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The Cider House Rules, by John Irving, is the tale of Homer Wells, an orphan who struggles throughout his childhood and adulthood to find his place in life. It chronicles his personal journey to becoming a hero to others and ultimately himself. Abortion becomes the crucible of his life to determine where external ethic or personal belief should be the arbiter of fate. Through his very personal story he concludes that he will take charge of his own destiny and enable others to do the same. This essay will explore this seminal work and its weighty themes and conclude with applications that can be made to midwifery and women’s healthcare.
The title of John Irving’s book, The Cider House Rules, comes from a set of rules posted in the cider house of Ocean View apple orchard. The rules were posted by Olive Worthington each year for the seasonal workers to follow, even though they could not read. The rules instructed the workers to refrain from certain behaviors, such as operating the grinder while intoxicated, smoking in bed, and sitting on the cider house roof while drinking (Irving, 1985, p.272). However, the rules were often broken by the workers, including the boss, Mr. Rose.
The rules posted at the apple orchard are a metaphor for the rules set by society, and more specifically to the rules against abortion. During the early twentieth-century, abortions were illegal in America. The point the author is making is that even though there are rules created by society, individuals often change or create their own set of rules in which they ultimately act and live. Throughout the narrative of the novel, abortion is seen as a complex set of rules the characters of the story set for themselves. This message points to the moral of The Cider House Rules; every person must define their own personal ethic in order to do what is right. Although society prescribes a set of rules, ultimately, each individual must decide how they are to act and live.
This is clearly seen in the life of Dr. Weber Larch, the founder and director of St. Cloud’s orphanage and an abortionist. Despite the government’s restrictions on abortion services, Larch followed his own set of rules and performed abortions. Although the majority of characters in the novel believed that delivering babies was the “Lord’s work” and performing abortions was the “devil’s work”, Larch, believed these two seemingly incongruous services were both the “Lord’s work” (Irving, 1985, p. 75). Larch came to this conclusion after witnessing the death of Mrs. and Miss Eames. Both women would have survived if abortion had been legal and affordable. Larch states, “I’m just the doctor. I help them have what they want. An orphan or an abortion ” (Irving, 1985, p. 513). Larch firmly believed that the government should not regulate abortion and that women should have the freedom to decide whether to have a baby or an abortion.
Opposed to Larch was Homer Wells, an orphan who becomes Larch’s protégé. Larch wanted Homer to follow in his path as an obstetrician and abortionist. Homer, however, refused to perform abortions because he believed it took the soul of a baby (Irving, 1985, p. 82). Homer’s unwillingness to act against his own conscious leads Larch to argue,
If abortions were legal, you could refuse- in fact, given your beliefs, you should refuse. But as long as they’re against the law, how can you refuse?… How can you refuse people who are not free to get other help? You have to help them because you know how. (Irving, 1985, p. 488)
Homer’s struggle of performing an immoral act out of benevolence is the moral dilemma posed by the story. Toward the end of the novel, however, Homer breaks his own rules in order to do what he believes is right. When Homer learns that Dr. Larch has died and Rose Rose, who has been impregnated by her own father, is in need of an abortion, he realizes that he is the only person that could help her. Homer could not refuse Rose Rose the abortion, and as a result, could no longer justify refusing other women in need. Although Homer does not fully embrace his role as abortionist (as evidenced by her interview with the board as Fuzzy Stone), by the end of the novel, Homer decides to return to St. Cloud’s to do both the Lord’s and the Devil’s work. Homer continues to believe that an unborn fetus is a living human being, but comes to the understanding that women should have the right to personal choice and should have control of her own body.
When Homer finally takes over Larch’s work of delivering babies and “delivering mothers” (Irving, 1985, p. 75), he becomes the hero to Rose Rose and other women in need of abortions. Homer states, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show” (Irving, 1985, p. 79). Homer comes to the realization that how he lives his life as an obstetrician and abortionist is his sole decision. Homer decides to set aside his beliefs of life in order to be a hero in someone else’s life. To be a hero is to set aside your personal beliefs and use your knowledge and abilities to help those in need no matter the opposition or difficulty.
Irving also touches upon other issues relevant to reproductive and overall health. The author not only demonstrates how safe abortions can save lives, but the Channing-Peabody’s also illustrate that women in need of abortion services cross all social and class boundaries (Irving, 1985, p. 74). Many women in this story are also victims of horrific abuse. For example, Rose Rose was physically and sexually abused by her own father, Arthur Rose. Even though other apple pickers knew that Rose Rose was being raped by her father, no one stepped in to help. This is a sober reminder of the abuse many patients experience. Health care providers must remember that abuse crosses all racial, social, and economic backgrounds, and patients must be given sensitive care.
Health care providers also need to remember that choosing abortion is not an easy decision to make. Abortions are rarely “elective”, meaning that difficult and complicated decisions factor into what a woman chooses for her life and future. Larch believed that only strong women had abortions. These women had to be strong enough to choose whether or not to keep the baby, to break the law, and be ostracized by society. In the story, the women who made the long journey to St. Cloud’s for an abortion often came alone, isolated, with no support.
Furthermore, the moral dilemma posed by the story will undoubtedly surface in my role as a women’s health provider. Similarly to Homer, I believe that life begins at fertilization, and as a healthcare provider, I must decide how I am going to practice. The current setting has changed from that in the book. In the United States, there is now access to safe and affordable abortion services. Consequently, the way that I will try to resolve this issue is by presenting all options available to a patient, and allow her to decide what path is right for her.
The messages and themes throughout The Cider House Rules will undoubtedly assist in my career as a midwife in understanding the complex, multi-factorial, and often painful stories of the women I care for. It is truly a high calling to be able to serve the vulnerable in their time of seeming most vulnerability. The laws and process of justice in our society while meant to protect the weak often serve only to further distance them from positions of power and self-determination. We must empower women to become all that they can be. The decisions that they make are intimate, fraught with difficulty and sometimes conflicted. We must not trivialize or marginalize them for the decisions they make whether or not they conflict with our own beliefs. Our calling is to care for all who come through our doors whatever the race, socioeconomic status or creed. Our care may be individual but it is always sacred.
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