Reproductive Rights for Every Woman

Until the Supreme Court verdict of Roe v. Wade in 1973, abortion was illegal in the United States. However, the law did not stop black market procedures. Although impossible to report exact numbers, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) estimated in 2014, that 1.2 million U.S. women had an illegal abortion each year, causing as many as 5,000 annual maternal deaths (Davis 117). In the book, The American Woman’s Movement, Margaret Cerullo’s “Hidden History: An Illegal Abortion” illustrates the dangerous reality of these unregulated back-alley abortions (Cerullo 1). Women were transported to unknown locations and had procedures performed on them by strangers who may or may not have had a medical degree. Cerullo met a “man carrying groceries, [and] went off with him to his car.” She then encountered a strange man wearing a mask who performed the sterilization. After the procedure, she realized that she was “a woman, not a ‘human being.’” At that moment, she understood that she lacked reproductive freedom and therefore a basic human right.

Lucille Clifton’s “the lost baby poem” was published in 1971 in the Vol. 12 Issue 1. of the Massachusetts Review. In the poem, the speaker reflects on her decision to have an abortion years after the event.

Reproductive rights became one of the major issues of the Second Wave Feminist Movement. The ability to have agency over one’s body was cited as one of the most important steps in gaining freedom for women. Feminists lobbied for laws that granted access to safe and legal abortions. They published literature to raise awareness and create community. They worked with hospitals and doctors to help develop comprehensive female health policies and practices. Groups formed and people protested.

Feminists did not only rally for health rights. At the same time, they explored the extremely heavy burden on the individual woman that comes with abortion and the complexity of the decision. In particular, women began to share their personal experiences through the medium of poetry. In Lucille Clifton’s “the lost baby poem,” published in 1971 in Vol. 12 Issue 1. of the Massachusetts Review, the speaker reflects on her decision to have an abortion years after the event (Clifton 9). The Massachusetts Review is an independent quarterly journal of literature, the arts, and public affairs which focuses on creating political conversations (Editorial 2). Thus, Clifton’s poem was chosen to be a part of the abortion debate. From the beginning, the poem contains a sorrowful tone. The speaker refers to her aborted fetus as “you,” granting it identity and life (Clifton 9). The speaker feels connected to the fetus and is saddened by her loss as she reflects “what did i know about waters rushing back/ what did i know about drowning/ or being drowned” (Clifton 9). The “waters rushing back” refers to both the physical consequences of her period cycle returning and the mental consequences that accompany the abortion. Continuing the water metaphor, the verb “drowning” indicates emotional turmoil and distress. The speaker feels sorrow and shame. However, there is a shift in the next stanza. Clifton reflects that the potential child “would have been born into winter/ in the year of the/ disconnected gas/ and no car” (Clifton 10). The mother reflects on her personal financial struggle. She does not have enough money to raise another child. She contemplates that to ensure the survival of her existing children, she would have to give the child up for adoption and “watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands” (Clifton 10). Furthermore, the mother finds it improbable that the child would have found a loving home as it would have “fallen [like] snow in winter.” In the last stanza, the speaker upholds her decision for the sake of her existing children. She swears “if i am ever less than a mountain / for your definite brothers and sisters / let the River pour over my head” (Clifton 10). Although the speaker may be saddened by the loss of potential life, she does not regret her actions. She utilizes her sorrow as fuel to be strong for her existing children, the potential child’s “definite brothers and sisters.”

Works Cited:

Cerullo, Margaret. “Hidden History: An Illegal Abortion.”  The American Women’s Movement,1945-200, 2009, pp 1-43

Clifton, Lucille. “The Lost Baby Poem.” The Massachusetts Review 12, no. 1, 1971, pp. 108–9

“Editorial.” The Massachusetts Review 12, no. 1, 1971, pp. 2