John Irving is the creator of a fictive world of Garp, Viennese hotels, motorcycling bears and, now, a doctor who works in a turn-of-the-century orphanage in grimmest Maine. The doctor, Wilbur Larch, works both as an obstetrician and, illegally, as an abortionist.
Irving has heard his share of reviews.
"I read a review somewhere that said I was still doing 'unsavory things' to my characters," he said while on a visit here yesterday. "My God! 'Unsavory things'! But I suppose as long as society is doing unsavory things to people I'll be doing the same for my characters. And most of the unsavory things are done to women. Thomas Hardy wrote about Tess of the d'Urbervilles, not Ted, because he thought he could do more things to Tess. The condition of women hasn't changed much since then."
Irving is in the midst of a publicity tour to push his sixth and latest novel, "The Cider House Rules," set in an orphanage in St. Cloud's, Maine. But Irving's trip to Washington was mainly political. The right to legal abortion is one of his obsessions and he appeared last night at a benefit in Georgetown for the National Abortion Rights Action League.
"The Cider House Rules" is a historical novel that, in Irving's words, "tries to show what the world was like before we could take a safe, legal abortion for granted."
After "The World According to Garp" was published in 1978, Irving's readership became vast and loyal, the sort of wide audience that, in a publicist's terms, "eagerly awaits" the next book. "The Cider House Rules" has its political point to make but, Irving said, "it's not an argument, it's a story. I don't think I can change many minds, many hardened minds, with a story.
"Besides, the people who are so zealously against the right to abortion, I don't think they can read my book. They're not educated people."
Irving's grandfather was an obstetrician and his mother, Frances, worked for decades in a family counseling center in New Hampshire.
"You can bet that I got a good idea from my mother -- who dealt with a lot of abused women, abused children, fatherless children and the rest -- what the neglected of this world have to deal with. She thought it was an incredible hypocrisy for people, who give no good indication of caring a damn for people once they are born, to manifest such concern for the unborn.
"There's an early scene in the book where a young orphan decides that the fetus does have a soul and that he can't become the apprentice to the doctor -- something the doctor dearly wants. So, you see, I could never mock anyone who believes that, who is against abortion for that or any other reason. But I don't think anyone has a right to dictate to me on moral grounds. There's a moral consensus on murder, what it is, why it's wrong. There's certainly no such consensus on abortion."
Irving sat at NARAL's K Street offices with two women, Renee Chelian of Detroit and Carolyn Agosta of Denver, both of whom participated in a program earlier in the day at Western Plaza, where 50 women read personal statements on their own experiences with abortion.
Chelian described how she became pregnant at the age of 15 and got an abortion in an abandoned building.
"The abortion didn't even work the first time," she said. "I had to go back again." She now runs three abortion clinics in the Detroit area.
Agosta said she had been raped 16 years ago, became pregnant and sought an illegal abortion. She paid her "doctor" $700 in small bills and was made to wear a blindfold. On a chain around her neck she wore a tiny reproduction of a wire clothes hanger. Several years ago, she helped organize a center for battered women, Ending Violence Effectively, in Denver.
They listened while a famous author, one whose novels will reach a greater audience than any single testimony, argued against the obvious, but invisible, opponent in the room: the antiabortion movement that has been fighting to reverse the Supreme Court's decision in 1973, Roe v. Wade, which said women have a constitutional right to abortion.
"The safety of abortion rights is endangered by those of us who take them for granted," Irving said. "You have a lot of young kids whose sexual life began after abortion became legal in 1973 and they sort of think concern about these rights is, well, quaint. It helps to be paranoid and maintain a certain anxiousness about the issue."