Irene Vilar's extraordinary and incendiary new memoir, Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict, is a potential launching pad for a discussion about abortion that is more personal than political. Having terminated fifteen pregnancies in sixteen years, Vilar turns her experiences into a reminder that the complexity of abortion extends beyond the scientific and political arenas.
Vilar places her story in the context of her family and national history – both studies in abandonment, displacement and subjugation. Her grandmother, a notorious Puerto Rican nationalist, left Puerto Rico to fight for its autonomy in the United States, leaving her children in the care of relatives. Although Latin America has stricter anti-abortion laws than North America and Europe, it also has the highest rate of abortions, and the highest rate of deaths from abortions. In the 1950s and 1960s, the US tested early versions of the control pills on Puerto Rican women, and by 1974, 37 percent of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had become permanently sterile as a result of the experiments. Vilar's own mother was forced to have a hysterectomy, after which she sank into depression and Valium addiction, eventually ending her own life by throwing herself out of a moving vehicle when Vilar was just eight years old.
Vilar was left in the care of relatives, just as her mother had been, until she left for Syracuse University when she was just fifteen. Vilar describes how she, like her mother, grew up perceiving herself as a permanent guest in the homes of others, tolerated but never welcomed, always needing to earn her place in the house by tending to the needs of others.
This sense of servitude drives her dysfunctional relationship with her first husband; their relationship begins when she is a 16-year-old student and he is her 50-year-old professor. The student-teacher dynamic is intensified in their relationship – he willingly becomes her "master," molding her into his image of a perfect woman. Vilar structures her life around their relationship with frightening intensity, writing "I was not alive when he wasn't with me." Most of her pregnancies are terminated at his insistence; he threatens to leave her if she carries any of them to term, placing his orders in a framework of warped feminism and intellectual rationalization, teaching her that childrearing (along with other familiarities like handholding) kills romance and that motherhood is for "cowards" who willingly sentence themselves to a lifetime of domestic slavery. But Vilar purposefully forgets to take her birth control pills as a sublimated form of rebellion, feeling a rush of self-determination each time she conceives. "Sexuality spun a casing of shame around me," she writes, "slowly concealing my origins and ties to my past. But pregnant, my life felt less sub-human." Abortion becomes a form of self-mutilation, her body a battleground in her fight for autonomy.
Now remarried and the mother of two young daughters, Vilar has received hate mail and death threats since the publication of Impossible Motherhood, and has been accused of using abortion as her primary form of birth control. In the book, she concedes that she has abused the hard-won rights of the women's movement and is "a disappointment" to the pro-choice activists whose work gave her safe access to abortion in the first place. But the book itself is a graphic illustration of the abstract issues of contemporary feminism. Vilar writes that after her nearly fatal second abortion, her biggest concern was inconveniencing her partner: "I had aborted a pregnancy I wanted, had almost died, and all I could feel was terror at becoming a man's problem." Her story documents the fight for women's rights beyond the reach of reproductive freedom laws – the right to assert oneself creatively, the right to be a whole person, the right to be a man's problem.
Vilar's first husband told her, "A woman attracts me when she doesn't carry a load of wounds that make her speak with such assurance and bitterness that I want to grab a New York Times and cut her off from my field of vision." Impossible Motherhood doesn't shy away from the wounds that are part of Vilar's journey toward independence; it embraces them, making her remarkable story full of assurance but free of bitterness.