Published in 1927, the Ernest Hemingway short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is an iceberg of conversation; that is, there is more beneath the surface of the dialogue between the American man and the girl named Jig. At first glance, it seems like a simple, sometimes tense conversation between a couple who are waiting for a train to Madrid. On a closer reading, however, one realizes that they are discussing whether or not Jig should have a “procedure.” In a time period where abortion was illegal in most parts of Europe and America, and where women could be faced with excommunication by the Catholic Church if they obtained an abortion, suddenly the conversation between the American man and Jig becomes one of grave importance, both to their own well-beings, and to their relationship. However, neither person seems willing to openly communicate what choice they would like to make. This story explores the themes of choices, breakdowns in communication, and gender roles.
Students will likely have differing viewpoints and feelings about abortions, as it is a very emotionally-charged political issue. That is what makes “Hills Like White Elephants” an excellent tool to use to teach about a controversial topic, and have students be able to discuss their ideas in an academic manner.
For students, abortion has been legal for their entire lives. In the 1973 landmark Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade, the justices ruled in a 7-2 decision that a Texas law barring a woman from having an abortion unless her life was in danger was unconstitutional. This was followed up with a 7-2 decision by the same court in the Doe vs. Bolton case, where they ruled that a Georgia abortion law barring abortions except for the cases of rape, fetal deformities, and danger to the mother’s life was also unconstitutional. These rulings essentially opened up access for women to seek abortions until the age of viability for the fetus. Up until 1973, many women sought abortions in secret and illegally, and as a result, many women died from complications of the procedure. Planned Parenthood now states that an abortion is one of the safest medical procedures a woman can have, with a 99% safety record.
Abortion as a topic can make for a very animated opinion paper, research paper, and debate forum in the classroom, as long as all sides are respectful of others’ opinions. It may be enlightening for students to hear from other students’ points of view. Some useful resources for both sides of the argument include:
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