Abortion in Fiction

Women have been fighting for control over their own bodies and reproduction for a long time. The need for women to maintain autonomy over their own bodies is important because women’s bodies are so often pawns in power struggles of larger institutions. With these larger socio-political issues in mind, the last MedLit event discussed abortion – the first in a 4-part series on abortion in collaboration with the Women’s Health Interest Group.

Wife. Mother. Criminal (source)

For this event, we held a film screening of Vera Drake, which is a 2004 movie directed by Mike Leigh. The movie portrays the story of Vera who, unbeknownst to her family and friends, performs abortions. The movie illustrates how her beliefs clash with the view of 1950s Britain. It’s interesting to note that Vera does not explicitly state that she helps perform abortions. In fact, she never utters the word “abortion.”Instead, when asked about it, Vera states: “I help girls out.”  In light of this, we posed the question: How does Vera’s statement (“I help girls out”) help us understand Vera’s perceptions on abortion? 

Other questions that we posed include:

  • How does class affect access to abortion services as portrayed in the movie? How does financial wealth affect access to abortion in Canada in present-day?
  • How does the film address archetypal roles for women in Western society including ‘woman as mother’, ‘woman as wife’, and ‘woman as lover’?
  • Media often portrays women who have committed especially violent crimes as “monsters.” Does the film portray Vera Drake as ‘mother as Monster’? What are some examples of this archetype that you have encountered in popular media?
  • The judge sentences Vera to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment “as a deterrent to others.” What effect do you think sentencing like this has on access to abortion for women, and especially women belonging to other marginalized populations?
  • Forgiveness is a major theme in the film. How do the characters in the film choose or choose not to forgive Vera for what she’s done? How might you navigate sharing what you do as a doctor with friends and family that might ethically oppose a part of your practice?

Along with viewing Vera Drake, we also read Alice Walker’s “What Can the White Man Say to the Black Woman,” which was an address in support of the National March for Women’s Equality and Women’s Lives in Washington D.C, in 1989.

Walker begins her piece by stating:

What can the white man say to the black woman?

For four hundred years he ruled over the black woman’s womb.

Walker details the injustices faced by women – especially black women and indigenous women through her evocative and powerful prose.

The piece ends with suggestions on what the white man can say to the black woman:

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.

I will recall all those who died of broken hearts and broken spirits, under the insult of segregation.

I will remove myself as an obstacle in the path that your children, against all odds, are making toward the light. I will not assassinate them for dreaming dreams and offering new visions of how to live. I will cease trying to lead your children, for I can see I have never understood where I was going. I will agree to sit quietly for a century or so, and meditate on this.

This is what the white man can say to the black woman.

We are listening.

In regard to Walker’s piece, the questions we posed were:

  • Who is the intended audience of this article?
  • How does the shift in voice (from the use of “I” to the use of “We”) impact the message of the essay?
  • Walker uses the word children 32 times – what are your thoughts on this?
  • How does anaphora emphasize the speaker’s voice in this piece?

We are grateful to everyone who came out to our event to discuss this important aspect of women’s health. There has been a lot of noise surrounding the issue of abortion lately – but not a lot of listening or understanding. We believe that promoting open discussion on abortion – through literature as a medium, for example – is crucial. We invite everyone to join in on the discussion.

We are listening.


– A.A.



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