Clifton, Abortion, & Respecting Women

Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards testifies before Congress

Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards testifies before Congress


The GOP has been claiming for a long time that it is not conducting a “war on women,” but its attempts to defund Planned Parenthood belie that. In their hatred of abortion, they are prepared to deny poor women access to all reproductive health services.

It doesn’t matter that 2.7 million men and women visit Planned Parenthood annually and that one in five women have used its services in the course of their lives. It doesn’t matter that, as The Huffington Post reportsin addition to abortions (which are legal and for which PP does not use federal funds), in 2013 PP affiliates provided 865,721 Pap tests and breast exams; conducted 704,079 tests for HIV; and provided 1,440,495 emergency contraception kits.

The latest strategy of anti-abortion activists has been to use graphic (and doctored) images to stampede people into opposition. (The so-called beating heart baby in the sting video was actually stillborn—not aborted—and for that matter wasn’t delivered in a PP clinic.) Yesterday a Congressional committee badgered the head of Planned Parenthood for five hours although thankfully Congress, with the help of the Democrats, will not be shutting down the government over PP funding.

Shock may not work, however, as a very smart article in New York Magazine argues. Written by Rebecca Traister, it got me thinking about the body poetry of Lucille Clifton, including one poem about an abortion.

Traister thinks that male politicians, squeamish themselves, assume that women share their disgust. They forget that women have a different relationship with their bodies. Here’s Traister:

But as a broader strategy, the notion that educating women in the grotesqueries of termination will be a game-changer is absurd. As [PP director Cecile] Richards could tell [sting video director David] Daleiden if he asked her his question, women already know what abortion is. We know more about blood, innards, fetuses, and the babies they may become — in short, about life in reproductive bodies — than anti-abortion activists seem to understand.

The average age of menarche in the United States is 12; the average age of menopause, 51. During the intervening decades, most women bleed regularly, and if you think we emit that chlorinated blue water in the maxi-pad ads, you are incorrect. I was in high school the first time a friend joked about a “period chunk.” I was also in high school when I first heard that an acquaintance had had a grapefruit-size dermoid cyst removed from an ovary; as is not uncommon with those cysts, it contained teeth, hair, and skin.

The act of controlling or preventing pregnancy for a heterosexually active woman is filled with corporeal maneuvering. It can entail the daily, timed consumption of pills; implantation of a subdermal device; the obsessive monitoring of temperature and vaginal secretions; fiddling in unseen recesses with caps and diaphragms. Even the in-vogue set-it-and-forget-it IUD is not always as easy as it seems. Getting mine involved a snapped wire, retrieval, reinsertion, and the manual dilation of my cervix, which was the most exquisitely terrible pain of my life — and I am the veteran of three uterine surgeries, two of which resulted in babies and one in the removal of 20 fibroid tumors from my uterine wall.

Women do not need real talk about bodies; our adult days brim with the effluvia, the discomforts, the weirdness and emotional intensity and magnitude of our medical choices. Then there is pregnancy itself, wanted or not, and its attendant risks. Women pass early pregnancies into toilet bowls and sadly collect the remains of later ones in Tupperware containers to bring to their doctors. Most of us know of someone who has suffered the excruciating pain of stillbirth. One friend, bleeding 13 weeks into a deeply desired pregnancy, was told by her doctor not to worry unless she passed a clot bigger than her fist.

And further on:

Women know about blood. We know about discharge. We know about babies, and many of us also love them, their little feet and hands and eyelashes. And, yes, we know that those bitty features develop while the fetus is inside us. We also know the physical, economic, and emotional costs of raising those children outside our wombs.

Sixty-one percent of women who seek abortions already have at least one child. More than a third already have at least two children. Women know what pregnancy is and what abortion does. Perhaps it’s this common calculation that keeps so many women (and men) grateful to an organization dedicated to the maintenance of women’s bodies.

Many of Lucille Clifton’s poems bear Traister out, such as “homage to my hips,” “poem in praise of menstruation,” “poem to my uterus,” “to my last period,” and “wishes for sons.” Clifton ventured where previous poets dared not tread, and women have embraced her because they feel loved and respected, not judged. In “wishes for sons,” as I’ve mentioned in the past, they also recognize the arrogance of men who think they know best what women need.

It is in this light that “the lost baby poem” should be read. Although the speaker is expressing her regrets about her abortion, the poem doesn’t condemn her for what she did. In fact, we learn that she was going through a rough patch at the time. It does acknowledge, however, that there can be a psychological cost:

the lost baby poem

By Lucille Clifton

the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned

you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car       we would have made the thin
walk over genesee hill into the canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands
you would have fallen naked as snow into winter
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things

if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers pour over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller
of seas        let black men call me stranger
always        for your never named sake

Lucille doesn’t turn her subject into a political abstraction but makes her a three-dimensional woman wrestling with life and vowing to be strong. Perhaps she would make a different decision now but, at the time, it seemed the best option open to her. When people argue that an abortion should be up to the woman, they are according her the respect that Lucille has for her.

And who knows, perhaps if the woman had had access to Planned Parenthood and had not been mired in poverty, there would have been no abortion and no regrets. But rightwing politicians aren’t interested in that.


Abortion Statistics: For the record, the Center for Disease Control reports that, in 2011 (the latest figures I could find), there were 730,322 legal induced abortions in America with a ratio of 219 abortions per 1,000 live births. In other words, hundreds of thousands of women chose to end pregnancies for countless reasons. According to CDC,

Most abortions (91.4%) were performed at ≤13 weeks’ gestation; a smaller number of abortions (7.3%) were performed at 14–20 weeks’ gestation, and even fewer (1.4%) were performed at ≥21 weeks’ gestation. In 2011, 19.1% of all abortions were medical abortions. Source: MMWR 2014;63(11).

Past posts on literature and abortion

The Abortion Debate & Doll’s House 

Tom Sawyer, PP, & Medical Research

Female Freedom Drives Right Crazy

No-Name Woman vs. Anti-Abortionists

John Irving’s Defense of Abortion 

Ryan, Abortion, and Hardy’s Angel Clare 

Imagine Austen vs. War on Women 

SCOTUS Traps Women in Doll’s House 

Threatened by Female Empowerment 

Pentheus vs. Dionysus=GOP vs. Women 

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True? 

A 17th Century Comedy Addressing Rape 

How Rightwing Would Respond to Tess 

Unruly Women Playing Cards 


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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