Pat Barker's Regeneration
Critical Contexts

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"Aborted Aspirations"

Caley Cole (Spring 2004)

Pat Barker's riveting World War I novel Regeneration brilliantly exemplifies the effectiveness of fiction united with historical facts. While men aspired to gain glory from war and become heroes, Regeneration poignantly points out that not all of war was glorious. Rather, young soldiers found their aspirations prematurely aborted due to their bitter war experiences. The horrible mental and physical sicknesses, which plagued a number of soldiers, caused many men to withdraw from the battlefield. Feelings of guilt and shame haunted many soldiers as they found themselves removed from the heat of war. Men, however, were not the only individuals to experience such feelings during a time of historical upheaval. Women, too, found themselves at war at the dawn of a feminine revolution. One of the most contentious topics of the time was the practice of abortion, which comes to attention in chapter 17 on pages 202 and 203 of Barker's novel. Through Baker's ground-breaking novel, we learn how men and women alike discovered that in life, not all aspirations are realized; in fact, in times of conflict, women and men both face desperate situations, which have no definite solutions. Illustrated in Barker's novel by a young woman named Betty, and many broken soldiers, society's harsh judgments worsen the difficult circumstances already at hand.

As men engaged in war overseas, women gained many opportunities in their every day life. New employment opportunities became attainable to women. In women's health, many new medical practices were conventionalized as well. One of the most pivotal medical advancements of the time was the commercialization of birth control ("Marie Stopes"). However, not all women reaped the benefits of the contraceptive revolution, but rather suffered in shame and humiliation from opportunities posed too late. Due to their inability to attain society's new advances, many women sought out what seemed to be their only option in the event of an unwelcomed pregnancy: abortion.

The topic of abortion has created controversy, which dates back about as far in history as the time it was first put into practice. The first known forms of such induced miscarriages date back to the ancient primitive tribes, hundreds of years ago. The first forms of abortion were induced by using poisonous herbs, sharp sticks, or by applying sheer pressure on the abdomen until vaginal bleeding occurred ("Abortion: In Law, History & Religion"). In the British Empire, religion played an incredibly prominent role in society, and the danger and repugnance of abortion were regarded as a punishment for the indulgence in illegitimate sexual intercourse. It was not until July 19, 1938, that the abortion law received modification in Britain due to the Rex. V. Bourne case of 1938 ("Abortion: In Law, History & Religion"). In the history altering case, Dr. Alec Bourne aborted the baby of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by soldiers. Bourne justified his case by stating, "The pregnancy would make the woman a physical or a mental wreck," and he operated for the purpose of "preserving the life of the woman" ("Abortion: In Law, History & Religion"). It was not until 1962 the British law gained reformation because of a horrific thalidomide disaster. Hundreds of women who became pregnant at the time of the disaster found themselves carrying deformed babies. The women, however, refused to abort the child within their womb (Raffel et al). The results of the deformities were devastating, and in 1967, a new abortion act passed which stated, "Abortions were allowed when two doctors felt that the continuation of the pregnancy posed a threat to the woman's life, to her mental or physical health, or to her existing children" (Raffel et al).

Up until 1938, women residing in Britain who found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy sought to take the matter in their own hands by using a series of time honored measures of questionable efficacy, such as skipping, jumping from heights, and falling downstairs (Horden 3). However, when the age-old practices failed, women often turned to frantic measures. Desperate women would attempt local interference with knitting needles, crochet hooks, scissors, hatpins, bicycle spokes, pencils or other household items; these were often pushed into the vagina or cervix, creating dangerous outcomes (Horden 3). In addition to physical intervention, women also turned to ingesting liquid drinks, hoping to induce a miscarriage. Mixtures bearing names such as, "Dr. Lawson's Cure," is probably in reference to a mixture of substances, which promoted uterine and pelvic congestion, which led to induced miscarriages. Such substances include caster oil, rue, savin, tansy, ergot, oxytocin, oestrogen, and quinine (Horden 3). Such desperate measures often led to a state of anxiety, which was a common response to unwanted pregnancies. The symptoms of anxiety were often quite severe, and in all depressive illnesses, the risk for suicide within the woman increased (Horden 56).

It came as no surprise that during the midst of World War I, with a number of new opportunities available for women, the push for women's rights became an active campaign. One of the leading campaigners for women's birth control rights in Britain was Marie Stopes. In 1918 she published a book titled Wise Parenthood, which contained a concise guide to contraception ("Marie Stopes"). The Roman Catholic Church, outraged by the work, tried to ban the publication of the book. However, Stopes' book ignited a campaign in favor of birth control rights. With the use of various forms of contraceptives, the need for abortion decreased; however, not all women attained access to such birth control methods.

The topic of abortion is mentioned only once in Barker's novel; however, the context in which it comes to attention is quite somber. On pages 202 and 203, readers learn about abortion, through the conversation of three factory girls: "Where's Betty," Sarah inquires, "you know she's missed four days [of work]?" Lizzie states in reply to Sarah's question, "She's tried everything . . . she was supping Dr. Lawson's Cure as if it were lemonade." The girls continue to discuss Betty's disheartening condition by saying, "She must've got desperate, because she stuck summat up herself to bring it on. You know them wire coat hangers?" (202). The words stated by the girls bring awareness to Betty's despondent and frantic mental state. She was so desperate to rid herself of the unwanted child that she attempted to give herself an abortion.

Another indication of the intense desperation of some women's situations becomes known as we read of women actually taking such drastic measures to ensure a miscarriage. The mere fact women were willing to face societies harsh judgments indicate how desperate some women were. The most startling statement concerning abortion, however, is made by a doctor when he says to Betty, "You should be ashamed of yourself . . . it's not just an inconvenience you've got in there, it's a human being" (202). At this point of the novel, the reader begins to understand the harsh judgments society passed upon women in similar situations as Betty's. Though the terms of her pregnancy and desire for an abortion are unknown in the novel, it can be inferred that Betty's situation is, at the very least, desperate. Betty's reasons for desiring an abortion could have stemmed from many scenarios; for example, her pregnancy may have been the result of sexual relations outside of wedlock, the father may have been a soldier who was either now dead or at battle, or perhaps she simply could not afford a child. Whatever her reasons were, Betty probably had no option, which would have produced a positive outcome. In all reality, whether she chose to keep the child or have an abortion, Betty would face some sort of personal disgrace. Society looked down upon and judged women like Betty quite harshly. The actions taken by Betty indicate the severity of her condition; she was willing to use a coat hanger, as well as face social disgrace, in an attempt to abort her baby. The feelings of shame Betty's must have experienced as a result of her pregnancy, as well as the guilt from a botched abortion are simply unfathomable.

The shame the doctor refers to in Betty's case is comparable to the shame many of the broken soldiers felt during their stay at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Most of the soldiers were placed at the hospital because of mental breakdowns, or physical disabilities resulting from a tragic war experience. Many of the soldiers' situations were analogous to Betty's; they too had to "abort" their aspirations and endure harsh judgments by society. In fact, Sassoon made a direct statement concerning the callousness of society in his declaration: "The majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and at which they have not sufficient imagination to realize" (3). Most of the soldiers at Craiglockhart became known, by the war supporters, as "cowards, shirkers, scrimshankers, and degenerates" due to their inability to actively participate in war (4). These vindictive judgments bestowed upon the soldiers are equally as unjust as the judgments made by the doctor towards Betty and other women in similar positions. The judgments passed by society were completely biased and unfair. Many of the judgments were based upon inaccurate assumptions or personal beliefs.

On the other hand, many pacifists judged the soldiers as well. At the conclusion of their stay at Craiglockhart, many soldiers had to decide whether to return to war or go home. The pacifists, who strongly opposed the war, mercilessly judged the soldiers who chose to return to the battlefield. At the same time, the war supporters urged the soldiers to return to the line. Though Betty's situation is somewhat different from that of the soldiers, the social stigma then faced would haven been similar. No matter which choice the soldiers or Betty made, some sort of judgment would follow. In each situation, individuals found their aspirations aborted due to the circumstances at hand. The soldiers, as well as Betty, discover first hand that not all battles are fought and resolved by physical warfare. At times, when individuals fight battles internally they encounter obstacles that even the strongest of artillery cannot conquer.

In the game of life, individuals face some circumstances beyond their control. The most desperate of circumstances can shatter the hopes and dreams of tomorrow, leaving behind aborted aspirations. In Pat Barker's novel, it becomes evident that not all soldiers became heroes, but rather suffered for the rest of their life from the decisions they were forced to make. The same message rings true in the situation that Betty, as well as many other women, faced. Though the reasons soldiers chose to return to war or go home, or the reasons why women did or did not abort their unborn child varied, it can be inferred that social disgrace would result from whatever choice was made. The decisions we make today, can create life-long repercussions. Regeneration poignantly points out that not all is fair in war, or life.

Works Cited

"Abortion: In Law, History & Religion." Childbirth By Choice Trust. May 1995. 26 April 2004. <>

Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 2003.

Horden, Anthony. Legal Abortion: The English Experience. New York: Pergamon Press, 1971.

"Marie Stopes." Spartacus. 7 December 2001. 26 April 2004. <http://www.spartacus>

Raffel, Brian, Monica Borgone, Michael D'Ambrosio and Rebecca Heydon. "Abortion Around the World." 1999. 30 April 2004. <>

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