Adolescent Fiction on Abortion:
Developing a Paradigm and Pedagogic Responses from Literature Spanning Three Decades

Winifred Madison's Growing Up in a Hurry (1973) is the story of sixteen-year-old Karen who develops a romance with Steve, a Japanese-American boy. Published in the same year as the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, this novel clearly illustrates the paradigm in action.

Roman numeral I: the Teen Mother

The circumstances of the protagonist in this novel are worth examination. Karen is a sixteen-year-old (3) who is on a first-name basis with her parents: her slightly aggressive mother, Martha, and her more congenial father, Ross (5-6). Karen has a stutter (8) and probably because of this suffers low self-esteem (11). Karen's older sister is using the pill (40) and her mother is too busy socially to be involved with her (65-6). Steve, Karen's boyfriend, is depicted as an enlightened individual who has seen more of the world than the sheltered Karen. He brings her to visit his friends as they do drugs (76-7); he even encourages her to attend a "population control" talk in their community (83). Halfway through the novel they engage in sexual intercourse (96-7). Karen's sense of religion is displayed when she thanks "Whoever" that her period came (99). Unfortunately, however, Karen later realizes that she is pregnant and calls it a "Terrible Discovery" (120-1).

Roman numeral II: the Father's Reaction

Before their sexual encounter, Steve suggests that Karen go to a "clinic" for "protection" (97). She lacks the courage to enter it, however (99-100). Although she asserts that she is using "the rhythm thing" (109), Karen is careless about "marking calendars" (118).

When informed about the pregnancy, Steve at first feels male pride in being a father, but immediately thereafter suggests that she have an abortion (124-5). Steve commands Karen to go to a clinic for a pregnancy test; if positive, she should get an abortion.

Roman numeral III: the Mother's Decision

Karen's experiences with babies is not positive; she sees a sad sixteen-year-old with a baby (47). Later in the novel, there is a scene of a mother and her child intruding on the conversation (126-7).

And yet, Karen's language describing the unborn child shows her ambiguity regarding the humanity of the unborn. Often Karen will identify the unborn child as a baby (125). In contrast, the child is called "a Thing, an Encumbrance", or simply "it" (131). At one point Karen admits that "it" is "my baby" (159).

Karen decides on abortion and calls an abortionist (133-4). She recalls stories and stereotypes about "abortion butchers" (138). Significantly, the first abortionist she goes to avoids the word "abortion" (142). The first estimate she receives is that the abortion will cost 300$. Unable to pay such a large amount, she contemplates suicide (144). A second abortionist talks about "wanted" life (161) and ultimately convinces her to have one. She is helped in her decision by her mother who, although personally against abortion, thinks that it is the right decision for Karen (probably because news of Karen's pregnancy would be a social embarrassment if it reached the mother's circle of friends) (151). At another point, Karen presumes she may need to go to a psychiatrist for approval for the abortion. It is this fact in the novel which can indicate that either the action is pre-1973 or the characters think that lack of a psychiatric barrier could prohibit an abortion being done on a teenager (161).

More importantly, after deciding on abortion, Karen thinks that Steve will fade from her life (148). She states that she would have turned back from going to the abortionist if Steve had been there to stop her (157).

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

After Karen has the abortion, the immediate reaction is sorrow, not even the presumed joy that the "problem" has been resolved. In fact, a couple of pages later, the novel ends with this note of dejection (166-8).

Originally published in Sweden in 1973 and then published by Viking Press, Gunnel Beckman's Mia Alone (1975) has enjoyed continuous popularity since its debut, perhaps for two reasons. First, the cultural milieu of Mia Alone does not differ as radically as another multicultural novel would. Secondly, coming onto the publishing scene so soon after Roe v. Wade made the subject matter of the novel contemporary, meaningful, and interesting for young readers.

Roman numeral I: the Teenaged Girl Becomes a Mother

Seventeen-year-old (56) Mia is faced with the difficult situation of not knowing, but presuming that she is pregnant. Her attraction to her lover Jan is based on physical attributes primarily. Mia had slept with him five times (29-30). Several pages later, the reader discovers that they had used condoms (49). Much later in the progression of the novel, Mia's mother asks her daughter whether she even knows about contraceptives (120).

The indicators for Mia's religious sense are clear. Mia views the ban against sex before marriage as sanctimonious (37) and later in the novel she even questions the existence of right and wrong (39). Similarly, to match her lack of a religious sense, Jan is described as an atheist, even though his father is a minister (75). The closest one comes to determining the ethics and morals by which these young people operate is in a statement contrasting two world views: Mia refers to "the Christian's talk" in distinction to her family's ethics (106). One presumes that the family's ethical sense is devoid of a Christianizing influence. Thus, for example, Mia is able to assert that using contraceptives was "a sin" in a time which she designates only as "before", but that now financial and social exigencies not only suggest contraceptive use but require it (40).

Roman numeral II: the Father's Reaction

Jan has little to say about the possible pregnancy. Although he (and presumably Mia) have had sex education since age five (35-6), Jan had been specifically taught that abortion was murder (51-2). Jan's purported sense of respect for the unborn child, then, functions in this novel only to be an agent of distress to the young mother.

Roman numeral III: the Mother's Decision

Babies are not a good subject or influence for Mia. Since her agony over being pregnant occurs around the Christmas season, the holy day itself takes on an emblematic function in the novel. Since Mia's exclamation "If only it hadn't been Christmas" is repeated twice (16), the reader's attention is drawn to the importance not only of the season, but also of the main character's reaction to it; the reader would thus question such a seemingly hopeless response. It is significant that the author has Mia note someone else's screaming baby (15). It is even more interesting that Mia says that she hates Christmas (43) and doesn't say what Christmas is all about when she relates her "distaste" of it (78).

Family influences further complicate Mia's thinking about abortion. Mia's parents are separating. Her father is openly anti-life (103), and Mia's mother specifically states that she thought about abortion when she was carrying her (21). Her mother's negativity extends to the condition of all women; she says that women are in a "rat trap" (15). Moreover, Mia's grandmother, whom she respects greatly, asserts that women's liberation for her does not include abortion (64-5).

Mia displays the ambivalence which is typical for young mothers in these novels. A three-week fetus is described as looking "horrid" (42). Mia's response to a classroom situation-ethics type question regarding the survival of a human baby is "God, what a mess" (40). Abortion for Mia is equated with "having it taken away" (94). Only the mother is viewed as "the living person" (106). However, despite her lack of a religious sense, Mia identifies the unborn child with distinctively humanizing terms which the omniscient narrator supplies to help the reader understand what's going on in Mia's mind. Mia, or so the narrator reports, calls the possible unborn baby a "a child, which was perhaps already inside her" (21) or the "possible child" (53). Not only does Mia's family compound her agony, but it seems as though this same omniscient narrator also aggravates her: the narrator asks Mia questions about abortion similar to those offered in clinic situations (41). In this way, the narrator of the novel functions as the catalyst for dialogue on the issue of abortion.

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

Fortunately for Mia, however, a possible untimely pregnancy is ruled out, almost like a deus ex machina: Mia's period comes a month late (113).10 One of her first reactions is happiness that she doesn't have to make a decision about abortion (114). However, Mia is committed not to make the same mistake (whether that is getting involved sexually or merely risking becoming pregnant again) in a passage which is strikingly repetitious and adamant in its resolution:

It was as if she would never again be as she
had been before, childish like that, and
unaware and credulous. Never, never ever
again would she expose herself to this.
Never. Never ever take a single risk again.
That's what it felt like. (117)

As a final consequence of her possible pregnancy, Mia turns against Jan (121).

Although Rosa Guy's Edith Jackson (1978) contains writing which drags in some places (92-3), the novel provides insights into the factors which may persuade an African-American teen mother to abort, including financial, familial, and distorted sexual concerns.

Roman numeral I: the Teen Mother

Written in first-person, Edith is a seventeen-year-old African-American (4) whose mother died from tuberculosis and whose father abandoned the family shortly before (29-30). Edith plans to quit school to raise her siblings (35). One other important figure in her life, her minister Reverend Jenkins, sexually assaults her (41-2). Edith's sister Bessie is similarly being sexually aroused by "Uncle" Daniels (the boyfriend or live-in lover of Mother Peters, who is Edith's foster mother) (60-1).

Another woman who shows great interest in Edith is Mrs. Bates who tells Edith that she doesn't "count" (53). It is Mrs. Bates who introduces the idea of "choice" to Edith -- but here choice merely means intellectual progress (54-5). Later in the novel, Mrs. Bates says that Edith should be "a person who can make choices and fight for them" (57).

Edith's attitudes toward sex and children are displayed in a few key utterances. She says that her parents should not have had more kids after her sister Bessie was born (74). And, although Edith helps with the abandoned children in the institution to which she is ultimately sent after her stay with another foster family is terminated (98-100), her positive caring attitude toward one particular abandoned child is tempered by a social worker at the institution who says that the "luxury of choices" is denied to black children (103-4). This nuance of "choice" can be balanced by another statement said by Mrs. Bates regarding Edith's sister's being adopted by white Jews (it is a "wise choice" in her opinion) (129-30).

Edith's first sexual encounter with any man is with James, the thirty-two-year-old nephew of Mrs. Bates (139-41). Even after he returns to his aunt's house after an extended absence, his first thought seems to be to get physical with Edith (134). Edith becomes pregnant by him (145).

Roman numeral II: the Father's Reaction

When she discovers she is pregnant, Edith wants to tell James to share the good news with him, hoping that he will want to marry her (154). James' response is anything but altruistic. While Edith just wants to talk with him about getting married, James rushes her to a friend's apartment where he tries to force sex with her (156).

Roman numeral III: the Mother's Decision

In the absence of a strong moral foundation, Edith can rely only on the opinions of others regarding abortion. Mrs. Bates' daughter Debra thinks that Edith should have an abortion (145); in fact, Debra asserts that abortions are common among her college friends (147). Ruby, the sister of Edith's best friend Phyllisia, is sick in bed but the friend casually comments that she "only had an abortion" (175). When she goes to a welfare office to seek financial help with having the baby, Edith is faced with a couple of episodes of children who are certainly not angelic. A belligerent child in the office waiting room disturbs her (182). More negative images of children immediately follow this scene (184).

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

This novel ends with Edith deciding to have an abortion; she calls Mrs. Bates who will be with her during it (186-7). However, her decision to kill the unborn child is obviously negative: when she makes the fateful phone call to her lover's aunt, Edith does so haltingly, stuttering and stammering in her attempt to get the words out.

Harriett Luger's Lauren (1979) is a good example of teen abortion fiction closing out the first decade of abortion legal in the United States.

Roman numeral I: the Teen Mother

Lauren's home life presents great difficulties for the heroine of this novel. Her parents fight a lot (6); later in the novel, in one particularly demeaning argument, they suggest that they have other romantic involvements. In fact, Lauren's mother intimates that she got married because she was pregnant (147-8).

Roman numeral II: the Father's Reaction

Lauren's male friends are typical adolescents ogling sex pictures and who claim to be familiar with sex. The reaction of Lauren's boyfriend Donnie on hearing she is pregnant is to command her to go to Planned Parenthood (19). He has a chance to obtain an academic scholarship, and, since he does not want to jeopardize his chances at obtaining it and she hasn't followed through with his first recommendation, he commands her again to do something (23-4). Donnie asserts that he will "stick by" Lauren (39). They fight, however, when she thinks he's more concerned about his chemistry test than her or the baby (40-1).

Roman numeral III: the Mother's Decision

Lauren's terminology used to describe the unborn child is typically ambivalent as in other adolescent novels. Abortion is described euphemistically as "taking care of" pregnancy (4). She calls the baby a "worm" (21-2). During an exam, Lauren thinks that the baby could be a "monster" in retribution for her "sin" (34). Lauren calls the unborn child a "ghost" and an "it" (67). At one point she calls the baby a "little bastard" and, to "get even" with it, she thinks she will "let [the baby] be born" (104). Despite such dehumanizing language, she knows that the unborn child is a baby (29). Not only that, but she thinks of the baby as a person: "a me, an I" (154). After an attempted suicide, Lauren's changing attitude is expressed through the omniscient narrator who calls the fetus a "tiny creature", a positive sign that the humanity of the unborn child is secure now that Lauren chose life for herself and, by implication, saved the child from death as well (128).

Lauren made the decision to give birth to the child after some difficult forces tried to persuade her to do otherwise. Not only was she urged to abort by Donnie; even the first thought of her two best friends was that she should get an abortion (25). Even an abortion counselor tries to dissuade her against abortion for half an hour (36-7). Her mother wants her to have an abortion (43-4). Donnie's parents wanted her to have an abortion (47). When she left her house, planning to have an abortion, she simultaneously thought of the possibility of raising the child herself (53). Lauren wonders if she was too far along in the pregnancy, "too late", to have one performed (62).

Fortunately, if it were not for the positive experience of meeting two poor mothers who decided to give birth to their babies instead of having abortions, Lauren could have been just another abortion statistic (56). Liz, one of the two mothers who befriend her and with whom she stays after she left home, says Lauren "didn't do anything wrong" and asserts Lauren's right to keep the baby (69). After a long interlude (the second "book" within the book) with the poor women Liz and Dawn, she attempts suicide by drowning (105). After Lauren returns home, the reader learns she had been away a month.

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

As incredible as it sounds, coming so soon after her suicide attempt, Lauren's parents (and Donnie's parents) still want her to have an abortion (111-2). What's even more incredible is that Lauren falls in love with Donnie again (122-3). Donnie is adamant, however, in not wanting their baby (123-4). Donnie's response to Lauren's query -- "how can you love me and not our baby?" -- is matched by his saying that he feels forced into marriage (124).

Eventually, Donnie loses the scholarship (143). Although Lauren eventually decides to give the baby up for adoption, she does this because she has matured: she wants what's best for the baby (156-7). Moreover, it is suggested that Lauren, no longer an adolescent girl, has now found her own self, has become a woman (156). This new mature attitude is manifested when she chastises her younger sister for engaging in premarital sex; Lauren reacts furiously, telling her sister that she should not engage in such behavior (151-2).

A. M. Stephensen's Unbirthday (1982) continues the trend of teen abortion novels whose characters have a definite pro-abortion bias.

Roman numeral I: the Teen Mother

Although the teen mother in this novel and her boyfriend had used condoms "religiously" (8), Louisa Billingham discovers she is pregnant because her period is late (7). Louisa describes herself in this largely first-person narrative as a girl who is "as popular as a python with acne" (14). The opinion which she and Charlie have about sex is easy to summarize: they think sex should be for immediate gratification (22); she even mocks her parents' cautions against engaging in sex and other rash behavior (26).

Roman numeral II: the Father's Reaction

Charlie does not seem to have any significant role in this novel except to engage in sex with Louisa and to crack frequent jokes. In fact, the title of the novel can be found in one such joke: having an abortion is an "unbirthday" (82). Driving her to the abortion, Charlie's humor distracts Louisa from the reality of what she will do (89-90). After she has her abortion, Charlie and Jane (see below) sing "happy unbirthday" to her (107).

Roman numeral III: the Mother's Decision

Louisa ridicules books in her library which espouse a pro-maternal position (29). Unlike other abortion novels, where images of babies are skewered so that the main character can see how bad it would be to be a mother, in this novel Louisa purposely denigrates the positive images of babies she comes across (51).

Louisa ruminates over her abortion decision clandestinely. The baby is "the biggest secret" in her life (53); she rejects and ridicules advice to tell her parents about the pregnancy (54-5). Both she and Charlie think that abortion is the best solution to this untimely pregnancy; moreover, he suggests that they do not use the word "killing" to denote abortion since the baby is an "it" (56).

Louisa's secrecy is accomplished with help from a Women's Center staffperson at a college in the area, significantly named Jane. This affable feminist activist plays an important role in the novel. She relates her own abortion episode to Louisa. According to Jane, the word "abortion" is strictly negative and the alternative "termination of pregnancy" is to her even worse -- an honest comment from such a strident feminist activist (63). Jane describes the pre-Roe period as bad because women did not have the option of abortion (65). Jane distorts the views of her pro-life mother (65-6). She relates how she thought that she "could get help from Planned Parenthood" (72) and how euphoric she was over her abortion (72). Jane's narrative regarding her abortion ends with the phrase "The End" and seems to the reader as though the abortion is the same as a fairy tale or as innocent and simple as any piece of fiction (73). It is shortly after this that Louisa decides on having an abortion (77-8). The abortion itself is "secret": the actions of the aspirator are described, not the actual killing (101).

Roman numeral IV: Possible Outcomes of Decision

Louisa herself says at first that there were no problems after the abortion. She then qualifies that by saying that there may be one: Charlie resents her friendship with Jane. After more narratorial thought, Louisa thinks that there might even be another: the secrecy involved regarding her abortion (108-9). By the last lines of the novel, the reader can presume that her affection for Charlie is slipping as she becomes involved in feminist activism; she records that she is working against "a powerful local congressman" who is "one of the sponsors of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion" (112).

The last one-line paragraph in the novel is one of those statements which proverbially speaks volumes in four words. Speaking about the congressman she's trying to unseat, Louisa says, "He says it's immoral" (111-2). Such a statement, being in third person, not only shows that Louisa has now distanced herself from moral and ethical statements, but also makes it seem that she herself can no longer argue the morality of abortion.

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