Brain Pickings

Anaïs Nin on Abortion and Women’s Reproductive Rights: A Prescient Lament from 1940

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“Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.”

Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) was a woman who rejected the options handed down to her by life and instead lived by her own rules. She was also modern history’s most dedicated diarist, beginning at the age of eleven and writing until her death, for a total of sixteen volumes of published journals exploring everything from love to self-publishing to why emotional excess is essential to creativity to the meaning of life.

In 1923, when Nin was only twenty, she married the Swiss banker-turned-artist Hugh Parker Guiler. They decided on an open marriage, of which both took ample advantage over the decades. But the biological cards aren’t stacked evenly for men and women in such arrangements, especially two decades before the invention of the birth control pill: In the summer of 1940, while in a highly involved relationship with one of her lovers, Nin found herself pregnant — by her husband. The circumstances were less than ideal: Not only were Nin and her husband already in dire financial straits, but World War II had just broken out, engulfing the world in hopelessness and destruction. Meanwhile, Gonzalo, Nin’s lover, was a highly temperamental and explosive man intensely jealous of Nin’s relationship with her husband, particularly their physical intimacy. Amid these circumstances, Nin and Guiler decided on an abortion.

From Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 (public library) — which also gave us Nin on the elusive nature of joy — comes the author’s moving account of the complexities surrounding women’s reproductive rights and exposes how little progress we’ve made on the subject in more than seven decades.

She recounts the day of the abortion procedure, performed on August 21, 1940, by a doctor who operated on her without anesthesia despite first assuring her otherwise:

I arrived at nine-thirty and was strapped like an insane person, wrists tied, arms, waist, legs — a strange sensation of utter helplessness. Then the doctor came in. As he began to work, he found the womb dilating so easily that he continued the operation in spite of the terrific pain. And so in six minutes of torture, I had done what is usually done with ether! But it was over. I couldn’t believe it.

And yet the most important encounter at the clinic wasn’t a medical one but a deeply human one. Nin writes:

The only wonderful moment in all this was when I was lying on a little cot in the doctor’s office and another woman came in. The nurse pulled the curtain so that I could not see her. She was made to undress and lie down, to relax. The nurse left us.

Soon I heard a whisper to me: “How was it?” I reassured her — told her how I had been able to bear it without ether, so it would be nothing with ether.

She said: “How long were you pregnant?”

“Three months.”

“I only two — but I’m scared. My husband is away. He doesn’t know. He must never know.”

I couldn’t explain to her that my husband knew, but that my lover had to be deceived and made to believe I had no relations with Hugh. Lying there whispering about the pain, I had never felt such a strong kinship with woman — woman — this one I could not see, or identify, the one who was also lying on a cot, filled with primitive fear and an obscure sense of murder, or guilt, and of an unfair struggle against nature — an unequal struggle with all the man-made laws against us, endangering our lives, exposing us to inexperienced maneuvers, to being economically cheated and morally condemned — woman is truly the victim now, beyond the help of her courage and aliveness. How much there is to be said against the ban on abortion. What a tragedy this incident becomes for the woman. At this moment she is hunted down, really. The doctor is ashamed, deep down, but falsely so. Society condemns him. Everything goes on in an atmosphere of crime and trickery. And the poor woman who was whispering to me, afterwards, I heard her say to the doctor: “Oh, doctor, I’m so grateful to you, so grateful!” That woman moved me so much. I wanted to know her. I wanted to pull the curtain and see her. But I realized she was all women — the humility, the thoughtfulness, the fear and the childlike moment of utter defenselessness. A pregnant woman is already a being in anguish. Each pregnancy is an obscure conflict. The break is not simple. You are tearing away a fragment of flesh and blood. Added to this deeper conflict is the anguish, the quest for the doctor, the fight against exploitation, the atmosphere of underworld bootlegging, a racket. The abortion is made a humiliation and a crime. Why should it be? Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.

Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 is masterwork of candor, insight, and raw humanity in its entirety. Complement this particular excerpt with Italo Calvino on abortion and the meaning of life, writing 35 years after Nin.

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