The Cider House Rules (1985)

by John Irving

If you are strongly opposed to abortion, you might be inclined to take a pass on The Cider House Rules. Not that author John Irving is preachy and one-sided. On the contrary, his main character Homer Wells is the one who makes the case against abortion: "I believe the fetus has a soul." But it's the abortion-as-necessary-evil viewpoint of the orphan Homer's pseudo-parent Dr. Wilbur Larch that ultimately prevails.

While abortion is at its core, The Cider House Rules is about so much more that strong feelings on that issue aren't a prerequisite. It is a heart-warming, old-fashioned sort of novel, with characters who are brave and touching. While Larch calls the orphans of St. Cloud's "you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England," he himself merits that  epithet even as he breaks the law. Larch not only delivers women of their unwanted babies and cares for the children until he finds them homes, he also performs free abortions on request. The story takes place long before the Supreme Court ruled that a woman has the right to choose, and Larch believes he is acting in the only morally responsible way. As long as abortion is illegal, as long as women have no choice, he reasons, he cannot make the choice of refusing them.

Homer Wells is an orphan for whom Larch couldn't find a home and whom Larch comes to love as a son. Because Larch believes people should be of use, he trains Homer in the thing that is of most use at St. Cloud's orphanage — doctoring — until Homer becomes as skilled as Larch himself. When a young couple comes to him for an abortion, Larch, like a loving parent, wants Homer to have a chance to see some of the world and arranges for him to have a getaway with them. The getaway lasts for years, during which Homer and the couple run an apple orchard and — yes, all three of them — raise a son. But Larch always intends for Homer to return "home" to St. Cloud's to succeed him, medical degree or not, opposition to abortion or not, and the book ends with the resolution of Larch's wishes.

The compassion and moral concern of The Cider House Rules, along with Irving's characteristic humor and inventive storytelling, make for a great read. Passing up the book because of its pro-choice stance would be a shame.


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