Few American novels depict abortion with any level of specificity, especially not literary novels. There is one obvious example of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, where the plot turns on a housewife wanting to end a pregnancy in an era when abortions were illegal, dangerous and often self-administered. So though not precisely unprecedented, when one picks up Brit Bennett’s debut, The Mothers, it comes as a surprise to find an abortion performed within the first chapter.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett review – an impressive coming-of-age debut
In fact, Bennett follows her character, Nadia, further than any novelist I can think of. The reader is taken right into the room where the procedure is done. “Overhead, speakers played a meditation CD – classical guitar over crashing waves – and she knew she was supposed to pretend she was lying on a tropical island, pressed against grains of white sand,” Bennett writes, rendering the banality of the experience alongside the poignancy of it.
In our interview at a Manhattan restaurant, I asked Bennett why she’d chosen the subject. Her brow furrowed. “It was something that I didn’t think was going to be that interesting,” Bennett said. “Pretty much every interview I’ve done someone’s asked about it, and every reading I’ve done, someone’s asked about it.” From the beginning of her process writing the novel, she says, it was just clear that the abortion was a choice the protagonist was going to make. But sometimes, she said, when she first showed people the manuscript, “I could see them visibly get uncomfortable.”
The Mothers follows the fallout from the abortion: the split that it causes between Nadia, and her then boyfriend, Luke, and the eventual entanglement of both their lives with a third character, Aubrey, who becomes Nadia’s best friend and Luke’s eventual love interest. The plot is simple, perhaps even easily guessed at, from that description.
But the intrigue of the novel comes from the fact that it treats the abortion as a defining event in Nadia and Luke’s lives. On some level, that goes against the standard political line on abortion, one which holds either that abortion is a life-ruining event, or that it is no big deal. “Aside from politics or anything, those [options] are just too simple,” Bennett told me. “Those are too flat and uninteresting for the book I wanted to write.”
Though the book is not autobiographical, some of its elements mirror Bennett’s own life. She grew up in Oceanside, California, just outside San Diego, where the book is set. She also briefly attended school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Nadia also studied. “It was kind of a craft decision, more than me wanting to write about my own life,” Bennett said, of the parallels. “I wanted to put her in a place that was going to be a foil to Oceanside. And Ann Arbor, Michigan, was in many ways that kind of contrast, of climate, and culture and just a very different place.”
Bennett did an MFA at Michigan, during which she says she mostly just worked, slowly but steadily, on this novel. She is just 26 years old. When it went out to publishers it was purchased in just a few days. In her MFA program, Bennett says, the students would sometimes sit around and guess about which of them would actually succeed as writers. (The yield of successful, even published, novelists from MFA programs is notoriously low.) “I never felt that when we talked about who would be famous, that that would be me,” Bennett said, but nonetheless, she’s one of the first of her classmates to succeed in this way.
Gloria Steinem: 'If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament'
The fuss around her book, which has a strong advance printing and a lot of positive advance press in the US – “one of the fall’s biggest literary debuts”, the New York Times recently claimed – clearly makes her nervous. Several times over the course of the interview, she tells me how strange she finds it all. “I never imagined any part of this experience, just from jump,” she said, frequently looking down at the table as she tried to formulate her thoughts. I was clearly one of several interviews she was doing just that day alone.
As she worked, for years, on the book, she thought it would be a small novel. “I’m writing a book about some black kids from a town nobody knows.” But its release has ended up coinciding with a cultural mood that, in the name of diversity, wants to make her into a kind of spokeswoman on the subject of race. She told me in interviews she was sometimes asked if the characters in her book “had to be black”. The question bothered her. She couldn’t imagine a similar question being asked of a white novelist, whose characters are white. “All of our lives are shaped by race,” she said, not just black people’s. “The idea that the only conflict in my life is white people, it’s just crazy.”
That, she says, makes her uncomfortable. “Maybe this is a shady comment,” Bennett said, grinning a little. “But I do kind of hate the white readers who will post about reading the book, and will congratulate themselves for ‘reading diversely’. That’s fine, don’t tag me in that.”
It’s not that she is without views on the current state of race relations in America. In 2014, she wrote an essay for Jezebel titled “I Don’t Know What To Do With Good White People” that went viral. And most of her nonfiction has been about race, although she says that predominantly, that’s what editors want her to write about. But she is careful to say that she has nuanced views on the subject, views which sometimes don’t fit into the defined political categories already available.
She points out that in the restaurant where we are sitting, she is the only black person. “It’s an observation. It’s an experience,” she says, sounding very much like a novelist rather than a pundit. Which is exactly how Bennett defines herself.
There have been an increasing number of abortion cases throughout the world. This scenario has been fuelled by among other factors social and economic factors. Abortion is the termination of pregnancy. It is the removal of the foetus before it is viable. It is usually done before the foetus gets to 25 weeks old. It is either spontaneous or induced abortion. Abortion refers to the induced type (Malcolm 1977 page 12).
In developed countries, abortion is legal whereas most developing countries do not encourage and permit abortion. This brings about the differences in safe and unsafe abortions. Abortion accounts for over 70,000 maternal deaths worldwide.
Abortion has a long history. In the past, it was done using crude tools such as sharpened tools, physical trauma and other traditional methods. With advancement in the field of medicine, contemporary methods are now used and involve the use of medication and surgical procedures (Nada 1998 page 61).
Each country in the world has different legality, cultural and religious statuses and prevalence of abortion. The ethical principles towards abortion and removal of pregnancies also vary. Countries such as the United States of America and Britain have heated politics surrounding the issue of abortion in pro-life and pro-choice campaigns (Ted 1995 page 66). These are based on the argument that for one group, it should be legalized and for the other, abortion should not. Most governments in the developed countries have legalized abortion. Many developing and underdeveloped countries have not legalized abortion and have no control over what is done by the medical personnel.
Abortion and childbirth complications have been the leading causes of maternal deaths the world over. With the advent of the 21st century, maternal deaths have declined. This has been attributed to education on family planning as well as the use of contraceptives.
A third of pregnancies occurring in the world today are unintended. A fifth of these pregnancies end up in induced abortion. Induced abortion is the forceful removal of the foetus from the womb of the mother. The gestation age of the foetus is the determining factor of what procedures could be used to conduct the abortion. The procedure is also limited by the legality of abortion in that country, doctor patient preference and the regional availability of such services.
Induced abortion is either therapeutic or elective. Therapeutic abortion is done by medical personnel in an effort to save the lives of patients. Patients suffering from such things as illnesses, multiple pregnancies and complications could have this procedure done on them to avoid having complications at childbirth that may lead to loss of life (World health organisation 1979 page 16). Elective abortion is done at the request of the woman. This is usually done for non-medical reasons.
It is commonly referred to as miscarriages. They are unintentional. They usually occur before the 20th and 24th week. Many pregnancies are usually lost before doctors are aware of the presence of an embryo in the uterus. Spontaneous abortion is caused by chromosomal abnormalities, vascular diseases, diabetes, infections, uterus abnormalities and trauma among others (Isabel 1992 page 123). The most frequent causes of spontaneous abortion are age and a history of spontaneous abortions. Accidents and trauma have also been linked with the high rates of miscarriages among women.
Causes of abortion
Abortion is caused by a myriad of factors among them social, religious and economic factors.
The society’s desire for convenience has been a factor influencing the rates of abortion. Children and pregnancy are seen as a hindrance to a lot of fun and pleasure. One would easily remove the pregnancy in pursuit of this pleasure. The society accepts this circumstance and even encourages it by allowing governments to legalize abortion.
The lack for respect for life is a religious factor towards promoting abortion. People no longer appreciate new life forms. One would not think twice before doing an abortion. Raging debates have come up suggesting that a foetus is not a life form until it is born. Such debates could easily change people’s mindsets to disregard life.
Economic issues including poverty and insufficient funding have promoted abortion. Many young mothers have opted to do an abortion citing the inability to take care of the child once it is born. Usually such young girls do not have an income to support themselves leave the unborn child.
Stigma has contributed a lot in ensuring that abortion becomes a common thing. Girls who get pregnant while still very young get criticism especially in the developing countries. In most cultures, such a thing was unheard of. It was unheard of for one to get a child outside marriage. If one would have such a child, she would be excommunicated. Developing countries have not fully come out of this and girls who get pregnant whilst young are looked upon as ill-mannered individuals.
Rape has been a big reason why people abort their children. When rape has occurred, and one does not intend to keep the pregnancy, she would choose not to keep the baby. The experience of being raped is too big a burden that the evidence of such an ordeal in the form of a child would not be acceptable. Many girls would quickly abort to rid themselves of this psychological trauma.
Young girls have a better chance at furthering their education once they get rid of the child. In African countries for instance, a young girl getting pregnant meant that she would have to be married off immediately. This would ruin her chances of ever getting formal education again. Getting rid of the baby provides an easier way out in the quest for education and a brighter future.
Methods used in abortion
There are two main methods used during abortions i.e. use of the abortion pill and surgical removal.
The abortion pill is used for pregnancies up to nine weeks old. A combination of two drugs is taken. They are taken within 48 hours. The effect of the drugs is that the womb contracts and sheds its lining. The process is painful. This pain is experienced on the lower abdomen. It may cause diarrhea and vomiting.
Surgical removal can be done when the foetus is at 13 to 14 weeks. A sterile tube is inserted through the cervix and into the uterus. Suction is done pulling out all the materials in the uterus. The woman may leave the hospital the same day after the procedure has been done. At 14 and 15 weeks, surgical dilation is done using forceps to remove the unwanted foetus.
Complications of abortion
The most common is bleeding. Bleeding occurs normally for a few weeks. It decreases as one nears weeks 5 and 6. In cases of excessive bleeding, there are chances that the uterus may not have been emptied completely.
Pelvic inflammatory disease. This disease affects the vaginal area. The vagina produces an unpleasant vaginal discharge. The body temperature of the individual rises, and she experiences severe abdominal pains. Inflammation may happen in the womb due to emptying problems (Shirleen 2003 page 40). It may be caused because the womb had not been completely emptied. This would require that a new evacuation be done for the woman.
Pain is a normal problem for the abortion process. It is often relieved by using painkillers. In instances where there is excessive pain, one should consult the doctor to have her uterus rechecked.
The uterus may be punctured especially during surgical termination of pregnancy. The tools used may create a hole in the uterus causing complications. Such a patient is kept in the hospital for observation and check up (Bodo 1998 page 159).
Abortion gives a chance to young women especially those below the age of 21 years to pursue their education. A young girl caught in a situation where she has to carry the child to term will mean that she cannot do anything else. She would have to stop learning at some point to address the needs of the child. Most likely, she would have to stop schooling all together to take care of the child. By getting rid of the foetus, she is able to continue pursuing her educational needs.
Abortion has been of help to women with health issues. Women with diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and sickle cell anemia have been able to avoid serious medical complications that arise from childbirth through abortions. Such complications could easily lead to loss of life. Usually a doctor may prescribe such a procedure when he realizes that the life of the mother is in danger.
Abortion gives women identity. In the chauvinistic societies, women have no power at all over their reproductive sense. The inculcation of abortion into laws and codes of ethics has helped the women by giving them power over their sexuality.
Abortion has been used to control family size. Young motherhood is easily avoided through abortion. A woman may choose to have an abortion to prevent her from becoming a mother at a very tender age.
Parents have used abortion as a way to reduce the number of children that they may get. Parents have used this to trim the numbers of children. They would discuss whether they wanted the baby or not and would remove it in case they do not want it. This helps regulate the number of children and aids in family planning.
Rape victims have found solace in the fact that they could easily remove such children that would arise from such action. Rape victims would not want to keep the baby because of psychological trauma that they would associate this child to. Removal of the child would remain the best option to end this.
Abortion indicates brutality to the unborn child. This is because abortion is killing. It does not give the new foetus a chance to survive. It is hinged on religion, which condemns the act saying that all are equal before the almighty. The spiritual books go against the very idea of abortion.
Abortion encourages infidelity by women. Women would engage in sexual acts outside the marriage context with the view that they would remove such fetuses if they happened to implant themselves in their uterus. Once a woman gets pregnant, she would easily remove the pregnancy and continue with her life.
Abortion has the potential of lessens chances of a woman getting a child later in life. Abortion interferes with the uterine wall. At other instances, it may lead to total damage of the uterus. This would result in bareness hence a woman would not get a child when she needs it later in her life. Such actions may also cause hormonal imbalances that could be attributed to the barren nature of the women later in their lives.
Abortion promotes irresponsible behavior. This is because it gives women and men alike the freedom to commit careless sexual activities. This is because they know that they could easily get rid of the pregnancy if they so wish to. This freedom makes them care less about their sexuality.
Concurrent abortions may lead to medical complications. Some of these complications include uterine infections, recurrent miscarriages and sepsis among others. Consistent use of such methods causes the hormones to change. This means that the hormones are tuned to a program where they cannot sustain a full pregnancy to term. The body gets used to rejecting any pregnancy hence the case of consistent miscarriages may pop up.
Abortion may end up causing psychological impairments. Examples of this include depression and guilt. Some women may feel depressed after losing their baby. This could be the case especially, if the child was their first and the abortion was done as a medical thing that they had no control over. Continuous miscarriages may cause such individuals stress and eventual depression. This would ultimately affect the biology of the mother affecting the subsequent pregnancies. This is because the brain would have been tuned to reject any pregnancies due to such depression.
Alternatives to abortion
Churches, nongovernmental organisations and the government run campaigns against abortion. In such campaigns, they ask mothers to look for other options other than abortion. Some of these options include adoption as well as being provided with the necessary help to enable them carry the pregnancy to term.
Adoption is a widely used practice in many countries. It involves the transfer of ownership of a child to other parents who would love to take care of it. The child is usually given to adopting parents because the mother could not afford to raise him or would love to pursue other things. Adoption is an option that comes in handy because the mother is relieved of all duties about the child as it is taken up by a different family. The mother is assured that the child would be safe with the adopting parents. The mother can then go through with her plans without the child getting in the way.
Providing support to such mothers is another option that has been explored. Nongovernmental organisations and church groups have come together to pull resources to support such young mothers through their pregnancy. They have also been of importance in supporting them as they take care of the child. They support them with such things as financial resources and psychological counseling.
Abortion is a social, medical and a religious issue. It is entrenched into the legal laws of every country in the world in one way or another. It has a place in the lives of individuals directly or indirectly. Ethical values arise out of such deeds as abortion that determines the direction that one chooses. Other mechanisms that control abortion include the legal and religious aspects of society.
Providing the necessary support in the form of financial aid and psychological support to mothers contemplating abortion could serve as the best way to curb such deaths resulting from abortion.
There are advantages and disadvantages of abortion of almost equal measure. Abortion presents a double-edged sword in its advantages and disadvantages to individuals and society. It should be after careful consideration that abortion should be done (Patricia 1992 page 93).
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