How Poetry Might Change the Pro-Life Debate
January 22 marks the 45th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that decriminalized abortion. What has changed in those 45 years? Well, not a lot. After peaking in 1980, the abortion rate has been on a slow, steady decline (although it’s heartbreaking that in 2014, 1 in 5 pregnancies ended in abortion). While the reasons for the overall decline are debated, one thing hasn’t changed much: public opinion on the issue.
According to the most recent Gallup poll, half of Americans say abortion should be “legal only under certain circumstances,” while 29 percent say it should be “legal in all circumstances,” and 18 percent say it should be “illegal in all circumstances.” These percentages have moved very little in four decades of polling.
Charles Camosy, an ethics professor at Fordham University, points out that despite the fact that 7 in 10 Americans would like abortion to be illegal after 12 weeks, the pro-life/pro-choice binary reinforced by media coverage makes it even more difficult for Americans on both sides to move toward areas they agree on.
What will it take to move past the abortion stalemate?
We might look to the method of persuasion used by Paul in Acts 17, a passage cited often in Christian apologetics. Here, Paul presents the gospel to the Greek philosophers gathered before pagan shrines at Mars Hill in Athens. He begins, not with words of Scripture, but with words of writers familiar to his audience: “As even some of your own poets have said…” After quoting these lines from pagan poetry, Paul then goes on to point to the one true God who fulfills the truth sought by those poets.
Christian apologists today describe this approach as literary apologetics, which recognizes the role imagination plays in the human desire to seek and find truth. Holly Ordway, a professor at Houston Baptist University and a scholar of literary apologetics, explains in her book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination:
Both reason and imagination are modes of communicating and encountering truth; imaginative apologetics seeks to harness the God-given faculty of imagination to work in cooperation with reason, to open a way for the work of the Holy Spirit and guide the will toward a commitment to Christ.
Reason and imagination are both crucial to understanding truth and also applying truth to the moral life. Reason explains what morality is while imagination conveys its feel or form. Art and literature are superb transmitters of the moral imagination, a concept defined as the “intuitive ability to perceive ethical truths and abiding law in the midst of chaotic experience.”
The power of the moral imagination helps explain why so many artists express ethical truths that they may not stand for in their personal or political lives. This moral imagination can be seen at work in poetry about abortion written by some of our greatest poets, some of whom have staunchly advocated for abortion rights.
The poet Alice Walker, for example, gave a poetic address in 1989 at the National March for Women’s Equality and Women’s Lives in Washington. Her words in favor of abortion rights can be seen, ironically, as confirmation of reasons to oppose abortion.
Walker’s speech begins with a question that she repeats throughout the speech: “What can the white man say to the black woman?” She responds,
For four hundred years he ruled over the black woman’s womb.
Let us be clear. In the barracoons and along the slave shipping coasts of Africa, for more than twenty generations, it was he who dashed our babies brains out against the rocks.
What can the white man say to the black woman?
For four hundred years he determined which black woman’s children would live or die.
Abortion, for many women, is more than an experience of suffering beyond anything most men will ever know; it is an act of mercy, and an act of self-defense
What can the white man say to the black woman?
Only one thing that the black woman might hear.
Yes, indeed, the white man can say, Your children have the right to life. Therefore I will call back from the dead those 30 million who were tossed overboard during the centuries of the slave trade. And the other millions who died in my cotton fields and hanging from trees.
Walker couldn’t be more wrong than when she says abortion is an act of “mercy.” (The agent of death has simply changed from man to woman.) Yet, to read this speech—to hear the pain and injustice behind the words, to recognize the sin that wrought such pain—is to understand why an idea like this could be so seductive. As pro-life people, we cannot hope to persuade others to choose life unless we acknowledge the depth of pain and injustice that the poet conveys so devastatingly here.
Another poet, Pulitzer Prize winner Sharon Olds, whose verse is well-known for both raw sexuality and pro-choice politics, is surprisingly honest in her poem, “The End.” “We decided to have the abortion, became / killers together,” the poem begins. It then goes on to link that action with a car accident that occurs outside while the couple lies in bed talking about the abortion. What they see when they look out the window at the tragedy below is described in language startlingly similar to an abortion:
Cops pulled the bodies out
Bloody as births from the small, smoking
aperture of the door, laid them
on the hill, covered them with blankets that soaked
The poem presents the pregnancy and the resulting abortion as—like the car crash—serious, violent, fatal, yet mere “accidents” to be endured.
However, in another poem, “The Unborn,” Olds waxes longingly about the children she didn’t have. The poem describes these unborn children as “lying like love letters / In the Dead Letter Office” and ends with a haunting picture:
… I can feel just one of them
Standing on the edge of a cliff by the sea
In the dark, stretching its arms out
Desperately to me.
Anne Sexton, another Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, writes frankly about abortion in a poem titled, simply, “The Abortion.” The poem begins with the honest and straightforward statement, “Somebody who should have been born is gone,” and continues, matter-of-factly,
Just as the earth puckered its mouth,
each bud puffing out from its knot,
I changed my shoes, and then drove south.
After describing what was likely an illegal abortion, the poem repeats elegiacally—“Somebody who should have been born is gone”—then concludes on a note of self-recrimination:
Yes, woman, such logic will lead
to loss without death. Or say what you meant,
you coward ... this baby that I bleed.
The bell jar in poet Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel of that title refers to the jars that hold preserved human fetuses in a medical lab. These jars come to symbolize the narrator’s feeling of being trapped by the restrictions imposed on her as a woman living in the mid-20th century. At the novel’s end, the narrator connects the foreshortened lives of these babies to her own life when, following her descent into madness, she says, “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”
By far, the most moving poem I’ve encountered about abortion is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “the mother.” When I taught this poem last semester in my women’s literature class, my students were moved to solemn silence as the emotional import of the poem sank in. It begins:
Abortions will not let you forget
You remember the children you got that you did not get …
The speaker regretfully describes the many things, both good and bad, that these aborted children—and the mother—will never experience. Midway through, the mood deepens into a mournful lament:
I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
Then the speaker concludes by professing, pleadingly,
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
Advocates for legal abortion might march, they might chant, they might shout their abortions, but as their own poets say, beneath it all is a desire for mercy, justice, and love big enough to welcome and affirm all life. We need to listen to these poets. As we converse with them and other pro-choice advocates, we can draw on the moral desires latent in their imaginations. Only then we can point them to the One in whom we all—as the Greek poets themselves wrote—“live and move and have our being,” born and unborn.
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.