s Morris Award Winner, Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (2014), the diary-style novel of Mexican American Gabi, deals in teen pregnancy and has a subplot involving Gabi’s friend’s abortion. And though it doesn’t delve fully into race or class issues, Sharon Biggs Waller’s Girls on the Verge (2019), set in 2014 Texas, is by far the most successful recent novel at capturing the sheer restrictiveness of some abortion laws, even in contemporary times, and the lengths that women and girls are willing to go despite the judgment they face and the odds in their way.
Jane against the World ends on a sobering note. Reproductive rights, never truly guaranteed, are being challenged again. And while the rights of all women are at stake, both Blumenthal and history make clear that the phrase “all women” has never meant as much or been as equalizing as we think. For now, it’s clear that what we need, desperately, are more stories—and that, as always, they might be the things that save us.
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