Maybe there’s a reason you can’t spell “foetus” without “foe.” At least not in British English. In any case, Annie Ernaux must have feared on some level that future generations would need a reminder of how harrowing life in a country where abortion is outlawed can be. Women of the present might have grown accustomed to the apparent “luxury” of having access to a safe, sanitary abortion, but, the way things are going, that might not last for much longer. And it bears reminding just how dire and isolating that can make things for a woman. With the recent adaptation of Ernaux’s sparse novella from 2000, writer-director Audrey Diwan has renewed the general sense of awe over the recounting of one French college student’s grueling and psychologically taxing journey to secure an abortion in France.
While the film sets the stage in the small town of Angoulême (presently of The French Dispatch fame), the novella takes place mostly in Rouen, where Ernaux is telling the tale from her own first-person perspective. The film, instead, makes the author into far more of a “character loosely based on” Ernaux (named Anne instead of Annie). Either way, thanks to Ernaux’s knack for framing her own personal experience within the context of the historical, we get a sense of the era’s oppressive brutality in both iterations of the tale (and yes, you might be thinking: how is that really any different from now?).
In the film, the passing of the weeks is demarcated by title cards designed to give us a sense of anxiety about if she’ll manage to make the cutoff (perhaps an ill-advised word) for aborting the baby. In the novella, Ernaux underscores how, for some of us, specific dates are of the utmost importance in tracking the end of one “phase” and the beginning of another. For Ernaux, January 8th was to signify far more than David Bowie or Elvis Presley’s birthday, and she highlights it expressly because “the date is an absolute necessity that reflects the reality of an event. It is the date that separates life from death for every one of us.” In this case, there is an actual death involved, that of the unborn child after she finally finds a literal back alley abortionist in Paris (who she refers to as “Madame P-R” for anonymity purposes) to get the job done.
Ernaux unearths the abortionist through the first man (a fellow student at her university) she tries to get involved in helping her. When she confesses her “dirty secret,” he naturally sees it as an opportunity to proposition her for sex. 1) Because he automatically assumes she’s a “slut” for having gotten pregnant and 2) Because he assures her that now that she is, it’s not like she has to worry about the result of fucking. In the book, this man is even more dastardly in that he’s married, and suggests to Anne that they have sex while his wife is out. For there is no limit to the cruelty and callousness of men.
This much also extends to the boyfriend who gets her pregnant in the first place. A political science student from another region who ultimately fails to see how Anne’s predicament is really his “problem.” What makes it worse is the fact that he’s clearly a richie and would be more than likely to have better resources at his disposal for “asking around”—in any case, he could have at least paid the four hundred francs Ernaux ended up spending. To this point, Ernaux addresses the unjust ways in which “illegal” abortionists are denigrated by commenting, “As I am writing this, I learn that a bunch of Kosovar refugees are trying to enter Britain illegally via Calais. The smugglers are charging vast sums of money and some of them disappear before the crossing. Yet nothing will stop the Kosovars or any other poverty-stricken emigrants from fleeing their native country: it’s their sole means of survival.” The parallel between the refugee and the woman with a criminalized body is clear. And it’s true, both will do whatever it takes to achieve what governments want to remain unachievable—even at the cost of their lives. Ernaux continues, “Today smugglers are vilified and pursued like abortionists were thirty years ago. No one questions the laws and world order that condone their existence. Yet surely, among those who trade in refugees, as among those who once traded in fetuses, there must be some sense of honor.”
No matter how seemingly “insignificant” that sense of honor might be. Even in Madame P-R’s cramped, modest apartment, there is an honor to the duty she carries out within its confines. Which might come across as merely “quotidian” to others, but not those who have endured abortions within it. Ernaux recalls, “Only now can I visualize the room. It defies analysis. All I can do is sink into it. I feel that the woman who is busying herself between my legs, inserting the speculum, is giving birth to me. At that point I killed my own mother inside me.” This last statement is a separate psychological minefield, and one that pertains to the notion that there is a form of “desecration” against motherhood involved in getting an abortion. Particularly when it’s done in this horrific fashion. If the occurrence had been more normalized at the time, perhaps Ernaux wouldn’t have felt quite so philosophical about the procedure.
But it’s not all grim throughout the rehashing. She at least jokes that there’s conveniently never been a painting in a museum called “The Abortionist’s Studio” as she also remembers the items laid out on the table in Madame P-R’s kitchen—ideal for a still-life rendering. Continuing to describe the apartment—a place that rooted her in this “event”—she notes, “For many years I saw that room and those curtains the same way I had seen them from my reclining position on the bed. Now it might be a room streaming with light with Ikea furniture, belonging to a young executive who has bought the whole floor. I am convinced that the walls still resonate with the memory of the girls and women who were there to have a probe thrust up their belly.”
And it’s true, a space of that nature would undeniably be haunted by the former energy there. Hopefully, that’s why the aforementioned “young executive” that might live in it now can never seem to get laid. Once the “deed” is done, Ernaux is accompanied to the station by Madame P-R, something she’d rather not have happen, but feels it would be too rude to decline. As would later be the case in Diablo Cody’s Juno, it seems there’s something about abortion and fingernails as Ernaux mentions the detail, “In the railroad car taking me back… a woman spent the whole trip meticulously filing her nails.”
Unfortunately, the hellacious experience—both physically and emotionally—doesn’t stop there for Ernaux. With a tube now shoved up her uterus, she waits for the fetus to come out. The vision she describes is indelible: “I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord. I couldn’t imagine having ever had that inside me. I had to walk with it to my room. I took it in one hand—it was strangely heavy—and proceeded along the corridor, squeezing it between my thighs. I was a wild beast.”
Managing to get help from someone in her dorm, Ernaux persists with her grisly account, “We look at the tiny body with its huge head, the eyes two blue dashes beneath translucent lids… We look at the sexual organs. We seem to detect the early stages of a penis. To think I was capable of producing that… It’s an indescribable scene, life and death in the same breath. A sacrificial scene.”
With this piece of the ceaseless puzzle completed, Ernaux makes mention of how, “In Japan, aborted embryos are called ‘mizuko’—water babes.” This said after she flushes her own down the toilet. So you see, the additional trauma added to what should have been a safe medical procedure during which the patient didn’t have to incorporate so many “DIY” practices might have spared Ernaux the searing of these images into her mind. Needless traumas layered upon the key trauma itself.
What’s more, despite freeing herself of the fetus, she wasn’t able to free herself of the painful, life-threatening aftermath, characterized by hemorrhaging. At the hospital, when Ernaux asked what was happening to her, the surgeon only shouted the insensitive words, “I’m no fucking plumber!” His cold reaction, Ernaux remarked, was largely due to his assumption that she was just another “working-class” girl and not a university student destined to jettison the shackles of her original station in life.
Of the plumber comment, Ernaux states, “This sentence and so many other ones that punctuated this part of my life—ordinary sentences by people who uttered them without thinking—still resonate inside my brain… Fleetingly, I glimpse a man in a white coat with rubber gloves, beating me black and blue, yelling, ‘I’m no fucking plumber!’ In my mind, this sentence continues to split the world in two, ramming home the distinction between, on the one hand, doctors, on the other, workers or women who abort, between those who rule and those who are ruled.” And yes, everyone knows that the potential decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is about making things even more difficult for those who are already powerless against the powerful: women of color and those who have limited access to health care due to low income as it is. With over half of the U.S.’ Black population concentrated in the South, where abortion laws have become the most restrictive, it’s not just an attack on women, but those women deemed “lesser than” by white men.
With this in mind, Ernaux also calls out one of the few other literary offerings centered on abortion, The Cider House Rules. It comes up as a footnote when she mentions how “all men” were “utterly fascinated” whenever she decided to tell them that she had had an abortion. Thus, regarding John Irving’s book, she saliently points out, “Through one of his characters, the author sees women who abort clandestinely die in terrible circumstances then opens a model clinic where he performs clean abortions, bringing up the children they leave behind. Entertaining fantasies of wombs and blood, he assumes the right to dispose of the life and death of women in the manner he chooses.”
Taking us back into the present in the final pages, upon revisiting the scene of the so-called crime, Ernaux keeps waiting for something to “happen” to her. Some kind of emotional effect to take hold. It never does. Just as the lesson we thought the government might have previously learned from outlawing abortion doesn’t either.