A Spark of Light: An exposition of the ethical dilemma of abortion

The American author Jodi Picoult puts the controversial subject of abortion under the microscope in her 24th powerful and provocative novel A Spark of Light, revealing the complexity of balancing the right to life with the right to choose.

Picoult is known for taking topics from the headlines and turning them into thoughtful, fictitious novels.  Her book A Spark of Light, published in 2018, tackles an important subject: women’s reproductive rights and examines it from very different perspectives. 

Picoult sets her story in Jackson, Mississippi at the Center, a women’s clinic for those who “ had run out of time and had run out of choices.” Picoult begins her riveting saga with George Goddard—an anti-abortion father whose teenage daughter recently had an abortion at the Center—storms inside, fires several shots and takes all inside hostage. Hostage negotiator Hugh McElroy has been called to the scene to communicate with the gunman. Debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, the book was adapted to a limited mini-serie in 2020 by Sony Pictures TV, starring The Kissing Booth’s star Joey King.

Joey King – ‘Captain Fantastic’ Movie Premiere in Los Angeles 6/28/2016. ©celebmafia

« The author’s sincere empathy for her characters blurs how we are supposed to feel. Is the gunman’s behaviour understandable? Might we do the same in his place?”

Jane Casey, Irish Times.

Telling her story through the lens of different characters, the author manages  to delve deeper into the nuances of the topic in a comprehensive grasp. The characters represent different angles on the issue. Picoult brings out their humanity, coaxing us out of our prejudices and preconceptions.  Dr. Louie Ward is a Christian who offers abortions because he believes it is his religious duty to offer compassion instead of judgement to women; Joy is at the clinic because she just had an abortion; young Wren is seeking contraception; Janine is an anti-abortion activist who is there to infiltrate the clinic, Beth a girl who faces murder charges for illegally terminating her own pregnancy etc. The characters are diverse in race, wealth, and sexuality.   Through her vivid description, Picoult aims at exploring the multi-layered and complex personalities of the characters. She allows her readers  to eavesdrop on their memories and struggles. 

“Did all babies deserve to be born? Did all women deserve to make decisions about their own bodies? In what Venn diagram did those overlap?” 

A quote from the novel.

The book does not aim at making you take a clear stance on abortion. It rather makes you reconsider it and understand the different opinions surrounding it.

Usually fictitious novels encourage you to read the book as quickly as possible to find out the ending.  Picoult marks her unique style in this compelling book by telling the story in reverse. The story is told backwards through the hours of the standoff.  Each chapter brings us back an hour in time, from 5pm to 8am, slowly unveiling  the characters’ backstories, why they evolved the way they did and how they ended up in the Center on the wrong day. It makes the reader truly focus on each character and their motivations leaving some plot twists to the end of the book.

It is true that the book is categorized as fiction, however it is based on reality. The setting of the plot, The Center, refers to the only abortion clinic in Mississippi at the time of writing, Jackson Women’s Health. Additionally, the different characters in the book are actually inspired from real people Picoult has met. In the acknowledgments, she thanks 151 women who shared their stories with her. By mixing up reality with fiction, the writer fabricates an inclusive plot to which each one of them or the readers can relate. Diving into the 352 pages of the book, the reader will feel the humansitic approach that the writer takes to introduce her characters, showing unconditional empathy towards each one of them.

The diversity of opinions surrounding  abortion  presented  in the book cannot resonate more with the present debate around this hot-button topic.  Countries today still face the ethical dilemma of whether to legalize, restrict or ban abortion. Pro-life or pro-choice human organizations, on the other side,  are still protesting to make their voice heard.  The last statistics of World  Health Organization show that around 73 million induced abortions take place worldwide each year, and that around 45% of all abortions are unsafe, of which 97% take place in developing countries. These alarming numbers testify that abortion is a serious common health intervention that requires a middle-ground agreement to avoid maternal deaths.

A view of dummies in a street to signify women who are suffering because of Poland’s restrictive abortion law and a proposal for further restrictions, during a demonstration in front of parliament, in Warsaw, Poland. ©Czarek Sokolowski 

Opinions around abortion vary from liberal to more conservative. In Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, women’s rights activists protested against a government plan to register every pregnancy in a national database and as parliament prepares to debate a new proposal to further restrict abortion. The activists fear the database will allow authorities to track whether pregnancies end in a birth. Poland last year restricted its already conservative abortion law and abortions are now only allowed in cases of rape or incest, of if the woman’s life or health is in danger.

On another note, thousands of pro-life demonstrators  protested in Argentina in 2020 as the government  had passed a bill to legalize abortion in a groundbreaking move for Latin America, a region that has long opposed the practice on religious grounds.

Activists against abortion have gathered at Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to protest against the decriminalisation of abortion. ©Victor R Caivano.

“Laws are black and white. The lives of women are a thousand shades of gray,” Picoult writes in her author’s note. And that is exactly what she shows us, through her male and female, antiabortion and abortion rights advocates characters. A Spark of Light inspires debate, conversation . . . and, hopefully, understanding.

Narimane DHAOUI

For further reading on the topic:




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