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Conscience Magazine

A Conversation with Katha Pollitt

By Tamar Abrams August 22, 2016
Photo courtesy of author
Photo courtesy of author

Conscience: In PRO, you tell the untold story of your mother’s illegal abortion in 1960. How do you think that act shaped her life? How much of a role does it play in your keen interest in the topic?

KP: I wish I knew more about my mother’s abortion. I didn’t find out about it till after her death. It is very disturbing to me that my mother, who was a good mother and a kind, intelligent person who had a lot to offer the world, was forced by our government to seek an illegal procedure. That is so demeaning, so disrespectful, as if her only value was as an incubator. My mother’s life is one of the reasons I’m a feminist.

Conscience: In the movement for women’s rights today, is there as much understanding and support for the idea of bodily autonomy and free choice as there was among feminists in the ’60s and ’70s? How does that relate to feminists who try to control access to reproductive technology or disagree with sex work?

KP: For feminists today, bodily autonomy and choice sometimes seem like the last word on any topic. I think in the so-called Second Wave there was more of a sense that choice as a value is more complicated: Feminism was about individual freedom, yes, but it was also about the collective good of all women. Those don’t always sit easily together.

And besides, what looks like a free choice is, in fact, so often shaped and constrained by larger social forces. Does reproductive technology reinforce pressures on women to bear children? Does sex work reify the low status of women and the entitlement of men? These are not questions you can answer by simply asserting a right to do what you want. Unfortunately, those earlier feminists could be quite repressive and moralistic. I think we may have over-corrected for that.

Picador, 2015, 288 pp ISBN 978-1250072665, $16.00
Picador, 2015, 288 pp
ISBN 978-1250072665, $16.00

Conscience: Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as other women. What does that say about the influence of staunchly antichoice Catholic leaders on the choices women make?

KP: Antichoice Catholic leaders may not lower the abortion rate of Catholic women overall, but that does not mean they have no effect. It has to be painful for women in the pews when their priest goes on about the evils of abortion and that lovable Pope Francis likens abortion to Mafia murders. The church is deeply involved in promoting shame and guilt among women. They may have abortions for very good reasons but still feel they’ve done a terrible thing and are bad people. And that shame and guilt have political consequences; they keep women from speaking out and from acting on their own behalf.

If every Catholic woman who had an abortion or was prochoice walked out of church on Respect Life Sunday, that would be a very powerful statement.

Conscience: If you could change one thing about the mindset of the prochoice movement in the United States, what would it be?

KP: I would have it be less defensive and more proactive. For far too long, as I argue in PRO, we’ve incorporated the thinking and the language of abortion opponents into our prochoice arguments: Abortion should be “safe, legal and rare”; abortion is an “agonizing” decision. We focus on rape, incest, fatal fetal anomalies and the life of the woman—which are terribly important issues, of course—and don’t talk enough about the large majority of abortion- seeking women, who had voluntary sex and want to end their pregnancies for socioeconomic or personal reasons.

If every Catholic woman who had an abortion or was prochoice walked out of church on Respect Life Sunday, that would be a very powerful statement.

Fortunately, I think that mindset is changing. Young activists are much more assertive: Think of #shoutyourabortion. There’s political pushback too, for instance, the fight to get rid of the Hyde Amendment. It’s great that Hillary Clinton has come out for nixing Hyde.

Conscience: Why do you think political parties and politicians sometimes find it so hard to stand up for a women’s right to choose? Has President Obama been a disappointment in this regard?

KP: Abortion is about women and sex. It gives women more power than many Americans want them to have, and it separates sex from reproduction, which many Americans find disturbing.

President Obama has been good on the whole, but his resistance to putting emergency contraception over the counter for teenagers, and mentioning his being a father of daughters as a reason for his qualms, shows that it is hard to separate protecting women from denying them safe healthcare.

Conscience: You are spending a year in Austria. How do feelings about abortion and women’s reproductive health there compare to the US? And what brought you to Vienna?

KP: My husband is a fellow this year at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, and as a writer I can work anywhere. Thank you, Internet!

Austria is a Catholic country with a rather patriarchal culture but, as in most of Western Europe, abortion is part of healthcare, not politics. People don’t talk about it much. That may change: The American antiabortion movement is exporting itself. There are cutesy subway posters advertising “help” for pregnant women—sometimes placed right next to an advertisement for an abortion clinic. The increasing popularity of the far-right Freedom Party probably doesn’t bode well for women’s rights in general.

Conscience: When you are not being Katha the feisty feminist leader and writer, what do you do to relax and recharge—do you have a secret crafting or scrapbook obsession?

KP: I read a lot; I gab with other writers on listservs; I listen to opera; I take my old things to the thrift store and come home with other people’s old things.

Conscience: Do you ever read Conscience?

KP: Always. It’s a terrific magazine and I learn a ton from it.

Tamar Abrams
Tamar Abrams

has worked as a communications consultant in Washington for decades, including for Catholics for Choice. She recently retired from staff position at the United Nations Foundation and is spending her time writing, reading and consulting.