Stories from Stigma: Why Can’t We Openly Discuss Abortion?
There are two striking things about Katie Watson’s excellent new book, Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, & Politics of Ordinary Abortion. First, Wat son has a gift for explaining complex arguments in a simple, easy to under s t and manner. Second, she did not anticipate that the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election would be what it was. Watson can hardly be blamed for not being as prescient as Margaret Atwood, but the current political climate for a range of issues including reproductive justice renders her otherwise entirely reasonable plea that Americans engage in thoughtful conversation about our differences on the issue of abortion almost naïve. The idea that Americans could sit down to discuss their philosophical beliefs about the value of embryos and fetuses while Congress slips a personhood clause into the federal budget negotiations seems sadly unrealistic. And yet, politics are ephemeral and politicians are famous for shifting their stances with the latest polling data. Plus, there may well be Americans who are in fact ready to engage in a meaningful, respectful discussion about ideas, moral it y and bel ief s. Wat son’s book is an important contribution to the growing literature on abortion stigma and the moral case for abortion, and its accessible language will make it an excellent text for classrooms and book clubs.
The motivation for Watson’s book is the concept of the prevalence paradox in relation to abortion stigma: Why is something as common as abortion stigmatized in the first place? Watson’s answer to this question is that we are entirely too focused on the extraordinary abortions that the media and politicians use to sensationalize what is, in fact, a common medical procedure undergone by millions of women every year. Her central argument is that because the case for the unremarkable, quotidian abortion has not been made, we as a society have not heard the arguments for how abortion is a moral good. The book lays out these arguments in a nonacademic manner and encourages readers to start talking to neighbors and friends about abortion.
One of Watson’s most important contributions is the idea of “abortion beneficiaries”—those that directly or indirectly benefit from safe, legal abortion being accessible to women. These beneficiaries include the loved ones of the women who did not lose their lives or suffer an injury because they had to resort to an unsafe abortion, realities that are often the case in many developing countries. They also include children in families whose mothers made an economic decision to end a pregnancy because they could not afford to raise another child. The concept of beneficiaries could be very useful in creating a counter-narrative for advocacy purposes and showcasing how abortion can be positive for women, their families and society as a whole. I imagine a map or spider web of connections visually depicting the many who benefit from women’s access to safe, legal, affordable abortion.
The book examines major legal abortion cases and unpacks the stories they tell, has a very helpful chapter on terminology and why words matter in the abortion debate, and has two chapters devoted to abortion ethics. The final chapter is dedicated to abortion politics, though abortion policies are discussed throughout the book. There is a fascinating epilogue where the author describes her personal abortion experience as well as her experience being pregnant and delivering her son. It is her attempt to launch the dialog. Watson’s writing style is personal and engaging, making the book a pleasure to read. The ideas it contains are complex and subtle, but the writing is direct and honest.
I wish, however, that there were more ordinary abortion stories in the book and that more information about the women mentioned was provided, such as their race, income or educational
ANU KUMAR is the interim CEO and former executive vice president of Ipas. Dr. Kumar holds a PhD in anthropology and a Masters of Public Health from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. background. Without these stories and without data on the value of those stories, we are left to go along with Watson’s assertion that dialog about abortion morality will cool down an overheated debate. What is the data to suggest it will?
While Watson says she is a proponent of a plurality of beliefs when it comes to abortion, the book remains rooted in a Judeo-Christian model of ethics. Recent abortion data from the Guttmacher Institute’s 2014 Abortion Patient Survey show that 38 percent of women who have abortions in the United States do not have a religious affiliation and eight percent are not Christian. American women who have abortions are a diverse group and a fascinating conversation could be had about the value of embryos and fetuses in a religiously diverse country like the United States. These views, if allowed to surface, could challenge the overwhelmingly Christian approach to policymaking that pervades US politics.
As an ethicist and legal scholar, Watson focuses on the individual and her desire for dialogue stems from a belief that nuanced discussion about a morally complex topic will lead to a diffusion of the vitriol generally associated with abortion. She does not address whether this conversation would have any impact on policymaking. Indeed, politics only comes into play towards the end of the book when Watson acknowledges that abortion is a matter of social justice. This is the case not just in the United States but globally, where thousands of women die from unsafe abortions and millions more are injured. The distribution of deaths and injuries from unsafe abortion are not random; poor women in poor countries are the most affected. Poverty and powerlessness are the precursors to these entirely preventable deaths just as they are the precursors to lack of abortion access in the United States. A power analysis would have improved an already excellent book. In her discussion of the masterplots found in US Supreme Court cases, Watson concludes that “a masterplot takes a story that’s true for some and makes it the only story we can tell.” Yes—that is the nature of oppression. Ultimately, is Watson’s push for dialogue sufficient to overcome structural power imbalances?