Alisha Palmer – ECR Spotlight

Pic: Aiden Frazier, used with the UnSplash license.

A Threat and a Promise: Abortion’s History in the Twenty-First Century

by Alisha Palmer

In 1929, Marie Stopes, famous birth control advocate, claimed that ‘an epidemic of abortions’ was sweeping England. As the unofficial figurehead of the British birth control movement and founder of the UK’s first birth control clinic 1921, Stopes felt uniquely placed to comment on and denounce this ‘holocaust of embryos.’ She wrote a letter to The Times in 1929, which much to her dismay they refused to print; in it, she recorded:

In three months I have had as many as twenty thousand requests for criminal abortion from women who did not apparently even know it was criminal.

For Stopes, this was nothing short of a national disaster. In a much later, but no less frantic, letter, she lamented that:

Abortion not only causes temporary ill-health but often corrupts the woman’s potential motherhood for the rest of her life and is so bad for the race that it is a disaster greater than any German bombing of the country.

I stumbled across these extracts in June 2022. As I sat reading, cosily ensconced in the National Library of Scotland, the irony of these statements was not lost on me. For the truth is, I was there carrying out archival research for my PhD thesis on abortion literature in the early twentieth century as a result of my own abortion at a Marie Stopes International clinic in 2015. I have faced many such moments in the course of my research, moments where I feel, almost physically, the force of my body’s entanglement in the disorderliness of history. I felt it again only a few days later when I heard the news of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion in America.

The past can be a dangerous place for groups constituted by historical injury. Histories of abortion persistently haunt the present, threatening to return us to a time characterised by suffering, shame, and stigma. This has become painfully explicit in the form of a seemingly endless swathe of ‘regressive’ legislation, including, but not limited to, the US and Poland’s decisions to rollback abortion access. In the face of a series of moves ‘backwards,’ progressive activists often seek to distance themselves from the past in order to assemble narratives of progress for the imagined future.

The antagonism between the past and present, failure and progress, is a central, shaping force for progressive abortion politics. One need only look at protest placards adorned with images of coat hangers, like talismans warding against the encroachment of history into the present. Coat hangers are a longstanding symbol in abortion politics, representing the use of household objects to procure illegal abortions, their intention to serve as a forceful reminder that we will never go back. One can also turn to the ethos of historical containment expressed by organisations like Shout Your Abortion, who, for example, preface the chapter of their book on historical abortion activism with the title ‘What’s Past is Prologue.’ Conceiving historical progress as a narrative, the framing device of the ‘prologue’ carefully contains painful histories to the past, overcoming them and reorienting us firmly towards the future.

It is time to ask what else we leave behind when we seek to abandon the past. Silence, shame, and stigma may characterise many aspects of abortion experience in the early twentieth century, but this period also saw hundreds of novels, plays, and poems about abortion. For instance, in British novelist Rosamond Lehmann’s 1936 novel, The Weather in the Streets, her protagonist Olivia, preparing herself for her abortion, reflects:

She began to feel fatally cosy and consoled, the seals of arduous secrecy, of solitary endurance melting, melting… Enter into the feminine conspiracy, be received with tact, sympathy, pills and hot-water bottles, we’re all in the same boat.

In other words, abortion in the early twentieth century offers us new (old?) vocabularies and models to approach abortion politics in the present. While twenty-first century abortion politics is shaped by the language of capital, medicalisation, heteronormativity, and nationalism, abortion in the early twentieth century offers insurgent political imaginaries, alternative vocabularies of corporeal and affective experience, and models of community.

Sometimes historical contact is a threat, but it can also be a promise. What if we were to succumb to the invitation of the past, to enter into the vicissitudes of history and resist the urge to move forward and leave our pasts behind? What if, finally, we allow ourselves not only to be touched, but to be changed, by historical contact?

Alisha Palmer is a first year PhD researcher in the University of Edinburgh’s department of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures. She is writing her thesis on the aesthetics and politics of abortion representation in early twentieth-century literature and culture. She tweets at @iresearchthings