Ursula Le Guin on Abortion: “The Princess” & “What It Was Like”

Excerpted from “The Princess” originally published in Dancing at the Edge of the World, 1982:

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in the Dark Ages, there was a princess … She went to a college for training female royalty, and there, at the associated college for training male royalty, she met a prince … Although the princess was on the Honors List and the prince was a graduate student, they were remarkably ignorant about some things …This was long ago, remember, in the Dark Ages, before sex was obligatory, before the Pill…

Perhaps you can imagine what happens next in this story? Like all fairy tales, it follows a familiar path; there is a certain inevitable quality to the events.

“We have to get married!” the princess said to the prince. “I’m going home to my mother,” the prince said to the princess. And he did. He went home to his family palace in Brooklyn Heights, and hid in the throne room.

The princess went to her family palace on Riverside Drive and cried a lot … She cried so hard that her parents finally saw what had to be the matter. And they said, “OK, it’s OK, honey, and if he won’t marry you, you don’t have to have the baby.”

Now, you may recall that in the Dark Ages abortion was not legal. It was a crime, and not a minor one.

The princess’s parents were not criminal types. … And yet now, without hesitation, they resolved to break the law, to conspire to commit a felony. And they did so in the reasoned and deeply felt conviction that it was right, that indeed it was their responsibility to do so.

The princess herself questioned the decision, not on legal grounds, of course, but ethically. She cried some more and said, “I’m being cowardly. I’m being dishonest. I’m evading the consequences of my own actions.”

Her father said, “That’s right. You are. That cowardice, dishonesty, evasion, is a lesser sin than the crass irresponsibility of sacrificing your training, your talent, and the children you will want to have, in order to have one nobody wants to have.”

He was a Victorian, you see, and a bit of a Puritan. He hated waste and wastefulness….

It was an old family friend, a child psychologist, who finally found the right contact, the criminal connection. … They were really slick, that outfit … They never used the word “abortion,” not even that cute euphemism “A.B.” The doctor offered to restore the hymen. “It’s easy, he said. “No extra charge.” The princess did not wish to be rebuilt like a Buick and said, “No. Get on with it.”…

The princess went back to college … She got her B.A. a few months after she got her A.B., and then went on to graduate school, and then got married, and was a writer, and got pregnant by choice four times. One pregnancy ended in spontaneous abortion, miscarriage, in the third month; three pregnancies ended in live normal birth. She had three desired and beloved children, none of whom would have been born if her first pregnancy had gone to term. …

If there is a moral to my tale, it’s something like this. In spite of everything the little princess had been taught by the male-supremacist elements of her society, … by the existence of a law declaring abortion to be a crime, by the sleek extortion of the abortionist—despite all those message repeating ABORTION IS WRONG!—when the terror was past, she pondered it all, and she thought, “I have done the right thing.”

What was wrong was not knowing how to prevent getting pregnant. What was wrong was my ignorance. To legislate that ignorance, that’s the crime. I’m ashamed, she thought, for letting bigots keep me ignorant, and for acting willfully in my ignorance, and for falling in love with a weak, selfish man. I am deeply ashamed. But I’m not guilty. Where does guilt come in? I did what I had to do so that I could do the work I was put here to do. I will do that work That’s what it’s all about. It’s about taking responsibility.…

What was it like, in the Dark Ages, when abortion was a crime…? What was it like for the girl who couldn’t tell her dad, because he’d go crazy with shame and rage? Who couldn’t tell her mother? Who had to go alone to that filthy room and put herself, body and soul, into the hands of a professional criminal?…You know what was like for her.  You and I know; that’s why we’re here. We are not going back to the Dark Ages. We are not going to let anybody in this country have that kind of power over any girl or woman. There are great powers, outside the government and in it, trying to legislate the return of darkness. We are not great powers. But we are the light. Nobody can put us out. May all of you shine very bright and steady today and always.

Excerpted from “What It Was Like” (2012), published in Words Are My Matter, 2016:

My friends at NARAL asked me to tell you what it was like before Roe vs Wade. They asked me to tell you what it was like to be twenty and pregnant in 1950 and when you tell your boyfriend you’re pregnant, he tells you about a friend of his in the army whose girl told him she was pregnant, so he got all his buddies to come and say, “We all fucked her, so who knows who the father is?” And he laughs at the good joke….

What was it like, if you were planning to go to graduate school and get a degree and earn a living so you could support yourself and do the work you loved—what it was like to be a senior at Radcliffe and pregnant and if you bore this child, this child which the law demanded you bear and would then call “unlawful,” “illegitimate,” this child whose father denied it … What was it like? […]

It’s like this: if I had dropped out of college, thrown away my education, depended on my parents … if I had done all that, which is what the anti-abortion people want me to have done, I would have borne a child for them, … the authorities, the theorists, the fundamentalists; I would have born a child for them, their child.

But I would not have born my own first child, or second child, or third child. My children.

The life of that fetus would have prevented, would have aborted, three other fetuses … the three wanted children, the three I had with my husband—whom, if I had not aborted the unwanted one, I would never have met … I would have been an “unwed mother” of a three-year-old in California, without work, with half an education, living off her parents….

But it is the children I have to come back to, my children Elisabeth, Caroline, Theodore, my joy, my pride, my loves. If I had not broken the law and aborted that life nobody wanted, they would have been aborted by a cruel, bigoted, and senseless law. They would never have been born. This thought I cannot bear.

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