Book Review: A French Feminist Struggles with Her Abortion Decision
By Pat Reber
Does the world really need another personal abortion story? The answer is “yes,” Pauline Harmange argues.
Abortion: A Personal Story, a Political Choice by Pauline Harmange. Translated from the French by Caitlin O’Neil. Scribe, 85 pages, $16.
French writer Pauline Harmange is a package of contradictions. She made a splash with her 2020 French publishing debut, I Hate Men, but at some point did marry one. And Harmange wrote this book, Abortion: A Personal Story, A Political Choice, during a second pregnancy which she hoped she could carry to term as she and her husband struggled to improve their economic circumstances.
The vulnerability and openness with which Harmange shares her emotions reveal that for many women who find themselves pregnant – often despite contraception, reportedly the case in 72% of abortions in France – the decision to abort is not an easy one. Chapter headings like Shame, Grief, and Healing punctuate this slim book.
Harmange and her husband are struggling in a small apartment while they look for jobs and try to keep heads above water, amidst an enduring job stagnation in France that has stalled many college graduates like them. She is using an IUD – a Copper T – for contraception.
She writes that her decision to end this surprise pregnancy was compelled by her worries as a mother-to-be. Harmange told herself: “I can’t force a child to be born into a minuscule, poorly heated apartment, with no financial stability and no future prospects.” Later in the book, Harmange concedes that she also had to have an abortion so she could “reconceptualize” her own motherhood to “where I wasn’t shoved aside, a passenger in my own life, numb to my own future possibilities.”
What she didn’t know was that having an abortion would be so hard for her.
Does the world really need another personal abortion story? The answer is “yes,” she says, given the persistent secrecy of women who undergo legal procedures and amid moves around the world – particularly in the U.S. – to make legal abortion nearly impossible.
Harmange wants to break through that wall of silence, “deepen these conversations,” and include the men in them. In the U.S., male judges and male legislators are already deep into restricting the lives of women with their efforts to ban abortion. Those are not the men this author has in mind. She’s thinking of the males in relationships with women who must grapple with the decisions about abortion.
“When we exclude men from the abortion conversation, isn’t that also continuing to protect them and free them from all responsibility?” Harmange asks.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, well-known women in France, the U.S., Germany, and elsewhere launched the push to decriminalize abortion, making public collective declarations that drew on their own abortion experiences in the dark and dangerous illegal underground. Harmange acknowledges her debt to those women and her own complacency assuming that, at least in France, abortion will continue to be legal.
Thanks to the current legality, Harmange is free to write about the loneliness she feels and her jealousy over another couple’s birth announcement. She also hones in on the shame women still feel, even after a legal abortion. They are reluctant to talk about it or share the experience, particularly the aftermath of unexpected grief.
In many ways, Abortion is a bookend to Nobel Laureate Annie Ernaux’s book Happening, published in 2000.
It took Ernaux 37 years to share the harrowing details of her 1963 illegal abortion in an apartment in Paris and her near death from blood loss. Harmange’s abortion is sanitary and safe, leaving her free to describe her experience and all its emotional aspects. Little time passed before she felt able to write about it.
The book’s title references “a political choice” that Harmange addresses only briefly. Her “personal story” contributes to the stream of openness with which women are once again talking about abortion, in the face of threats to its legality.
For my own part, I drew courage to write about my illegal abortion from U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who in 2021 testified in a committee hearing about her illegal back alley abortion in Mexico at age 16: “I’m sharing my story even though I truly believe it is personal, and really nobody’s business.”
Harmange would likely disagree with Barbara Lee, advocating for more openness, less privacy.
“Abortion hides in the stories we leave untold, but also in those we share. Among ourselves, we pass on its ghost or its scar from generation to generation, in our evening murmurs, in our chats among friends,” she writes.
Pat Reber, 76, a retired journalist living in Maryland, has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Washington DC, Germany, Kenya and South Africa. She covered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa for the Associated Press and served as deputy bureau chief in Washington for Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) during the Bush and Obama years. She last wrote a review for ArtsFuse on Annie Ernaux’s latest book, Look at the LIghts, My Love.