Putting Abortion Back on the Agenda: Katha Pollitt Is Still a Feisty Feminist
“I understand that same-sex marriage and reproductive rights are different: marriage is about love, and abortion is about freedom. But freedom is a bedrock American value, even when it’s for women. Isn’t it?”
— Katha Pollitt, The Nation, June 8, 2015
Could widespread jubilation at the success of Ire–land’s referendum endorsing marriage equality open a space where we can meaningfully revisit the right to choose abortion? If so, Katha Pollitt is already there. In Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, the veteran journalist has prepared an urgent and comprehensive primer for a new generation of prochoice activists.
This book reveals a writer for whom the right to abortion is not only necessary, but a feminist cornerstone, for all that it’s a “hard sell” (in Irish activist Anthea McTeirnan’s apt phrase). “Legalizing abortion didn’t just save women from death and injury and fear of arrest,” writes Pollitt. “It changed how women saw themselves: as mothers by choice, not by fate.”
But all is not well in the body politic. “We think we value mothers in America, but we don’t,” Pollitt says. “[A] mother is just a kind of woman, after all, and women are trouble and not so valuable.” Prize-winning novelist Anne Enright agrees. “It is a fact worth stating sometimes that sex, in itself, cannot turn you into a whore, no matter what the nuns told you then or pornography tells you now, but it really can turn you into a mother,” Enright observed in a recent article in the New York Times. “After which, of course, you are never allowed to have sex again!”
The great fact for us is that abortion is not respectable. It isn’t a normalized experience, nor a genteel topic in polite society, as marriage equality unexpectedly became. Abortion, as Pollitt reminds us, is a signifier of women’s sexuality, of unlicensed sex. Relative to its prevalence through–out history and across cultures, few women have risked social censure by revealing that they’ve had the procedure, be it legal or back-alley. Although women have abortions in statistically significant numbers, silence about the experience is their most common shared characteristic. Only raucous feminists, such as Pollitt (who tells us upfront that learning of her mother’s abortion informed her politics), have ever been out-and-proud about the demand that abortion be freely and legally available.
The tone throughout this very readable book is challenging and propulsive. “When you consider the way restrictions on abortion go hand-in-hand with cutbacks in social programs and stymied gender equality,” she argues, “it is hard not to suspect that the aim is to put women and children back under male control by making it impossible for them to survive without it.”
Katha Pollitt wants us to confront that complacency threatening to enable the return of the mortal back alleys and the bloody coat hanger. “Perhaps you think your opinions about abortion are pretty straightforward,” she writes, addressing “the muddled middle,” that majority of Americans who report favoring some form of legal abortion. “But how clear, really, is your understanding of abortion and your reasoning about what you believe? What if your opinions contradict each other? What if you don’t really believe what you think you do?” The muddled middle, thus, is not a creature of the partisan spectrum, but of our unexplored reactions on the issues.
This series of probing questions is followed by a tour-de-force deconstruction of the key positions advanced in religious pronouncements and media debate and surveyed in polls. Reviewing the data, impressively collected from multiple sources in the manner of investigative journalists everywhere, Pollitt reveals population-wide dissonance on matters ranging from whether we truly agree (even with ourselves) on when abortion may be legal, to when we believe life begins or if the fetus feels pain. These chapters amount to an examination of conscience.
[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ater, in a chapter disengenuously titled “Are Women People?,” Pollitt asks: What if we started with women? “You do not need to give someone an ultrasound to know that a woman is present,” she writes, updating classic feminist analysis. “No one doubts that she can think, or perceive, or suffer pain.”
And so Pollitt returns us, and smartly, to the heart of the matter: what is the moral status of women? “How much right to life do women have?” In the context of so-called right-to-life laws worldwide, this is no idle question. The Irish medical team on whose watch Savita Halappanavar died insisted that they were fulfilling their responsibility to safeguard the constitutionally guaranteed right to life “of the unborn.” Too bad the “equal right to life of the mother” escaped their vigilance. According to McTeirnan, “Ireland is a salutary tale. It is a worst-case scenario.” The deadly invisibility of women—physically, morally, historically, experientially, sexually—is a thread running through Pollitt’s entire polemic. “What about their souls?” she asks.
Reviewing the data, Pollitt reveals population-wide dissonance on matters ranging from whether we truly agree (even with ourselves) on when abortion may be legal, to when we believe life begins or if the fetus feels pain. These chapters amount to an examination of conscience.
McTeirnan agrees, “[W]e cannot give her any choices about what to do with her body. Because we do not think she deserves equality of treatment. Because we do not love her,” this former chair of the Irish Family Planning Association observed, discussing -Pollitt’s book.
Nor is Pollitt self-conscious about drawing conclusions from her data. In an energetic flourish typical of her style throughout, she insists, “The lack of interest in making men who impregnate women co-responsible for the care of the unborn—and the born—is another clue that abortion opponents’ first concern is not to ensure the well-being of the embryo and fetus, but to control and punish the behavior of women, and only women.”
Pollitt reminds us that neither her questions nor her conclusions are academic. The laws of physics work in politics too, and the service vacuum created by systemic local assault on Roe has already given rise to a disturbing trend. “As I write, reporters describe the return of illegal abortion in states where clinics have closed,” she tells us here and in articles published in The Nation. Among other examples, she cites “women in the Rio Grande Valley, where clinic regulations have made abortion completely unavailable, [who] are increasingly crossing the border to Mexico to buy misoprostol.”
In this context, Pollitt challenges us to look to the strength of our political movement. “Pro-choicers have fallen into the framing that the anti-abortion people use, which is abortion is always a terrible thing, that it’s an agonizing decision,” she observed in a promotional interview. In Pro, she worries that, too often, the prochoice movement focuses its energies on limiting the damage caused by repressive laws while avoiding direct confrontation on the less respectable, or hard-sell, issues—a charge that, on the evidence of this book alone, will never be levied against her.
Rather, we need to frame abortion as the “positive social good” she believes it to be. “It is an essential option for women—not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul-destroying situations, but all women—and thus benefits society as a whole.”
Accordingly, her concluding chapter finds Pollitt engaging with the prochoice movement in a spirit of constructive criticism, chiding us for our defensiveness, our comfort with sclerotic leadership. She sees an opportunity for revitalization in the emergence of an online advocacy community she identifies as “a new activism.”
Named a New York Times notable book, Pro is a manifesto on a mission. Activists take note. Pollitt lays it out for us: “What matters is passion, strategy, money and organization, not what boxes people check on a poll.”
To which our only possible response can be, “Where do I sign?”
Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights
(Picador, 2015, 288 pp)