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When an Abortion Story Is Told as a Caper, Thriller or Farce


In 1969, when abortion was illegal in Illinois, an underground operation arose in Chicago. Officially called the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, it became referred to as the Jane network, because women looking for abortions were told to call a number and “ask for Jane.” As I watched “The Janes,” an HBO documentary in regards to the service, I used to be struck by the buoyancy of the story. Though the ladies behind Jane were working under stress to offer secretive abortions to desperate and terrified women, a kicky sensibility pervades the film. There are weed jokes and anti-surveillance shenanigans and a soundtrack fit for a mod spy movie. Because the Janes evade the church, the Mafia and the police to facilitate around 11,000 clandestine abortions, they emerge from anonymity as the celebrities of a recent genre: the abortion caper.

“The Janes” ends with Roe v. Wade being handed down in 1973. Inside weeks of the documentary’s release, the Supreme Court had overturned Roe, which makes the film feel much more essential — not only as a road map for contemporary civil disobedience but as a testament to the type of complex, unruly abortion storytelling that also now feels in danger. Over the past few weeks, as I waited for the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision to drop, I sought out such stories compulsively, as if the ruling might seize them too. Along with “The Janes,” I watched the French film “Happening,” a couple of student looking for an illegal abortion in France in 1963, and “Oh God, a Show About Abortion,” the comedian Alison Leiby’s one-woman show about terminating a pregnancy at Planned Parenthood at age 35.

The trouble to manage abortion has also had the effect of suppressing the stories we tell about it. Women looking for abortions are silenced by abortion bans, anonymized in court and moralized about onscreen. It’s striking how often abortion has been obscured in movies, presented as a quickly discarded option (as in “Juno”) or averted with a spontaneous miscarriage (“Citizen Ruth”) or deployed to facilitate one other character’s arc (“Dirty Dancing”) or completely euphemized (“Knocked Up,” where it’s referred to only as “rhymes with smashmorshion”).

When abortion stories aren’t stifled by shame, they is perhaps celebrated as a brave act of speaking out — a convention that has created its own clichés, as accounts of abortion are smoothed into politically palatable forms, wherein the patient is fashioned as suitably desperate and her story is disclosed only reluctantly. Women have been made to barter their stories for his or her rights. Within the documentary, a Jane member recalls women calling the service and listing their reasons for needing an abortion, but she would assure them this was unnecessary: “We might really attempt to clarify to them — they didn’t must justify themselves.”

What does an abortion story seem like free of justification? Abortion is a typical procedure (one in 4 American women can have one, in line with the Guttmacher Institute) that has been so flattened into an “issue” that it might probably feel revelatory to simply recast abortion as an experience, one which can unlock unexpected insights into women’s private lives. If “The Janes” makes abortion right into a caper, “Happening” turns it right into a hero’s journey and “Oh God” renders it as a farce. Together, these works suggest that abortions are value talking about because women’s lives are interesting in their very own right.

“Happening” follows Anne, a student of literature who becomes pregnant and seeks an illegal abortion while studying for final exams. As Anne is sabotaged by her doctors, shunned by her peers and preyed on by men, she watches her life’s potential narrow with each passing week. And as she pursues increasingly dangerous methods to finish the pregnancy, she risks death to fight for her future as a author. “I’d like a toddler in the future, but not as an alternative of a life,” she tells one useless doctor.

The plot of “Happening” is driven not by Anne’s harrowing victimization but by her flinty resolve. When a health care provider offers her sympathy as an alternative of assistance, she refuses to depart his office. “So help me,” she demands. Like a fantastic motion hero, she endures physical trials while outwitting her adversaries. She works to compel her community to acknowledge her humanity through abortion’s veil of criminality and taboo.

Anne finally makes her strategy to an underground abortionist, however the procedure doesn’t work, so she undergoes one other, riskier operation that would kill her or else send her to the hospital, which may very well be her last stop before prison. She finally ends up convulsing over a dorm toilet, however the scene plays less like body-horror than a feat of strength. When one in all her bullies comes upon her within the stall, Anne cannily implicates her within the event, instructing her to fetch a pair of scissors and sever the bloody tissue trailing from her body. The very existence of “Happening” confirms her triumph: It is predicated on a 2000 memoir by the author Annie Ernaux.

No such horrors await Alison Leiby in “Oh God, a Show About Abortion,” whose self-described “easy and frictionless” abortion is value examining mostly since it is a joke. The 70-minute monologue begins with a startling joke — “My mom texted me, ‘Kill it tonight!’ and I’m like, I already did, that’s why the show exists!” — that feels crafted to instantly disarm the abortion taboo. Then the show rollicks through the experience itself, from the moment Leiby pees awkwardly right into a glass tumbler in a Courtyard by Marriott to the first-trimester procedure she secures in a Planned Parenthood facility situated across the road from a glaringly luxe maternity store. (“Who owns that?” she jokes. “Mike Pence?”)

Even before Roe’s reversal, Leiby recognized that she was lucky, and that almost all women looking for abortion “don’t stroll into Planned Parenthood with a Lululemon outfit after which take an Uber home.” Near the tip of the piece, when her mother tells her that she was forced to go to the Mafia for an illegal abortion within the Sixties, Leiby hesitates to share her own experience. “I didn’t want to come back off as bragging, like, A physician did mine,” she jokes.

Leiby doesn’t belabor her own privilege, and her story gains power from that selection. Her abortion decision remains to be met with loads of patriarchal condescension and ambient shame. But she resists the pressure to feel sad about ending her pregnancy, and she or he refuses to apologize for her right to do it safely and legally. “I assumed I’d spend the subsequent few days or months staring out the window like I’m in a depression medication industrial,” she says. As a substitute, she walks out of the clinic feeling “just a little underwhelmed.”

I attended Leiby’s show this month in Latest York while visibly pregnant. Though my expanding body now inspires rote congratulations from strangers, my very own feelings about my pregnancy have been tumultuous, and it was invigorating to step into an environment where the condition was not immediately culturally affirmed.

Much of Leiby’s story concerns her selection not to boost children — there’s an interlude about perineal tearing — and though her abortion is much easier to secure than Annie Ernaux’s, the stakes haven’t been lowered. Leiby desires to pursue her profession and to avoid the “painful and exhausting and scary” points of parenting, but she also just desires to be recognized as a full adult human on her own terms, not as an issue that only a baby can fix.

“The Janes,” too, is a story about women claiming their potential, though the members of the Jane network fulfill theirs not by receiving abortions but by providing them. Once they discover that their abortionist, “Mike,” isn’t a health care provider but only a guy who learned how you can perform a dilation and curettage (a procedure referred to as a D and C), they refuse to shutter the service. As a substitute, they start to perform abortions themselves, largely at no cost, no Mikes mandatory. They learn to assume responsibility, not only for their very own lives but for the lives of others. In turn, they’re driven to “share that sense of private power with women,” as one member puts it. “We wanted every woman who contacted us to be the hero of her own story.”

These abortion stories represent only a slice of the experience (for one thing, they largely feature white women), they usually have arrived at a time when abortion storytelling is prone to being winnowed even further. Even when a patient doesn’t disclose her abortion, digital surveillance threatens to inform the story for her, through Google searches, menstruation app data and location tracking. (Such tools have already been utilized in criminal prosecutions.)

Stories that do emerge will often be shaped to resist political pressure. Last fall, when Representative Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, spoke publicly for the primary time about being raped at church camp when she was 17 and having an abortion at 18, she did it in support of laws codifying Roe. “It felt like something was pressing down on me,” she said in regards to the demands on her testimony, adding: “Whatever I say, it has to supply.”

The decision in Dobbs tells its own story about women considering abortion. The court’s imagined modern pregnant woman can achieve total self-actualization while carrying her pregnancy to term, with the assistance of anti-discrimination laws, state-mandated parental leave and medical health insurance. “Now you’ve the chance to be whatever you should be,” Lynn Fitch, the Mississippi attorney general, said in an interview in regards to the case. “You’ve got the choice in life to actually achieve your dream and goals, and you’ll be able to have those beautiful children as well.”

This woman can have all of it, except she cannot have an abortion, and she will be able to’t have a story, either. She is a straw man — useful only after she has been stripped of her subjectivity and drained of all substance.

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