Israeli-born writer Shelly Oria understands that the threat to legal abortion in the U.S. is at a pinnacle. Nonetheless, when in 2019 she began putting together I Know What’s Best for You (McSweeney’s, $21.99), she cast a wide net, soliciting work that focused not just on abortion, but on the many issues that comprise reproductive justice.
“I felt drawn to a broader approach and invited writers and artists to respond to any aspect of reproductive freedom with which they connected: miscarriages, fertility, contraception, surrogacy, childfreeness,” she writes in the book’s foreword.
The result, 29 short stories, poems, graphics, theatrical scenes, and creative nonfiction, is insightful and moving. It’s also sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and sometimes it simply provides us a recognizable slice of life. Contributions come from women, men and nonbinary writers, and include queer, straight, and bisexual voices of all races and religions, some flying solo and others living in diverse family constellations. It’s an impressive mix.
At the same time, the politics of reproductive control—legislative attempts to limit what we can do with our bodies and when and where we can do it—is a hovering, rather than explicit, presence. These are, instead, highly personal pieces about pregnancy, parenthood, family, and access to care.
Ambivalence is central to many of the entries. Alisa Espach’s fictional “Let’s Be Normal and Have a Baby,” for example, tells the story of a couple, one of whom has end-stage cancer, and their ongoing debate over whether to get pregnant. It’s a gut-punch.
Likewise, R.O. Kwon’s “Protest” is a short story about a heterosexual romance in which Phoebe becomes enamored with an anti-abortion cult. This leaves her boyfriend wondering if their relationship can be sustained.
On a different tangent, Riva Lehrer, born with spina bifida in 1958, rails at her forced sterilization at age 15. It’s a breathtakingly honest piece of creative nonfiction. “No one ever asked me if I wanted children,” she writes. “Our relatives asked our girl cousins if they had crushes on boys… Who was taking them to prom? Oh, a boyfriend. How nice. But no one asked me…For crip kids, sex was the forbidden word, as unmentionable as a demon’s name in a Black Forest fairy tale.”
Sadness and anger also permeate Kristen Arnett’s “The Babies,” a short storyabout a late-term abortion following the in-utero death of a much-wanted child. Likewise, Tiphanie Yanique’s “Divorcedly,” a chronicle enumerating the trampled dreams of one middle-aged adult. “I wanted a professorship,” she writes. “I wanted marriage. I wanted children…I had a kid but wanted another. I had a husband but wanted a better one.” Instead, said protagonist becomes a divorced, disabled mother of four, juggling multiple adjunct teaching positions. The account merges disappointment with joy and it is as beautiful as it is devastating.
Speaking of joy, Carrie Bornstein’s “Steel Womb” puts a wholly positive spinon pregnancy. After having three successful and relatively easy deliveries, shedecided to become a surrogate. “I helped create a kid who would not have existed without me,” she writes. “I got to watch a woman become a mother. Hannah moved from cutting the umbilical cord to gently kissing my head. I got to watch a man become a father, a floppy newborn resting on his chest.”
It’s hard not to cheer this account. That said, like all anthologies, different readers will react more strongly to some entries than to others. Still, as we reluctantly think about life after Roe, I expect many of us will repeatedly turn to I Know What’s Best for You. Inspiring, humane, passionate, and compassionate, it eschews easy answers. For that alone, it should be read.
Eleanor J. Bader is a frequent Lilith blogger and writer based in Brooklyn, NY.