A Positive Social GoodPro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights By Katha Pollitt New York: Picador, 2014, 258 pp., $25.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Marlene Fried
For years, Katha Pollitt has brought her wit, clarity of moral vision, and passion to the abortion debate. Building on years of astute commentary, Pro is a compellingly argued, comprehensive, and thoroughly accessible treatise offering a reframing of abortion. “I want us to start thinking about abortion as a positive social good, and saying this out loud,” writes Pollitt.
She reminds us to place abortion in its full human setting; to go beyond narrowly crafted defenses of abortion and to engage instead with the many elements involved in the abortion decision—sex, sexuality, love, violence, class, race, privilege, work, school, health care, family troubles, the lack of power that women experience in sexual relationships, and the scarcity of resources for single mothers. As Pollitt makes clear, this is not a “single issue” issue.
Pro is an unabashed call to affirmatively reclaim abortion rights. Terminating a pregnancy, she writes, is not a tragedy, not an evil, not even a necessary evil. “Instead of shaming women for ending a pregnancy, we should acknowledge their realism and self knowledge.” This captures the book’s central importance. Abortion opponents have shaped our perceptions, cloaking women who have abortions in shame and stigma, and rendering invisible the fact that abortion is not the act of a “beleaguered, isolated, and confused woman.” One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetimes, yet the silence surrounding their decisions is deafening. Instead, writes Pollitt, “We need to talk about ending a pregnancy as a common, even normal event in the reproductive lives of women.”
For those who share Pollitt’s views, Pro’s message, and the truths it reveals about women’s reproductive lives, will be inspiring and emboldening. It would be a mistake, however, to think that Pro is only preaching to the choir. As the co-founder of the reproductive justice organization SisterSong, Loretta Ross, observes, “We don’t have a choir all singing the same song.” Too few proponents of abortion rights are singing Pollitt’s tune.
While unsparing in her criticisms of the opposition, she also takes the prochoice movement to task for its complacency, defensiveness, and tolerance of restrictions. Of course she does not hold both camps equally accountable, but she does emphasize that changing how advocates frame abortion is a crucial step toward stopping the damage to women’s fundamental rights. The popular prochoice mantra, that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” perpetuates the stigma, silence, and general negativity that pervades today’s abortion battles.
Pro is directed at those “middle of the road more or less pro choice voters, those millions of Americans who don’t want to ban abortion, exactly, but don’t want it to be widely available, either.” This “permit but deplore” position is widely reinforced in the mainstream media. But by revealing the logical consequences of the antiabortion position, Pollitt hopes that some people in the middle will realize that they actually support legal abortion.
To this end, Pro raises and responds to virtually every anti-abortion claim imaginable. An impressive chapter is devoted to the question, “What is a person?” which directly confronts the bedrock argument of the antiabortion movement. Pollitt meticulously sets out the implications of taking the position that personhood begins at conception and challenges those who hold this view to accept all its consequences: no exceptions for any reason—not rape; not fetal anomaly; not your fourteen-year-old daughter, niece, or sister; and not to save the life of the pregnant women.If zygotes are persons, then we should be equally upset by a fire that killed as many embryos as workers in a factory, or young people at a nightclub. For Pollitt, these consequences are so unthinkable, so illogical, that they are not really accepted, even by most of those who consider themselves anti-abortion. “Abortion opponents are trapped by their reliance on personhood, a concept that forces them into impossible positions and arguments that few believe and fewer live by. And if they themselves don’t follow their own logic, why should anyone else?” Like Pollitt, as a long time abortion rights advocate I am troubled by the hypocrisy, lack of careful thinking, and disregard for women implied by the zygote-as-person arguments. But this does not mean that abortion rights advocates should expend much energy in refuting them. Taking such claims seriously erases women and concedes too much to the fetus-centered, anti-abortion framing that Pollitt so eloquently opposes throughout her book. “Abortion opponents have been very effective at shifting the focus of moral concern onto the contents of women’s wombs—even an un-implanted fertilized egg is a baby now,” she points out. The abortion rights position does not rely on a particular view about the status of fetal life. As Pollitt points out, even if the fetus were considered a person, it would not have the right to use a woman’s body against her will.
Pro argues that supporters of abortion rights must insist on putting women at the center of the abortion issue. That’s why Pollitt begins the book by reflecting on her own mother’s illegal abortion, kept secret from her husband and daughter. While much has changed since her mother’s time, Pro forces us to confront what has not. The relentless efforts to restrict abortion and contraception reveal that we are still fighting about women’s place in the world. Women continue to be defined by their sexuality but not trusted to make their own reproductive decisions, thus denied the chance to shape their own lives. Ultimately, Pollitt concludes that this is still a world that treats women as “potting soil,” rather than controllers of their own destiny.
There are two crucial issues I wish Pro had dealt with differently: the importance of self-induction, and the continuing divisions between prochoice and reproductive justice advocates.
When abortion was illegal in the US, dangers included untrained providers, lack of knowledge among women, and desperate efforts to self-abort that included ingesting poisons and inserting sharp objects into the uterus. As a result, some women died needlessly and many others suffered terrible complications.
In the face of current attempts to restrict abortion and close clinics, the abortion rights movement warns of a return to those days. Pro, too, invokes this narrative: But now with clinics disappearing, more and more women will have no choice but to turn to pills, as women do in Ireland and other countries where it is illegal for a woman to end a pregnancy. Some will end up in emergency rooms. Some will be injured. Some may die.
Indeed, as access to clinics is increasingly diminished, some women will resort to unsafe methods. However, there are now safe alternatives for those who either cannot get to a clinic or choose not to. Today, the majority of women who do not go to a clinic are choosing to obtain abortion pills (mifepristone plus misoprostol, or misoprostol alone). Self-induction with pills (misoprostol) should be seen neither as a sort of coat hanger nor as a method of last resort.
For years, women in other countries have been using misoprostol outside of a medical context to safely end their pregnancies. There are dangers, but as before Roe, they arise because the law makes safe methods inaccessible. Because these pills are so highly regulated in the US, people are more at risk for prosecution than for being harmed by the method itself.
Putting a safe and effective tool of fertility regulation directly in the hands of women is part of the feminist project; something to be celebrated and supported by advocates, not feared. Pollitt can make an important contribution to this effort by using her pulpit to help bring this issue to the forefront of discussions in the US.
Pro ends with a short section analyzing the weaknesses of the prochoice movement and pointing toward change. Pollitt’s assessment: the movement has for too long been complacent or defensive, tailoring its agenda and vision toward what can be won in the short run, allowing abortion to be separated from health care and sexuality, and focusing solely on the right not to have children, while ignoring the right to have children and families. By so doing, she writes, “It let its mostly white leadership age in place, pursuing their tired Beltway-focused strategies, and then wondered why young women and working-class women and women of color didn’t connect with its organizations.” Her hope for the future lies with new, younger, and bolder leaders in mainstream organizations, and the broader, holistic, reproductive justice movement.
However, moving from choice to justice is a slow and difficult process. The historic divide along lines of race and class persists. As Miriam Zoila Pérez, the writer and founder of RadicalDoula.com, tells us, we still have a tale of two movements. While sometimes using the language of reproductive justice, the mainstream prochoice movement remains primarily focused on abortion and contraception. It has not yet placed the right to have and parent children at the forefront of its agenda. For example, the prochoice movement has not been visible in the recent campaign to stop the sterilizations of women in California prisons.
The tensions and fragility of alliances was recently highlighted when a 2014 New York Times article about Planned Parenthood’s abandonment of prochoice terminology . failed even to mention the concept of reproductive justice, or to acknowledge the longtime leadership of women of color in advocating for this paradigm shift. In her Open Letter to Planned Parenthood, Monica Simpson, SisterSong’s executive director, wrote Planned Parenthood did not inform the reporters of the long-term work of scores of reproductive justice organizations, activists, and researchers that have challenged the “prochoice” label for 20 years. This is not only disheartening but, intentionally or not, continues the co-optation and erasure of the tremendously hard work done by Indigenous women and women of color (WOC) for decades.
Among other things, Simpson calls on Planned Parenthood to examine the role it and its affiliates play in either obstructing or supporting reproductive justice. Here too, given her broad outlook, Pollitt can play a significant role by providing a platform for reproductive justice leaders to bring their messages to a wider audience.
Despite these gaps, the book is a major achievement. In Pro, Pollitt puts it all together—the erosions, the anti-abortion fallacies, the weakness of the abortion rights defense, and prescriptions for the future. She exposes the underlying agenda of the antiabortion movement, its “anti-feminism, shaming of sexually active girls and single women, fears of white demographic decline and conservative views of marriage and sexuality, or outright misogyny.”
Pro’s much needed call to action is especially timely, given Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. Pollitt catalogues the many ways that opponents of abortion have stepped up their legislative efforts to further restrict abortion access—and there have been many more since the book was published last fall.
Opponents of abortion are doing their own reframing. At January’s Law of Life Summit, young speakers talked about reclaiming the language and co-opting the label of feminism. The group hopes to “take feminism back from those who have corrupted it and make the new feminism, the feminism of the future, pro-life feminism.”
In the face of this ongoing, anti-abortion onslaught, Pollitt’s goal is critically important. She hopes to ignite those prochoice supporters who remain uninvolved and complacent by showing the full extent of the devastation caused by losses in access and the threat posed to all women by the antiabortion movement’s worldview. Pro makes an overwhelming and powerful case for action. It speaks fundamental truths that can help to guide our vision and advocacy. If this does not awake the “sleeping prochoice giant,” it is hard to see what will.
Marlene Gerber Fried is professor of Philosophy and faculty director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College. She was founding president of the National Network of Abortion Funds and a board member for 21 years. She continues to serve on the board of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts. Marlene wishes, as always, to thank her writing posse: Bill Fried, Loretta Ross, Stephanie Poggi, Susan Yanow, and Carolyn Eisenberg.