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Abortion in YA Lit, Karen’s Take

Young Adult literature tackles a wide variety of dark, heavy and yet all too real and controversial topics.  Drug use, rape, incest, cutting . . . You can find a variety of books that deal with these topics.  But there is one topic that you don’t see mentioned very often in YA lit: Reproductive Rights.  Even more specifically: Abortion.

This piece is not about abortion, but it is about abortion in YA lit.  I will not reveal where I stand on the issue, because my opinion doesn’t matter.  My job is to introduce teens to a wide variety of stories and let them decide for themselves.  And I recognize that it is a very controversial topic tied up in people’s personal religious beliefs, their knowledge of science, their views on women and personhood and so much more.  But there is no denying that it is a very relevant topic that today’s teen can not escape.  The news about abortion and the debate surrounding the issue is everywhere.  People stand outside clinics and statehouses with signs.  And because I believe it is an important issue in our current political climate, one that is not likely to go away, I feel that we owe it to our teens to have current and realistic information available to them so that they too can be an informed part of the discussion.  For many teens, what we decide today will have tremendous impact on their life and choices.  Not always in the distant future, but soon.

Because of the pregnancy illness that I suffered from, I know a handful of women who made the decision to terminate their pregnancies so that they could live another day and raise the children they had already given birth to.  And I have sat with a teen patron in the days after she decided to terminate her pregnancy at 20 weeks.  And I have read the news with horror of the little 11 year old girl in Chile who is waiting to give birth to a child that was fathered by her own father who raped her.  Many have said to the news that this 11 year old is ready and prepared to become a mother; but not just a mother, a mother to a child born to her from a father that has raped her.  I look over to my 11 year old daughter as I think about this and my heart aches for her.  I have spent 20 years working with 11 year olds and I can assure you that not a single one of them is prepared to become a mother.

I sometimes read books about teenage pregnancy and wonder where the discussion of abortion is.  Not even a teen deciding to have an abortion, but a teen who is pregnant taking a moment to even consider it, for a moment, as an option.  As a teen, my first knowledge of abortion came not from a book, but from the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  I remember clearly that character played by Jennifer Jason Leigh going in to a clinic and ending her pregnancy alone, without her parents knowledge, without the boy who impregnated her.  It was her older brother who supported her through the experience.  This is an issue for teens, it always has been, and it may be an issue that they will deal with only with one another.  I was aware of abortion, but it had always been one of those taboo subjects that no one ever talked about except when we were talking politics.

So here is something I didn’t tell you when I reviewed Dear Cassie by Lisa Burstein because it hadn’t been released yet and it was a spoiler: Cassie has had an abortion.  As she lay at camp writing diary entries to herself she sometimes punches herself in the stomach.  This is because she has had an abortion and she is wrestling with how she feels about this fact afterwards.  It is a bold decision, telling the story of a girl who has made a choice that is so very controversial in our country.  And yet, it is a story that needs to be told because our teens sometimes make this choice and those teens deserve to have their stories told just as much as we advocate for diversity in young adult literature.  Diversity can mean diversity in choices.  As a reader, we don’t even have to agree with the choice.  That is not why we read.  No, we read to better understand the many different lives that occur in and around us in the vast, wide world we live in.

Cassie’s reaction to her abortion is interesting and complex.  She obviously feels tremendous confusion and sometimes guilt over the choices she has made.  And as a woman, I can’t help but think: of course she does.  She lives in a world that tells her everyday that people who choose abortions are murderers.  Even if she didn’t think this were true, it makes sense on some level that a teen who is still trying to figure out who they are and what they believe would have periods of times where she questioned the very real decisions that she made.  Abortion is not a black and white issue in the world we live, so it makes sense that a contingent of our teens wouldn’t see it as a black and white issue either.  The complexity of emotions that she has in response to her abortion mirrors the complexity of emotions we feel in the general public regarding the topic.

But Cassie’s experience with abortion is just that – one experience of abortion.  The ALAN Review wrote a thoughtful look at abortion in YA literature back in 1995, but at a time when our culture is grappling with this issue loudly and often, it seems that our YA lit is failing to reflect the current zeitgeist.  And this literature needs to reflect the variety of true experiences that teens have had with abortion.  Some, like the 14-year-old I used to work with, will sigh a breath of relief.  Others, like Cassie, will wreslte with confusion and guilt.  The literature we read doesn’t have to mirror our personal beliefs, it is supposed to open us up to other lives and other stories so that we can walk a moment in another’s pair of shoes and learn about lives and viewpoints that may differ from ours.

Additional Resources:
Adolescent Fiction on Abortion
The Future of Reproductive Rights as Seen in 3 YA Novels
Unwinding the Abortion Debate in Young Adult Literature
Adolescent Fiction on Abortion
Library Thing list of books tagged Abortion
What Does October 15th Mean for Teens?


  1. Excellent post. Thank you so much for writting about it in such a brave and elegant way.


    Teen librarian in AK.

  2. Thank you Bellota. I appreciate your comment.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great article on a tough topic. We need to raise a new generation of women that is informed on options and empowered to make whatever decisions they need to. Young women now who become pregnant, regardless of their decision, become outsiders. Girls who terminate feel like their have a secret black mark on their souls. Girls who carry a child to term and keep the baby or adopt it out are whispered about behind their backs for years. I hope the next generation of young women (and young men) grows up to be kinder.

  4. Thank you so much for raising this issue again. I blogged about it a while back (http://angelhorn.com/2012/06/05/terrific-teen-tuesday-yas-last-taboo/) but it bears repeating and repeating and repeating.

    Abortion stories are missing, but so is birth control as background and texture. IN real teenage girls lives, most often birth control, including abortion, is not the story. The story is basketball, or a love triangle, or bad grades, or parents' divorce. IN YA it can be killing zombies, or discovering you're a mermaid. I'd love to see some discussion of contraception just casually going on in the background , as it does in real life.

    In my current WIP, my heroine loses her v-card on page 1 and gets the morning after pill on page 5. Thereafter she uses condoms and gets on with her story.

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