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HEARTBREAK, HEROISM, LOVE, A Review of “Choice Words: Writers on Abortion,” an anthology edited by Annie Finch

“Abortion is health care,” says the doctor in Sylvia Ramos Cruz’s appropriately titled poem “The Doctor Speaks: Abortion is Health Care.” But while this doctor may see the logic in abortion practice because she understands the “science, ritual, real-life consequences of practicing medicine,” many individuals and groups around the globe do not.

As a response to the diverse experiences and perspectives surrounding abortion practice, poet Annie Finch has compiled a multi-genre anthology of creative pieces from a variety of writers, past and present, hailing from locations all over the world. “The political arguments [about abortion] have been made repeatedly” Finch states in her introduction, and “in some ways there is nothing else left to say, and yet so much more needs to be said.” The more that Finch refers to is the experience of the mind, body, heart, will and spirit, all the parts of self that are not influenced by logic alone being emotionally, psychologically, and biologically impacted by the choice to have or not have a child.

Arguing for this complexity, as well as the choice to abort as “uniquely individual,” Finch has given us stories and poems that engage the senses—an opportunity to feel the difficulty and relief of these experiences. “A woman is not a basket you place / your buns in to keep them warm,” says Marge Piercy’s speaker in the poem “Right to Life,” bucking reductionist arguments about abortion by asserting female complexity. She continues:

Not a brood

hen you can slip duck eggs under.

Not a purse holding the coins of your

descendants till you spend them in wars.

Not a bank where your genes gather interest

and interesting mutations in the tainted rain.

In “Tugging,” Sedes Geddes describes an abortion procedure as “[a] sucking deep within the pelvis, / where the body contracts as if / to cling to the tiny growth. Everything / seems to fight for life . . .” And in Lindy West’s “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman,” the narrator is “glassy-eyed, smiling too big, running on fumes and gallows humor” the hours after she takes her first of two pills meant to induce abortion.

Finally, in the poem “The End,” Sharon Old’s speaker states “We decided to have the abortion / became killers together” but finds herself, alone, mopping up the blood that continues to flow out of her uterus onto the floor where she stood next to her partner by a window and watched an ambulance tend to the victims of a car accident—one hospitalized, one bandaged now blind.

“ . . . [T]he harrowing experiences described in some of the pieces in this book,” says Finch, “are caused not by abortion itself but by its control, compulsion, criminalization, censoring, or condemnation.”

Indeed, in “You Have No Name, No Grave, No Identity” by Manisha Sharma and “Five Months Vulnerable” by
Burleigh Muten abortion is a means of social control. In “You Have No Name,” a baby is aborted because it will be a girl since many Indian women are only allowed one girl per family. And, in “Five Months Vulnerable,” another is aborted because it will be “pangender” or “transgender,” neither of which were recognized in the US in 1984.

“In Pakistan,” says the young woman in “The Scarlet A” by Soniah Kamal—a five-part nonfiction piece based on interviews with Pakistani students—“premarital sex, let alone being unwed and pregnant, is a crime,” and after choosing to abort her child due to both, “[f]or the first time,” she says, “ I fully fathom the gulf between the crimes of a man and the crimes of a woman.” But in “The Virginity Thief: A Letter to My Man,” by Thylias Moss, an abortion does not completely solve the problem of her rape at the hands of a twenty-five-year-old church deacon. Now a retired English professor, the narrator is finally writing a letter to her husband about the choice she had to make at only fifteen years old, after which she was considered “used goods,” a label that haunted her.

These stories raise countless questions about how we should understand abortion and the women that consent to the procedure. For instance, “[i]f we called abortion ‘miscarriage,’ or maybe ‘optional miscarriage,’” Nicole Walker asks in “Abortion is Beautiful,” “would it be more beautiful? If you had to opt into the pregnancy or you would automatically be opted out, like registering for the health benefits you may not have which might cause you to opt out of the pregnancy, would that make the choice easier or harder? If nature stopped pregnancy’s ‘progressing’ and instead stayed still until you checked the ‘go-ahead pregnancy’ box, would the choice seem as sinister? Why is choosing an ending morally more troubling than choosing a beginning?”

In “Moo and Thrall,” Dana Levin’s speaker asks, “Who am I to judge / what another person needs?” as she walks on a college campus among signs advertising grotesque images of “[j]ust-dead flesh-babies twelve feet high” and a “[m]onkey-head strapped in a test contraption / the enormous caption: / IF THIS IS ANIMAL CRUELTY THEN / —WHAT IS THIS—” She marches through the “carnival” of arguments scribbled and shouted on her way to buy a coffee:

I wanted and walked

through the moo and thrall, how hadn’t I

seen it—chalked

underfoot, every few paces the same

smeared message: YOU ARE LOVED

According to Finch, “Abortion is normal; violent control over it is not,” and in these pages the warzone of the mind, body, heart, will and spirit is analyzed, a minefield of incredibly complicated decisions women often have to make concerning childbirth from as young as eleven until they reach menopause. The decisions are never as one-sided and simple as many of those who argue against it want to believe.

This anthology is a MUST for . . . well . . . everyone.

Given that abortion is such a divisive topic in our culture, it is imperative that individuals on all sides step away from politicizing and into these stories to feel the real complexity of these women’s lives; women who are grappling with far more than ending a potential life, but also rape, limited resources, family pressures, religious expectations, abandonment, etc.

“Spirit, spirit,” beseeches Starhawk in “Prayer to the Spirit,”

I have sent you back

across the gate.

How sorry I am

to close my womb to you,

but I am not the one

to bring you to birth.

A woman’s decisions about her womb and her offspring are every bit emotional, psychological, spiritual, material, and biological—and, as the philosopher Soran Reader points out, a decision to abort may actually
be caretaking: a sincere act of love.

The women featured in this 415-page hardcover anthology include Amy Tan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Sexton, Rita Mae Brown, Lesley Wheeler, Tara Betts, Lucille Clifton, Margaret Atwood, and Annie Finch, among many, many others—all of them questioning, wrestling, and making discoveries about heartbreak, heroism, and love.



Review by Kimberly Ann Priest



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