European Abortion Novels:
Documenting a Fidelity to the Milieu

"Americanization" of European Abortion Fiction

European fiction seems to exist within a framework counter that within which American literature exists: a sense of history. Certainly, this is no substantial historical epiphany for literary critics.4 "Europe" is an accumulation of ethnic groups which traversed a land area approximating the contiguous United States for three millennia. However, where the combined history called Europe is calculated in millennia, the history of the United States is marked merely in centuries. The European invasion of North America began in the fifteenth century, but increased greatly only in the sixteenth; thus, American history can at best consider five centuries of activity from the seventeenth. Europe has a history six times that.

Since I am in a chronological mood, consider the further analogy. If the twentieth century was American, the time in which the American empire rose to worldwide prominence, then the century of American dominance occupied only 3.3% of Europe's history. (If one argues that only the second half of the century witnessed the rise of the United States as a postwar world power, then the percentage drops to 1.6%.)

The above excursion into mathematics could relate to my view of European novels on abortion if I use it as a cultural warrant for a larger claim of value. Since Europe has such an extensive history, fiction from Europe has much more to draw on to stimulate the reader's imagination and to build the author's case. If this principle is true, then a negation could also be true. That is, since America does not have as substantial a history, then fiction from America has less to draw on to stimulate the reader's imagination and to build the author's case.

This generalization may account for what I perceive is an "Americanization" of some European abortion fiction. This Americanization accounts for a substantial ethical gap, based in part on ignorance of one's national history. American fiction on abortion ignores traditional ethical elements in favor of a view of sexuality divorced from religious principles. The twentieth century substituted one of the inalienable rights as listed in the Declaration of Independence, the right "to pursue happiness", with the "right" to obtain the highest happiness, a mere reduction to sexuality. When the pleasure of sex "fails" and leads to pregnancy, the corollary "right" to abortion must be affirmed. The "contributions" of this American development can be seen in certain postwar novels. This generalization may not hold in all genres and subjects; however, there are some representative European texts which show an Americanization at work.

Alan Frank Keele has an especially perceptive view that the abortion plots in several postwar German novels illustrate the ethical wasteland of their milieux.5 In terms which resemble the universal reach of the definition of milieu, Keele writes that

In [Martin] Walser whatever the logical, ethical, moral, historical, environmental, geopolitical or legal considerations, abortion remains for the heart and soul of human beings, even those without so much as a fragmented ethical code, a primeval form of murder. (233-4)

Keele's general observation is apparent in a German novel I want to investigate which shows Americanization at work: Martin Walser's 1957 abortion novel Marriage in Philippsburg. At age twenty-four Hans Beumann is a rising star in the Philippsburg community: he is hired by a wealthy industrialist to be the public relations man to promote radio and television interests in the metropolitan area. His secretary is Anne Volkmann, who happens to be the industrialist's only child. When Anne discovers that her period is two months late, they decide on abortion. Here are crucial lines describing Anne's abortion:

The doctor's wife gave her injections. The doctor began to cut out the foetus. Anne screamed. The anesthetic did not work.

"It will be all right in a minute," the doctor said. "We have given you a stiff shot." He was now wearing a dark rubber apron. For three hours he cut and tore about inside her with knives and forceps, bringing out pieces of bloody flesh which he threw into a big white bowl. Now and again he called his wife, who was holding Anne's head, over to him, showed her a piece of flesh, whispered to her, asked her something or other. She shrugged her shoulders and came back to Anne's head while he went on with the massacre. If Anne closed her eyes for a second the doctor's wife would give her a violent slap in the face and say: "What's the matter with you? Hey you, open your eyes!" She appeared to be very frightened. Then Anne realized that she had not been given an anesthetic at all, that she had to go through it all fully conscious. (Walser 118)

As grotesque as this abortion scene is, it really does not differ from any other typical American abortion scene. What is missing from this novel to make it other than an American production is its fidelity to the milieu which surrounds Germany in the postwar period. Is it proper to interpret authorial intention like this, to say that the author deliberately intended not to include the milieu in his work? I believe so, because there are several examples of missed opportunities to incorporate explicitly historical elements in the novel. (Remember that the novel was written in 1957.)

Early in the novel the narrator intrudes with the following statement: "Fifty years ago people had been as reserved, as taciturn as Anne on the ticklish problems of early life which were yet so very important. And we knew where that had led...." (Walser 23). Moving from "fifty years ago" to "where that had led" would position the reader within the height of Nazi political power, but no mention of that is made. When thinking about the offer of a job with the industrialist, Hans contrasts nineteenth-century revolutionary thought with contemporary life. It is interesting that the first half of the twentieth century is missing. Giving in to Volkmann's offer of financial security "was a life story familiar enough in central Europe" (57). This is perhaps the nearest allusion to the political compromise which characterized the pre-war environment. The promotion of television among the populace is seen as an effort to prevent "worse political catastrophes" (79). One of the worst political catastrophes to face Germany, Europe, and the world -- Nazism -- is not named. A character by the name of Professor Mirkenreuth plays tapes of his radio accounts of war activities with obvious satisfaction. The author notes that "toward the end of the war his reports had been banned and he was transferred to routine duties" (112). Using the passive voice for the verbs hides the agency of the banning, the Nazi military. Finally, Hans reads the notebooks of a suicide victim who talks about the postwar years, but only in the most innocuous terms. Perhaps the omission of these historical elements is what Walser wanted to do, either for the purpose of making the reader work harder to explicate some meaning from the text, or for the purpose of writing as contemporary a novel as possible. In doing so, however, Marriage in Philippsburg would be no different than Marriage in Massachusetts or Marriage in Milwaukee. By omitting the milieu of this novel, Walser gives us a German version of an Americanized novel on abortion which merely contains another grotesque abortion scene.

Certainly, American fiction on abortion does address the past in that the past is usually the time period in which the plot is situated. However, I find it interesting that many American abortion novels are futuristic, as though they must manufacture a sense of history. Of course, we know that the history of abortion in the United States cannot affirm what the Supreme Court did to attack the right to life in 1973. Thus, American fiction writers on abortion have had to use a futuristic setting for their novels, especially if they wanted to attack the right-to-life movement. This may account for the futuristic settings (and wildly biased actions and plots against right-to-lifers) in some anti-life novels, such as Lucy Ferriss' The Misconceiver (1997), which is set late in this century, or Sue Robinson's The Amendment (1990) and Howard Fast's The Trial of Abigail Goodman (1993), both of which are set in an undetermined future.6


In a short story originally published in 1948, "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon", African-(expatriate) American writer James Baldwin has a main character, an older French man, say:

"I have never really understood Americans; I am an old man now, and I suppose I never will. There is something very nice about them, something very winning, but they seem so ignorant -- so ignorant of life. Perhaps it is strange, but the only people from your country with whom I have ever made contact are black people.... Perhaps it is because we in Europe, whatever else we do not know, or have forgotten, know about suffering. We have suffered here. You have suffered, too. But most Americans do not yet know what anguish is. It is too bad, because the life of the West is in their hands." (243)7

That may have been true in 1948, when the United States was the bastion of democratic freedom. But now? When the United States is the bastion of anti-life forces? What was first proclaimed as unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this city over two hundred years ago has been convoluted to an enumeration which omits the first right, amplifies the second, and glorifies the third when it is equated with sexuality.

Perhaps, then, what European fiction on abortion can teach the world is that the fragility of civilization depends on not forgetting the past. If any European abortion fiction work is faithful to its milieu, then we as readers should be able to progress to a higher level of civilization. We can learn from the historical catastrophes and events which have shaped our world and can then apply what we have learned to our own lives, ostensibly to prevent, if not as great a disaster, then the beginnings of one. Unfortunately, American novels on abortion do not have the historical breadth of their European counterparts.

European fiction has much to teach this country which is still fledgling by contrast with Europe. A first principle it could learn is to rediscover its past: a past which protected human life, from the moment of fertilization; a past founded on Judeo-Christian articles of faith; a past which corrected abuse against blacks, against women, against Native Americans, and someday against the unborn who had -- until five men revoked it in 1973 -- a right which was guaranteed here in Philadelphia in 1776.

A second principle American writers could learn is that life-affirming events can be incorporated into their fiction. Why should one be ashamed of the efforts of pro-life activists who have set up pregnancy support groups throughout the country? I have only read about pro-lifers protesting in front of abortion clinics. I have never read a favorable narrative about pro-lifers who work hard every day in pregnancy support centers to help mothers, fathers, and their children. Why should one be ashamed of congressional efforts to restore protection of a discriminated group of people who happen to be unborn? Prohibiting funds from going to the abortion group Planned Parenthood is viewed as reactionary by some. Why isn't it seen for what it is, an effort by concerned citizens to prevent hard-earned tax money from going to an organization that supports abortion around the world?

Finally, if European fiction dwells on disastrous historical events which have shaped that continent's history, then American writers will someday have to face a similar disaster which hit their nation: the Roe v. Wade decision of 22 January 1973. Up to now, many anti-life American authors have viewed the Roe decision as a blessing. Baldwin says that "most Americans do not yet know what anguish is". What can generate anguish? An economic disaster? A catastrophic war? How unfortunate it would be if these were the only ways that American writers would come to realize how great a disaster the Roe decision was.

Works Cited

Works Consulted


1. Sometimes this strategy of balancing a life-affirming work against a life-negating one, or, rather, trying to escape abortion altogether, does not work. I thought that British author Rumer Godden's In this House of Brede (1969) was to have been one of those "easy" reading texts where abortion would not intrude into a novel discussing the glories of the monastic life of Benedictine choir nuns. I was wrong. The abortion episode occupies all of three pages, but its presence in this novel is striking. Penny, one of the former employees of the main character, Dame Philippa, announces that she is pregnant and that she is ambivalent about carrying the baby to term. Philippa firmly asserts the humanity and right of the unborn child to be born: "Doctors don't like doing it, even when there are strong reasons. Here there's no reason" (233); "babies do ["upset everything" as Penny says], because they are people from the very beginning" (234). Despite such encouraging efforts from her former employer, Penny aborts. Later, Penny's husband affirms "'It isn't as if it had been a hole-and-corner business,' said Donald. 'I do take care of her. It was a proper doctor and a nursing home and I took her there myself,' said Donald virtuously" (235). [Back]

2. For the North American continent, since the United States was ruled out of this study, I only had one Canadian abortion title -- Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986). For Africa, I only had one Nigerian novel, Buchi Emecheta's Kehinde (1994). I was misled into thinking that the 1928 novel by South African writer Olive Schreiner, Undine, concerned abortion when it depicts a miscarriage and death of newborns. As for Asian abortion fiction, I understand from Timothy D. Engles, a colleague who has done work on Fae Myenne Ng's novel Bone (1993), that Li Ang's The Butcher's Wife (1995) "MAY have included this issue somehow". The novel does address abortion only in that the butcher slaughters a sow which is pregnant. Apparently, definite knowledge about the subject matter of abortion in international fiction is rare. [Back]

3. Gordon's respectful attitude toward his "ugly" unborn child contrasts markedly with most anti-life American fiction. For example, an abortion clinic worker in Norma Rosen's At the Center (1982) eradicates serious thinking on the humanity of the unborn child when she explains to another clinic worker how it was that Eve had the first abortion:

"The first baby we know was Cain. No spiritual giant. My guess is Eve aborted him before full term, upset as she was by the move from Eden.... So poor Eve was made to feel guilty, and she aborted, probably. Interruption of the eighteen-month term. And who knows what forms it might take? First it's a fish and then a frog or a bird or a reptile or any of those early forms before it's what we call a baby. Well, then, maybe after it's a baby it's meant in its next nine months of development to turn angel (the bearer would feel lighter!). Then after wing-molt, maybe Devil -- red-hot and sharp-tailed. A mother might have bad heartburn in the thirteenth month. Then saint. Empathy and floods of tears for suffering humanity. The mother urinates like crazy. Then it's ready to come out. It's been scalded, flooded, a soul burned into it." (139-40)

Similarly, Belly, a character in Mary Burnett Smith's Miss Ophelia (1997), is disgusted that the unborn child in her friend Teeny is moving "like a tadpole" (26). A character in Paula Sharp's I Loved You All (2000) chastises Isabel Flood, the admittedly radical pro-life character, for not having pictures of "earlier term fetuses, who would look more like tadpoles" (302).

The "tadpole" dehumanizing term for the unborn child is not relegated only to American fiction. The male character at the beginning of Sue Townsend's Ghost Children (1997) calls the mothers who abort at an English clinic "tadpole carriers" (7). This character, whose duty is to remove the "garbage" from the clinic, further states that "killing tadpoles was fucking good business" (7).[Back]

4. In fact, while I was casually reading a collection of European short stories, the editors of the collection asserted much the same claim as I will here: American fiction per se is still too young in contrast against European fiction. Edward and Elizabeth Huberman, editors of Fifty Great European Short Stories (1971) go on to say that

...We see that what European stories have, which ours do not, is simply the weight of time and history.... When Edwin Muir, the Scottish poet and critic, visited the United States for a year in 1955, to give the Charles Eliot Norton letters [sic] at Harvard, he told his wife that he could not feel at home here because he had too keen a "sense of the human past." He needed land "that had been patiently tilled and worked over for generations"; and it is precisely that feeling of immemorial human living that in one way or another informs so many of these European stories and gives them a quality American stories naturally cannot possess.... [I]t derives most often simply from the inherent historical perspective, from the implicit suggestion of ancient events, customs and traditions.... (x) [Back]

5. Commenting on another German work, Paul Schalluck's Wenn man aufhoren konnte zu lugen [If One Could Stop Telling Lies] (1951), Keele documents a "chain" of disrespect for life:

Feticide, the first link in the chain thus forged, is also its lowest common denominator -- killing in its most primal form. Anyone who can kill a fetus can kill him- or herself, or other humans or the whole human race. And...he can also murder God. (233) [Back]

6. Even the Canadian Margaret Atwood, too, has become Americanized in her abortion plots. Her The Handmaid's Tale (1986) is set in the futuristic Republic of Gilead, where the action of the novel was supposed to have taken place around 2045 AD. The novel is supposed to be a "partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies" held at the University of Denay, Nunavit 25 June 2195 (Atwood 299). While the political intent of the novel is clear (the United States may cease to exist as an entity of several states), the abortion message of the novel is equally clear: if fundamentalist Christians have their way, then not only will abortion be made illegal again, but women themselves will be held in slavery to men. Thus, Atwood's abortion manifesto is no better than other American anti-life authors. [Back]

7. Reading this passage reminds me of a quote from Louis Hemon's Maria Chapdelaine: a Tale of the Lake St. John Country (1921). Although French, Hemon wrote what is credited as one of the finest Canadian novels in praise of the French settlers in Canada. The novel ends with "the voice of Quebec" saying "Three hundred years ago we came, and we have remained ... They who led us hither might return among us without knowing shame or sorrow, for if it be true that we have little learned, most surely nothing is forgot" (184). Lest it be assumed that retrospection is a dominantly European quality and that American writers are more prospective, Hemon, too, is concerned with the future. The voice of Quebec continues her epideictic: "Concerning ourselves and our destiny but one duty have we clearly understood: that we should hold fast -- should endure. And we have held fast, so that, it may be, many centuries hence the world will look upon us and say: -- These people are of a race that knows not how to perish... We are a testimony" (185). [Back]

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