A Novel About Choice Set in an Abortion Clinic
Jennifer Haigh on writing the inner psyche of an anti-abortion demonstrator in "Mercy Street"
Outside of the titular Mercy Street Clinic, a priest repeats “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” into a megaphone. A crowd of people, all bundled in layers against a Boston snowstorm, responds in chorus, all 36 of them united in their protest against abortion. If Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel wasn’t labeled as such, it might be easy to imagine the scene as nonfiction.
Each day, all over the U.S., people make their way through the deceptive advertisements from “crisis pregnancy centers;” through travel, economic, childcare, and schedule-related logistics; through crowds of protestors; and through an increasingly chilling wall of anti-abortion legislation in order to receive sexual health care. And things aren’t getting better. As Elizabeth Nash writes in “State Policy Trends 2021: The Worst Year for Abortion Rights in Almost Half a Century”: “The 108 abortion restrictions enacted in 2021 far surpasses the previous post-Roe record of 89, set in 2011. A total of 1,338 abortion restrictions have been enacted since Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973—44% of these in the past decade alone.”
Haigh, New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Massachusetts Book Award and PEN/New England Award in Fiction, explores abortion access through the lens of four unique characters in her latest novel, Mercy Street. Claudia, a counselor at the clinic, offers insight into the lives of patients, as well as the circumstances that complicate their ability to receive care, whereas a man who goes by the name Excelsior11 online, is misogynistic, racist, desperately lonely, and vehemently opposed to abortion.
Over the phone, I talked with Jennifer Haigh about the wave of recent anti-abortion legislation, fake abortion clinics, caretaking, and the ways technology, depending on the context, can foster both sinister and beautiful communities.
Jacqueline Alnes: There’s a moment where Claudia googles the names of abortion clinics and finds: Women’s Choice, Women’s Options, the Choice Center for Women’s Health, and the Women’s Center for Reproductive Choice. The irony, though, is that it seems like women really don’t have much of a choice, right?
Jennifer Haigh: I still find it remarkable that these kinds of places exist. They exist in every state, and they really are these dummy clinics. They very intentionally look like real clinics, they are located in the same cities, and all their advertising and their online presence leads you to believe they are actual clinics where actual abortion services are offered. The whole game is just running out the clock. It’s tricking women into making appointments, canceling and rescheduling them, so you run up against the deadline. In every state, though the deadlines vary, the deadlines are very real. Here in Massachusetts, at 24 weeks, it’s over. You have no other options past that point.
JA: I know you were writing this novel before all of the recent anti-abortion legislation, but I wondered what it was like having this book come into publication at this time, when it seems like the choices people might have are dwindling even further.
JH: Writing a timely novel is impossible if you try to do it on purpose. It just takes too long to gestate. I started writing this one around 2017 and none of this seemed to be on the horizon yet, so that wasn’t at all the motivating factor. The book rose out of my experience volunteering at a clinic. Mercy Street is kind of modeled on that place. I didn’t volunteer with the intention of writing a novel about it. I volunteered there because I believed in what they were doing.
Over time, I began to wonder: why is nobody writing a novel about this? It seemed to me I had never read anything honest about abortion. I don’t think I have. That’s what led me to write this book. If somebody is going to write about it, it should be done in a way that is true. That’s really the impulse behind it. I never imagined that it would coincide with these horrible political reversals we have seen in the past year.
JA: There are a few scenes that mark clear disparities in what populations are able to access safe abortions. I’m thinking of the quote, “The Hannah Ramseys of the world—rich white girls torn between Yale and Dartmouth—rarely fell for the con.” There are other populations of people, who don’t have the money, resources, or time, to have an abortion, who might be duped by the fake clinics or run up against the clock because of life circumstances. What was it like writing into those intersections?
JH: This is in many ways a novel about class, kind of like everything I’ve ever written. It’s a subject I keep coming back to. One thing I discovered in volunteering at this clinic is that class is a complicating factor when it comes to reproductive choice. A character like the Hannah Ramsey character has a mother who goes with her to the appointment, who is eager for her to get this experience behind her, and get on with her life. Not all patients who turn up at the clinic have that kind of support network.
There is a range of reasons why women choose abortion and that’s something we don’t really talk about. When we talk about abortion and choice, it’s almost never about the woman. It’s about the fetus, it’s about religious convictions, it’s almost never about the very good reasons why women do make this choice. Women from a privileged background have a wider range of options, and are certainly less likely to fall for something like the crisis pregnancy centers and also are less likely to be stopped by regulations like we are seeing in Texas, where abortion access is cut off at 16 weeks. If you have the means to travel somewhere else, if you can buy a plane ticket, if you can get time off work, if you don’t have children, or other relatives to look after, then you can find a workaround. But for a lot of women, that’s just not the case.
JA: I was interested in the consequences of different people in the book choosing to have children, choosing not to have children. Claudia’s mother Deb takes in so many fosters that Claudia finally realizes it’s because “it was one of the few things she could earn money doing” as a woman. She was a caretaker. Claudia obviously works to give pregnant people a choice, a future, but it is clear that people with the ability to become pregnant bear much of the responsibility of childcare. They are responsible for finding the resources—and money—needed to make choices about their bodies.
What did you consider about caretaking while writing? About motherhood? About the responsibility that people with the ability to become pregnant carry?
JH: There’s a moment early in the book where Claudia thinks about this idea that women are supposed to love children, this assumption that there is such a thing as maternal instinct. Claudia reflects that she loves them on a case by case basis, and that’s a result of the way she has grown up, where she has seen these kids in foster care who are hard to love because they have been abused or neglected or suffered some terrible trauma. It does make them really hard to love, and yet someone has to care for them.
All the caretakers in the book are women. The whole staff of the clinic, except the security guards, are women. I don’t think that is universally true, but it is not uncommon; the clinic where I worked was that way.
JA: There is this pervasive idea, I think, that women should naturally want to be mothers. I read Arianna Rebolini’s recent tweet about how she does not enjoy being a mom, even though she is a mom, and how she wants to imagine possibilities for communal childcare. As you can imagine, posting that publicly led to some extreme pushback, with people asking, “Why don’t you want to be a mom?” or “How could you post this when you have kids?” In thinking about all these different messages given to women surrounding motherhood, so many of them are tied to morality or the way women can be construed as saints or whores.
JH: I really think this is the root of a lot of pushback against abortion rights. It really is punishing women for sexuality. It’s not presented that way. It’s presented as being about the fetus and preservation of the fetus, but there is a real punitive element to it. It’s women’s sexual choices that are at the root of this. There’s this idea that if you are pregnant and don’t want to be, well you should have thought of that before you had sex. That is your fault. That is something you should have to live with. And nowhere in this is there a conversation about the man who contributed to this. For every woman who has ever had an abortion, there has been a man involved. It’s striking how seldom that is part of the conversation.
JA: Speaking of men, I feel like we have to talk about Victor and company. Victor is a longhaul trucker who is indoctrinated by a radio host who spews conspiracy theories. He is a prepper, creator of a website called the “Hall of Shame,” which features photos of women heading into abortion clinics (taken without their consent), and he paints his own anti-abortion signs. How did you decide to write about them?
JH: When I was volunteering at this clinic, there were men protesting outside all the time. Sometimes there were women, too, but there were always men. Sometimes there were only men. When I was conceiving of this story, I knew there would be some male antagonist to Claudia.
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, it’s part of Appalachia, in a tiny little town that is overwhelmingly Christian, It really is a part of the world where you see handmade signs along the road, things like “Abortion stops a beating heart,” the kinds of things Victor Prine is painting. I grew up hearing this really adamant anti-abortion rhetoric, and so I do associate that with the sort of town where I grew up. It was very natural for me to create Victor Prine as someone who is from that part of the world, because it is a part of the world I knew well.
JA: When Victor Prine uses his Excelsior11 username, he seems to perceive he has a lot more power than he might in other spaces. The anonymity of the internet seems to embolden people who are against abortion.
JH: That is certainly true. Had I written this novel thirty years ago, there could not have been a Victor Prine character who functions the way this one does. The truth is, now, all of us live some part of our lives online, and some of us live most of our lives online. That’s true for Victor Prine and Anthony. The two of them have struck up a friendship online, which could not have happened thirty years ago. It’s a product of technology. Certainly, there are all kinds of communities online—people who are against abortion, people who are in favor—these natural online communities. Victor Prine is a product of that.
JA: Was it uncomfortable occupying Victor’s head space?
JH: It became very comfortable, and that is sort of worrying to say. I believe this firmly: it’s the magic of point of view for a fiction writer. Whatever character you are writing, you have to take that character’s side while you’re writing that character, even if that character holds beliefs that are repugnant to you or that are entirely different from your own. When you’re writing the character, you have to make common cause with that character. It’s kind of like being an actor. The actor doesn’t pass judgment on the character she is playing; you become the character. I think that’s true if you are going to write any character’s point of view. You have to show some loyalty to that character and see the world through his eyes, at least while you’re writing him, even knowing that a month from now you might be writing a character with entirely different views.
JA: Did you learn anything from writing Victor? Or have any takeaways from that experience?
JH: I underestimated his loneliness when I started writing him, and it was something I came to understand as I spent more time with him on the page. They are all lonely people in this book. Victor is by far the loneliest, and he’s been loneliest for the longest; he’s not a young man. He has been lonely since childhood. He did not have a nurturing kind of family, he did not have a mother, he had a very difficult neglectful father, he has never had successful relationships with women. He is an isolated creature and has been isolated for so long that it has warped him.
JA: Smartphones and other forms of technology can be a form of safety, as Claudia notes while watching Dateline, but also can be weaponized, as we see through the online chat rooms where misogynistic, racist users congregate to talk about the everything from abortion to the end of the world. And on the flip side, photos are used to make women less anonymous, in a public “Hall of Shame.” And as Claudia notes, everyone has a smartphone in their pocket; we could all presumably infringe on the privacy of another.
JH: In the book, technology is a way that people lose privacy. The women walking into the clinic are fair game, they are out there on the street walking into a health center. Anyone could have taken those photos, and that’s a reality we all live with. We can all be photographed at any time. We all often have the sense that our phones are eavesdropping on us or that Siri is eavesdropping on us. It is a feature of modern life. The need for privacy around abortion is extreme because having an abortion is like having a target on your back.
I had said earlier that I had never read anything true about abortion, and there is a good reason for that. There is a reason why women don’t talk about their experiences with abortion. You feel very vulnerable; it leaves you wide open to this vicious sort of attack. The book is dedicated to the one in four women who will have an abortion at some point in their lives. That’s a huge number. It means that everybody knows someone who has had an abortion, and probably several people who have had an abortion, even if you are not aware of it. Claudia thinks at one point that it is a secret some people probably carry to their graves because people’s reactions to abortion are so extreme.
JA: Have you heard of Shout Your Abortion?
JA: I’m interested in what you thought about reading those stories. For me, there was an interesting array of emotions I encountered on the page that maybe I had not associated with abortion before. I remember people expressing joy, expressing relief. I’m curious how you might see this as a complementary text to yours, or a true text.
JH: I think it’s a terrifically brave thing that someone would have done that. It’s not possible for everyone. Here again, it’s a question of your circumstances. Having an abortion is something that someone would have a very good reason to be secretive about. I understand that it is empowering to other people if you share your experience; I think it is a brave thing to do, but it might not be possible for everyone. The moment I knew I had to write this novel—and it’s actually something that comes up in the story—there was a caller to the hotline I worked on at this clinic who wanted to schedule an abortion. She wanted to schedule it quickly and she said, if my ex finds out I’m pregnant, he’ll come to my house and shoot me and my kids. She really said that. I have no way of gauging the veracity of that, but I’m taking her word for it. She would certainly know better than I would. I was a volunteer on a hotline. People have all sorts of reasons for choosing abortion and all sorts of reasons for keeping it a secret. So I’d never judge someone for being secretive about it. I think it’s great that there is a trend that more women feel able to be open and transparent about it, but unfortunately, that’s not the world yet we live in for everyone.
JA: Since you’ve volunteered and now written this novel, what would you hope to see changed or what stories would you hope to see out in the world?
JH: What I would like to see changed, of course, is for women to be completely in control of this. There are lots of people who are pro-choice but believe that some of these restrictions, like restricting late term abortions, are okay. I used to be like that. Having learned a bit more about the experiences of women who need abortions, I’m inclined to think that maybe those restrictions are not a very good idea. What they mean, in effect, is that someone is going to be forced to carry a child she does not want to bear, and I don’t think that is ever acceptable, no matter what the circumstances. If you do not want to give birth, you should not be forced to carry a child, whatever your age, whatever your circumstances, nobody should be forced to do that.