The comedy of abortion
By: Madison Griffiths
This is an edited extract from Tissue by Madison Griffiths, out now through Ultimo Press. You can order your copy here.
It is the beginning of August, and I am four weeks pregnant. It is a new discovery—barely two days old—and in a bid to make sense of my predicament, I meet Mia, a vivacious friend with an exceptionally dark sense of humour, for a beer.
She offers me a cigarette before bursting into laughter, because on the cover of the pack is a sickly baby smothered in various medical gadgetry as it struggles to breathe. Not funny. In fact, terribly unfunny.
SMOKING HARMS UNBORN BABIES, the pack reads, and—for whatever reason—the two of us share a wilful, cheeky smile. There is nothing funny about harmed babies, a line I never anticipated having to write, but there is something funny about this.
Image: Madison Griffiths (taken by Athina Wilson) and Tissue (courtesy of Ultimo Press)
Abortion has long been a keynote for comedians over the years, especially the sort of comedians who won’t ever have abortions: cis men. With coy, untouchable expressions, the Bill Burrs and Louis CKs of the world hurl spit and uninvited commentary onto their audiences about a topic that immediately causes flinching, wincing, and a handful of grins that awkwardly, and guiltily, scatter over the faces of their eager patrons.
There’s nothing louder than a man who rants energetically about whether or not a foetus is a baby than the knowledge that he is speaking abstractly, unencumbered by the realities of an issue he knows practically nothing about.
As Jonno Revanche writes for Meanjin, “the masculinist [comic] dances between ignorance and authority”. And then there’s Alison Leiby, a stand-up comic whose hourlong set, ‘Oh God, an Hour About Abortion’, tracks her own experience terminating a pregnancy: a comedy Jason Zinoman for The New York Times describes as being “about the heartbeat of the mother”.
The mother, I laugh to myself, imagining how Leiby would react to being regarded as such. Or perhaps I am humoured imagining how I would react if this book was described in such a way—a collection “about the heartbeat of the mother”—as if I hadn’t done the bloody, ferocious deed of de-mothering myself already.
In her set, Leiby makes an offhand comment about the kind of elated Instagram posts that litter the feed of millennials everywhere: the newborn reveal, a notorious hard launch of a tiny baby as it is being cradled by its exhausted parent, the mother and child surrounded by flowers and the earnest gaze of a nearby man, spooked by what he has witnessed, but in awe nonetheless.
“I think we can all agree [this] is when life really begins,” she states, matter-of-fact.
I once entertained the idea of posting a selfie online, three hours into my abortion, revealing me swathed in my own sweat. In it, I give the camera a measly thumbs up. That’s a lie: I actually did post this image, but swiftly deleted it.
I’m not sure what compelled me to take the photo. I think I thought it’d be funny.
Leiby’s charm, as decided by Zinoman, is in her ability to posture abortion as “an ordinary decision made relatively easy”. I don’t believe she set out to make it seem uncomplicated, it just was. For her, at least.
Not long after my abortion, my boyfriend and I watched an episode of Please Like Me, an endearing Australian drama-comedy. This particular episode
followed Claire, played by Caitlin Stasey, as she endured a medical abortion.
The process was relatively plain sailing, and I resented her for it: for her quiet moans as she composed herself on the toilet, for her ability to put her abortion to bed, so to speak, moments after it happened.
My abortion, on the other hand, was messy, brutish. Confronted by the amount of blood there was after one unforgiving session shedding my pregnancy, I thought I’d wipe my sweaty arse all over my boyfriend’s toilet in the share house he occupied with two men, both shy and in their twenties.
I made it my mission to adorn the bowl in red matter. The scene was atrocious, almost as if it had been plucked from a screen grab of an eighties slasher. It made me feel less alone, I think. No one likes blood, and certainly no one likes having to undergo an abortion, but I wasn’t going to go down solo, instead forcing a small group of boys to witness the undoing of my stunted pregnancy.
I didn’t tell my boyfriend that I’d deliberately smeared my insides all over his bathroom, that I’d even looked dazedly at my handiwork after one solid coat and thought, I can do better than that.
Instead, as I left the scene, I gestured dramatically toward the toilet door as if to say, I’d get in there and sort it out if I were you. You did this, after all.
Leiby’s mission is clear and admirable. As Zinoman reports, “in repositioning abortion not as a political battle of ideas but as the real-world choices in the lives of flawed human beings, she brings this charged issue down to earth.”
Perhaps Leiby is tired in much the same way that I am: tired of having to prove that her survival is worth something, that our significance in the world has to be accompanied by some kind of affecting soundtrack, and not the groans—and later, perhaps laughter, if we’re lucky—of a terminated pregnancy.
Life isn’t always poignant: it’s messy, awkward and mundane. Mundane, too: Leiby’s abortion. Mundane, too: my rage, amusing to my boyfriend, as I woke from a brief slumber after taking the anti-nausea pills my doctor had prescribed me, sick—quite literally—of the headlock morning sickness had me in for what felt like a lifetime.
How ironic, describing my pregnancy as a lifetime, my wordplay unwittingly borrowed from pro-life rhetoric. I’d slept the anti-nausea pills off, and an oily package of Thai food had arrived while I was dribbling onto his pillow, so when I woke, I was queasy again. Unable to eat, and fucking furious.
This is where the magic in Leiby’s routine lives, though: she centres one life—her life—and that’s the damn point.
“Who will I become without a child to define me?” Leiby asks.
A funny question, really, given the way her abortion, and how she has documented it, has propelled her into the international, comedic spotlight. In much the same way, I am progressively becoming defined not just by the child I didn’t have, but the pregnancy I actively ended.
There’s something deeply satisfying about counting your gains after terminating a pregnancy. It’s not quite a loss after all then, is it? And, if we’re speaking numerically, my Guardian article only paid for half of my abortion.
Aren’t medical procedures designed to aid us, to be advantageous to the individual undergoing them, to offer a life more enriching, more restored than before, or to at least aid a body so that it can function how it ought to?
I have benefited from my abortion and continue to, and this shouldn’t have to be something I whisper, something I harbour guilt for.
For Glamour magazine, Jenny Singer writes about the film Unpregnant, an HBO comedy that follows two estranged best friends as they reunite, travelling nearly 1000 miles to acquire an abortion, and how it captures “the fearful joy of being alive”.
It is irrefutably cheerful and simultaneously haphazard in the best kind of way: there’s stolen cars, Kelly Clarkson singalongs, and even zealous evangelical villains who chase two teenagers down in a baby-mobile (a pro-life truck embellished in frightening foetus propaganda), basking in the kind of adolescent thrills traditionally reserved for boyish, coming-of-age adventure flicks, like Almost Famous and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Unpregnant is an elegy for youth, where the promise of an exciting, not-too-distant adulthood is on the horizon, and the female protagonist Veronica, played by Haley Lu Richardson, not once seems tethered to her pregnancy.
It is nothing more than an expensive speed bump, as well as an unlikely opportunity to rekindle a friendship with a long lost buddy, played by Barbie Ferreira, as they embark on a tumultuous road trip to Albuquerque, the closest city that offers abortion procedures for minors without parental consent.
There’s no loss, no heartache.
Unpregnant is not the only abortion comedy of its kind. There’s also Obvious Child, a film about a stand-up comedian, played by Jenny Slate, who requires an abortion after a drunken one-night stand.
The Media Research Center, a delightfully misleading title for what is actually a right-wing watchdog group, wrote about Obvious Child: “If America laughs at this, America is beyond redemption.”
But, according to them, I am already well past saving: does it make me any more of a bloodthirsty sinner if I find women in predicaments—predicaments not too dissimilar to my own—an amusing genre?
There’s a particular vein of privilege in being able to laugh about your own abortion, though.
Women have rotted in cells for terminating their pregnancies—often unsafe, illegal and deeply traumatising procedures—and those are the lucky ones, the ones that made it out alive, who didn’t bleed out on the carpeted floors of lonely motel rooms, who weren’t buried having paid the ultimate price for freedom. Doctors have been gunned down in churches for facilitating abortions.
Recently, a friend of a friend broke her arm in a heated abortion protest in Perth, where evangelical and rightwing groups terrorised her relentlessly.
In Singer’s article for Glamour, she notes that the abortion comedies that have made headlines “unintentionally obscure the demographics of people who seek abortions”, as [they all] “feature an affluent, childless white woman”. But, as she reports, data from the Guttmacher Institute reveals that “three fourths of abortion patients [are] low-income”, and “more than half of women who seek abortions already have at least one child”.
There’s a protective layer that abortion access provides, and while it doesn’t always mean the procedure is carefree and uncomplicated, if you’re white, middle-class and able-bodied, more freedoms are afforded to you: including, perhaps, the freedom to laugh.
In my research for this chapter, I stumbled across a brief, but pointedly funny piece of prose by Amy Collier titled ‘Whimsical Abortion Procedures’.
“Pay off the stork to remove your house from its route,” she writes. “Mentally replay every worst memory of your childhood until pregnancy is scared away. Works every time.”
These ‘methods’ are deliberately absurd. Humour is employed to reveal the absence of power people have once they are pregnant. Carrying a growth that is unable to be willed away.
We can try: one night I devoured a handful of Xanax, topped off by a few sips of tequila, and rounded out my night by collapsing into a hot bath, blasting loud Scandinavian pop through my speaker as I cried.
Unable to sing along, given I don’t speak Danish, or Norwegian, or Swedish, I let the bawling notes wash over me. I ate an entire tub of raw, soggy mussels. I stared at myself firmly in the mirror in a bid to intimidate the foetus I had decided was looking back at me.
I offered to tattoo JESUS IS A CUNT onto somebody’s knee in exchange for a gigantic bag of weed, and a less gigantic bag of ketamine. I took in deep, concerted breaths as I emptied my cat’s litter, which is apparently illegal to do when you’re pregnant.
I thought about my mother’s retelling of the time she got horrifically pissed at a friend’s birthday, stumbling haplessly in a pair of high shoes, without yet realising she was three months pregnant.
“But I guess you turned out just fine,” she told me.
“Did I?” I scoffed, hoping this sobering realisation alone would will my body into relinquishing my foetus, at least for my nearly-baby’s own sake.
None of it worked, and like Collier, I ended my brief woo-woo courtship with my foetus by “taking a ride on the Aborti-coaster”, a little like one of those haunted fairground attractions but far less colourful.
Madison Griffiths is a writer, artist and producer based in Melbourne. She is the co-producer of Tender, an award-winning Broadwave podcast that follows what happens in the aftermath of abusive relationships. Her essays have been published widely in the Guardian, SBS, VICE, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and more. In 2022, she won the Our Watch Award as administered by the Walkley Foundation for Excellence in Reporting on Violence Against Women and Children. Tissue is her first book.
In Tissue, Madison Griffiths turns her keen eye to the topic of abortion in a meditative and personal look at a procedure that is common yet vilified, championed yet sometimes grieved. Tissue looks at the feelings of guilt around choice, exploring the language we use, or don’t, and how the silence shapes the way we think and feel about the act.
This is an edited extract from Tissue by Madison Griffiths, out now through Ultimo Press. You can order your copy here.
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