Yes, There Are Other Books About Reproductive Rights Besides The Handmaid’s Tale


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Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, as anti-abortion policies were put in place, as Trump filled the courts with anti-abortion judges, and as abortion clinics shuttered across the nation, pro-choice activists donned red capes and white head coverings to silently protest at their state capitols. They were dressed as the infamous handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which centers on young white women who are raped and forced to reproduce children under an authoritarian government that has banned abortion and assassinated abortion providers. With the barrage of abortion restrictions in real life, people couldn’t help but compare the political climate in the United States to Atwood’s Gilead; the many depictions of the story, including Hulu’s popular television show which premiered in 2017, brought this fiction to life. Though The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a time in which abortion is illegal and unavailable, the book is revered as the go-to novel about reproductive rights. And while the novel has its iconic status in literature, as two Black women who’ve had abortions, it doesn’t reflect our lived reality. Instead, we desire literature that shows what it’s actually like to have an abortion.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

<i>Little Fires Everywhere</i> by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

We are both reproductive justice activists, writers, and avid readers, and we have come upon novels by a variety of authors that expand the conversation about abortion—with characters who reflect the diversity of who has abortions and why. We have found ourselves texting: “Surprise abortion!” to friends when we devour a new story and discover there are other books about abortion beyond The Handmaid’s Tale. This then became the focus of “There Are Other Books,” a segment in our podcast from The Meteor, The A Files: A Secret History of Abortion. In each episode, we discuss the history of abortion and an intersecting political issue that our audience should know more about. In “There Are Other Books,” we chat about a novel tied to that intersecting issue. For example, in our episode about adoption, we discussed the intersecting reproductive decisions characters make in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, while in our episode on voting rights and gerrymandering, we discussed the political landscape of Puerto Rico—and Olga’s abortion disclosure—in Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming. It’s given us the opportunity to connect real life issues to the fiction we love.

It can be easier to lose yourself in a dystopian world about what might happen rather than looking at what’s actually happening to Black and brown people all around you.”

Far too often, books written by and about people of color or LGBTQ+ people are overlooked, including those with depictions of abortion. Instead, audiences tend to look toward depictions of white women seeking care in dire situations, because they’re seen as sympathetic, urgent, and worthy of care, and because it can be easier to lose yourself in a dystopian world about what might happen rather than looking at what’s actually happening to Black and brown people all around you. Not only do those stories then misrepresent what abortion is like—by only exploring the negative aspects of lack of access—but audiences aren’t invited to see what access could and should be like, and hear the stories of the majority of people who have abortions: people of color and those who are already parents. Abortion can be a major turning point in a character’s story, or it can just be a moment that happened and they moved forward from. A lot of people—like a lot, a lot—have abortions just because. We deserve to read and share stories that aren’t completely devastating or traumatic, and it’s critical that literature normalizes “boring” abortion stories, where the abortion plays a minor role in a character’s growth and development.

Below, we have compiled a list of novels that will take you into the worlds of people having abortions—their lives, desires, and families—to provide you with a view of what it’s been like to have an abortion in the past and present. These books in particular fill in the typical gaps we see in conversations about abortions—specifically who has them, why people have them, and how they are necessary if we want to achieve freedom and liberation for all.

A View Into History

One thing many people are surprised to learn is that abortions have been around as long as people have been having sex. Some of the earliest records of abortion methods date back to ancient eras, so shouldn’t novels that take place during those time periods include abortion, too? Several of our favorite books depict both procedural and herbal abortions throughout time. If you’re a fan of gothic horror and intergenerational storytelling, you’ll love V. Castro’s The Haunting of Alejandra. It’s the story of a Latina mother, Alejandra, who was adopted by a white family and is haunted by a curse in her maternal lineage The novel depicts one of her ancestors using herbs to cause an abortion in the 1500s, a common method then, and shows how generations of women have made different reproductive decisions based on their circumstances. Another in the Latinx horror genre is The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas. As the story follows Beatriz, a young newly wed on her husband’s haunted estate, readers meet a young priest who is also trained as a witch by his grandmother, who provided herbal abortions to their 1820s Mexico community.

The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

<i>The Hacienda</i> by Isabel Cañas

The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

Around the same time period, Dana Schwartz’s Immortality, a sequel to her young-adult novel Anatomy, takes us to 1818 Edinburgh, Scotland. There, we follow Hazel, a young white surgeon who helps people who do not have access to medical care. She finds herself treating a woman who self-managed her own abortion with herbs and is subsequently arrested, depicting the risks people took to provide safe abortion after-care. This criminalization is exactly what the time-travelers in The Future of Another Timeline are trying to prevent. In Annalee Newitz’s novel, a group of women, who come from different time periods where abortion is banned, travel through time to make edits to history to try to make abortion legal. And they have abortions along the way!

<i>Take My Hand</i> by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

<i>The Future of Another Timeline</i> by Annalee Newitz

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

<i>Immortality: A Love Story</i> by Dana Schwartz

Immortality: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

<i>The Haunting of Alejandra</i> by V. Castro

The Haunting of Alejandra by V. Castro

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a writer who thoughtfully includes abortion and reproductive choices in her novels, giving us the ability to peer into Black women’s experiences. In Wench, we follow several enslaved Black women who are taken by their enslavers to a resort in the free state of Ohio for the summer. Each of the women faces their own reproductive situations, including abortion, and the novel illuminates the pain Black women faced as they tried to free themselves and their children. In the first podcast episode, we discussed Perkins-Valdez’s book Take My Hand, which takes place between 1973 and 2016, starting right as abortion was legalized. Based on the true story of the Relf sisters, two young Black girls who were forcibly sterilized by a federally funded clinic in Alabama, the novel follows Civil Townsend, a Black nurse who works at the clinic, discovers what happens to the girls, and comprehends how it compares to her own abortion and ability to freely decide her own reproductive future.

What’s beautiful about all of these depictions is the way in which each author includes abortion as a way for their characters to free themselves from their station in life, while staying accurate to the time period. While there were certainly unsafe abortions before it was legalized in the United States, these stories show that some people were able to access safe abortion care and help us learn how and why they did.

Black Women Who Have Abortions

In the first episode of our podcast, we explained the history of anti-abortion policies and their connection to anti-Blackness; as Black women, we know that the key to ending abortion stigma is centering the experiences of Black people. Black women seek abortions at a disproportionately higher rate, but much of the conversation about abortion is focused on shaming us for needing care. It’s critical that we share our stories unapologetically—both in real life and in fiction.

Throughout this season of The A Files: A Secret History of Abortion, we highlighted several novels that describe the beautiful, nuanced, albeit messy lives we live. In our second episode discussing abortion stigma, we knew we had to talk about Monica Brashears’ debut novel, House of Cotton. The southern gothic novel follows Magnolia, a 19-year-old biracial Black woman who engages in sex work and does impersonations at a funeral home to earn money after her grandmother dies. When she becomes pregnant, she chooses to self-manage her abortion due to her negative bank account and to avoid angry clinic protesters. Amid her precarious situation and grief for her grandmother, Magnolia’s unwavering resolve about her future gets her through. Similarly, Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, invites readers into the life of Edie, a 23-year-old Black woman who gets sexually involved with an older, well-off white couple in their New Jersey home. Leilani writes Edie as a messy, yet understandable character whose one-liners and complicated feelings about her abortion at 16, and her subsequent pregnancy, will make you laugh out loud with its dark humor. We also loved the quick abortion disclosure in Deesha Philyaw’s 2020 short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, in which a sister writes a letter to her father’s other daughter, whom she’s never met, after his death. In “Dear Sister,” the narrator notes how she doesn’t want to admit to her abortion, not because of any shame, but because she doesn’t want to ruin her grandmother’s track record for being able to predict pregnancies.

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention Tayari Jones’ 2018 novel, An American Marriage, and Brit Bennett’s 2016 novel, The Mothers. Both books were widely acclaimed for their originality, and the authors have earned impressive honors and recognition for their writing. An American Marriage, which we featured in our fourth episode on the intersection of criminalization and abortion, centers around Celestial and Roy, a middle-class, young Black couple who are married for a year when Roy is accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Celestial discovers she is pregnant shortly after Roy’s incarceration and has an abortion, as she cannot imagine raising a child in those circumstances. We learn this is her second abortion; the first was a result of a relationship with a college professor. While An American Marriage unpacks the interconnectedness of race, criminalization, and reproductive decision-making, The Mothers is a deep exploration of abortion stigma in a Black, Southern-California community. In The Mothers, the story opens with 17-year-old Nadia deciding to have an abortion. Readers follow her experience in close detail, and while procedure is simple and safe, the decision deeply affects her life and relationships afterwards.

All of these books reflect the diversity of Black experiences and show that we can and do have abortions—on our own terms and for a variety of reasons.

Queer Characters and Abortion Can Co-Exist

In our sixth podcast episode, we explored the intersection of queerness and abortion—and how the reproductive rights movement can and should be more inclusive. For “There Are Other Books,” we discussed the debut novel by Torrey Peters, Detransition, Baby. Published in 2021, it is one of the few best-selling books by a trans writer, and we loved the conversation it brought up around gender identity and family creation.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

<i>Detransition, Baby</i> by Torrey Peters

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

The story follows three characters: Ames, a white person who lived as a trans woman and detransitioned; Reese, Ames’s white ex-girlfriend, who is trans; and Katrina, Ames’s cisgender, biracial Asian boss whom he impregnates. As the three figure out how and whether to parent together, readers get a glimpse into queer family-building and the societal factors that keep parenthood out of reach for many. The characters discuss whether or not they’d like to parent together while they’re in an abortion clinic, and readers are left wondering what will happen until the last moments of the story.

Outlawed by Anna North

<i>Outlawed</i> by Anna North

Outlawed by Anna North

For those who are looking for a queerer novel reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, you might enjoy Outlawed, a novel by reproductive health journalist Anna North. Set in a reimagined American West in the late 1800s, where barren women can be jailed or hanged, Ada is sent to a convent to live out her days. Trained as a midwife by her mother, Ada passes the time in the convent reading books and learning about herbal methods people used to cause abortions. Eventually, she leaves the convent in search of a group of outlaw women and genderqueer people who rob towns to survive. The story has western-style gunfights and cold winters, and luckily, Ada’s medical training comes in handy.

Not Another Juno: Teen Abortions

With a legacy much like The Handmaid’s Tale, the 2007 film Juno is often the go-to suggestion for a film about teens who need abortions. But in reality, the story is actually about adoption—and stigmatizes both issues. There are other options!

Unpregnant by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan

<i>Unpregnant</i> by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan

Unpregnant by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan

Jenni Hendriks’ Unpregnant and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere are two fantastic books-turned-on-screen-projects that include teens needing abortions and their friends supporting them during the process. In Unpregnant, a 17-year-old white girl named Veronica Clarke finds herself pregnant after her boyfriend secretly sabotages their contraception in an attempt to keep Veronica from leaving the state for college. The book highlights the very real barriers young people face when seeking an abortion when they do not have a clinic anywhere near them; it also delves into the problems with parental involvement laws and showcases what a bestie road trip for an abortion might look like. In Little Fires Everywhere, we witness a spectrum of reproductive and parenting issues, including abortion, surrogacy, and adoption. The abortion storyline highlights the tenuous relationships between mothers and daughters—and mothers and mothers—while the book’s adoption brings to light the inherent racism and classism of the relinquishment system, which we also explored in our fifth podcast episode.

“Surprise Abortion!”: Ordinary Abortions

While not every book we read is about abortion, it’s fun when a “surprise abortion” pops up, just because it’s part of the character’s life story. As we mentioned, we loved including Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming in our seventh podcast episode on gerrymandering, not because the electoral system had anything to do with Olga’s abortion, but because it was a beautiful book about the intricacies of representational politics—with a character who happened to also have had an abortion. When Olga, a 40-year-old Puerto Rican woman, learns her brother is having a health crisis, she wants to be there for him, just as he did when she had an abortion. That is the future of abortion we are building, where we can tell multiple stories at once. It’s essential for contemporary books to showcase abortions that are uncomplicated as a reminder that having an abortion is a normal part of life.

<i>Olga Dies Dreaming</i> by Xochitl Gonzalez

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

<i>Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow</i> by Gabrielle Zevin

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

<i>Tom Lake</i> by Ann Patchett

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

For this reason, we also loved Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. In the novel, white MIT college student Sadie Green has an abortion after an affair with her married professor. While she experiences a period of sadness following the abortion, largely due to the ending of the affair, one of her old friends comes to her aid, without fully understanding what happened. Their rekindled friendship and love of video games brings her back to herself in this epic tale of unconditional love and support.

Then in Ann Patchett’s novel Tom Lake, a white mother named Lara opens up to her adult children about her past as they pass the time during the first year of the pandemic. Readers learn that Lara chose not to tell her children or husband about an abortion she had while in a previous relationship with a famous actor.

All of these books show that abortion is a common experience for everyone. By including characters who have abortions for a myriad of reasons, readers are able to understand why people make certain reproductive decisions and feel closer to someone who has an abortion story like ours. They might not be real people, but their stories can help all of us feel less isolated. Going forward, we hope to see even more abortion novels that tap into experiences that have yet to be covered. The current state of abortion access in the United States might be messy and challenging, but we can write the experiences we deserve to have into books and TV shows and films until a liberated future arrives. Our hope is that more authors imagine those better futures for us to strive for and teach others how we can all show up for our loved ones—especially those who have abortions.

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