Book Review: Happy Abortions by Erica Millar

Tuesday 13th November, 2018

Review by Gillian Love

Erica Millar’s work focuses on the cultural, social and legal dimensions of reproduction. She has published widely on the biopolitics of reproduction, on the relationship of cultural representations of abortion to broader structural inequities, and on the emotions that are attached to abortion in a variety of public discourses. She is currently a lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Adelaide and will be taking up a lectureship in Crime, Justice and Legal Studies at La Trobe University in January 2019. Happy Abortions: Our Bodies in the Era of Choice was published by Zed Books in 2017.

What makes the possibility of a ‘happy abortion’, at best, transgressive, and at worst, unspeakable? Erica Millar poses this question in Happy Abortions, an exploration of the cultural politics of abortion. In her exploration of the ‘emotional economy’ that legitimises certain abortion experiences and delegitimises others, Millar draws on newspaper articles, activist literature, parliamentary debates, political speeches and academic studies of abortion to examine how cultural meanings about abortion are produced, particularly in Australia, the UK, the USA, Canada and New Zealand. Her work is framed by an understanding of emotions not as individual feelings that reveal the ‘true nature’ of a person or their experiences; instead she draws on Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions as orienting devices which direct us away from or towards particular objects (Ahmed, 2004).

With this framework, Millar begins with a potted history of the emergence of the pro-choice movement in the 1960s and 70s. Her exploration of the various activist groups that pushed for the legalisation of abortion sets up a cornerstone of her narrative thread that will continue throughout Happy Abortions: abortion is considered, even by those who support its existence, an exceptional and unpleasant choice. This rhetorical positioning of abortion as ‘always a tragedy’ and the assumption that women who have them will feel grief and sorrow is a discursive framework that has greatly influenced political and legislative debate, meaning the ‘exceptionality’ of abortion has been ‘written into the rhetoric of choice from the moment it became attached to abortion’ (p. 86).

Mainstream pro-choice politics in the 1970s, strategically or otherwise, thus presented abortion as a ‘fundamentally illegitimate choice that required justifications in reference to women’s desperation’ (p. 86). This powerful cultural script of desperation and sorrow in relation to abortion that Millar identifies characterising early abortion reform campaigns can still be seen in contemporary abortion debates, including the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment criminalising abortion in Ireland this year. The ‘Together For Yes’ campaign that pushed for repeal routinely shared stories of women in desperate or exceptional circumstances to demonstrate the importance of access to safe, legal abortion. Most of the women featured on the ‘Real Stories’ page of the campaign website, for example, relate their experience of ending otherwise wanted pregnancies after medical complications or diagnosis of fatal abnormalities (Together For Yes, n.d.). Whilst well-intentioned, this reiterative appeal to the exceptionality of abortion and emphasis on the stories of women with wanted pregnancies works to occlude the figure of the unwillingly pregnant woman from public debate, as Millar argues early pro-choice campaigns did (p. 29).

Millar’s theoretical framework –thinking through the cultural politics of emotions – works well in these early chapters, which address the cultural scripts of maternal happiness and abortion grief. However, the weakest chapter is perhaps Chapter Four, ‘Shameful Choices,’ in which Millar largely eschews talk of abortion stigma and instead writes on abortion shame and shaming. Whilst this makes sense in the broader scheme of the book – which is, after all, about emotion – it is hard to see how this chapter moves beyond the existing literature on abortion stigma as a regulatory and stratificatory device. For example, Millar’s point that abortion shame is the ‘affective cost’ of failing to live up to feminine norms echoes Kumar, Hessini and Mitchell’s influential definition of abortion stigma as ‘a negative attribute ascribed to women who seek to terminate a pregnancy that marks them, internally or externally, as inferior to ideals of womanhood’ (2009). Similarly, the argument that shame and silence prevent talk about abortion (and therefore deconstruction of norms through this talk) appear somewhat naïve next to work like Beynon-Jones’ on the contingency of abortion silence (Beynon-Jones, 2017).

However, Millar does circle back to this latter point in her conclusion, pointing out that whilst individual narratives about abortion are useful and important, this ‘breaking the silence’ through first-person narrative can become problematic if used as the basis of one’s abortion politics. ‘A politics of abortion fought through first-person narrative,’ she states, ‘runs the risk of further transforming abortion politics into the politics of individual experience,’ a transformation her work is attempting to resist (p. 276).

Indeed, a particular strength of Millar’s text is her argument developed in later chapters that national abortion politics – or biopolitics – are characterised by particular emotions. The foetus as a ‘happy object’ is positioned in the national imagination as a future citizen, and, furthermore, an element of a brighter national future. However, this love for the foetal citizen is accompanied by anxiety and fear of the racialised Other flooding the country with their children. Millar puts forward the argument that moral panics over a nation’s abortion rate act as conduits for anxieties over the decline of the white, heterosexual order. The unanimous agreement amongst pro-choice and pro-life camps in many Western countries that national abortion rates should be lower not only reflects the positioning of abortion as undesirable, but also only really applies to national citizens whose children would be deemed valuable.

This is the well-argued culmination of Millar’s book: the emotions associated with abortion are not only orienting devises for individual women, but for nations. Legalisation or decriminalisation of abortion, furthermore, is not necessarily a straightforward granting of full autonomy to women. The national construction of the foetus as a ‘happy object’ and the integration of ‘foetal motherhood’ into political discussion about pregnancy are biopolitical, governmental devices that ensure that where the law fails to regulate abortion rates, women will self-regulate. As Millar argues, gender norms relating to womanhood and motherhood outlive restrictive laws, and ‘the emotional economy of abortion produces a self-surveilling subject who regulates her own conduct’ (p. 273). In the context of contemporary, international debates about abortion from Argentina to Ireland, Millar’s book stands as a timely critique of political rhetoric and its consequences for women.

Review by Gillian Love, University of Sussex.    

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