New story day! “Rabbit Test” is now available in Uncanny Magazine Issue 49, free online here. It is about the past, present, and future of abortion rights in America. Genre-wise, this one is a real departure for me. I tend to stick to fantasy, telling whatever story I like on the surface and embedding something personal in the metaphorical underground. But in the case of “Rabbit Test” I wove real history all throughout the narrative, because I couldn’t separate my feelings from reality.
And frankly? History is broader and weirder and messier than anything I could make up, and I had to leave out as much as I managed to shove in. I wish I’d made more room for birth control, for instance. The trifecta of birth control, pregnancy testing, and abortion have been intertwined through all known human history, but this thing was already pushing 7K words and decisions had to be made!
Anyway, if you’d like more background on nineteenth century sex scandals, abortionist nuns, the ongoing frog apocalypse, and a few bits that I dearly wish I could have found room for but didn’t–take a look below.
And if you’re looking for ways to give or get help, the National Network of Abortion Funds to be a really great resource for findings groups that are already doing work on the ground, as well as a simple way to donate to multiple groups at once.
This story began with my interest in the history of pregnancy testing. There’s a detailed timeline of the development of the home pregnancy test on the NIH website, including the work of Judith Vaitukaitis and Glenn Braunstein in the 1970s to develop a new assay for hCG, as well as a look at magazine advertising (which sent me down a Mademoiselle rabbit hole) and pop culture references.
The Harvard blog has an overview of historic urine-based tests, from the barley seeds of the Egyptians to the piss prophets of Europe to rabbits, frogs, and finally the modern pee-on-a-stick. (And there’s a more conversational overview of the same over at Gizmodo.)
The Atlantic has a great article about the invention of the first at-home test. Here’s one of the bits I didn’t manage to work in: it was a woman named Margaret Crane (a freelance designer hired to work on Organon Pharmaceuticals’ cosmetic line) who spotted the lab’s row of pregnancy tests while touring the facility and thought, couldn’t we do this ourselves at home? She made a prototype out of a plastic paper-clip holder, a mirror, a test tube, and a dropper, and presented it to the company a few months later. Blammo, patented and into development. (And then, in this article at IBMS I found a description of that two-hour, nine-step home testing process complete with vial of sheep blood cells. We’ve got it easy these days!)
So: on to the poor mice and rabbits of the title. The Washington Post has an article about the work of Aschheim and Zondek with mice, and Friedman’s work with rabbits. I didn’t understood the Aerosmith lyric “you can’t catch me cuz the rabbit done died” when I was a kid, but now I sorta do! (Aside: I also learned the very unfortunate fact that Billy Crystal’s first movie was a comedy about “the world’s first pregnant man” called Rabbit Test, directed by Joan Rivers, universally panned upon its release in 1978 as a “trivial and tasteless little movie… nothing more than a series of tired ethnic insults and vulgar sex jokes.” Ouch. I wonder how Junior has held up.)
And then, of course, there are the frogs. Ed Yong wrote a highly entertaining article at The Atlantic about the history of frog-based pregnancy tests and the resulting frog apocalypse that is now underway as a result. It also includes this amazing quote from an animal rights protester: “First time stealing a frog, but strangely not my first time fighting a pregnant woman.”
Full up on weird pregnancy testing trivia, I then moved on to abortion. I had heard of Madame Restell, the Wickedest Woman in New York, but didn’t know about the end of her life, hounded to death by Anthony Comstock. And I had never heard of Asenath Smith, whose mistreatment at the hands of philandering preacher Ammi Rogers was used to justify the first abortion law in America in 1821–which was really just a means to push midwives out of the practice and leave it to the newly minted doctors of the American Medical Association.
And there was no way around the fact that these early anti-abortion campaigns were rooted in white supremacy and anti-feminist backlash, just as they are now. The head of the AMA’s campaign in the 1910s, Dr. Horatio Storer, was candid about this when he said things like, “Shall these regions be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.” Madame Restell was a threat because her clients were primarily white Protestant women. And as bad as that was, it was nothing compared to the treatment of Black women, from the terrors of slavery to the development of modern gynecological tools and the racism that fueled campaigns to ban midwifery.
I looked earlier, at abortion practices in early America, and found so many common abortifacients in use by Indigenous tribes that it was a struggle to narrow things down to a pithy montage. I was particularly struck by the long history among Hawai’i’s Indigenous people, and this detailed report by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs included some great historical anecdotes about the gossip that would ensue if a woman didn’t properly space her children out. “They would say, ‘Why, the walewale (lochia) for this child hasn’t even stopped, and she’s having another child on the end of it…’ Any wahine (woman) who had too many babies in too little time was fair target for every waha ko‘u (clucking mouth) in the neighborhood.” (page 50)
In another case of I wish I’d worked this in, I found an article in The Lancet about naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, who embarked on her own scientific voyages with her daughter beginning in 1699, and documented the use of the “peacock flower” among the Indian and African slave populations in the Dutch colony of Surinam, who were partly practicing abortion to protest slavery (all the content warnings on that link). I don’t think it is possible to understand the history of abortion without understanding the history of personal autonomy.
In original documents, I found a number of ads for Dr. Reynolds’ Lightning Pills in the 1920s, as well as the full text of the extremely popular home medical handbook The Poor Planter’s Physician (check out how to fix the SUPPRESSION of the COURSES on page 40), which, by the way, I failed to mention was updated and distributed for American audiences by Benjamin Franklin.
And though most of my focus was on dispelling the Supreme Court’s laughable assertion that “a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s histories and traditions,” I couldn’t resist following the trail of Catholicism backward to Saint Hildegard, a renowned medical practitioner who didn’t shy away from describing or providing abortions to her community.
Finally, I roped my book club into reading The Story of Jane by Laura Kaplan, all about the legendary abortion underground in Chicago in the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, as remembered by members of the group. That book is also where I learned about the Clergy Consultation Services, which I hadn’t heard of before. And I looked for resources in a post-Roe America, as well as how things will shake out along state lines in its absence.
In the end, I couldn’t possibly fit everything into one story–and that’s what I tried to convey, as the narrative breaks down entirely, interrupting itself with anecdote after anecdote: that there is more variety and more history than you could possibly summarize in one place, because we are talking about billions of people over the entire scope of human history, trying to control the courses of their own lives.
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