A Deep American Horror Exposed

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates; drawing by James Ferguson

Last November, Texas health officials imposed a new rule requiring funeral arrangements—either burial or cremation—to be made for fetal remains. The rule, which also applies to miscarriages in a doctor’s office (though not to those that occur at home), was roundly and rightly condemned as both nonsensical and inhumane. (In late December, it was temporarily blocked by a federal judge, and the case is still in the courts.) But I couldn’t help thinking of it in a somewhat different light as I read A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates’s slippery, searching new novel, which brings the reader deep inside the mind of a militant anti-abortion crusader and, in so doing, relentlessly dissects the liberal pieties surrounding the subject.

In one of the most discomfiting scenes in this extremely discomfiting book, Edna Mae Dunphy, whose husband is on death row for killing a prominent abortion doctor, leads a group of anti-abortion protesters in a prayer vigil to honor the “National Day of Remembrance for Preborn Holy Innocents Murdered by Abortion.” As her teenage daughter, Dawn, watches in horror, Edna Mae pulls box after box of fetal remains from the dumpsters behind an abortion clinic. “Fleshy, meat-colored, damp with blood,” the fetuses have been put in Ziploc bags and thrown out with the garbage; Edna Mae will bury them. One is a “kitten-sized creature with a disproportionately large head”; another has “tiny curved legs” and a “miniature pouting mouth.” “Thrown away like garbage!” one of the protesters mourns. “God have mercy on the murderers.”

God have mercy on us all! one might be tempted to exclaim after putting down this book. For as Oates demonstrates again and again, the difference between murder and what the novel’s religious activists call “morally justifiable homicide” is more ambiguous than it might appear. Luther Dunphy, a roofer in the grip of a personal crisis who joins the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and commits the crime around which this book revolves, is convinced that abortion is murder, plain and simple:

It does not matter if a woman’s pregnancy was caused by rape or incest or any mitigating factor. For how could it matter, to the infant in the womb, or to God who is the father of all?

By contrast, Gus Voorhees, the doctor Dunphy murders, believes in abortion on demand, for whatever reason. But the protesters’ chant “Free-choice is a lie,/Nobody’s baby chooses to die” haunts his wife, a lawyer who advocates for his cause:

It was true: but you did not want to think so.

The fetus wished to live…. But the power of its life—or its death—had to reside with the mother. No other alternative was possible.

From Black Water (1992), based on Mary Jo Kopechne’s fatal encounter with Senator Ted Kennedy, to the recent Carthage (2014), the story of a brain-addled veteran of the war in Iraq, Oates’s fiction has confronted some…

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