By MARSHA LEDERMAN
Saturday, October 6, 2018
Abortion is not a subject I spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about; I'm outside the demographic, for one thing. But recently, a confluence of events placed the issue front and centre in my world (or, at least, my reading material). There is the news, of course - the discussion around abortion rights related to Brett Kavanaugh, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee for the U.S.
Supreme Court. Then there was my colleague Jessica Leeder's personal essay about the obstacles she faced trying to receive a timely abortion in Nova Scotia. Shortly before that was published, I had binge-read a new novel dealing with abortion, Jodi Picoult's latest, A Spark of Light, and then interviewed her.
Picoult is the prolific, bestselling author of 25 novels "about family, relationships, love and more," as her website puts it. Or as she called it during our interview, "a morality or ethical genre of fiction." Her enormously popular commercial novels are accessible page-turners, but do not shy away from difficult subject matter. Her most recent book, Small Great Things (a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, which is nothing new for her) dealt with white supremacy in today's United States. A Spark of Light recounts an armed hostage-taking at an abortion clinic in Mississippi.
In addition to dealing with abortion rights, the novel also touches on military-related PTSD and gun control (an issue she dealt with more fully in her 2007 novel Nineteen Minutes, about a school shooting).
The discussion around abortion access is topical and urgent in Trump's America, Picoult explained on the line from New Hampshire, where she lives.
But the complicated question at the centre of this story was sparked, as many of her stories are, by something in her personal life. When she was in college, she had a friend who had an abortion at seven weeks. Picoult was in total agreement with the decision.
Years later, Picoult herself was seven weeks pregnant with her third child when she had a complication. She went to a doctor who said "either it's going to stick or it's not," she recalls.
"I was devastated because to me at seven weeks that was already a baby. And I wondered how I could believe both; how I could say it was totally legitimate for my friend to have her abortion, for me to support her, but also feel the same way about this baby that I was carrying," she says.
"And to me, laws are black and white, but the lives of women are 1,000 shades of grey and when we rely on laws to legislate reproductive rights, we're always going to wind up tangled and lacking and that was why I wanted to write this book."
(As for the pregnancy, things turned out okay. "That was my daughter, she stuck," Picoult says.)
To research this novel, Picoult read deeply and can recount off the top of her head all kinds of statistics, such as the number of laws passed since 2012 in the United States at the state level that have restricted abortion (212). She interviewed abortion providers, including Willie Parker, an obstetrician/gynecologist who is also a Christian and a reproductive-justice advocate.
She interviewed 151 women who have had abortions. The number of those women who regretted the decision? One, she says. "The other 150 all said absolutely it was the right thing to do.
And yet they all think about it every single day. That tells you something. It tells you that nobody is taking this decision lightly, nobody. It's a little flip to say a woman's a baby killer because she has an abortion. Just as it was flip for me to assume that if someone's pro-life they have to be crazy."
Picoult also observed three procedures, abortions performed at five, eight and 15 weeks. The first two would not give you pause, she says. "It looks like what happens after you peek inside a tissue after you blow your nose; nothing in there."
But the 15-week abortion, which took a few minutes longer, was different. "When you look among the products of conception, there are things that look human. Very, very, very. Things that looked like little tiny, tiny hands or a tiny, tiny elbow or knee and that's something that is arresting to look at. But one of the things that Dr. Parker believes is we shouldn't be talking in euphemisms; we should be calling this what it is and acknowledging what it is. There's no doubt that a fetus is a life. The question is, is it a person."
As we were talking, the controversy around Kavanaugh was raging. At that point, one woman had come forward to accuse him of sexual assault back in high school.
There have been deep concerns about Kavanaugh's stance on abortion rights. He has referred to the birth-control pill as an abortion-inducing drug (it is not). Picoult's book is being released into this landscape.
"America is a patriarchy," she says. "It always has been; we like to pretend it's not. But politically we've had that flown in our faces a lot over the past two years. And with Brett Kavanaugh's nomination and what's going on, I see that all as being terribly linked.
That the inability to believe women when they speak and to think that their stories matter ... or someone who's accusing someone of rape that happened 25 years ago or attempted rape, or whether you're creating a stigma that makes it impossible for women who've had an abortion to hold their heads up. Those are all tied together. And that's why we are where we are right now in America."
The novel had not yet even been published and she had already received vitriolic pushback.
"The biggest, mouthiest pro-life advocates are more vitriolic than the white supremacists were with me, and they're all white, middleaged men," she says.
Her hope is that this novel will infiltrate anti-abortion echo chambers and give that contingent pause.
"That's the whole point of fiction," she says. "It's magic. No one's going to pick up a non-fiction article about something they disagree with. It just doesn't happen. We like to be validated in our beliefs, but when you pick up fiction or watch a movie or watch a TV show, you think, 'I'm going to be entertained, I'm not learning anything,' ha, ha, ha. And obviously if I'm doing my job right, ... you are learning the whole time you're reading and when you close the book you're still thinking."
Jodi Picoult has three Canadian appearances this fall: Oct. 18 in Victoria, Oct. 19 in Vancouver and Nov. 5 in Toronto. Marsha Lederman will conduct the Vancouver interview.
As research for her book A Spark of Life, Jodi Picoult interviewed 151 women who have had abortions. Only one woman regretted the decision.
DAVID LEVENSON/GETTY IMAGES