The Armageddon of the Maternal Relationship

July-August 1991By David Hartman

The Rev. David Hartman is the Minister of the Harrodsburg Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

Abortion Choice and Contemporary Fiction: The Armageddon of the Maternal Instinct.  By Judith Wilt. University of Chicago Press. 183. $19.95.



Consider this: There is great Christian art wherein Mary stands alone, but no great art wherein the infant Jesus is alone -- for the infancy of Jesus is never sundered from the motherhood of Mary. For Christians, this is the paradigmatic maternal relationship.

It is in the interests of the abortion movement to redefine such a paradigm, so that the primordial bond between mother and child -- the "maternal instinct," if you will -- is understood as a matter of conscious choice rather than loving and ordained co-dependency and nurturance. This last, wretched legacy of the Enlightenment -- "the Armageddon of the maternal instinct," in Margaret Drabble's compelling phrase -- is the theme of Judith Wilt's honorable and beautifully written book. "Debate about abortion may begin with reasons, proceed to statistics, but it always comes down, really, to stories...," she says.

And the stories she has gleaned! A young mother named Sarah, having aborted two children, contends with her guilt and grief by postulating this future: "If someday I have three children, I will also feel I have three children and two others that are not with us right now. I have five, and here are three of them." And Linda Bird Francke, the author of The Ambivalence of Abortion, recalls that for the first six months after her abortion, she felt the baby's "ghost" calling her, and she "called back to it in a rapture of sorrowful defiance... 'Of course we have room. Of course we do.'"

The abortion movement contends that abortion is really inconsequential. Thus, the National Organization for Women advocates legal abortion on the basis of "reproductive freedom." Doing so, of course, requires a systemic degradation of the language. As George Orwell and others have noted, euphemisms are stylish when evil requires fancy dress. The napalming of Vietnamese civilians becomes a "protective reaction"; the bureaucratic torture and murder of Jews becomes "the final solution"; and preborn infants deliberately torn from their mothers' wombs become byproducts of "reproductive freedom." It is not the least of Wilt's strengths that she refuses to lapse into euphemisms. She is no friend of cant. She honors the integrity of words. And she heralds the reality that abortion is never inconsequential.

Most of the stories Wilt cites are fictional, the work of authors as diverse as Jane Austen, John Barth, and Toni Morrison. These are stories about death in the midst of life: of plenitude desiccated and of the cord between the generations severed. In Drabble's The Middle Ground, a middle-aged woman named Kate, carrying a child with spina bifida, undergoes an abortion and elects sterilization as well. "But it was not easy to choose the right thing. She suffered." At night, "motherhood strikes back in bad dreams of dead babies, pigeons, dogs... 'This,' she says, 'is the Armageddon -- or do I mean Waterloo? -- of the maternal instinct.'"

In Toni Morrison's Beloved, a runaway slave named Sethe, whose mother's milk had once been rapaciously taken to satisfy the curiosity of a white schoolmaster, destroys her adored children rather than surrender them to the slave catchers. Her lover, Halle, reproaches her:
"What you did was wrong, Sethe.
"I should have gone back there? Taken my babies back there?"
"There could have been a way. Some other way."
"What way?"
"You got two feet, Sethe, not four," he said, and right then a forest sprang between them, trackless and wild.
These are great -- as opposed to merely gifted -- writers. They are great because they have empathic imaginations -- the ability to get inside the skin of another. Indeed, almost all of Wilt's writers have an empathic imagination for women whose motherhood is aborted (after all, more than fetuses are ruined and flushed by the abortionist's craft).

But this empathic imagination is no guarantee that they are prepared to affirm the inviolability of preborn human life. Which raises the question: What of the most victimized protagonist in the abortion tragedy? Where is the empathic imagination there? Who has the wherewithal to be the voice of the preborn?

The stretch is perhaps not so great as it seems. Richard Adams has ably gotten inside the skin of a rabbit, a bear, and a horse in Watership Down, Shardik, and Traveler. And while no writer has ever been a rabbit, a bear, or a horse, every writer has been, at one time, a preborn child. In Passenger, Thomas Keneally makes the effort. A preborn child, self-awareness triggered by a laser, learns of his father's intention to abort him, and chooses, instead of "blissful, unceasing communion" with his mother, the "puzzles and perils" of birth. "For you shall see my face, you bastard," he rages at the father, "my ferocious and irrevocable face." Potent stuff this, and Keneally's work is praiseworthy; but the ferocious fetus bears more resemblance to an epic hero than to any known child, and his cognizance is the result of a standard sci-fi mishap.

So again, the question is asked: Who is the wordsmith who can make the preborn child's story as moving as those told by and of learned, living mothers? Of the latter, there is no dearth: "It always comes down, really, to stories." But who can give tongue to the being in the womb? Who can make eloquent the mute preborn?

Judith Wilt could, if she would. She writes beautifully. She weaves arabesques out of words. But most of the thread she uses comes from the looms of other writers, and her own empathic imagination is largely expended getting into the (imaginary) skins of their characters.

To see one author's creatures through another's lenses is, ultimately, to see through a glass darkly. But Wilt has much to say on her own, as in her astonishing conclusion: "Our culture, its languages of reason and argument a deafening roar of 'mine' -- my body, my baby, my mother, my meaning, my sin, my salvation -- pauses, appalled, before the pieta, rock of offense, today most vividly (re)presented in the aborting woman. What word can allow us to pass it, if not, somehow equally distributed to the living figure and the dead one, 'Beloved'?"

In birth, in death, the mother and child inhere. Wilt's conclusion is more than exquisite prose -- this is language limned by grace. Wilt's own empathic imagination, her moral seriousness, and her transcendent eloquence are, in this book, in the service of an honorable but lesser end. Two-thirds through, I got tired of reading her sources. I never got tired of reading her. Acknowledging the presumption beforehand, here's a suggestion: Write your own story, Judith Wilt. Take the astonishing gifts with which God has endowed you, and use them to save children's lives.



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