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BOOK REVIEW

Personal stories show abortion in shades of gray

Choice True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, & Abortion Edited by Karen E. Bender and Nina de Gramont MacAdam Cage: 352 pp., $24

November 06, 2007|Erika Schickel | Special to The Times

"Do the pro-lifers truly believe that women who have abortions do so carelessly, callously, without a second thought?" contributor Pam Houston asks in the new anthology "Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood & Abortion." "One day I would like to meet the woman they imagine, the one who strides in and out of those off-green rooms in thigh-high boots and a miniskirt, grabbing a couple of Nilla Wafers and a cup of juice on the way out and saluting the abortion counselors, see you in a couple of months, gals!"

You won't meet that woman in "Choice." Edited by Karen E. Bender and Nina de Gramont, this collection of essays from women writers is dedicated to bringing nuance, compassion and understanding to an issue that has been reduced to bumper-sticker sloganeering and knee-jerk oversimplification. "When an issue is as polarized as abortion, people on both sides see the world in black and white," they write in the introduction. "In order to preserve these extremes, stories that reveal gray areas are kept secret. When these stories are repressed, so is our empathy."

"Choice" brings this gray area into living color, offering first-person stories not only of abortion, but also of surrogacy, adoption, infertility and the choice to take a pass on motherhood altogether. It is a reminder that life with a uterus forces us to make choices every day about our own bodies, our families and our futures. "I am inching toward fifty now," writes Susan Ito. "My life has been steeped in the tea of reproductive choice since the moment of my own conception."

"I have terminated, miscarried and carried to term," Catherine Newman confesses in her moving essay, "Conceiving Is Not Always the Same as Having an Idea." "[W]hile my politics have been rationally, intentionally, and coherently pro-choice, my feelings -- oh, my feelings -- have been a kite in the wind."

Kate Maloy describes her heartbreak over the late-term abortion of her severely abnormal fetus. "[M]y thoughts about abortion, conceived so long before my child was, did not save me from having to make the decision anew, in the midst of awful pain. . . . I had to decide one way or another and could not consult her. It was not an arrogant but an agonizing choice; not the right thing to do but, to me, the less wrong."

"Choice" is thorough in its embrace of dichotomy and nuance. Katie Allison Granju tells of learning that her unborn child would probably be severely disabled and preparing to end the pregnancy.

A relative opposed to abortion calls to tell her that although it is wrong, "sometimes God realizes that the time is not right for a particular soul to come into this world. . . ." Granju writes, "Her stunning hypocrisy angered me. Despite her stated views, she was conveniently able to allow for choice in this issue when the woman in question was someone she loved." Granju canceled her abortion at the last minute, giving birth to a daughter who is healthy today. But she remains pro-choice. "I continue to fear the slippery slope that we head down when we deny women the right to choose when and how we bear children."

The many ways we choose or lose our children is rendered in vivid detail here. Jacquelyn Mitchard lovingly portrays the woman who sacrificed her own family to be Mitchard's surrogate. And Ashley Talley describes her strange journey as an egg donor for her mother. Elizabeth Larsen tries to bridge language and cultural barriers with her deep compassion for her daughter's birth mother in Guatemala.

Ann Hood's wrenching essay, "Motherhood in the Year of the Rooster," describes losing her 5-year-old daughter to a strep infection. The list of objects she placed in Grace's coffin cannot be read without tears.

Grace's Chinese nanny tells Hood that her older brother had died in her mother's arms as she walked miles to a hospital. "My mother never forget this," Ju Hua said. "But if he didn't die, I would never be born." After trying in vain to conceive again, Hood adopts a Chinese girl who was born the same day Grace died.

The idea that the children we lose make way for the ones we are meant to have recurs throughout the book. Just when things start getting a little bit New-Agey, Houston counters the mysticism with pragmatism when telling of her close call with being an aborted fetus: "I have a hard time feeling sentimental about the next step in this line of thinking -- the 'then I wouldn't be here' part of the argument. If I weren't here I would be somewhere else, and if I weren't anywhere else, I wouldn't even know it."

"Choice" keeps its focus on the personal rather than the political, but it arrives at an opportune time. Thirty-four years after the passage of Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a federal ban on a method of abortion and numerous states have enacted or are considering limits or prohibitions on the practice altogether.

In its elegant 1973 ruling in Roe, the high court described that gray area of personal experience as "the raw edges of existence," a phrase Francine Prose says "embraces the circumstances that might cause a woman on those raw edges to admit that she is unable to raise a child, as well as the pain and grief and regret that any of these situations and decisions might occasion."

Kimi Faxon Hemingway voices the book's thesis most bluntly: "[O]f course I believe in life. All life. But the life I chose first was my own."

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Erika Schickel is the author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom."

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