Brain Pickings

Italo Calvino on Abortion and the Meaning of Life


“A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.”

“In the current abortion debate, there is no talk of children. … They never talk about nineteen-year-old fetuses,” lamented SNL’s Nora Dunn in a recent anthology of women writers and entertainers on the choice not to have children. But this sensitive subject was addressed even more eloquently and timelessly by beloved Italian writer, cultural critic, and literary jukeboxer Italo Calvino nearly three decades earlier, just as the second wave of feminism was gathering momentum. In a letter to Professor Claudio Magris from early February of 1975, found in the altogether fantastic newly released tome Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library), Calvino responds in outrage to Magris’s pro-life article titled “The Deluded,” published in Italy’s premier newspaper, Corriere della sera, on February 3 that year. With a broader meditation on the meaning of life, Calvino makes a passionate yet crisply lucid case for abortion as respect rather than disrespect for life:

Bringing a child into the world makes sense only if this child is wanted consciously and freely by its two parents. If it is not, then it is simply animal and criminal behavior. A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people. If this is not the case, then humanity becomes — as it is already to a large extent — no more than a rabbit-warren. But this is no longer a “free-range” warren but a “battery” one, in the conditions of artificiality in which it lives, with artificial light and chemical feed.

Only those people … who are a hundred percent convinced that they possess the moral and physical possibility not only of rearing a child but of welcoming it as a welcome and beloved presence, have the right to procreate. If this is not the case, they must first of all do everything not to conceive, and if they do conceive (given that the margin for unpredictability continues to be high) abortion is not only a sad necessity, but a highly moral decision to be taken with full freedom of conscience. I do not understand how you can associate abortion with an idea of hedonism or the good life. Abortion is a terrifying thing…

In abortion the person who is massacred, physically and morally, is the woman. Also for any man with a conscience every abortion is a moral ordeal that leaves a mark, but certainly here the fate of the woman is in such a disproportionate condition of unfairness compared with the man’s, that every male should bite his tongue three times before speaking about such things. Just at the moment when we are trying to make less barbarous a situation which for the woman is truly terrifying, an intellectual uses his authority so that women have to stay in this hell. Let me tell you, you are really irresponsible, to say the least. I would not mock the “hygienic-prophylactic measures” so much; certainly you will never have to undergo a scraping of your womb. But I’d like to see your face if they forced you to have an operation in the filth and without any recourse to hospitals under pain of imprisonment.

Calvino ends the letter by making his convictions actionably clear:

I am sorry that such a radical divergence of opinion on these basic ethical questions has interrupted our friendship.

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is indispensable in its entirety, a treasure trove of timeless insight on literature and life.

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