Friday Takeaway: ‘The Giving Tree’

  • Naomi Shulman at her Northampton home.

For the Bulletin
Thursday, June 20, 2019

Remember Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”? A tree loves a little boy. She loves him enough, in fact, that she willingly gives herself to the boy, body and soul. It begins innocently — she gives her shade, her leaves, her bark. But as time goes by, the boy takes more — her branches, her limbs, her trunk — and she never protests.

Of course, he still leaves. When the boy is an old man, he returns to sit on what is left of the tree, her stump… “and the tree was happy.” Some people see it as a testament to love, particularly motherly love. Others see something much darker.

I find myself thinking about “The Giving Tree” as our country ramps up its assault on women’s bodily autonomy. Laughably cruel laws have been passed to force American citizens (that’s right! Women are citizens!) to give birth against their will. These laws, so far, are happening in other states — Alabama, Georgia, Ohio and others — but they are a blatant attempt to give the Supreme Court the opening it needs to turn over Roe v. Wade.

This push, of course, has been going on for decades. When I was in my teens, my grandmother — then in her seventies — made an announcement I’ll never forget. Some old white man in Congress was going on about innocent babies and sanctity. We’d heard it all before, but this time, rage welled up in my grandmother.

“I wish I could get pregnant right now,” she said, shaking with fury, “so I could go out and GET AN ABORTION.” Yes. My granny — mother to four, grandmother to thirteen, said this in my presence. And you know what? I know exactly how she felt. I even knew then.

The vast majority of the women I am close to have gotten pregnant without wanting to be. Back in her late teens, my grandmother was among them. In pre-Roe days, there were very few paths to take: get an unsafe, illegal abortion; give the child up for adoption (which, for many, is a more psychologically wrenching decision); or, if possible, get married, which is what my grandmother did.

She went on to have more children, but — perhaps predictably — the marriage did not last. She ended up a single mother with sole custody, flat broke. I can say with confidence that she loved her children. And yet, I will never forget the fury in her eyes when she said what she said that day. It was the desperate, impotent fury of the trapped.

In college, I read an essay that could be termed the anti-Giving Tree: “A Defense of Abortion” by Judith Jarvis Thomsen, written just before Roe v. Wade. Jarvis proposed what she called the violinist analogy: You awaken to discover that a violinist with a kidney ailment has been plugged into your kidneys during the night because the Society of Music Lovers has determined that yours is the only body that can save him.

Setting aside the particulars of violinists and music lovers, Thomsen was actually saying, Okay, let’s say a fetus has the same right to life that any full-fledged, fully developed human being has. Do any full-fledged, fully developed human beings also have the right to demand that another human being act as a personal life-support system for months on end? Nope. If you awaken to find a violinist plugged into your kidneys, you have the right to unplug yourself, even though he will surely die. Take that, Shel Silverstein.

The analogy was a groundbreaking defense not simply of abortion but of bodily autonomy. And for that, we don’t actually need hypothetical arguments. We Americans are already routinely granted bodily autonomy in other scenarios. When I die, if I do not want my organs harvested, no one will have the right to harvest them — even if they could save someone else’s life, and even though I am dead and can no longer use them myself. Were my child to need one of my kidneys, and I didn’t want to donate it, no one could make me — even if it meant one of my children would die.

But of course I would donate a kidney to my child, I am thinking as I type this. The idea that I wouldn’t is unthinkable. What kind of mother would I be? And there it is. There is no doubt in my mind that the laws against abortion are part of a long-game project to limit women, especially poor women, and to maintain the underclass that is essential to propping up white male supremacy.

But I also think there’s a subconscious anxiety about mothers who wouldn’t give their life and limbs to us, acting as our own personal giving trees. Many people who call themselves “pro-life” would not be willing to donate a pint of their own blood but are so distressed at the thought of a mother not doing everything in her power to save her child that they would prefer to take away a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.

When I read “The Giving Tree,” I recognize in the tree what my young children wanted me, their mother, to be: rooted in place, my entire being dedicated to their needs. Even for my very wanted and planned daughters — for whom I might want to give not only my kidneys but my heart, lungs, and brain to save their lives — I cannot be this. None of us can ethically be expected to be this for anyone.

It makes me angrier than I know how to say that the fundamental right to bodily autonomy that my grandmother did not have, and fought for on behalf of her daughter and granddaughters, is now at risk again. I feel her desperate fury, the fury of the trapped.

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as well as on NEPR and WBUR.