A Conversation with John Irving
John Irving is not afraid to talk about reproductive rights. He’s been writing about it for decades. His bestselling novels, like The Cider House Rules, declare unequivocal support for a woman’s right to choose.
Irving’s new novel, Avenue of Mysteries, returns to that subject.
A novel about fate and faith, Avenue takes place in both the Philippines and Oaxaca, Mexico, both countries where Catholicism has historically had a wide reach. The protagonist, Juan Diego, is a seasoned novelist on a pilgrimage to the Philippines, but during his trip he can’t help but journey back to the past through vivid dreams. Abandoned by their mother, Juan Diego and Lupe move from the Oaxaca dump, to the Jesuit orphanage called Lost Children, to the children’s circus where Lupe is commissioned to read the minds of the lions. Lupe knows Juan Diego’s future—being adopted by a former priest and a transgender woman who take him to America—and Lupe will do anything to make it happen. Throughout his travels in present and past, young and old Juan Diego struggle with Catholicism and the Catholic hierarchy’s ban on abortion, contraception and LGBT rights.
Conscience sat down with Irving—a longtime reader—in his Toronto apartment to discuss his new novel, abortion rights and religious liberty.
Conscience: Why did you decide to return to the subject of reproductive rights in Avenue of Mysteries?
JI: The best answer to that is that it’s not a conscious decision of mine to return to that subject, so much as that subject just finds me. That subject finds the circumstances I’m writing about. How can you not be aware of the access to and safety of abortion if you’re in a poor, third-world country where the politics of abortion are, if not dictated, at least always under scrutiny by the church? Let me say that I don’t begin a novel looking for a place to put this in….
I didn’t start The Cider House Rules as a novel about abortion. I wanted to create a relationship between a childless man and an unadoptable orphan…. Then I found this piece about doctors who performed abortions in the years that orphanages were flourishing.
The point seemed to be that there was a higher percentage of legitimate doctors and medical professionals—meaning midwives—who performed abortions and were connected with orphanages. And I thought, “Duh! No kidding!” Who are the adults who know what happens to these children who are left behind? The ones who know that for the most part nothing happens to them.
Conscience: Your mother was a big influence in how you think about reproductive health.
JI: My mother was a nurse’s aide and my abortion politics began with her, who later worked for a county’s family services. She counseled women and children who were being abused in their domestic situation. And this was what made my mother—in the ’50s and ’60s—a ferocious abortion rights activist, long before the phrase. My first introduction to Planned Parenthood was through my mother.
How can you not be aware of the access to and safety of abortion if you’re in a poor, third-world country where the politics of abortion are, if not dictated, at least always under scrutiny by the church?
Conscience: What do you think about the attack campaign against Planned Parenthood?
JI: The Republican Party has dishonestly tarred Planned Parenthood as an abortion factory, when that is less than 10 percent of its work. This is a perfect encapsulation of how little that party values or understands the rights of women to their very own personal—and what should be private and personal—lives. Planned Parenthood should be federally supported. They do necessary work, and they’re denied in precisely the backward places where they should be embraced.
Conscience: Have you always had strong feelings about the separation of church and state and religious freedom?
JI: Well, sure, the meaning of religious freedom was being twisted when the [Catholic] church was protesting what was called Obama’s “contraception mandate” in the media.
Conscience: Is it really a mandate? “Mandate” has never struck me as the right word.
JI: I kept saying to people that it’s not a mandate. Access doesn’t mean you have to take it. You know, I’ve always said I found it ironic that the church at that time with the contraception “mandate” was taking the position that Catholics’ freedom of choice was being trampled on by making this accessible.
Likewise, I’ve always believed that since abortion is upheld as the law of the land across the country, well, it should be a part of everybody’s healthcare. I don’t care if people are offended, that they disapprove of it and that the money is going to it. People have been offended by the wars we’ve become involved in. I don’t think the abortion rights rules are being defended aggressively enough.
My argument back in the days when The Cider House Rules was published was there isn’t a proabortion movement, there’s a prochoice movement. But it’s shocking there’s still such a low percentage of medical schools in the country that even teach in part of the OB/GYN program a standard D&C.
Conscience: You mean that one of the greatest obstacles to abortion access around the world is the lack of trained medical professionals.
JI: I gave a commencement address at Dartmouth Medical School. Whenever a medical school asks me to make a commencement address I ask, “Do you teach an abortion procedure in your OB/GYN course?” Because most of them at that time didn’t, and I would say, “Are you kidding me? It’s the law of the land. What the hell are you doing! And you’re prescribing them fit to be doctors, and they haven’t even been shown how to do a standard D&C. For God’s sake, what are you thinking?”
Quite frankly, reproductive choice is one of the most essential freedoms that people must and should have. Not to mention we live in a world that, for the most part, behaves as if it’s denying climate change. That there are places in the world where contraception and abortion are unacceptable or unaffordable is not acceptable anymore. And I see your magazine as serving a vital purpose to inform us as to the areas of our world where that essential freedom—that essential access to reproductive health and control—is being denied.
Conscience: We’re so happy that you have been a longtime reader of Conscience.
JI: It’s one of the few magazines I read very faithfully. I don’t even like magazines, to tell you the truth. I certainly don’t read The New Yorker cover-to-cover—or most of it in fact. I would say that Conscience and Amateur Wrestling News—those are the only magazines I read every word of. That’s the truth! I’m very picky about what I read.