Every so often, abortion bubbles to the pop-cultural surface of American society. When it does, it feels a bit like tossing a quarter and watching it whirl in the air for a second: Hold your breath. It’s either heads or tails.
Both outcomes occasion critical analysis on the interweb, of course. We hung our heads in 2007 when Juno dodged the issue in favor of adoption, abortion’s popular and well-behaved sister. We try to unpack the woefully-scripted pitfalls of The Secret Life of the American Teenager. We look for glimmers of pro-choice hope in True Blood’s bizarre pregnancy storyline, during which an anti-choice woman attempts to abort via Wiccan ritual and discovers that evil fetuses aren’t so easily expelled. And we cheer triumphantly when television series like Six Feet Under, Mad Men, and Friday Night Lights portray abortion realistically and unapologetically.
The hullaballoo over TV abortion always strikes me as darkly ironic. After all, one-third of women in the United States will have had an abortion by age 45…and no one talks about it. In real life, abortion is prevalent and hushed. In the world of pop culture, it’s rare and deafening.
Maybe it’s this double-edged view of contemporary portrayals of abortion that draws me to Dorothy Parker and her endearingly irreverent prose from another time. I studied English literature in college, and I looked for abortion in the stories I read for class just as I looked for abortion in the stories I watched on television. Even in works of fiction, abortion storylines aren’t especially common.
Then I met Dorothy, a woman who had the ovaries to say this about her abortion(s) long before our legal institutions had her back:
“It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.”
Admittedly, this quote is self-deprecating and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense biologically. As a poet, writer, and serial wisecracker, Dorothy Parker was clearly more concerned with cheekily transforming proverbs than she was with scientific accuracy. After all, Parker was one of the founding members of the famed Algonquin Round Table, a lunch-hour ritual of select New York literati from 1919 to 1927. But she spoke candidly about abortion during an era when the procedure was illegal and highly taboo. For this, I love her.
Here’s a mini-biography adapted from the first few pages of Dorothy Parker: Complete Stories to get you started: Parker was born in New Jersey in the summer of 1893. When she was 23, she landed an editorial position at Vogue, and she later wrote for Vanity Fair as a theatre critic. She began writing short stories for The New Yorker in 1925 and would continue to do so periodically until 1957. She was married, divorced, and remarried to a man named Alan Campbell until his death in 1963. Along the way, she published several collections of her work including Enough Rope in 1926, Sunset Gun in 1928, Laments for the Living in 1930, and Death and Taxes in 1931.
Specifically, I had two short stories from a volume I obtained during college in mind when I started writing this post. The first, entitled “Mr. Durant,” reads from the perspective of a middle-class man in a managerial position at a rubber factory. The speaker in the second, “Lady with a Lamp,” is the frenemy of a woman who recently terminated a pregnancy. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about Parker’s commentary on abortion. These stories will stir all of your emotions, from rage to sympathy, sadness, and amusement. What’s perhaps most infuriatingly truthful about these two pieces is their representation of women who abort as invisible and obscured by sexism and stigma. “Mr. Durant” and “Lady with a Lamp” revolve around the issue of abortion, but Parker never focalizes (apologies for the English-major jargon) the women who abort. Instead, their experiences with abortion are refracted through the opinions, needs, and judgments of Parker’s central characters. Mr. Durant, for instance, is a married man with two children who impregnates Rose, his stenographer. He loathes Rose for becoming pregnant. The reader, in turn, loathes Mr. Durant, his entitlement, and his rampant misogyny. In “Lady with a Lamp,” the nameless female speaker underhandedly prods her friend, Mona, with questions about the nature of Mona’s “illness.” “Lady with a Lamp” is, quite literally, a one-sided conversation. Parker omits Mona’s responses from the exchange entirely, rendering Mona voiceless in the face of her frenemy’s schadenfreude and self-righteousness.
When I re-read these two stories recently, I found myself reflecting on the silence that shrouds women’s experiences with abortion and, conversely, the incessant roar that is the political debate over women’s bodies. Sometimes, it seems as though everyone has something to say about abortion except the people who abort. Remarkably, Dorothy Parker’s stories about abortion convey this truth across generations of change and progress. Perhaps her stories remind us of how far we’ve yet to go.