By Wendy Rawlings
For men, it’s almost always about solving a problem. “We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before,” the male character in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” tells his girlfriend Jig. In Matt Klam’s 1997 short story, “There Should Be a Name for It,” the male narrator says of his girlfriend’s abortion, “This was her show. Soon it would finally be over.”
Of course (though maybe this isn’t as obvious as it should be), for women, it’s not over once the pregnancy is terminated. There are the lingering effects on the body as it recovers, days lost from work, stress from lies told to family or friends. There’s the money needing to be earned to replace the money the abortion cost. There might be ways the abortion shifted the woman’s relation- ship with her boyfriend or husband, or ways she was affected if the man who constituted the other half of the act that led to pregnancy wasn’t a boyfriend or husband. She might not have known or liked him very much. He might have raped her. And then there’s the cultural taboo against abortion; that, too, is in bed with the woman as she recovers.
Looking back into the two abortion stories written by men in the context of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, I noticed in ways I hadn’t before how insistent both the male characters in these stories are about getting the abortion behind them, getting back to normal. Further, neither man has the slightest ability to empathize with or help the female character, emotionally or otherwise. Hemingway’s character is classic Hemingway: a man of few words who imagines himself entirely in control of the situation. Klam’s narrator, a 24-year-old man-child, is wholly incapable of comforting his girlfriend Lynn, and during the actual procedure, implores the reader, “Is there a way to describe how much I wanted to get the fuck out of there?” This pretty much sums up how much of a help he turns out to be.
Esther M. Friesner’s story, “A Birthday,” is a whole other animal. Published in 1995, it’s a prescient take on the power that surveillance technology has and will continue to have in the arena of women’s (now drastically reduced) reproductive autonomy. The first-person narrator, a young woman named Linda, wakes on her daughter’s birthday, and takes note of an invitation to a party her friends are throwing. Nothing seems awry until she refers to “what this birthday means to us both. I don’t like to think about it.”
Why wouldn’t a mother want to think about her child’s birthday? The story offers its revelations slowly, quietly, grotesquely—for me, like the dawning horror some women experience when they begin to realize, after a missed period, that they might be pregnant. We follow Linda to work, where her male boss gives her the day off. It’s clear he knows that this is Linda’s daughter’s birthday, and he’s pretty pleased with his generous gesture. Linda reveals that violence against clinics, doctors, and women seeking abortions had gotten so out of hand that a deal was struck to end the violence by allowing women to obtain abortions but be required to interact with hypothetical projections of the children they would have had for what would have been the first six years of the children’s lives. These interactions take place on ATM screens monitored by the State, which controls the length and type of interactions the woman has and requires her to interact with the hypothetical child before taking money out of her bank account. Explaining this system, Linda reiterates that, “It’s important for a woman to make peace, to compromise.”
As the story progresses readers begin to grasp the enormous psychological toll on women such an arrangement takes. It’s important to note that the emotions women feel because of being required to have relationships with holograms of children who never existed are not organic manifestations of regret over their decision. They are instead manufactured by the State to try to manipulate and induce guilt in women. The State refers to this arrangement as offering women “freedom.” “They call it freedom,” Linda says. “I call it nothing.” Observing a young man in front of her withdraw his money from the ATM without having to endure a video visit with a non-existent “baby,” Linda reflects that, if he and a woman were to experience an accidental pregnancy, he could just accompany her to the clinic for the procedure. “And then it would be all over for him and he could go home, go about his business. No one would insist on making sure he stayed sorry for what was done.”
Re-reading “A Birthday,” I’m reminded of the phrase journalist Adam Serwer used to title his book about the catastrophic effects of the Trump presidency: The Cruelty Is the Point. Friesner wrote “A Birthday” back when Trump was still running failed casinos and fleecing the State of New York of taxes he owed, but she understood that the fight to illegalize abortion has little to do with the aim of “saving babies,” as the Right would have it. The goal is to control women’s autonomy. As Friesner demonstrates, one way to do that is to create an atmosphere in which women are penalized, shamed, and, finally, criminalized for seeking the procedure. The women in “A Birthday” will continue to obtain abortions, even under these authoritarian conditions, because they’re too ill to carry a child to term, because they don’t have the money to raise a child, because they’re the first in their family to go to college and dream of law school . . . because because because. In the story, the law does not eradicate the behavior the State seeks to control. Women can end their pregnancies, but they’re saddled with the burdensome bureaucratic responsibilities and even more burdensome emotional work of having to interact with video projections of their imaginary children for six years beyond their abortions. During this time, the video children age the way that actual children do. For these women to remain emotionally detached is all but impossible. But to become attached, to love these video projections, might easily be seen as a concession that they shouldn’t have had abortions, that abortion is by definition unnatural. The whole arrangement has been fixed in favor of the State from the start, just as, say, forcing atheists to meet and interact with their deceased family members in a manufactured heaven for six years might make non-believers abandon their conviction that this life is the only one we get. As with the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the law in “A Birthday” only puts women in a greater position of precarity and suffering.
I worked at an abortion clinic as an escort in Alabama from 2017 to 2020. Most of the time the waiting room was full, so women sat on the steps or curb out front, often for hours, until someone called their names. From those women I learned why women seek abortions: sciatica so debilitatingly painful that carrying a pregnancy to term would be unimaginable; a child with disabilities and no money or time to raise a second (and no husband to help); five kids already and no money and no job. Sometimes the stories were simple, or seemingly so: I’m not ready for this. Sometimes, the women said nothing at all. One sat down on a bench beside a box of Krispy Kreme donuts we had brought, ate four of them, and lit a cigarette. Well, there’s a recipe for a healthy pregnancy. But the point is: we don’t know. None of us knows what it’s like to be in someone else’s life or someone else’s body.
Spoiler Alert: “A Birthday” doesn’t end well. On the sixth anniversary of Linda’s abortion, she sees on the screen an image of a girl in a pink party dress and breaks down: “I’m so sorry for what I did, but I was so young, I couldn’t— Oh, my baby!” When she tries to touch the screen, it goes dark, and an employee tells her she must leave; touching the screen is forbidden. As Linda walks to the birthday party her co-workers are holding for her and her “daughter”—this mock-party is another yearly requirement for women who have had an abortion—she reflects on how she used to hate Tessa: “She was almost the end of my future and my sanity.” One day, though, she “was tired of hating, tired of running. One day I looked at her and I felt love.”
The final turn in the story didn’t at first make sense to me. Linda’s not at the party; instead, she’s taking off her shoes beside a river. There’s an image of a child’s face. “We fly into each other’s arms. Oh, Tessa, your lips are so cool! Your laughter rushes against my ears.” Then, the final line of the story: “Happy birthday, my darling.” As a writer myself, I’m thinking, What kind of cheeseball ending is this? After a beat, though, I put it all together. Tessa’s birthday is the day the State will shut down the video projections that have dogged Linda for six years. That which has caused her so much suffering, and which she finally has in some way come to accept and love, is now an unbearable loss for her. Subjected to such profound psychological manipulation, she can’t just “get it behind” her and move on with her life. The video projection wasn’t a child, but nonetheless, after six years, it created a space in her heart and mind, a space that fetal tissue—which at eight weeks gestation looks like a square-inch piece of tissue paper—wouldn’t. The face Linda sees on the surface of the water—the child’s face that draws her toward death—is no more or less real than the manufactured baby face that held her in terrible thrall for years. She has never touched that face; now, she believes, is her chance. It’s hard to imagine sacrificing yourself that way, hard to imagine a society that would put a woman in such a position. Though with the Dobbs decision now in play, it’s getting easier every day.
Wendy Rawlings is the author of a novel, The Agnostics, and two collections of short stories: Time for Bed and Come Back Irish. She teaches at the University of Alabama.