The Right To Live
Irene Vilar has survived personal trauma, family tragedies, and a shocking number of abortions to become a sought-after writer and scholar. But will her scandalous choices ever allow this devoted mother of two—or the rest of the world—to make peace with her past?
The debate about when a human comes into being was supposed to have ended in 1973. That’s the year Roe v. Wade, riding the momentum of the nascent women’s equality movement, established the right to choose—the legal, though still limited, freedom to have an abortion. Rather than resolving the discussion, however, the Supreme Court’s decision ignited passionate disputes and divided the country. Around 50 million abortions have been performed in the United States since the ruling. According to the Guttmacher Institute, originally founded as the research branch of Planned Parenthood, almost half of American pregnancies are unintended, and four in 10 of these accidental pregnancies end in abortion. About 22 percent of all U.S. pregnancies are aborted, and nearly half the women who abort have had at least one previous abortion.
The arguments are familiar. Pro-life advocates often believe terminating a pregnancy is murder. Pro-choice supporters counter that a woman should have autonomous control over her body—particularly her reproductive system. Those in the gray area cling to “only if” conditions of rape and incest and tiptoe around the unanswerable questions: When does a fertilized egg become a person? At what point can someone rationally be held responsible for denying life to another?
In November, Coloradans voted down Amendment 62, the Colorado Personhood initiative, by a 70–30 margin. The measure would have extended constitutional rights “to every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being.” It was written to render abortion illegal in all circumstances. A nearly identical amendment garnered only 27 percent support in 2008, but the back-to-back landslide defeats don’t mean the issue is going away. The American electorate’s inability to reconcile its diametrically opposed views has already influenced the debate over health-care reform and stem-cell research. And although Amendment 62 didn’t make it into the Colorado constitution this time, similar measures have appeared on many other state ballots in the past year. Both sides have become so entrenched and intractable that even if the Supreme Court’s makeup changes enough to overturn Roe v. Wade, the battle over women’s reproductive rights may never end.
Irene Vilar, now 41, waded into this morass in 2009 with Impossible Motherhood (Other Press), her autobiographical attempt to provide an alternative to the hopelessly polarized abortion rhetoric. The memoir, a cathartic self-exposé of her disturbing marionettelike existence, chronicles how Vilar, beginning at age 17, underwent 15 abortions in 16 years. Vilar carefully chose the term “abortion addict” to complete the book’s subtitle. She knew it would incite controversy and backlash, and after the book’s release, headlines surged overseas. Foreign-language glossies put Vilar on their covers, and bloggers for obscure activist groups raged about the woman who had so blatantly taunted the world with her apparent disregard for life.
Although news outlets such as the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times wrote about Vilar after Impossible Motherhood’s release, her story received much more muted coverage in the United States than it did abroad. (Despite the lack of widespread domestic attention, Vilar still felt compelled to obtain unusually stringent—and ongoing—security measures for herself and her family.) TV shows including Good Morning America and the Tyra Show invited her to interview for possible appearances—and, according to Vilar, they all backed out once they realized she wouldn’t allow herself to be portrayed the way their audiences might expect. “America has digested it differently,” Vilar says. “The Tyra Show e-mailed me a script. I feel like they wanted me to play the victim. I said, ‘No way.’ ”
Both camps in the abortion debate have tried to co-opt Vilar’s extreme history. One side argues that she’s the poster child for the pro-choice movement; the other reviles her as an egregious example of why a pro-life agenda is so critical. In the impassioned but academic tone she so often strikes, Vilar insists that she’s trying to move away from the pro-choice/pro-life pigeonholing in favor of a “more evolved” stance on abortion and women’s rights, which she’s dubbed “pro-voice.” In Impossible Motherhood, she refers to her decisions, collectively, as a pathology that she explores, intellectualizes—and sometimes rationalizes. “Because abortion has been so politicized and polarized, there’s no space to have a voice,” she says. “It’s no-man’s land. There’s legislation, a civil rights language, but when you don’t have a language, you act out. I’m writing for women’s studies, not abortionists. Through cycles of oppression, this is one woman’s testimony of how she broke free. My hope is that it’ll find its way to women who need to understand their own motives when they become destructive.”
Recognizing and avoiding self-destruction is a common theme in Vilar’s work. Impossible Motherhood, in fact, was her second memoir. Her first, The Ladies’ Gallery, explains the complex legacies Vilar inherited from her mother and grandmother. And after Impossible Motherhood was released, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to begin working on an autobiographical novel and a third memoir, The Middle of the Night—a reflection, ironically, on contemporary childrearing.
In each book, Vilar surveys her life with a narrative style that often reads as if these extraordinary events happened to someone else. Her insightful, yet emotionally detached retelling describes the influences that have shaped her addiction and facilitated her recovery, and her words are alternately moving and blunt. If Impossible Motherhood was a forum for her to expunge the secrets she’d avoided revealing in her first memoir and to overcome her addictive cycle, The Middle of the Night is meant to reconcile her past shame with a healthy approach to her new identity as a nurturing parent. Whether her current publishing house will pick up the book’s option, however, is unclear. What is certain is that no matter how many ivory-tower, psycho-historical theories Vilar presents to justify her past decisions, and regardless of whether The Middle of the Night ever sees the light of day, Vilar knows she’ll never truly shed the scars of her past, and she has no desire to wedge herself into anyone’s black-and-white judgments of what her choices say about her character.