The forty-fourth annual March for Life takes place in Washington, D.C., tomorrow, and many of the marchers will be in a celebratory mood. It’s not only that one of President Trump’s top advisers will be speaking at the march; it’s also that abortion rates are the lowest they have been since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade. Despite decades of feminist calls for access to abortion on demand (any reason, any trimester), most Americans still see it as a momentous decision, and one with lifelong consequences.
This is certainly the case in Brit Bennett’s recently published novel, The Mothers. The protagonist, seventeen-year-old Nadia (who is black), finds herself without a ride home from an abortion clinic. Her boyfriend Lucas, the pastor’s son, was supposed to pick her up after the procedure. But instead she is forced to accept a lift from one of the clinic’s volunteers—a twenty-something white student at Cal State San Marco who is majoring in feminist studies and volunteering at the clinic for course credit. The volunteer asks Nadia if she plans to go to college and seems surprised when Nadia says she is headed to the University of Michigan that fall.
Critics like Maureen Corrigan of the public radio show Fresh Air have pointed out such moments as interesting racial touch points. (The author first came to prominence when she wrote an essay for the website Jezebel about race in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin.) But the critics seem to ignore the fact that the central moment of the book is an abortion. And its effects do not follow the narrative that most abortion-rights advocates would have us believe.
First, of course, the aforementioned scene is not simply a joke about well-meaning white people and their relations with blacks, whom they assume are poor and uneducated. It’s about how we offer academic credit to white people who want to engage in political activism by helping black women get rid of their babies.
Nadia is not simply able to move on after the abortion. Yes, she goes off to college, but she never stops thinking of what could have happened if she had kept the baby. She is surprised later when a doctor asks her friend who is having trouble getting pregnant about whether she has ever had an abortion. Nadia wonders how this abortion may come back to haunt her later.
But even more so than Nadia, Lucas is utterly devastated by the loss of the child. He feels he shouldn’t try to talk her out of it initially because she has made her decision. And one of his co-workers tells him how lucky he is that she doesn’t want to have the baby.
But he wonders about the baby and not only because he is still in love with Nadia. He gives the baby a name because he hopes it will help him mourn the loss. Abortion-rights advocates rarely want to consider that a man would want to keep the baby for any reason besides oppressing women.
But perhaps the most disturbing part of the abortion plot is when Lucas approaches his parents about the pregnancy. He has no money for the procedure and so he is forced to tell them he has gotten Nadia pregnant. Rather than encouraging Lucas and Nadia to consider different options, or to go to Nadia’s father—who is a parishioner in the church—the pastor and his wife simply hand their son some cash so that Nadia can be out of their lives. No doubt the idea is to show the hypocrisy of these church folks.
But there is another important point to consider. When we have discussions about parental consent laws and abortion, it is often assumed that the parents are the bad guys and that we need to support the cool, understanding adults who facilitate abortions. But in this case it is clear that the pastor and his wife have little concern for the young woman whose abortion they are paying for. Rather, their only concern is their reputation and their son’s detachment from the situation.
The Mothers is not a particularly political novel despite the hot-button issues it addresses. But it is interesting that for all the critical attention it has received—not just from NPR but also the New York Times, and the Washington Post—there seems to be very little acknowledgement that this novel is not just about race or motherhood. It’s also about the tragedy of abortion.