Abortion in Romance: A Closer Look

*This is a spoilerful discussion for this book and for the series*

A Baby For Eve (2008) by the late Maggie Kingsley is the eleventh book in Harlequin Mills & Boon Medical’s Brides of Penhally Bay series. It’s the rare romance in which the HEA comes after an abortion. Here’s the blurb:

Her baby dream come true?

Nurse Eve Dwyer hasn’t set eyes on Dr. Tom Cornish in twenty years. Why has he come back to Penhally Bay now, after she’s built a life for herself and lived through her pain for the baby they never had and Tom never knew about?

Because he wants Eve. After a lifetime of running, he’s finally realized he’ll never love anyone more. But the flood waters are rising in Penhally and Tom is called to head a rescue. He has little opportunity to make amends with Eve. Is it too late, or is there still a chance for them to have the happiness and family they both deserve so much?

The first time abortion is mentioned in the book is when the hero and heroine are discussing a local teenage pregnant girl. Tom says,

‘Look, I know you’re not happy about the situation,’ he said. ‘Her being only being seventeen, and Gary Lovelace being the father, but I’ve always been a very firm advocate of a  woman’s right to choose. She didn’t have to go ahead and have the baby, Eve. She could have opted for a termination , but she didn’t. Her decision, her choice, and I admire her for it.’

-Kingsley, Maggie (2011-11-01). A Baby for Eve (Brides of Penhally Bay) (Kindle Locations 914-915). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.

Maggie is distressed, thinking of her own secret abortion of “Tom’s baby” years ago, but she doesn’t really lose it until they get stuck in a flood situation and Tom refuses to prioritize the rescue of a young girl Maggie is close to, who is relatively safe, opting instead for a group of kids in more danger. Maggie, distressed, mixes up her need to rescue this ten year old with her failure to “rescue” her aborted baby:

‘I have to— don’t you see that?’ she cried. ‘I can’t live with another twenty years of regret, spend another twenty years wishing I’d done things differently.’

-Kingsley, Maggie (2011-11-01). A Baby for Eve (Brides of Penhally Bay) (Kindle Locations 1340-1341). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.

Eventually, only because she is desperate to help this little girl, she tells Tom that she became pregnant, despite being on the Pill, after they had sex twenty years ago and had an abortion. He had been clear then that he didn’t want to be tied down, and he had left already for America, only sending a postcard or two. Still, Tom’s response is “shocked horror” and “revulsion” at Eve’s admission:

‘How could you have taken the life of an innocent child and just thrown it away?’

-Kingsley, Maggie (2011-11-01). A Baby for Eve (Brides of Penhally Bay) (Kindle Locations 1369-1370). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.

He plays the father’s rights card immediately:

‘You didn’t give me the chance to say whether I wanted our baby or not,’ he declared, his face twisted with fury and anguish. ‘You just decided, without a word, a call…’

-Kingsley, Maggie (2011-11-01). A Baby for Eve (Brides of Penhally Bay) (Kindle Locations 1379-1380). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.

Eve calls him on it, sort of:

‘I know how you feel now,’ she countered, bunching her hands into tight fists at her sides, ‘but that wasn’t how you felt when we were young.’ ‘Eve—’‘You wanted freedom. “No emotional baggage”, that’s what you said you wanted, and if I’d told you about the baby… Do you think I wanted you to hate him or her as much as your father hated and resented you?’

-Kingsley, Maggie (2011-11-01). A Baby for Eve (Brides of Penhally Bay) (Kindle Locations 1391-1394). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.

But despite Eve’s rational explanation that she obtained an early and safe abortion after a birth control failure because neither she nor her ex-partner were in any position financially or emotionally to have a child, her dominant emotions are sorrow, guilt, and regret. She describes her “private little hell”:

nobody warns you that from then on you’ll live a lifetime of regret. Nobody tells you you’ll discover that the world is full of babies and pregnant women, and every pregnant woman you see, every… every baby you see, will remind you of what you did— what you gave up.’

-Kingsley, Maggie (2011-11-01). A Baby for Eve (Brides of Penhally Bay) (Kindle Locations 1625-1627). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.

Interestingly, another couple discusses a years-old unintended pregnancy, and horror fills the eyes of the bio dad at the mere thought that the mom would have had an abortion — despite the fact that he refuses to publicly recognize the child as his!

‘Are you telling me you actually considered having an abortion?’ Nick said, horror plain in his voice, and tears appeared in Kate’s eyes.

-Kingsley, Maggie (2011-11-01). A Baby for Eve (Brides of Penhally Bay) (Kindle Locations 1527-1528). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.

That same guy — Nick — shares that he knew Eve had an abortion. He assumes that Tom made her do it, and compares his own choices with Tom’s:

I don’t know how [my wife] Annabel and I survived those early years, never knowing where the next meal was coming from, always panic-stricken that we wouldn’t be able to pay the rent, but I would never have suggested she have an abortion.’

Nick’s interlocutor, Kate, tries to make him see it another way:

Nick…’ Gently, Kate put her hand on his arm. ‘Things are seldom black and white, right or wrong, and who are we to judge? Our haloes are hardly shiny bright. Ten years ago—’

–Kingsley, Maggie (2011-11-01). A Baby for Eve (Brides of Penhally Bay) (Kindle Locations 1513-1517). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.

Back to Eve. The secret abortion is the major conflict in this book. Tom eventually comes around, admitting that he wouldn’t have wanted a baby all those years ago, but it is Eve who can’t get over it: A nurse told her it was a “clump of cells”, but to Eve “It was a baby Tom. Our baby — and I killed it.”

Tom, who has by this point in the book gotten over his initial horror, reassures her:

“You did what you thought was right twenty years ago, and now you have to forgive yourself, to move on, to believe you’re entitled to a future of happiness.”

-Kingsley, Maggie (2011-11-01). A Baby for Eve (Brides of Penhally Bay) (Kindle Locations 2204). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.

My experience reading Harlequin Medical romance is that they are even more pronatalist than your average romance. These couples always end up with kids, sometimes magically, as when they’re infertile. As the title indicates, Eve becomes pregnant at the end of the book, which seems to be the only way the narrative can close the rip in the heroine’s cloak of femininity caused by the abortion.

I’ve come to really admire the skills of the medicals authors, and this one was predictably well-written and polished, with believable medical scenarios intertwined with an emotional love story.  But when I first read this book, my eyes were rolling over the way the abortion was handled.

Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman has a really good chapter on abortion. It’s my favorite part of the book from a feminist perspective (I enjoyed other parts of the book for more apolitical reasons). She writes:

Abortions are never seen as a positive thing, as any other operation to remedy a potentially life-ruining condition would. Women never speak publicly about their abortions with happy, relieved gratitude. There are no “Good luck with your morning-after pill!” cards. People don’t make jokes about it despite the fact that all the truest jokes are about vexing topics and cover every other subject, including cancer, God, and death.

-Moran, Caitlin (2012-07-17). How to Be a Woman (Kindle Locations 3943-3946). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Moran forthrightly and movingly (and sometimes harrowingly) recounts her own abortion. She notes the strong connection between the idea that women are all essentially mothers, and that mothers must be completely self-sacrificing with the idea that abortions are immoral. On the “spectrum of wrongness” every abortion is on, she had a “bad” abortion. Unlike the “good” abortions (incest, rape, pregnant unwed teens, maybe severe fetal deformity), she had “no excuses”: she was married, had children, was financially secure, and had an “unprotected fuck.” So there was no “reason” for her to have an abortion, except for the small matter that she didn’t want another child:

“I can’t have you,” I tell him sadly. “The world will fall in if I have you.”

Because not even for a second do I think I should have this baby. I have no dilemma, no terrible decision to make— because I know, with calm certainty, that I don’t want another child now, in the same way I know absolutely that I don’t want to go to India, or be blond, or fire a gun. This isn’t who I’m going to be, again: another three years of being life support to someone who weeps for me and rages against me, and who knows, when he’s ill, can only be relieved by resting his head on my belly and dreaming he’s back inside.

I can honestly say that my abortion was one of the least difficult decisions of my life. I’m not being flippant when I say it took me longer to decide what countertops to have in the kitchen than whether I was prepared to spend the rest of my life being responsible for a further human being, because I knew that to do it again— to commit my life to another person— might very possibly stretch my abilities, and conception of who I am, and who I want to be, and what I want and need to do— to breaking point.

-Moran, Caitlin (2012-07-17). How to Be a Woman (p. 268). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The dominant narrative in England and the US about abortions is that while some might be “rationally justifiable”, they all inevitably take their toll on the women who have them. At best, abortion is the least bad choice among bad choices. I think this is the narrative in A Baby for Eve. The abortion is a wrenching decision causing a pseudo-psychological trauma that the heroine must overcome. This dominant narrative says that abortion is always a moral transgression, and even when it is a “good” one, a woman can only forgive herself after enough regretful penance.  So alarming is the transgression that abortion represents, that the hero’s own character arc is essentially his forgiveness of her, and his assistance in her own self-forgiveness. At least, that is pretty much how it played out in A Baby For Eve.

Moran offers a counter-narrative:

I keep waiting for my prescribed grief and guilt to come— I am braced, chest out, ready—but it never arrives. I don’t cry when I see baby clothes. Friends announcing pregnancies don’t make me jealous, or quietly blue. I do not have to remind myself that sometimes you must do the “wrong” thing for the “right” reason. In fact , it’s the opposite. Every time I sleep through the night, I am thankful for the choice I made. When the youngest graduates out of diapers, I’m relieved there isn’t a third one, following behind. When friends come round with their new babies, I am hugely, hugely grateful that I had the option not to do this again…

Moran, Caitlin (2012-07-17). How to Be a Woman (pp. 276-278). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I have yet to come across a romance novel in which the heroine takes Moran’s grateful attitude to an abortion (which doesn’t mean such a book doesn’t exist, of course!). Neither have I read one in which the abortion takes place during the course of the novel, come to think of it. I’d love to see a counter-narrative like Moran’s in a romance novel. Or maybe a prior abortion of the “hero’s baby” that is not the focal point of the conflict in the novel.

But while it would be easy to criticize A Baby For Eve, a second reading reminded me that nowhere in the text is there a suggestion that abortion should not be legal, or that the NHS should not cover it. The hero is explicitly pro-choice (just not when it comes to his baby). Also, in fairness, it’s not just the abortion that causes the conflict for Eve and Tom. For Eve, the misery over the abortion is intertwined with her misery at losing the only man she had ever loved, and the same is true for Tom. For Tom, the abortion felt like a rejection of him, he who had come all the way back to Cornwall to reignite a relationship with Eve. It also served to remind him of how selfish and callow he was as a youth, never a pleasant experience. And in the end, while she mourns the “baby she lost”, Eve does not regret her choice. If she had to go back in time, she would do the same thing again.

So while A Baby For Eve isn’t exactly a thumping rejection of the nest of pernicious attitudes about femininity and motherhood (at least when it comes to white heterosexual middle class women) that make up societal opposition to abortion, I found it very interesting and even somewhat daring  – in the context of the genre and that particular series — nonetheless.

18 responses

  1. I’m almost certain that I’ve read a book in the last few years that either had abortion in the past or involved the morning after pill (a Brockmann maybe?) and it wasn’t a big deal, but for the life of me I can’t think of anything else about the book. I do remember thinking, Huh. That’s rare!

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    • Alas, the only morning after pill in a Brockmann I’ve encountered is a really disturbing scene in which Sam says using it would be the same as having an abortion and he is never contradicted!

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  2. I fear an abortion taken in stride is always going to be that rara avis, perhaps almost entirely for not just the heroine but also the reader. Caitlin Moran’s matter-of-a-fact tone is bracing and sensible but how would that fit in a romance? I think we all bring so many thoughts to the topic that it’s difficult to put them aside and just enjoy the story. This is Not the Same but sometimes I’ve read books where the heroine returns to an abusive hero and even after years of life-changes and mind-numbing grovels, there’s often still that niggle of hmmm, is this what I want to read?

    A book where an abortion is an integral part of the plot *spoilers* is http://www.lizfenwick.com/thecornishhouse.html — a book I liked, more women’s fiction and definitely the choice is hedged in anguish and circumstances that are extremely difficult. Believable though.

    I suppose books where an abortion in the past is mentioned like a bout of mono or losing a job is maybe what we’re going to see but I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that either. Why I liked the book you reviewed so much is that the whole spectrum of feelings are displayed and ultimately, the heroine’s choice, as difficult as it was for all the reasons mentioned, is respected and integrated into her entire life.

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    • I think it would be nice if the genre reflected the range of women’s experiences. Some have abortion experiences like Eve, and some have them like Moran.

      I definitely agree that it’s a tough sell.

      Thanks for the Liz Fenwick rec!

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  3. That’s a really good point about the overall tone of the book re: abortion. Honestly, I see so many “what kind of horrible person do you think I am?” reactions in romance, I’m happy to get anything more tempered than that.

    Those are interesting Moran quotes. I remember at one point in my life, my husband and I had a birth control failure and I considered the morning after pill but it didn’t seem right. Then some years later we had another and that time I knew, “Yes, morning after pill, THIS SECOND!” I knew beyond question that I did not want to be pregnant then and counted myself very lucky to be able to do something simple and fast about it.

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    • Thank you for the links, and thank you for sharing your own experience. I think a major point Moran was trying to get across was that for most women, the choice about abortion has to do with the choice of whether and what kind of a mother they want to be, and far from signaling a cavalier disregard for parenting, an abortion often shows a tremendous respect for it. I see Eve’s decision in those terms.

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  4. Great post, Jessica. This was the first Penhally Bay installment I read and I was struck by how matter-of-fact the abortion aspect was. And she wasn’t punished for it! Yes, it has all the issues you lay out, but as you also note, the Medical line is very baby-focused, so it would be especially tough within its constructs to have a storyline that treated abortion as a “good” choice, I think. Two other aspects of the Medical line that I think are relevant: (1) it sells very well worldwide, across a wide variety of cultural settings, so it’s not just about satisfying a European/North American audience, but negotiating attitudes about the issue in a range of cultural contexts. (2) The Medical line throws a lot of physical and psychological issues at its heroes and heroines, and getting to the HEA from those setups can be tough. Sometimes they do it well, sometimes (e.g. the magical baby), not so much.

    I look forward to your other Penhally posts, if you decide to write more! I think it’s one of the best series M&B have ever done, in a variety of ways.

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    • oh, God, I’m obsessed with this series, and I have you to thank (or blame) for it. I’m about done — finally — with a draft of a kind of paper on it, and I have material for about two more papers. I hadn’t thought about doing more blog posts, but I don’t need much arm twisting, so stay tuned.

      Thanks also for your point about where it sells. I really am clueless about that. The guidelines say “The characters, their romance, the settings, the drama must be appealing and accessible to a global readership.” but your comment reminds me I really should try to track this info down.

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  7. I’d love to see more books — not romance novels only, but books across genres — that deal with abortion in a way that shows the range of experiences women have with abortion. I’d like it ideologically, and also just because it’s interesting! It’s kind of a major reason to read books, to have all these different human experiences in your head.

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  8. Miss Bate is just dropping in to say that she loved the post’s contrapuntal structure: the weaving of the two voices, one so very realistic and t’other, fictional, but honest. Other than the imp’tance of abortion being legal & available world-wide, and it most certainly isn’t, the moral ambiguities it elicits and the emotional reactions are unique to every woman. Grateful for great post.

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