The following is a feature article from the most recent edition of the LARB Quarterly Journal: Winter 2015. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $15 monthly level or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com, or b&n.com.
WHEN I WAS 14, I was invited to attend a pro-life retreat. I was raised Catholic, I went to an all-girls Catholic school, it seemed like an issue I’d need to take a stand on — so I went. It was hard, at that age, to see how I couldn’t be pro-life: after all, who can declare themselves “against” life? And the people that championed the pro-life movement were people that I trusted — my teachers, my classmates, their parents, all the friendly, loving faces in our parish community.
I was silent during most of the retreat, a little daunted by the fervor that everyone else brought to the discussion. The girls talked about their experiences going door-to-door, asking for donations to fight against the daily murder of the “unborn.” Later, we settled down with cookies, and one of the organizers played Life Is Beautiful, the 1997 movie about a Jewish Italian family’s struggle for survival in a Nazi concentration camp. I got the message — life is beautiful — but I didn’t quite see the rest of the connection: Were they suggesting that the termination of pea-sized pregnancies was the same thing as the mass slaughter of Jews? Surely not.
The retreat crescendoed around a presentation about Gianna Beretta Molla, a woman who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2004 for refusing medical care that would have saved her life — but would have threatened the life of her fetus. It was her fourth pregnancy; her other children were aged three, five, and six. She died seven days after giving birth, and her children went to the Vatican years later to see their mother made a saint. The woman presenting the story turned to me as she finished: “Isn’t it beautiful?”
I couldn’t answer her; my stomach churned. Were these people, my community, measuring a woman’s worth by how close she came to self-sacrifice, to not being a self at all — for the sake of a fertilized egg? What was “pro-life” about a movement that so easily discarded a human being and valorized her death — to save a cluster of cells? (Gianna was only in the second month of pregnancy when doctors discovered her tumor.) She had a full life — thoughts, interests, desires, dreams, not to mention three children; she was a full person. And then I realized: maybe, in their minds, she was not.
No, it wasn’t beautiful. It was tragic. And it was sick that they wanted to call it beautiful.
I knew then that I wasn’t “pro-life”: no way was I going to be forced to carry a pregnancy I didn’t want. Gianna’s story stirred in me an instinctive sense of my right to self-preservation and self-determination. That right is enough in itself to justify legal abortion. But I also had a sense that abortion was about even more than that, though what the “more” was seemed fuzzy and hard to define. No one I knew was talking about it, so I picked up Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex: It was my summer project. I lugged her 800-page tome to the beach and the pool and on a long whitewater rafting trip down Idaho’s Snake River until I found the realization I was looking for: Women would never be equal to men — would never govern nations or lead companies or write great books in the same numbers as their male peers — unless they had access to safe abortions. They would be tied to their sexuality and their fertility, limited, as they had been throughout history, to the roles of mother and wife. Twentieth-century medicine gave women, on a massive scale, a chance to be more, to pursue the dreams and ambitions that men had always been free to pursue: It could be, I saw, a different world.
That glimpse was exhilarating, but since de Beauvoir set it down in 1949, we have lost sight of it. The vast majority of Americans think abortion is acceptable in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk. But, as Katha Pollitt points out in her new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, we’ve made abortion shameful for just about everyone else. It’s necessary, but it’s immoral. Or: It’s tragic, and you should feel guilty, but we’ll let you have it after you listen to a doctor read government-mandated anti-abortion propaganda (and then, please, never mention it again).
Even pro-choicers, Pollitt says, tiptoe around the possibility that this hard-won right is anything other than a horrible recourse: Hillary Clinton has called abortion “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women”; she didn’t add, “and for many others, a blessing and a lifesaver.” The pro-choice movement talks about abortion as “thorny,” “vexed,” “complex,” “difficult.” “How often,” Pollitt asks,
have you heard abortion described as “the hardest decision” or “the most painful choice” a woman ever makes, as if every single woman who gets pregnant by accident seriously considers having a baby, only a few weeks earlier the furthest thing from her mind and for very good reason? Or more accurately, as if every accidentally pregnant woman really should seriously consider having that baby — and if she doesn’t at least claim she thought long and hard about it and only reluctantly and sadly realized it was impossible, she’s a bad woman who thinks only of her own pleasure and convenience.
Pollitt wants to put women, not the contents of their wombs, back at the center of the abortion conversation — real women, who have been having abortions throughout history and all over the world, even in times and places untouched by modern ideas about women’s rights. She also wants women to stop being defensive about abortion: Why does a woman have to be raped or on her deathbed to end a pregnancy? Why can’t she just say, “This isn’t the right time for me”? Or, “Two children (or one, or none) are enough”? Why must a woman apologize for not having a baby, for not going through the emotional and physical traumas of pregnancy and childbirth, for not derailing her life, just because of a stray sperm?
Lest anyone think this debate is simply about language or framing or marketing, Pollitt reminds us that abortion rights are under serious — and successful — attack in this country, and language is deployed to gain ground. Pollitt points out that 87 percent of US counties no longer have abortion providers. Between 2011 and 2013, states enacted 205 new restrictions that make abortion harder to access and laws that have forced 73 clinics to close or stop performing abortions altogether. But one in three American women will terminate at least one pregnancy in their lifetime. Sixty percent of women who have abortions are already mothers, Pollitt writes. Seventy percent are poor or low-income: they are struggling to put themselves through school; they’re working one or more jobs while raising one or more kids; they’ve been abandoned by their husbands or boyfriends, and they’re trying, desperately, to pull their lives together. Their lives aren’t at risk in the sense that Gianna Beretta Molla’s was, and, yet, they are. If you count women’s lives as something more than just the ability to produce children, then their lives are at risk. These are the women whose lives and families will be the most adversely affected by an unwanted pregnancy and who will have the hardest time getting an abortion.
In the age of Hillary and Beyoncé it is sometimes easy to forget: self-empowerment is still for the very few; the odds of achieving it get overwhelmingly small the farther down the income scale one goes.
Pollitt addresses her book to the “muddled middle”: the Americans who want a compromise, who lament “extremes,” who don’t want to outlaw abortion entirely but who don’t want it to be widely available either. She refers to their position as “permit but discourage” or “permit but deplore.” They tend to be on board with the new restrictions: What can be so bad about making a woman wait an extra 72 hours? It’s good to make her think hard about her decision. Why shouldn’t a teenage girl have to receive parental consent? Her parents need to know what’s going on. So what if the cost of abortion skyrockets after the first trimester? It’s not that hard to find an extra $1,500 dollars, and maybe the money will make her realize what a serious moral decision this is.
But the 72-hour waiting period isn’t so easy when you have to drive out of state to find a clinic, take off multiple days of work, find somewhere to stay, and (potentially) pay for a babysitter. Women want to end their pregnancies as early as possible, and waiting periods often mean rescheduling days or weeks down the road — when the costs have gone up and the regulations increased. Parental consent laws mean many girls delay telling their parents until an abortion is much harder or impossible to get (and this is assuming their parents allow them to get it at all). Meanwhile, increased costs of course hit poor women hardest. Abortion restrictions aren’t just sexist: they’re also classist and racist. And they’re infantilizing, forcing women to “think harder,” to wring their hands, and hem and haw, as though they aren’t really capable of making decisions for themselves.
In their desire to take a “balanced” view of things, Americans have let the far-right, anti-abortion movement take us backward instead of forward. And let’s be clear: these restrictions are aimed at getting rid of abortion. Anti-abortionists, as Pollitt writes, have been very shrewd in their approach: they can’t overturn Roe v. Wade, so they’ve gone piecemeal — clinic by clinic, county by county, state by state — introducing laws they claim will “protect” women. For instance, just this past summer a Mississippi federal appeals court ruled unconstitutional a 2012 state law that would have shut down the state’s only abortion clinic. The almost-law required physicians performing more than 10 abortions a year to be certified in obstetrics and have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Neither of the two doctors at Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the sole clinic that offers legal abortions in Mississippi, had admitting privileges.
Supporters of the law claim that if a medical emergency occurs during an abortion, the doctor in charge needs to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital in order to ensure the safety of the woman. But, in reality, hospitals are required to provide care for anyone in the case of a medical emergency, so admitting privileges are irrelevant. They’re just a way to make it harder for clinics to operate. Governor Phil Bryant admitted as much when he said that he wants to “make Mississippi abortion-free.” An abortion is actually a very safe procedure; less than one percent of women experience complications, but the risk goes up the longer a woman is forced to wait. And when women can’t have safe, legal abortions, they take matters into their own hands: they get injured and infected and sometimes they die. The anti-abortion movement clearly doesn’t care about women’s lives or women’s health at all.
Pollitt also shows that the movement isn’t really about reducing abortions either. If it were, anti-abortionists would support better sex education (not abstinence-only) and better access to contraception. But almost none do. And do they really believe that a zygote or a blastocyst or an embryo is a person? “Personhood” measures to define a fetus as a person and make abortion illegal are becoming increasingly popular proposals. But the many exceptions anti-abortionists are willing to make shows, in truth, that they recognize a difference between a fully developed human and an early stage cell mass: if they really believed an embryo was a person, they couldn’t permit it to be killed when a woman’s life is at risk any more than they could permit a doctor to kill one of his patients to give another a new heart. States hostile to abortion also do little to support the health and well-being of fetuses and babies: they don’t support prenatal care, assistance to pregnant women, food stamps, Medicaid, welfare, or child care. One can’t help thinking that the leaders of the anti-abortion movement aren’t so much pro-child as they are anti-woman.
Pollitt makes the persuasive and important argument that restricting abortion is really about controlling women’s power and freedom, especially their sexual freedom. “Judgments about women’s sexuality,” she notes, “permeate the discussion of abortion, much of which is about trying to distinguish good women from bad ones.” It doesn’t make sense to say that rape victims and women whose lives are at risk can have abortions, but women whose contraception fails or who — god forbid — forget to use it can’t. It makes pregnancy and childbirth a punishment for sex, a punishment only one sex is forced to bear. Notice, too, that the status of the fertilized egg is the same in all these scenarios: what’s changed is the woman and whether she “got what she deserved.”
Anti-abortion activists like to paint women who seek abortions as irresponsible, reckless, and promiscuous. But, as Pollitt writes, “it is precisely because having a baby determines so much about a woman’s life, and because women take maternal responsibilities so seriously, that they have abortions.” Isn’t it a good thing that women realize motherhood isn’t something to be taken up at the drop of a hat? Shouldn’t we be glad that they consider whether they are really in a position to raise a child? Yes, it would be nice if they didn’t get pregnant in the first place, but perfect control of your fertility is improbable. And this is what women must do: “In order to get anywhere in life — to get a good education, a graduate or professional degree, a job, a better job — a heterosexual American woman today, unless she is a nun, spends around thirty years trying to control her fertility.”
That’s a pretty unfair burden, one that men can hardly begin to understand. And it’s not surprising that it doesn’t go perfectly: humans are fallible and contraception fails. Abortion is necessary for women to shake off the yoke of servitude to men, babies, and housework. It means they can enter the workforce, make more money, hold leadership positions, run for office, and contribute to the intellectual and economic growth of society. And if they want to be mothers, access to abortion means they can be mothers by choice, not fate. Reproductive rights, Pollitt argues, are “the key to every other freedom. […] They are what enable women to have at least a chance of shaping their lives.”
What this comes down to is the fact that women can never be equal — can never have the same opportunities in life as men — unless they’re able to control their fertility. In the 1970s, people understood this: women called for abortion “on demand and without apology.” Gradually, this mindset faded. The phrase was made to seem selfish, shrill, and, well, demanding — thanks to the efforts of anti-abortionists. They’ve altered the discourse by shifting focus to the fertilized egg and its “rights.” In the process, women and their rights have dropped to the wayside. This is rhetorically persuasive: everyone feels sympathy for an infant; it’s innocent, adorable, helpless, and faultless. But women are flawed, they’ve made mistakes, they’ve even had sex when they weren’t “supposed” to. As Pollitt writes, all anti-abortionists have to do is shout, “Baby!” and the conversation ends. Pollitt does women a great service by directing attention back to the heart of the problem: women’s equality and freedom.
But perhaps the best praise I can give of Pollitt’s book is to say that it’s upsetting: deeply upsetting and deeply frustrating. I felt uncomfortable the entire time I was reading it. Most millennial-age girls grow up with the happy belief that we are, for the first time in history, equal (or almost equal) to men. We learn to be grateful for the efforts of the preceding generations of women. We learn how lucky we are. But Pollitt makes it clear that we haven’t come as far as we think we have (or we have, and then we regressed). That’s a sobering realization.
It’s more sobering still to understand that a movement backed by some of the most powerful institutions in America wants to obstruct women’s advancement. They want to return to an idealized past when sex was confined to marriage and women were confined to motherhood. They want women to endure unplanned and unwanted pregnancies against their will; how can that be a good thing? As Pollitt writes, it only leads to “more lost hope, more bad marriages and family misery, more poverty and struggle for women, their partners and their kids. Don’t we have way too much of all that already?”
The crucial extension here is that abortion isn’t just better for women, it’s better for society as a whole. Countless studies have now shown that gender equality is one of the most important prerequisites for global prosperity, peace, and stability. It means women can contribute to the workforce. It means struggling women have a better chance to pull themselves and their families out of poverty. And it means children are welcomed into the world when their mothers are ready and able to care for them. Pollitt calls for the pro-choice movement to say this out loud — not to apologize for abortion as a tragic necessity but to hail it as a social good, “a common, even normal, event in the reproductive lives of women.”
This means there is no compromise on abortion, no middle road. You can’t judge a woman’s decision because there are simply too many things you don’t know about her life. And even if you did, your judgment doesn’t matter: Would you restrict someone’s First Amendment right because you think their speech is foolish? Or restrict the right to vote because you don’t agree with someone’s choice of candidate? Katha Pollitt makes an intelligent, compassionate case for abortion rights as human rights, fundamental to a woman’s capacity for self-determination, independence, and active decision-making. We treasure those values in American men; we should treasure them in American women too.