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by Ann von Mehren

When I was in college in the late-1970s, an older woman told me in passing how in the early-1950s, immediately following the birth of her child, she thought she might be pregnant again. Unplanned and too soon. She lived in a Boston suburb at the time, and she took a train into the city. "I wandered around all day and ended up in a back alley," she recounted. "When I got home, I was no longer pregnant."

I was amazed at her direct use of an old metaphor, "back alley" to describe what sounded like her illegal and dangerous abortion. I pressed her to tell me more. "What do you mean when you say you walked 'Into a back alley'?" She refused to be explicit or to give me any more details. The conversation was over.

The Silencing, Societal Repression, and Coercive Blackmailing of Women Will Come Back

As a scholar of 20th-century social anthropology, my interaction with that old woman was a teachable moment for me. It served as real-life context for my research into the trials that millions of women faced before the 1973 Roe V. Wade ruling.

Throughout the 20th century, American cultural works recorded similar repression. To cite just a few examples:

  • Ernest Hemingway's short story, "Hills Like White Elephants," depicts a couple traveling to a train station, getting off for a few hours, the woman going behind a bead curtain in a particular type of cafe, and then they cross the tracks to catch the next train home. The "white elephant" is a metaphor for something unwanted yet never named, but the suggestion of a visit to a secret abortion clinic is more than plain.
  • The expression "Taking a trip to Sweden" was understood to mean exercising the right to travel to that liberal European country to obtain abortion services.
  • 20th-century poet Denise Levertov was not able to be honest about having had an abortion until the late 1990s, yet she alluded to her experience in her poetry.
  • Movies like The Sterile Cuckoo by John Nichols revealed a culture of repression where college-age students are well aware of each other's secret, unacknowledged movements and activities, with only Nichols's title suggesting that the secret is sexual reproduction and the repression of a woman's right to control her reproductive destiny.

I predict that such repressed conversation and literary style will soon return to American culture. Not only will this manifest in personal intercommunication amongst friends, family members, and community groups, but it will come into being within literature. Our cultural meeting grounds will become full of elliptical, metaphorical, suggestive, but ultimately repressed language that will simply be how American women and their allies communicate about abortion. As one state after another tears from women their bodily autonomy, our cultural communication will revert to a language of repression that speaks of abortion in secret code but does not; cannot deal with it in an open and healthy way.

We Fail as a Society When We Cannot Openly Communicate

We're returning to the time when a woman taking a "secret" trip out-of-town, withdrawing from school, leaving the workplace, or staying at home for days at a time could be grounds for prying eyes and blackmail. Such is not a path forward for American culture, it's a path backward. We must not culturally decline as a society to the point where open and honest communication about a medical procedure reverts to mid-20th century style blackmail material.

Keeping abortion an open and accessible fact of adult relationships, whether casual or married, is important beyond the medical and legal reasons currently under debate. A culture of repression, as existed in the 20th century before the Roe v. Wade decision, must be avoided.

As we go forward in this new era of the abortion debate, let's keep our conversations direct and honest. Elusive conversation leads to repression, repression leads to blackmail, threats of blackmail lead to extraordinary demands for secrecy. This is not conducive to a fair, free, and democratic society.

Ann von Mehren is a scholar of 20th Century American Social Anthropology

Tags: Roe v. Wade, abortion access