The Abortion Conundrum: Murder or Women’s Right to Choose–A Review of Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks

Red Clocks (2019) by Leni Zumas

Ladies, can you imagine standing trial for medical malpractice because you helped out another woman? Perhaps you may have taken a niece to the pharmacy to purchase topical cream for a yeast infection. Or, you might have given your friend some Advils for period cramps. To be potentially prosecuted for helping to ease the discomfort and pain of another woman may seem absurd to you, but in Leni Zumas’s new novel, Red Clock, this scenario has become the new normal.

Red Clocks takes place in the fictional town of Newville, Oregon, in the not-so-distant future. Zumas, in her poetic language, tells the stories of four women in a society in which the lawmakers overturned Roe v. Wade and fetus gained equal rights as full-fledged humans. In this world, abortion is illegal in all 50 states, and IVF has also been banned because the unborn fetus cannot give consent to being born. Additionally, under the “Every child needs two” act, a single parent can no longer adopt a child.

The laws affect the four women in the novel in different ways. Ro/The Biographer is a history teacher who desperately wants a child but could not conceive, Mattie/The Daughter is a promising high school student who is seeking an abortion. Gin/The Mender is a mysterious woman who lives in the forest and provides alternative health care with her knowledge of herbs and roots. Susan/ The Wife is an unhappy housewife and mother who desperately wants to flee. All their stories interconnect to paint a devastating picture of womanhood in a world where women have no reproductive rights and the rights to their bodies.

When I was younger, I enjoyed dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951). To me, these books describe scenarios that could happen in a technologically advanced but ambiguous future or some imagined post-apocalyptic world that would never be realized. My favourite books are more metaphoric than literal, a way to illustrate the consequences of unchecked power or greed. Either way, the scenarios described in these books are relatable in a far-stretched kind of way and comfortably removed from my reality. They are more like tell-tale signs of the demise of humanity if we as a species aren’t more careful. Red Clocks, on the other hand, is not so removed from our reality–it is grounded in the United States of America in the year 2019.

This novel is poignant in a time when lawmakers are making strides in abolishing abortion rights across multiple states. There are clashes between those who identify as pro-life and those who are pro-choice. Neither side will listen to each the other because abortion, more than anything, is a moral question. Is it an act of murdering an unborn child, or a choice a woman could make for her body and her family? The answer to this question depends on what one might think is a human, or rather, when a group of cells becomes a human. Some people believe that it happens right at conception, while others at the time when the fetus exits the woman’s womb. Then there are the people in between who think a group of cells become a human at some undetermined point between conception and birth. No matter how you slice it, the abortion question is a conundrum: It’s a battle between life and choice. Whose belief should rule the court of law?

There are people who argue that killing an unborn life is unnecessary when the child can be given up for adoption or cared for within the community. It is true that there are women who ended up finding good homes for their unplanned babies. Others may come from supportive communities with resources to take care of them and their babies. However, for many, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, many of whom are women of colour from a lower socio-economic class, this is not an option for them. Yes, carrying a baby full-term is an option for many women, but it is also the least beneficial option for many more. Banning the right to abortion effectively become a punishment for women: for their promiscuity, or their lack of education or for their ethnicity or social economic class.

Recently, over the phone, my mother shared a piece of news about one of our pregnant family members. Her pregnancy seemed normal until she went for an ultrasound during a routine check-up. Afterward, her physician informed her the fetus appeared swollen and give her the diagnosis of hydrops fetalis. According to MedlinePlus, hydrops fetalis “occurs when abnormal amounts of fluid build up in two or more body areas of a fetus or newborn.” It is a symptom of underlying problems, and the survival rate of the fetus is low. According to Healthline, “Only about 20 percent of babies diagnosed with hydrops fetalis before birth will survive to delivery, and of those babies, only half will survive after delivery.” With these facts in hand, my relative made the painful choice to end her pregnancy at 16 weeks.

Though my heart broke for my relative who ended her pregnancy for the health of herself and her family, I am more thankful that she has the ability to make that call. I am a firm believer that abortion should be an option, regardless of one’s idea about human-ness and at what stage a fetus is considered a person with rights. At the end of the day, I want to live in a society with fewer moral judgments where we have the space to have our beliefs. I want all of us to be free to make choices that may be contrary to the beliefs of others. Most of all, I want to live in a more compassionate world where we have dialogues, rather than tearing each other down to prove that one’s belief is more superior. My question is, how do we get there?

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