Comics for Choice: Illustrated Abortion Stories, History and Politics

Ed. Hazel Newlevant, Whit Taylor, and Ø. K. Fox (Editors)
Summer 2017

Comics for Choice, 2017Early in 2016, writer and illustrator Hazel Newlevant–fresh from editing Chainmail Bikini: the Anthology of Women Gamers–promised herself she wouldn’t stand by any longer as campaigns for stealth restrictions on abortion rights gained pace across the United States. Encouraged by Paper Jazz Small Press Fest co-organiser Ø. K. Fox, Newlevant started planning an anthology of comics about reproductive justice that could raise money for the National Network of Abortion Funds, but the heavy responsibility of making sure the facts would be impervious to criticism and the knowledge that anti-choice harassment could lie in wait made her put it “on the backburner.” That was until the election of the 45th president, not the Democrat, self-proclaimed feminist many Americans had expected, but a misogynistic business magnate who had chosen to ally with the religious and racist right.

As marginalised creators and readers tried to forge their despair, grief, and resolve into armour against a sudden new future of imminent assaults on their civil rights, access to healthcare, and creative expression, Newlevant realised one way she could resist: by bringing together the anthology that would become Comics for Choice.

Newlevant, Fox, and cartoonist Whit Taylor lead 62 writers and artists who have succeeded, across the 42 stories of Comics for Choice, in assembling a remarkable set of testimonies that are both collective and personal, with many the outcome of collaborations between comics artists and narrators who had not written comics before. Newlevant’s editor’s note explains the editorial team wanted to produce a book that would “educate readers about many facets of the history of abortion in America, the incredible diversity of reasons people choose it, and what we can do to protect this crucial right.” Many of its rawest comics are the narratives of women and non-binary people who chose to have abortions, clinic escorts, abortion doulas, and reproductive rights advocates, illustrated in simple but evocative storytelling styles.

At the same time, Comics for Choice provides a history of the reproductive justice movement in the US that powerfully accentuates the intergenerational memory of its more intimate stories (including some, like Bree Jordan’s “Wanted” and Anna Sellheim’s “My Mother’s Story,” directly told as dialogues between mothers and daughters).

Cynthia Greenlee and Jaz Malone honour Dr. Dorothy Brown, the physician who fought for abortion reform as the first Black woman legislator in Tennessee. Rickie Solinger and Rachel Merrill record how women put on trial for choosing an abortion before Roe v. Wade were retraumatised by the spectacle of prosecutors’ questioning. Hallie Jay Pope shows how the 1976 Hyde Amendment, preventing federal funds being used for abortion provision, has meant that even after Roe “the right to have an abortion is not meaningfully available to you if you’re poor,” disproportionately affecting people of colour.

Hallie Jay Pope, Comics for Choice, 2017

Hallie Jay Pope, Comics for Choice, 2017

The history Comics for Choice may have brought to light best is that of the Jane movement in Chicago, shown to a wider audience when Splinter reprinted Rachel Wilson and Ally Shweb’s comic during the fundraiser. Between 1969 and 1973, the Janes trained themselves and performed more than 11,000 abortions so that women could have control over the process from start to finish rather than the often-exploitative male physicians. “Jane” was the name flyers advised Chicagoans in need of help with an unwanted pregnancy to call.

Even after Roe, some Janes believed the “respect and experience” they had won among Chicago women justified them continuing to offer an unlicensed alternative to licensed clinics. A reader who shares some of the contributors’ alarm at the prospect of Trump’s administration reversing Roe and returning abortion law “back to the states” might ask themselves if the Janes’ underground expertise could, one day soon, need to be shared again.

Rachel Wilson and Ally Shweb, Comics for Choice, 2017

Rachel Wilson and Ally Shweb, Comics for Choice, 2017

The urgency of standing in firm, intersectional solidarity against this presidency’s anticipated reversal of the right to choose is clear from contributions such as Sarah Mirk’s, which explains why Mirk got a new IUD the day after the election. “If they repeal Obamacare, my birth control coverage will disappear. IUDs last 5 to 10 years–hopefully longer than the president’s term.”

But this anthology’s most dominant theme, shown by many artists in panels assailing their protagonists with the burden of choice, is silence. Although one third of US women (and an uncounted number of others who can get pregnant) will have had an abortion in their lifetime, “the stigma,” as M. J. Flores writes in her comic, “is silencing.”

Fighting for reproductive justice, Newlevant argues in her introduction, requires “communicating memorably and encouraging empathy.” Comics for Choice does not shy away from how complex the choices for patients and practitioners can be. Wilson and Shweb show the Janes balancing the “emotionally challenging” process of inducing miscarriage with their belief in women’s “absolute authority” over their bodies. Kriota Willberg juxtaposes scientists and theologians grappling with uncertainty over the timing of viability and ensoulment, the twin notions by which abortion term limits are judged.

The empathy Comics for Choice seeks to build is not just between people who have and have not needed an abortion, but between the reproductive justice movement and other social struggles. Some comics directly reference other movements and the links between reproductive, economic, and racial justice. Brittany Mostiller and Lilly Taing do their comic about the Chicago Abortion Fund. Katie Brown, Andrew Carl, and Ahmara Smith’s “Born and Forgotten” injects a panel of news about the ongoing water pollution in Flint, Michigan into the story of a young mother seeking an abortion in Texas.

Katie Brown, Andrew Carl and Ahmara Smith, Comics for Choice, 2017

Katie Brown, Andrew Carl and Ahmara Smith, Comics for Choice, 2017

This is a vision of reproductive justice that explicitly includes non-binary people who can get pregnant and should, therefore, implicitly include trans men, though no trans men’s stories are directly part of the volume. The multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-gender group of activists gathered across the book’s front and back covers exemplifies the collection’s everyday intersectionality, though the apparent absence (to my eyes) of anyone with a visible disability echoes a relative lack of exploration of the intersection between disability and reproductive justice compared to the book’s much more attentive stance towards class, religion, or race.

A handful of the comics explore reproductive justice through speculative rather than mimetic storytelling. Heidi Williamson and Julia Krase’s dystopian prison-break story, set in an Atlanta of 2037 where abortion carries the death penalty, comes into its own once it reaches an underground where fugitive activists can explore ways of living and working that are denied to them outside, and once the reader has been reminded by comics such as Michelle Kinsey Bruns and Gianna Meola’s “This Clinic Stays Open” of the history of anti-choice violence that Atlantans remember in envisaging the future from the point of view of an oppressive present.

In contrasting the speculations of creators like Williamson and Krase with the testimonies of creators who narrate from personal experience, indeed, Comics for Choice becomes the compendium of resistance that tomorrow’s reproductive justice movement is more likely than ever to need. Few people will ever wrest a rifle away from an armed guard escorting them to their death, as the imprisoned protagonist of “The Outcasts” has to do, but many more will be in positions to exercise the much more subtle kind of resistance performed by characters, such as Brown, Carl, and Smith’s hijabi doctor, who supports her patient by contextualising the anti-choice literature that the state of Texas forces her to provide.

And neither are these struggles confined to the USA. Many of Comics for Choice’s US readers will still be coming to terms with, as Flores puts it, the idea that the USA is turning back into “that harder, more unforgiving, less understanding country we used to be … and [that] we still see in other parts of the world.” Yet, Pope reminds us in the voice of an Uncle Sam with a bald eagle perched on his shoulder while he proclaims that “We’re the GREATEST! Everyone should be just like us! … No abortions though.” US sponsorship of the Mexico City Policy, rescinded by Obama and reinstated by Trump, has denied US funding to foreign NGOs that promote or advise about abortion as a method of family planning, has combined with the Hyde Amendment to make the right to choose “little more than a formality for millions in the States, and nothing but a cruel joke to billions abroad.”

Comics for Choice is simultaneously a collective endeavor at history-making and a document of an activist generation realising how much more it might suddenly need to learn from elders who fought these battles in the past. The past before Roe, Jensine Eckwall’s one-page illustration declares, is a past to which “We Will Not Go Back.” The intergenerational and intersectional wisdom that Comics for Choice collects will be essential as the movement struggles against the forces that would drag Americans, and those abroad affected by US development policy, back there.