When an Abortion Story Is Told as a Caper, Thriller or Farce

In 1969, when abortion was illegal in Illinois, an underground operation arose in Chicago. Officially called the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, it became known as the Jane network, because women seeking abortions were told to call a number and “ask for Jane.” As I watched “The Janes,” an HBO documentary about the service, I was struck by the buoyancy of the story. Though the women behind Jane were working under stress to provide secretive abortions to desperate and terrified women, a kicky sensibility pervades the film. There are weed jokes and anti-surveillance shenanigans and a soundtrack fit for a mod spy movie. As the Janes evade the church, the Mafia and the police to facilitate around 11,000 clandestine abortions, they emerge from anonymity as the stars of a new genre: the abortion caper.

“The Janes” ends with Roe v. Wade being handed down in 1973. Within weeks of the documentary’s release, the Supreme Court had overturned Roe, which makes the film feel even more essential — not just as a road map for modern civil disobedience but as a testament to the kind of complex, unruly abortion storytelling that also now feels at risk. Over the past few weeks, as I waited for the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision to drop, I sought out such stories compulsively, as if the ruling might seize them too. In addition to “The Janes,” I watched the French film “Happening,” about a student seeking an illegal abortion in France in 1963, and “Oh God, a Show About Abortion,” the comedian Alison Leiby’s one-woman show about terminating a pregnancy at Planned Parenthood at age 35.

The effort to control abortion has also had the effect of suppressing the stories we tell about it. Women seeking abortions are silenced by abortion bans, anonymized in court and moralized about onscreen. It is striking how often abortion has been obscured in films, presented as a quickly discarded option (as in “Juno”) or averted with a spontaneous miscarriage (“Citizen Ruth”) or deployed to facilitate another character’s arc (“Dirty Dancing”) or completely euphemized (“Knocked Up,” where it is referred to only as “rhymes with smashmorshion.”)

When abortion stories are not stifled by shame, they might be celebrated as a brave act of speaking out — a tradition that has created its own clichés, as accounts of abortion are smoothed into politically palatable forms, in which the patient is fashioned as suitably desperate and her story is disclosed only reluctantly. Women have been made to barter their stories for their rights. In the documentary, a Jane member recalls women calling the service and listing their reasons for needing an abortion, but she would assure them this was unnecessary: “We would really try to make clear to them — they didn’t need to justify themselves.”

What does an abortion story look like freed from justification? Abortion is a common procedure (one in four American women will have one, according to the Guttmacher Institute) that has been so flattened into an “issue” that it can feel revelatory to just recast abortion as an experience, one that can unlock unexpected insights into women’s private lives. If “The Janes” makes abortion into a caper, “Happening” turns it into a hero’s journey and “Oh God” renders it as a farce. Together, these works suggest that abortions are worth talking about because women’s lives are interesting in their own right.

“Happening” follows Anne, a student of literature who becomes pregnant and seeks an illegal abortion while studying for final exams. As Anne is sabotaged by her doctors, shunned by her peers and preyed on by men, she watches her life’s potential narrow with each passing week. And as she pursues increasingly dangerous methods to end the pregnancy, she risks death to fight for her future as a writer. “I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life,” she tells one useless doctor.

The plot of “Happening” is driven not by Anne’s harrowing victimization but by her flinty resolve. When a doctor offers her sympathy instead of assistance, she refuses to leave his office. “So help me,” she demands. Like a great action hero, she endures physical trials while outwitting her adversaries. She works to compel her community to recognize her humanity through abortion’s veil of criminality and taboo.

Anne finally makes her way to an underground abortionist, but the procedure doesn’t work, so she undergoes another, riskier operation that could kill her or else send her to the hospital, which could be her last stop before prison. She ends up convulsing over a dorm toilet, but the scene plays less like body-horror than a feat of strength. When one of her bullies comes upon her in the stall, Anne cannily implicates her in the event, instructing her to fetch a pair of scissors and sever the bloody tissue trailing from her body. The very existence of “Happening” confirms her triumph: It is based on a 2000 memoir by the writer Annie Ernaux.

No such horrors await Alison Leiby in “Oh God, a Show About Abortion,” whose self-described “simple and frictionless” abortion is worth examining mostly because it is a funny story. The 70-minute monologue begins with a startling joke — “My mom texted me, ‘Kill it tonight!’ and I’m like, I already did, that’s why the show exists!” — that feels crafted to immediately disarm the abortion taboo. Then the show rollicks through the experience itself, from the moment Leiby pees awkwardly into a glass tumbler in a Courtyard by Marriott to the first-trimester procedure she secures in a Planned Parenthood facility located across the street from a glaringly luxe maternity store. (“Who owns that?” she jokes. “Mike Pence?”)

Even before Roe’s reversal, Leiby recognized that she was lucky, and that most women seeking abortion “do not stroll into Planned Parenthood with a Lululemon outfit and then take an Uber home.” Near the end of the piece, when her mother tells her that she was forced to go to the Mafia for an illegal abortion in the 1960s, Leiby hesitates to share her own experience. “I didn’t want to come off as bragging, like, A doctor did mine,” she jokes.

Leiby does not belabor her own privilege, and her story gains power from that choice. Her abortion decision is still met with plenty of patriarchal condescension and ambient shame. But she resists the pressure to feel sad about ending her pregnancy, and she refuses to apologize for her right to do it safely and legally. “I thought I’d spend the next few days or months staring out the window like I’m in a depression medication commercial,” she says. Instead, she walks out of the clinic feeling “a little underwhelmed.”

I attended Leiby’s show this month in New York while visibly pregnant. Though my expanding body now inspires rote congratulations from strangers, my own feelings about my pregnancy have been tumultuous, and it was invigorating to step into an environment where the condition was not immediately culturally affirmed.

Much of Leiby’s story concerns her choice not to raise children — there is an interlude about perineal tearing — and though her abortion is far easier to secure than Annie Ernaux’s, the stakes have not been lowered. Leiby wants to pursue her career and to avoid the “painful and exhausting and scary” aspects of parenting, but she also just wants to be recognized as a full adult human on her own terms, not as a problem that only a baby can fix.

“The Janes,” too, is a story about women claiming their potential, though the members of the Jane network fulfill theirs not by receiving abortions but by providing them. When they discover that their abortionist, “Mike,” is not a doctor but just a guy who learned how to perform a dilation and curettage (a procedure known as a D and C), they refuse to shutter the service. Instead, they begin to perform abortions themselves, largely for free, no Mikes necessary. They learn to assume responsibility, not just for their own lives but for the lives of others. In turn, they are driven to “share that sense of personal power with women,” as one member puts it. “We wanted every woman who contacted us to be the hero of her own story.”

These abortion stories represent just a slice of the experience (for one thing, they largely feature white women), and they have arrived at a time when abortion storytelling is at risk of being winnowed even further. Even if a patient does not disclose her abortion, digital surveillance threatens to tell the tale for her, through Google searches, menstruation app data and location tracking. (Such tools have already been used in criminal prosecutions).

Stories that do emerge will often be shaped to withstand political pressure. Last fall, when Representative Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, spoke publicly for the first time about being raped at church camp when she was 17 and having an abortion at 18, she did it in support of legislation codifying Roe. “It felt like something was pressing down on me,” she said about the demands on her testimony, adding: “Whatever I say, it has to produce.”

The decision in Dobbs tells its own story about women considering abortion. The court’s imagined modern pregnant woman can achieve total self-actualization while carrying her pregnancy to term, with the help of anti-discrimination laws, state-mandated parental leave and health insurance. “Now you have the opportunity to be whatever you want to be,” Lynn Fitch, the Mississippi attorney general, said in an interview about the case. “You have the option in life to really achieve your dream and goals, and you can have those beautiful children as well.”

This woman can have it all, except she cannot have an abortion, and she can’t have a story, either. She is a straw man — useful only after she has been stripped of her subjectivity and drained of all substance.

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