top of page

Mapping the Literature of Abortion in Southern California

by Amy DePaul

As the last strands of sunlight trickled in through the kitchen windows of an Irvine condo, my friend and I huddled over a counter by the sink, artfully placing crackers and grapes around a chunk of camembert. The main course, pasta in a creamy shrimp tarragon sauce, simmered on the stove nearby.

We chatted about the news of the day and found our way onto the subject of abortion. We were sorting through the latest outrages when, to my surprise, my friend quietly announced that she had had the procedure. Twice.

The first was before Roe, when she was only 19. My mother was with me, she said. Then she grew distant for a moment, surrendering to a powerful memory. We talked about what happened only briefly, turning our attention to more polite conversation because dinner guests would arrive soon.

Since that exchange, I have been thinking about how rare it can be for women to share our stories about mistimed, unwanted, or wanted-but-imperiled pregnancy. (Which is kind of astounding; a lot can go wrong over three decades of fertility.)

And so we rely on stories, and, in particular, novels, to see our dilemmas depicted and validated in artful, nuanced ways.

An array of novels about abortion are set in the OC and its environs – etched into the terrain of breezy beach towns, endless highways, dusty canyons and perfect planned suburban communities. In these familiar places, we enter the headspace of characters who at first seem so different from us, but in whom we come to see ourselves.


A pregnant high school girl who wants a bigger life. Teen girls who are best friends and who both find themselves pregnant. A time traveler seeking an illegal abortion in an alternate United States. A Hollywood actress tormented by post-abortion regret – or is it guilt?

These characters – from the four novels described below – all struggle to exercise their choices in an era when all their choices are bad, or choice doesn’t exist at all. In our current moment, their stories are once again timely, if not all too real.


The Girls from Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe

CDM is a posh coastal enclave of charming bungalows and ocean bluffs. But it was not always this way.


“When Lorrie Ann and I were girls, Corona Del Mar was half empty, somewhat decayed, beautifully perfumed,” Thorpe writes. “Always there was jasmine on the wind, or the subtler, greener scent of potato vine, or the almost hostile peppery scent of bougainvillea.”

Girls focuses on the friendship between best friends Mia and Lorrie Ann over many years. Mia is only 15 when her awkward first sexual experience leads to pregnancy, which leads to an abortion. After high school, Mia goes on to attend Yale and become a scholar, followed by travel, marriage, childbirth, a professorship. She is tough…a winner, but at what cost?

We learn that she is not without conflicted feelings.

“Did I feel the wrongness, the terrible violation of an ancient edict, when I lost the quickening inside me? Did I cry over the death of a child?....Of course I did,” Mia reflects later. But she deems the sacrifice necessary.

Her friend, Lorrie Ann, follows suit and gets pregnant two years after Mia, but she opts not to abort, instead marrying her boyfriend and delivering a son who is mentally and physically disabled. Zach requires constant care, to which Lorrie Ann tirelessly devotes herself. Until she doesn’t anymore.

The two friends separate but come together later in the novel, and it’s a heartbreaking reunion. In this story of female friendship, two people see the life they could have led in the other.

Thorpe’s writing is effortless and honest, hitting the right notes between humor and sadness, intimacy and loss. Female friendship is precious to me, and I found her book pays it the highest tribute.


The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Another pair of friends who make different decisions about their pregnancies lies at the heart of The Mothers, which takes place in the author’s hometown of Oceanside in the milieu of Black church matriarchs – the eponymous mothers.

The story’s protagonist, Nadia, is a promising high school student who dreams of leaving her hometown – with its bars and its Marines and “the longest wooden pier on the west coast” – to attend college far away. When she gets pregnant by the minister’s son at 17, she chooses to abort. She does everything she can to keep her taboo act a secret, especially from her highly religious best friend, Aubrey.

The two young women, sometimes mistaken for sisters, are (and are not) mothers in their own way – Nadia if only for a few weeks during her brief pregnancy, and Aubrey, after a long bout with infertility. If you read Bennett’s more recent and highly celebrated novel, The Vanishing Half, about twin sisters who identify as different races, you’ll detect some similar themes about the enduring legacy of sisterhood/female friendship.

I can’t talk about The Mothers without speculating aloud that Bennett chose the title in part to honor poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ heartbreaking poem, “The Mother,” excerpted here:

Abortions will not let you forget.

You remember the children you got that you did not get…


Brooks goes on to ruminate about what she won’t be able to do:

….You will never neglect or beat

Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.

You will never wind up the sucking-thumb

Or scuttle off ghosts that come.

You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh.

Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye…”


The poem ends with this declaration:

…Believe me, I loved you all.

Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved






The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

Newitz opens this sci-fi novel at a punk concert in 1992 at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater, as it was then known, in the stifling planned community where they (the author is nonbinary) grew up. Lead character Beth is a riot grrrl/rebel girl with dodgy friends who are drawing her into dangerous behavior. When Beth gets pregnant, she must procure an illegal abortion, because anti-choice time travelers have succeeded in changing the past so that abortion is now outlawed.

Beth is connected to a cadre of time-traveling feminists working to change history for a more just world through a process known as editing a timeline. The men who oppose them are called Comstockers, named in honor of Anthony Comstock, a 19th century American figure who spearheaded an anti-obscenity, anti-birth control law.

Further complicating these high-stakes political battles, a character named Tess from the year 2022 breaks a sacred rule of time travel to visit herself at a younger age, when she was known as Beth, and somehow keep her from making a huge mistake.

With its fantastical elements, Future joins the ranks of The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) and The Power (Naomi Alderman) in using science fiction to explore political dystopia.

And author Newitz may be the only novelist ever to create a music video to portray the band who performs in their book:


Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

In the story, Maria Wyeth, who is older than the protagonists of the other California novels, undergoes a pre-Roe, illegal abortion. [The book was published in 1970, one year after California legalized abortion, but it depicts a time before this change.]

Her husband pressures her into the procedure, threatening to keep her from her daughter, who is institutionalized due to an unnamed condition, if she refuses.

Maria exists in a profound state of mental distress. Her daily activities revolve around sitting silently by the pool, driving up and down Southern California’s freeways, having affairs, consuming drugs and being a failed actress. She is that bird in a gilded cage.

Maria undergoes her abortion in an Encino private home with an abortionist described as “the only man in Los Angeles County who does clean work.” As she lies on a medical table with makeshift stirrups fashioned out of pillows strapped to chair backings, in pain, he encourages her not to think about what’s happening and admonishes her not to make any noise.

She emerges from the experience haunted, subject to morbid dreams about children and death. She spends much of the latter portion of the book in a groggy daze. The end should not be surprising, and yet Didion manages to surprise us with her unrelenting, defiantly bleak, storytelling.

Play It as It Lays is not easy to read. Its characters are lost, its politics murky – it’s hardly a work of pro-choice fiction with the overt feminist messaging of Future. Nor does it reveal the ways that abortion can complicate a female friendship as explored in Girls and The Mothers.

Still, all these stories are imagined by women, and they put women’s abortion experiences at the forefront. This alone is no small comfort to women readers who are navigating difficult reproductive choices, and doing so at a time when their options are diminishing.

More to Read, Watch, Listen To:

Choice Words: Writers on Abortion by Annie Finch, Audre Lorde, et al. An anthology of abortion poems, stories and essays.

“Know Your Enemy” podcast: Joan Didion, Conservative (with Sam Tanenhaus). Two left-leaning writers thoughtfully discuss thinkers and ideas associated with the right.

My Darling, My Hamburger: This once-classic young adult novel, published in 1969, is about a high school couple dealing with unplanned pregnancy.

“Unpregnant”: A 2020 comedy about a pregnant high schooler and her ex-best friend on a road trip to an abortion clinic on the other side of the state of Missouri.*

Pro-life critique of “Unpregnant”

* Missouri no longer allows abortion.


Amy DePaul has taught reporting to undergraduates at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton. Her own reporting has appeared in Nature, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, The Wall Street Journal, Voice of OCLos Angeles Times, The Orange County Register, OC Weekly, Guernica, and other outlets.

bottom of page