In March 2018, Mississippi enacted legislation banning abortions, with rare exceptions, after 15 weeks. In December 2021, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a case stemming from that law and questioning the constitutionality of any legislation prohibiting abortions before a fetus is “viable” at 24 weeks, the statutory standard set by Roe v. Wade and upheld many times over the subsequent five decades. While the Court won’t rule until early summer, the political and legal commentariat was swift with its opinion: the justices appeared poised to permit the Mississippi law, clearing the way for similar restrictions across the country.
Whether or not Roe is also overturned, the prospect of such restrictive laws almost ensures that the debate over a woman’s right to choose moves (back) into the dithering chambers of power — courts and legislatures. For several decades now, that debate has raged and simmered on sidewalks and in churches, a dynamic that Jennifer Haigh endeavors to capture in “Mercy Street.” The leisurely, character-driven novel centers on a women’s health clinic southeast of Boston Common in the winter of 2015, when more than 6 feet of snow buried the city.
It has to be difficult to fashion entertaining or edifying fiction from the freighted world of abortion politics, and Haigh succeeds only sporadically. In attempting to portray both camps, she falls into caricature, particularly in the character of Victor, an unremittingly hateful and ignorant abortion opponent. This is not to imply that he is unrealistic or unfamiliar; sadly, he is neither. But reading about people who solely elicit revulsion is both exhausting and not terribly interesting.
The Women’s Options clinic, part of a chain of operations called Wellways, is no bastion of tolerance itself. “Whatever their diagnosis, all Wellways patients have this in common: their troubles are seen to be, in part or in full, their own goddamn fault,” Haigh writes, with problems — addiction, depression, anxiety, STDs, or unwanted pregnancy — all stemming from “the failure of virtue.” The sketches of women seeking services are of a type: Tara, an HIV-positive chain-smoker living on people’s couches; Shannon, an addict with fake Uggs and one child already who wants a same-day abortion at 23 weeks. Haigh even cribs from the real-life murder of 2-year-old Bella Bond, known as Baby Doe, whose body washed up on Deer Island in June 2015. The novel places that crime “some years back — it must have been the spring of 2008,” to allow speculation on whether Baby Doe’s mother had been a woman turned away in 2006 because she had been 25 weeks pregnant, just past the legal cutoff. “Anything was possible. It was even possible (not likely, but possible) that [the] patient had found a happy ending.”
Surely there are clinics that only serve at-risk populations, but the dour mood feels at odds with the book’s dedication “to the one in three,” cited in the text as the percentage of American women who “would, at some point, terminate a pregnancy.” Clearly women seek an abortion for reasons besides being homeless or addicted or underage or living with a murderer; many do find a happy ending.
There is only one who does here, we are led to hope, and it is 43-year-old Claudia, the book’s most engaging character. She has been at the clinic, first as a volunteer and for the past nine years as a staffer, since moving to Boston for grad school. She grew up in poverty in rural Maine, the only child of a single mom who got pregnant as a high school junior by an older married man. Her mom “didn’t enjoy [children] in any discernible way, and yet she couldn’t stop acquiring them,” eventually adding onto her single-wide trailer to help accommodate the numerous foster children she took on for money, $400 per month per child, paid by the state. Claudia doesn’t love children either, “at least not in the global, unconditional way women were supposed to.”
With minor exceptions, the remainder of the characters are wayward, miserable, or toxic men, the most sympathetic of whom is Claudia’s pot dealer, Timmy, a lovable loser ex-Marine who has a problem with authority. He is middle-aged but lives like a college freshman, his apartment littered with dirty clothes and clutter, his kitchen grimy and stocked with nothing but Top Ramen and cereal. He’s sold weed for 12 years, but daydreams, between smoking endless bowls, about the laundromat he will open if legalization puts him out of business.
There is nothing lovable about Victor, however, a misogynist and white supremacist who believes that the “White female lacked the focus and discipline, the practical intelligence, to understand what her life was for,” namely having multiple children so whites don’t become the minority. Victor comes by such dazzling insights from AM radio, “his only trusted source.” He’s a survivalist with a hoard of guns and ammo, and uses 8chan to recruit volunteers to send him photographs of women entering clinics that provide abortions, photographs that he then posts on his Hall of Shame website.
Claudia and Victor are on a collision course, one abruptly averted via lazy deus ex machina. An extended saccharine epilogue closes Claudia’s story with an upbeat bow, and allows Victor more unwanted bile, but the attempt at a happy ending seems, particularly in 2022, incredibly unlikely and far away.
By Jennifer Haigh
Ecco, 352 pages, $27.99
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.