Anaïs Nin on abortion rights in America, 1940
Months after returning to New York from France at the beginning of World War II, Anaïs Nin discovered she was pregnant. By whom is a matter of speculation. Possibilities are her husband Hugh Guiler, or one of her lovers, Henry Miller and Gonzalo Moré. What follows are excerpts from the unpublished diary that describe her encounter with a young American woman with whom she shared the danger and humiliation of illegal abortion. Her views on abortion rights, astounding given the era, are made clear.
(Excerpted from the unpublished diary of Anaïs Nin, which is more fully reproduced in Volume 1 of A Café in Space: The Anaïs Nin Literary Journal, 2003.)
Aug. 22, 1940. Saturday I discovered I was pregnant—three months! Days of anguish over the money and the complications I feared. Dr.____ put me in the hands of a good German Jew who works for rich women. He said it would have to be done in two operations, one to insert the bag which dilates the womb (this is done without ether) and then the final one done with ether. I set the date for the 21st, Wednesday. Arrived at 9:30. Was strapped like an insane person, even wrists tied, arms, waist, legs. A strange sensation of utter helplessness. Then the doctor came in. As he begun to work he found the womb dilating so easily that he continued the operation, in spite of the terrific pain. And so in 6 minutes of torture I had done what is usually done with ether! But it was over. I couldn’t believe it. And today I am home, lying down most of the time.
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. The nurse pulled the curtain so that I could not see her. She was made to undress and lie down—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?”
“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 [he] knew, but that my lover had to be deceived and made to believe I had no relations with [my husband]. Lying there whispering about the pain—I never felt such a strong kinship with woman—woman—this one I could not see, or identify, the one who was also lying in a cot filled with primitive fear and an obscure sense of murder, of 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 truly the victim now, beyond the help of her courage and aliveness. How much 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, 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. Obscurely each pregnancy is a conflict. The break is not simple. You are tearing off 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.