By Kevin Wolf
Only a few months ago, this would have been a straightforward review, but because of the Dobbs decision (more shortly) I feel this review must go beyond the book. If you only want the review, read the middle part of this posting. Had this only been a review of My Mom Had an Abortion: A Shout Your Abortion Project with words by Beezus B. Murphy and drawn by Tatiana Gill, I would have started with “It’s refreshing for the author (Murphy) to have only lived when abortions were legal and not need to write about a time when they were illegal,” but since June 24, 2022 that time is no longer. Now that many states, after fifty years, are banning abortions once again, this lack of history—about those bad-old-times for many—in My Mom Had an Abortion is a shortcoming. Considering the recent Supreme Court decision, the author and artist in a new edition might want to update their work. Before I get to the review of this memoir, let’s review the current state of reproductive rights in the United States, with some statistics in the last third of this posting. It is my baseline assumption that people want the freedom to control their own bodies, to decide their own family planning, and, when possible, experience their future with as few hurdles to overcome as possible. I believe each individual should make their own decisions on these matters, in consultation with whomever they choose. It doesn’t actually matter what I believe of course, except when it comes to my body, my family planning, and my future life … and that is the way it should be for each and every one of us.
Abortion is front and center in the news these days, particularly after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision—overturning the prior Roe V. Wade (1973; abortion permitted to the end of first trimester with consultation of woman’s physician, for life/health of mother at any time, and the state having an interest after the viability of the fetus) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision (1992; reaffirmed Roe that allowed a “woman’s right to choose” an abortion up until fetus viability and a state allowed to limit abortion access after viability; viability often set at 24-26 weeks)[i]. The overturning of Roe (in Dobbs) means that individual states can now make abortions illegal—with statutory penalties—at any time in the pregnancy, as early as the moment of conception, resulting in the person losing autonomy over their body, and carrying the pregnancy to term.
These decisions are and always were controversial. Controversies around the issue of abortion have been widely exploited for political purposes, positing that life “begins at conception,” The uncertainty around the repeal of Roe leaves many unaddressed questions in my mind, and that of many others.
- Spontaneous abortions (e.g., a fertilized egg that never implants in the uterus) occur for over half of fertilized eggs (see my review, Bearing Stories.) Will these be prosecutable abortions? How would anyone ever know?
- Will miscarriages—with the raw emotions that they bring, like sadness, hurt, second-guessing, recovery, etc.—be painfully compounded by others deeming them suspicious or threatening legal prosecution/lawsuit when they are beyond any person’s control?
- Will in vitro fertilization end in states that ban abortion, if any fertilized eggs that aren’t used or are otherwise lost leads to liability or prosecution of the fertility clinic?
- Will some forms of contraception be banned (such as intrauterine devices, IUDs)?
- By law, should all persons (sperm and egg providers) whose DNA create one or more fertilized eggs be held financially responsible for the maintenance of that “person” after their birth until they turn age 18 or are adopted by someone else, whichever comes first?
- Will comprehensive sex education be taught—in schools or in homes—to prevent or reduce unwanted pregnancies?
- Why is a fertilized egg (a potential human being) more important than the actual human being where it’s located, even in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the person carrying it? For example, recently a ten-year-old rape victim had to travel from her home state of Ohio to Indiana to get a legal abortion.
- Will abortifacients (that is, medications that induce an abortion or prevent implantation in the uterus, when taken early in a potential pregnancy) be banned?
- Ectopic pregnancies (a fertilized egg implanting in the fallopian tube rather than the uterus) if untreated, are deadly to the person carrying the fetus. Will this entirely uncontrollable yet entirely medically manageable situation now be a death sentence? Another “rare and fatal condition” is acrania “where the baby’s skull fails to form in the womb;” which has occurred, according to a Baton Rouge radio station, in Louisiana and the mother has been denied an abortion.
- The banning of abortions is based on religious practices that not everyone shares. I don’t think a particular religion should set the rules for all persons (e.g., the non-religious) or people of other religions. Another example is Judaism where the National Council of Jewish Women “works to ensure that every single person can make their own moral and faith-informed decisions about their body, health, and future. Our Jewish values compel us to support full access to safe and legal abortion care as basic health care.” All of this is based on biblical passages and long-held interpretations.
- Can you put yourself—in your imagination—in the shoes of every person, for whatever reason, who decides they aren’t ready to have a baby or complete a pregnancy?
At the end of this book review, I provide some history and statistics about abortions in the United States. Here, I provide some effect on specific states from the Dobbs decision. According to the Guttmacher Institute, because of the Dobbs decision, as of this writing (8/20/2022), abortions have been banned (with very limited exceptions) in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas; and very restrictive in four other states (Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, and Tennessee)—with thirteen other restrictive states including: Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas (though a recent attempt to change its constitution to allow for further abortion restrictions was voted down), Nebraska, N. Carolina, S. Carolina, N. Dakota, Pennsylvania, Utah, W. Virginia, and Wisconsin. There will be judicial disputes in many of these states for the foreseeable future, but in the meantime, travel to abortion-allowing states might be necessary for those seeking an abortion; and some employers have indicated they will cover such travel expenses.
Review of My Mom Had an Abortion
This brings me to the book under review: My Mom Had an Abortion: A Shout Your Abortion Project with, “words by Beezus B. Murphy and drawn by Tatiana Gill.” It’s a fairly fast read, with each of the ten chapters being 2-6 pages. Beezus, in youthful language, provides her own evolution from being against abortions for a brief time, to being pro-choice upon learning of her mom’s and a friends’ mom’s abortion. She did some of her own information gathering by questioning T.V. shows and challenging her sense of right and wrong. Tatiana Gill, the artist, also had an abortion—a graphic medicine reader can find her story (“The Story of My Abortion,” pages 174-178) in the anthology, Comics for Choice: Illustrated Abortion Stories, History, and Politics. My Mom Had an Abortion was, in part, written when the author was fifteen and published when she was about seventeen years old. Beezus’ bio blurb includes: “Thanks to the influence of a Christian-propaganda show disguising itself as a teen drama, … Beezus “accidentally” became anti-abortion for a few months. However, thanks to her pro-abortion feminist mom, Shawna, she quickly recovered and sought to write a book about her journey.” I recommend My Mom Had an Abortion as a personal story for middle and high school; but if you’re seeking more stories, nuance and history Comics for Choice is an even better source.
One argument that often is heard from those against abortions goes something like: “You wouldn’t exist if your mother had an abortion.” My Mom Had an Abortion challenges that argument as the author only exists because her mom had an abortion. The thick line drawings match the hand-lettered dialogue and text with no shading. Most of My Mom Had an Abortion is black and white with some red, until the penultimate chapter, where, in celebration of a Shout Your Abortion event, many colors appear.
My Mom Had an Abortion opens (and closes) with Shawna, Beezus’ mom, asking Beezus to attend a Shout Your Abortion event in their hometown of Seattle, Washington. Shawna says, “In my life I’ve been pregnant five times; I’ve had two children, two miscarriages, and one abortion. … It just wasn’t the right time … I got pregnant with you [Beezus] six months later.” [this work is unpaginated] Beezus’ mom had an at-home abortion using two medications (mifepristone and misoprostol). According to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) these drugs are approved to end a pregnancy “through 70 days gestation (… since the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period).[ii]”
Beezus explains she learned of abortion at about age 11 from a teen TV show with a Christian character trying to intervene to stop a teenage girl from getting an abortion,
“… though it really wasn’t [her] place to intervene. … And this show wasn’t the only show that spreads this message. The pregnant cliché is ludicrously prevalent in pop culture. But those girls never get abortions because then the plotline would be over.”
Beezus also sweetly and humorously discusses significant moments in her life, such as knowing she may be a lesbian at age 8, and definitely knowing she was at age 11; having her first period at 11 and learning to use a tampon while on vacation with the supportive help of her mom. She also tells the difficult story of how little support her mother had when she was growing up. For example, Beezus mentions her maternal grandparents’ mental health issues; and one page shows the side-by-side contrast between Shawna’s “left to her own devices” cooking, clothing, sleeping, etc. young life versus Beezus’ well supervised and supported version.
Subtly acknowledged, without formal credits, at the Shout Your Abortion event, the Seattle punk rock band, Taco Cat, sings their entire song, I Love Seattle, about climate change “… don’t say you weren’t warned …” For the close reader, we learn some information from people blurbing My Mom Had an Abortion, and not the graphic work itself. For example, Danielle Campoamor, in recommending this graphic work, writes “… the majority of people who have had abortions are parents. … A loving reminder that abortion is often a parenting decision … to grow their families when they’re willing, ready, and able …” Beezus concludes My Mom Had an Abortion with a one-page essay which, sadly, is no longer accurate in our current post-Dobbs world. She writes,
“No matter what situation, you have to do what’s right for you. And that could mean getting an abortion, keeping a baby, giving up a child for adoption, adopting a child, using a surrogate, freezing your eggs, getting a hysterectomy, choosing to have children, choosing not to have children, switching schools, changing careers, or living your life the way you always have.”
Anti-choice advocates have mobilized themselves for fifty years, and now have a Supreme Court majority to decide that abortion rules should be set by the individual state in which one finds themselves—whether traveling through or a resident. Time will show how much abortions, or lack of access to them, become an electoral issue at the state or federal level; and whether the abortion decision continues to be made by others (governments, religious entities, non-pregnant people) and not by the actual people who want the freedom to control their own bodies and lives.
Some Abortion History and Statistics (around the time of Roe v Wade and currently)
In 2019—the latest year available—the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) received voluntary (states are not required to report this information) reported counts of almost 630,000 abortions with the abortion rate being about 11.4 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15-44, and there were 195 abortions per 1,000 live births. These abortions would have been provided by a “licensed clinician (e.g., a physician, nurse-midwife, nurse practitioner, physician assistant);” these may include medical (medication induced) and surgical abortions, if reported; and about 93% were done at or under 13 weeks of gestation; and less than 1% were done at more than 21 weeks. “In 2019, 42.3% of all abortions were early medical abortions. Use of early medical abortion increased 10% from 2018 to 2019 and 123% from 2010 to 2019.” This information came from the Centers for Disease Control at https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/ss/ss7009a1.htm, MMWR Surveillance Summary 2021; 70(No. SS-9); 1-29.
A Family Planning Perspectives article from Mar/Apr 1976, Vol. 8, No. 2, pages 86-92, entitled “Illegal Abortions in the United States 1972-1974” by Willard Cates, Jr and Roger Rochat from the CDC and published by the Guttmacher Institute provides some mortality statistics from illegal abortions the year before, year of, and year after Roe v. Wade was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. There were 39/19/5 deaths among illegal abortions in 1972/1973/1974, respectively with an overall death rate for all three years of 6.6 per million live births. “Over the three years, the District of Columbia and Texas had the nation’s highest illegal abortion ratios (62 and 21 [maternal] deaths per million live births) and rates (3.7. and 1.8 [maternal] deaths per 1,000,000 women [ages] 15-44), respectively. [page 88].” The article provides an illustrative, but horrific, illegal abortion for a black woman resulting in maternal death, because soon after the Roe decision she couldn’t afford to travel out of state to the nearest hospital that was willing to perform a second trimester abortion. Finally, the authors estimated that these maternal deaths occurred among 130,000/63,000/17,000 illegal abortions in 1972/1973/1974, respectively. According to the authors, the Guttmacher Institute estimated that in 1974 an additional “358,000 to 869,000 women were in need of abortion services but did not receive them … the clear implication is that the overwhelming majority of women who constitute the unmet need for abortion are now [back in 1972-1974] carrying their unplanned pregnancies to term rather than obtaining illegal abortions. ”
When I did my review of eight pregnancy-related graphic works (see Bearing Stories) in June 2020, I found the U.S. African-American and Indigenous maternal deaths per 100,000 live births were about 3 and 2 times that of white or Hispanic maternal deaths, respectively from 2016/2017 data. These values were true two years ago, and they continue to be true (See Kaiser Family Foundation 2018/2019 data, the latest available), but how does it vary by abortion-restricted states? The following table answers that question.
Adoption is frequently being voiced as the alternative to abortion in abortion-restricting states. Ms. Magazine quotes Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett as saying, during arguments for Dobbs, “… both Roe and Casey emphasize the burdens of parenting, and insofar as you and many of your amici focus on the ways in which forced parenting, forced motherhood, would hinder women’s access to the workplace and to equal opportunities, it’s also focused on the consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy. Why don’t the safe haven laws take care of that problem?” Associate Justice Barrett’s comment—and a footnote (about keeping people pregnant so their babies can be adopted) in Alito’s draft Dobbs opinion—as a Slate article states, “… lifts us out of a discussion about privacy and bodily autonomy and into a regime in which babies are a commodity and pregnant people are vessels in which to incubate them.” Would this be moving toward the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? But how well is adoption working today? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau (https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb) Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) fiscal year 2020 data over 400,000 children ages 0-17 (with only about 20% under age 1; that is, newborns) are in the foster care system at any point in time 2016-2020, the most recent time period available. Over half that number enter foster care and about the same number exit foster care each year. In 2020, the overlapping—so multiple reasons are possible for any foster child—causes for entering foster care included neglect (64%), parental drug abuse (35%), caretaker’s inability to cope (13%), physical abuse (13%), and less than 10% for each of housing, child behavior problem, parent incarceration, alcohol abuse by parent, abandonment, sexual abuse, drug abuse by child, child disability, parental death, relinquishment, or alcohol abuse by child. Statistics by race of foster children are available. Only 20% enter at age under 1; overall mean age at foster care entry is at age 7.1. And these foster care numbers don’t consider how the numbers might change, if abortions were banned. Adoption isn’t a reasonable alternative to abortion for several reasons. First, many people in this country like to pride themselves on this country’s freedoms, which should be extended to those who want to control their bodies and family planning. Second, the science of fetal viability is being ignored in many states. Third, forced pregnancy is something totalitarian countries might have to control their populations (e.g., see the horrors that occurred in Rumania under Nicolae Ceausescu when abortions were banned which disproportionately affected low-income persons and subsequent growth in very poorly resourced orphanages). Finally, as best as possible (e.g., up until viability), shouldn’t (potential) parents have their family planning full of love (including any adoption process) and not the state or religious entities overruling personal decisions of those bearing the fetus?
Thanks to MK Czerwiec and anonymous for editing an early draft of this review.
[i] I’m not a lawyer, nor an expert on interpreting U.S. Supreme Court decisions, so my interpretations here are based on my reading of Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute’s postings
[ii] There is a specific FDA approved regimen (2016) for using these drugs and, since 2019, a generic version. See https://www.fda.gov/drugs/postmarket-drug-safety-information-patients-and-providers/mifeprex-mifepristone-information and consult your healthcare provider for mor details.