John Irving’s Defense of Abortion

Cider House Rules

The foes of abortion, and of contraception generally, are gradually finding ways to cut back on women’s reproductive freedom. Mississippi is on the verge of driving out its only abortion provider, and if Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has his way, seven of the eight abortion centers in Virginia will be closed down for failing to meet standards required of no other medical institution in the state. The kinds of consequences that we can expect if such efforts succeed are revealed by this Texas newspaper story about women turning to abortion centers across the border and attempting dangerous self abortions.

Of course, we have a vice-presidential candidate who is against all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. We also have a presidential candidate who, whatever he actually believes (who on earth knows?), is on record as endorsing personhood amendments that would go so far as banning certain kinds of currently legal birth control. Perhaps more to the point, he has shown himself unable to stand up to pressure from America’s extreme right.

Given that the president makes Supreme Court appointments and that one more conservative justice could tip the balance against Roe vs. Wade, a rereading of John Irving’s Cider House Rules is in order.

Let’s first remind ourselves of what America used to be like before Roe vs. Wade became the law of the land. We are reminded by the Guttmacher Report on Public Policy:

Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. One analysis, extrapolating from data from North Carolina, concluded that an estimated 829,000 illegal or self-induced abortions occurred in 1967.

One stark indication of the prevalence of illegal abortion was the death toll. In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women—nearly one-fifth (18%) of maternal deaths recorded in that year. The death toll had declined to just under 1,700 by 1940, and to just over 300 by 1950 (most likely because of the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, which permitted more effective treatment of the infections that frequently developed after illegal abortion). By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had fallen to just under 200, but illegal abortion still accounted for 17% of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year. And these are just the number that were officially reported; the actual number was likely much higher.

Abortion plays a significant role in the Irving novel. There are two sympathetic characters on different sides of the abortion debate. On the one hand, there is obstetrician, orphanage director, and illegal abortion doctor Wilbur Larch. Larch doesn’t originally set out to perform abortions but begins doing so when he sees that women are determined to have them regardless. He knows that he can at least abort their fetuses safely. On the other hand, Homer Wells, the orphan he raises to be his right hand man, leaves him after learning about the abortions. In their arguments, Wilbur presents an interesting case. Until abortions are legal in the country, he says, he and Homer don’t have the choice to deny requests. Here is Wilbur in a heated exchange of letters:

If abortions were legal, you could refuse—in fact, given your beliefs, you should refuse. But as long as they’re against the law, how can you refuse? How can you allow yourself a choice in the matter when there are so many women who haven’t the freedom to make the choice themselves? The women have no choice. I know you know that’s not right, but how can you—you of all people, knowing what you know–            HOW CAN YOU FEEL FREE TO CHOOSE NOT TO HELP PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT FREE TO GET OTHER HELP?  You have to help them because you know how. Think about who’s going to help them if you refuse.” Wilbur Larch was so tired that if he had allowed himself to go to sleep, the bark would have grown over his eyes.

“Here is the trap you are in,” Dr. Larch wrote to Homer. “And it’s not my trap—I haven’t trapped you. Because abortions are illegal, women who need and want them have no choice in the matter, and you—because you know how to perform them—have no choice, either. What has been violated here is your freedom of choice, and every woman’s freedom of choice, too. If abortion was legal, a woman would have a choice—and so would you. You could feel free not to do it because someone else would. But the way it is, you’re trapped. Women are trapped. Women are victims and so are you.”

To graphically make this point, the book gives us an instance of a woman who is dying after stuffing things up her vagina in a failed self abortion attempt:

Dr. Larch bent so close to the speculum, he had to hold his breath. The smell of sepsis and putrefaction was strong enough to gag him if he breathed or swallowed, and the familiar, fiery colors of her infection (even clouded by her discharge) were dazzling enough to blind the intrepid or the untrained. But Wilbur Larch started to breathe again, slowly and regularly; it was the only way to keep a steady hand. He just kept looking and marveling at the young woman’s inflamed tissue; it looked hot enough to burn the world. Now do you see, Homer? Larch asked himself. Through the speculum, he felt her heat against his eye.

Despite the letters, however, Homer still keeps his distance. This leads to one final letter from Wilbur, which also functions as a suicide note. (Wilbur is dying after years of ether addiction and finally deliberately overdoses.):



Homer returns to take up Wilbur’s practice after he himself performs an abortion on a youthful incest victim. He has experienced the conflict between an abstract stance and a particular case.

Moral rules, about which many can disagree when it comes to abortion, must never jettison individual circumstance altogether or they risk succumbing to an inhuman purity. In such instances, morality becomes more about the ideologue’s desire for certainty rather than a compass to help us negotiate the shoals of human complexity. Or as Charlotte Bronte says in the epigraph that opens Cider House Rules,

Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.

There are many in America at the moment for whom self-righteousness has become a religion. As Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast would argue, they are not true Christians but Christianists.

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