“Women have been shamed into hiding their stories” – Jodi Picoult on A Spark of Light

International bestselling author Jodi Picoult has been known to tackle tough topics both in her novels and through pursuing various causes outside of her writing career. Over the years the New York-born novelist, who to date has sold around 25 million books in over 35 countries, has marched for gender parity, pushed for wider recognition of marginalised communities in the literary community and campaigned against the death penalty.

Picoult’s latest novel, A Spark of Light, sees her taking on the ever-contentious issue of child abortion in the US. With recent reports showing an increase in anti-abortion crime across the country and the rivalry between conservative and liberal ways of thinking at its most charged in decades, Maddy Blatherwick-Plumb found out why the author’s latest work has arrived in timely fashion.

Abortion is a hugely controversial topic especially in America. What was the motivation for tackling the subject?
When I was in college, a friend got pregnant and after many conversations and teary nights, decided to have an abortion. I supported her 100%. She was seven weeks pregnant at the time. Years later, I was seven weeks pregnant with my third child when I had complications and was told I might lose the pregnancy. I was devastated  – to me, that was already a child. How we feel about reproductive rights changes, not just whether we define ourselves as pro-life or pro-choice, but for an individual woman over the course of her own lifetime. What a woman feels is right at 16 might not be what she feels at 30 or at 43. Laws are black and white, but women are a thousand shades of grey  –  which is what makes legislating reproductive rights problematic.  That’s the message I want to get across to readers.

Did you approach the research with a strong opinion of your own?
I always believed myself to be pro-choice, and I still am. But I went into the research with the misconception that those who think differently from me had to be religious zealots. In fact, they were lovely individuals who come from a place of deep compassion and conviction. When I stopped talking and started listening, I found how much we had in common. I also realised, from speaking to women who had abortions, how complex that decision is and how much it stays with you, long afterwards.

“Laws are black and white, but women are a thousand shades of grey  –  which is what makes legislating reproductive rights problematic.”

Were you met with any hostility during the research process?
Not really, unless you count the protesters outside the clinic where I shadowed Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider in Alabama and Mississippi. However, I have been met with great hostility since publishing the book – lots of people on social media and in my email telling me how wrong I am, or threatening me. Interestingly, they are almost always middle-aged white males. That really makes me scratch my head. Is it that they are so desperate to save the lives of the unborn, as they claim… or is it that they want to control women’s sexuality?

If A Spark of Light helps the two sides of the argument see eye-to-eye, do you think it may be possible to reach a solution that is accepted by both sides in the future?
I think there is a way to move forward. Let’s assume two things: Roe v. Wade (the case that legalized abortion nationwide in America)is off the table, and no one ever WANTS an abortion – not even the women who have them. Given that, it’s fair to say it’s in everyone’s best interests to reduce the abortion rate. So, how do we start? Well, contraception. In countries where birth control is free and accessible and where sex ed is taught, the number of teen pregnancies is half what it is in the US. But those who are most often anti-choice are also anti-contraception. That baffles me – and feels much less about saving the lives of babies than it does about controlling women. Next: we know 75% of women have abortions because they can’t afford a baby. So… let’s raise the minimum wage. Let’s pass universal health care that covers maternity care plus the health care of the child. Let’s pass federally funded daycare. Let’s penalise companies that don’t promote women because they keep leaving the work force to have babies. All of these are excellent laws that we never discuss, because we are too busy talking about Roe v. Wade. I also believe it’s up to our male allies to speak up. Right now we live in a patriarchy in America – women can scream into the void but it’s men who are heard and listened to. So men need to get everyone’s attention… and pass the metaphorical microphone to a woman, so her voice can be amplified. Men need to convince other men that women’s rights are human rights. I also think it’s necessary for us to reach across the aisle and have a conversation with someone whose beliefs don’t match our own – but instead of judging and talking, just listen, and hope they offer you the same grace.

Is it that they are so desperate to save the lives of the unborn, as they claim… or is it that they want to control women’s sexuality?

What did you hope to achieve by writing this book?
I want to move the national conversation about abortion rights past Roe v. Wade, and to invite people to listen to what the ‘other side’ has to say.

What can we do to reduce the stigma around abortion?
Of the 151 women I interviewed who had an abortion, less than 25 said they were willing to be acknowledged by name, and most of those were by initial or pseudonym. That devastated me. Women have been shamed into hiding their stories, and by doing so, allowed others to come up with the narrative: one of regret, one of embarrassment, one of blame. If they DO speak up, they are victimised and vilified even though one in four women will have one. It’s time to take back the narrative, to normalise abortion, so that women are no longer made to feel that this one decision is the high water mark of their lives. I hope A Spark of Light encourages women to have the courage to tell their abortion story, so that in the future, another woman might be equally as brave.

Jodi Picoult will be discussing A Spark of Light at Sheffield Hallam University’s Pennine Theatre on Tuesday 30 October. Tickets are £18 (£17 concession) and includes a signed copy of the book. 

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