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Choice, in all its complexity

True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption,
Single Parenthood and Abortion

Edited by Karen E. Bender and Nina de Gramont
MacAdam/Cage; 2007

Review by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

The editors of Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood and Abortion chart the shared moment that ties these wide-ranging tales together as that one when the pregnancy test stick might turn pink-blue-one-line-two-lines. Whatever the actual particulars, the bottom line is the same: women, as the ones who are responsible for carrying pregnancies however far, share a set of circumstances -- hugely varied due to race, class, age, the times, religion, personal history and myriad other factors -- that mark us uniquely. These twenty-four essays suggest how many ways we might experience this shared trait of femaleness. And that's part of this ambitious book's appeal -- I must admit that when I first saw the title, I was a tad bit skeptical: that's a lot of ground to cover. Not only was each topic covered, there were a striking number of essays I would recommend, pass on, find hard to forget.

A word I used in the last paragraph was "responsible," although I could have omitted it -- women are the ones who carry pregnancies however far, that works, too -- but it's a word at the heart of this anthology and questions surrounding abortion and reproduction in our society. Francine Prose contextualizes this complexity the way only an exquisitely precise writer could in her essay, "The Raw Edges of Human Existence: The Language of Roe v. Wade." Prose parses sentences in the fateful decision commenting not only upon the magnitude of the words politically and socially, but also laying them before us in literary essay form. Of Justice Blackmun's declaration, "One's philosophy, one's experience, one's exposure to the raw edges of human existence, one's religious training, one's attitudes towards life and family and their values, and the moral standards one establishes and seeks to observe, are all likely to influence and to color one's thinking and conclusions about abortion," Prose deems the sentences themselves "beautiful, cadenced," and marked not only in terms of what the ruling says but how they are laid out with "intelligence and grace." By slowing us down to see nuance in the language -- subtleties that got railroaded or transmogrified over time -- she allows us to hold the power of these words.

Indeed, these essays expose us to just those interior, painful, jagged, difficult and beautifully tender moments that Justice Blackmun declared "the raw edges of human existence." Susan Ito's essay, "If," provides a good example of the profound complexity these transformative experiences -- and the relationships woven through them -- can create. Ito, who met her birthmother at age twenty, seeks comfort from her twice surrounding reproductive crises. Ito writes, "She was beautiful, glamorous, sophisticated: I felt I had hit the birthmother jackpot," yet describes the relationship's extreme limitations. When Ito told her birthmother she was considering abortion, her birthmother's voice exclaiming, "Oh," was filled with "empathy, pain and recognition," "exactly the sound I needed to hear." More disconcerting was her birthmother's stinging admission that had that choice been available when she was pregnant with Ito, she'd have had an abortion. Years later, when miscarrying, Ito again reached out to her birthmother. Disappointed by her lack of empathy, Ito eventually frames the ending of her own failed pregnancy similarly to her birthmother's with her, in that both women put their survival first. Ito reflects, "My life has been steeped in the tea of reproductive choice since the moment of my own conception."

Raw edges, steeped in tea of reproductive choice: how freely we become agents of choices is a central question in Ashley Talley's provocative essay, "Donation," about giving her mother and stepfather eggs in order to attempt in-vitro fertilization when it was clear her mother's eggs weren't viable. Talley writes of their shared response to her impromptu offer: "But during those long moments, everything seemed to settle in, rightly, between us, and the strange construction of this new idea came to me to feel like another type of cord -- a link not just between me, my mother, and this unformed child, but also between the person I had been and the person I could be." Talley's mother didn't achieve a successful pregnancy with her daughter's eggs and although Talley was cleared to have one round of eggs harvested, a psychologist stopped her from further participation in the process, a move Talley was initially furious about although she knew that deep down it was probably the right one.

Talley's phrase -- "the confiscation of my choice"-- alludes again to these experiences' complexity, these turning points, often not even quite decisions or choices, but turns of the prism. That murkiness is highlighted in Janet Mason Ellerby's "Bearing Sorrow: A Birthmother's Reflections on Choice." The author, a pregnant teenager from a "good" family in 1964, carries the pregnancy to term -- first at an aunt's house halfway across the country and then at a home for unwed teens -- a course of events presented not as choice but command. Had anyone asked her what she wanted, she'd have had no answer: "My body was not my own; perhaps it never had been." Ellerby writes: "I realize now that I was coerced by well-meaning people into doing something that was deeply unnatural, aberrant." She believes the decision benefited the adoptive parents and possibly her daughter, too, but finds little solace in others' potential happiness, her loss so severe.

From another perspective, Elizabeth Larsen's essay, "A Complicated Privilege" addresses her trying to reckon with whether her daughter's Guatemalan birthmother truly consented to ceding custody. Led by the adoption agency to believe birthmother Beatriz desired adoption, Larsen eventually questions this "fact's" veracity and searches for Beatriz. As Larsen writes, "It doesn't take much effort to connect the dots and realize that almost every woman today in the developing world -- whether she's Guatemalan, Indian, or Chinese -- who places her child for adoption in a foreign country is buckling under some sort of financial, reproductive or societal oppression." The family travels to Guatemala hoping to ensure that adoptive daughter, Flora, loves her birth country. Larsen arranges a call to Beatriz. What's made clear: she, her husband and Beatriz all love the child deeply. Although Beatriz's English is limited to a few words, she utters, "Thank you," repeatedly; what she's thanking them for is not entirely clear. Larsen muses upon how the depth of emotion she feels for Flora is in ways more intense even than that toward her biological offspring -- "to give yourself over to a baby who has no genetic link to you puts you face-to-face with the glorious fact that human beings are just plain hardwired to love a child who is theirs to raise" -- and reflects too upon the privilege allowing her to do just that. As a wealthy American, she could afford to adopt a daughter.

Choice is an outstanding anthology: I'm cursing the fact that I don't have enough space to write in depth about so many other unforgettable essays. Sandy Hingston's "It Could Happen to You" is a brilliant tale of two generations -- mom is the abortion rights supporter and teenage daughter is basically liberal save for opposing abortion -- and how, when mom finally shares with daughter her own abortion story, the issue stops being theoretical. Jacquelyn Mitchard's "The Ballad of Bobbie Jo" chronicles an absolutely unbelievable tale of consequences Bobbie Jo, Mitchard's surrogate, suffered in order to carry Mitchard's baby to term. Kimi Faxon Hemmingways "Personal Belongings" depicts a safe, legal abortion gone awry. Deborah McDowell's "Termination" describes illegal abortion and infuriating falsehoods to protect members of a football team. In very different ways, Ann Hood's "Mother's Day in the Year of the Rooster" and Catherine Newman's "Conceiving is Not Always the Same as Having an Idea," reflect upon the vagaries of circumstance or fate that bring families into formation. What's more, I could go on to single out other powerful essays in this collection. The editors' greatest contribution is having collected such strong pieces so ably presenting these raw edges. In doing so, Justice Blackmun's words echo today, as the next generation grapples with how political and societal circumstance crashes against personal happenstance.

mmo : december 2007

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a regular contributor to the MMO.
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