Abortion remains one of American’s most divisive issues, bringing up a powerful mix of religion, medical science and politics that can drive a wedge between the closest of friends and family.

But local author Judy Helms wondered how different the landscape of reproductive medicine and women’s rights might look if both sides were understood rather than debated; if both sides transcended simply being respectful and began truly working together.

In October, Helms wrapped up months of research sparked by an experience at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington by publishing “The Toronto Embryo,” a novel she describes as a book for pro-life and pro-choice teens and women.

The novel centers on 16-year-old Eve, who becomes pregnant on a service trip to the Dominican Republic. Pro-life mom, who is a Democrat and a lawyer; and pro-choice Dad, a Republican psychiatrist, require Eve to study all sides of the abortion debate before making a decision.

Eve identifies an innovative procedure due to advances in reproductive medicine, and her parents come to understand the merits of the other side. “She comes to an interesting conclusion, which propels her to wrestle with ‘What do you do when both sides are right, equally?’” Helms said.

“I wanted to educated myself on good arguments about pro-choice and pro-life … and I found some excellent arguments ¬-- some persuasive arguments on both sides,” Helms said. “I thought, ‘We women are never going to be able to have the power we should have by being 50 percent of the population if we divide ourselves by this issue.’

“How can we bring ourselves together and enjoy the potency of unified action on issues we agree on?” she continued.

Book of ideas

The book is classified as a young adult novel, but Helms said it’s not a “classic” young adult novel. It may appeal most to ages 16 and up, she said. Dartfrog-approved, “The Toronto Embryo” is available on Amazon, Kindle, and at Roanoke independent retailer Book No Further. Franklin County Library hopes to soon have it, and more independent bookstores will carry it come March.

Betsy Ashton, a local writer, past president of the Virginia Writers Club, and member of a Smith Mountain Lake writers group, said she’s watched Helms grow as a writer, and was blown away when she sprang “The Toronto Embryo” on the group.

“I loved it. I absolutely loved it,” Ashton said. “I didn’t expect to when I started reading it and I couldn’t put it down … To me, it was a book that a mother reads and then shares with her daughter. The bottom line is we’re talking about pro-life and pro-choice in a way that is not preachy.

“These are decisions most women don’t want to have to make,” Ashton said, “but the way Judy wrote about it opened the door for some fabulous conversations. It’s a book that requires you to have a conversation. It demands a conversation. And that’s what I like about it.”

Helms said her other books are stories, but this one is about ideas.

“I think people will find that interesting because we don’t think of it the way Eve thinks of it,” she said. “We know how to defend the position but we never dig in with an innocent heart like Eve does and try to understand the best arguments and the best reasons that people don’t think like us.”

Opposing arguments

Helms hatched the idea for the book when her daughter Grace Kotre called to say she’d heard pro-life activists were not welcome at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Helms and Kotre were troubled, feeling that by dividing themselves, women were diminishing their power.

As she walked through the streets, marching, Helms kept thinking about how the event left out so many. From there, she dove into why.

“The truth is, I lived my whole adult life thinking of myself as a feminist and that I should be pro-choice, and at the same time I’ve never been able to face the fact of what abortion is,” she said.

She dug deeper, though the science and the emotion and down to the arguments themselves. A Chicago attorney for 33 years, Helms knows quite well how strong arguments are made and countered.

“The best way to make a persuasive argument is to figure out how the other side would counter and how would you counter that,” she said. “For the book I tried to do that.”

Her daughter, Kotre, who resides in Ann Arbor, served as a sounding board for Helms as the book developed, reading through several revisions.

“My mom and I talk about these kinds of issues anyway, and I loved talking to her about the potential ways to see that issue that are beyond black and white binary,” Kotre said.

Another theme in the book is the issue of medical advances and unwanted pregnancy as Eve wonders how things would be different if men had periods and carried unwanted embryos. Helms said Eve’s solution is a procedure based on what should be available according to scientific articles.

Second Women’s March

This year, Helms is gearing up for the 2019 Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 19, but plans to carry a different sign. In 2017, her sign was about Medicare and reproductive rights, “along the pro-choice side,” she said.

This year, Helms said her sign will advocate birth control for all women, from puberty on, be available now.

“That’s what the character discovers is the real answer to this dispute when all of the issues and pain could be eliminated,” Helms said.

Helms moved here seven years ago. She and her husband are on the board of the Smith Mountain Arts Council and active members of Lake Writers. They have two adult daughters and two resident canine family members, Benny and Chica the Brave.

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