Commentary Abortion

Katha Pollitt’s ‘Pro’ Hopes to Sway the ‘Muddled Middle’ on Abortion Ethics

Eleanor J. Bader

Pollitt's well-crafted defense of abortion as a social and ethical good will likely come as no surprise to most reproductive justice activists. But she's really targeting those who aren't convinced either way on the issue.

In Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, feminist and writer Katha Pollitt offers a well-crafted defense of abortion as a social and ethical good. While this will likely come as no surprise to most reproductive justice activists, Pollitt’s target audience is actually those who believe abortion should be legally limited. In order to convince them otherwise, she offers a step-by-step deconstruction of the arbitrary restrictions that implicitly declare some abortions as morally permissible and others as not.

Pollitt acknowledges that the anti-choice movement’s relentless fixation on abortion as the murder of innocent human life has resulted in many victories for reproductive rights opponents, notably with regard to public discourse on abortion. She writes:

The anti-abortion movement has placed the zygote/embryo/fetus at the moral center, while relegating women and their rights to the periphery … Over time, it has altered the way we talk about abortion and the way many people feel about it, even if they remain pro-choice. It has made abortion seem risky, when in fact it is remarkably safe—12 to 14 times safer than the alternative, which is continued pregnancy and childbirth.

In addition, anti-choicers’ frequent citation of “Post-Abortion Syndrome,” the unsubstantiated idea that after a termination women will suffer from a host of physical and psychological ailments—such as breast cancer, infertility, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation—has planted more doubts in many people’s minds.

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And all of this confusion is further compounded, Pollitt notes, by the language that politicians, pundits, and conservative activists typically use to publicly discuss abortion. Operation Save America, for example, routinely dubs abortion as “genocide” and its providers as “Nazis.” Even Hillary Rodham Clinton has claimed that abortion is a “sad, even tragic, choice,” rather than one that millions of women make without undue malaise every year.

As a whole, this ideological crusade has been disastrous for the reproductive justice movement. Support for devastatingly restrictive legislation, for instance, remains strong in many regions. And while one-third of U.S. women will have an abortion before age 45, the procedure continues to be shrouded in secrecy, shame, and silence, making it harder to access on both an individual and systemic level.

The anti-abortion movement’s smear campaign is largely to blame for this pervasive stigma; nonetheless, Pollitt says that some of the culpability also rests with the pro-choice movement’s reluctance to defend abortion as a necessary, safe, and normal part of everyday medicine. Instead, she says, pro-reproductive rights activists tend to focus on abortions necessary in extreme circumstances:

Forty years of apologetic rhetoric, 40 years of searching for arguments that will support legal abortion while never, ever, implying that it is an easy decision or a good thing—for women, men, and children, families, society—have left the pro-choice movement making the same limited, defensive arguments again and again … We hear endlessly about rape victims, incest victims, women at risk of death and injury, women carrying fetuses with rare fatal conditions—and make no mistake, those girls and women exist and their rights need to be defended because the laws in many states will harm them greatly. But we don’t hear about the vast majority of women who choose abortion, who are basically trying to get their life on track or keep it there.

Predictably, this strategy has led to a divide in opinion on abortion. The majority of Americans support abortion in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the pregnant woman’s life; at the same time, many oppose Medicaid funding for the procedure and stand against its availability in later trimesters.

This, Pollitt writes, is a logistically flawed stance. She asks:

Do those who say a woman should have the baby even if she has no money assume there’s help out there for her, the way so many people believe anyone who really wants to work can find a job? Do they think poor people shouldn’t have sex, even if they’re married, so tough luck if the condom breaks? Or that no woman should have sex unless she’s prepared to have a baby nine months later? That is the logic, after all, of the rape and incest exception: She can kill her baby if she was forced into intercourse, but not if she volunteered.

She also points out the reasons later abortions are legally necessary, including post-20-week discoveries of fetal anomalies, women denying or overlooking their pregnancies during the first few months of gestation, and financial or relationship troubles that make it impossible to obtain the procedure sooner.

Overall, though anti-choicers may have distracted Americans with questions about timing and context, Pollitt maintains, their arguments are actually driven and reinforced by misogyny. “If we allow women’s lives to be derailed by a single sperm, if bearing and raising children is something she should be ready to do at any moment, we must not think women’s lives matter too much to begin with,” she observes. “What matters is that they had sex.”

And therein lies the crux of the issue. Pollitt is certainly not the first person to point out that the idea of women controlling their sexual and reproductive lives has shaken the foundational underpinnings of male-dominated culture. Small wonder that thousands of individuals and organizations—including the Catholic Church and the Republican Party—are dedicated to stopping the change.

Needless to say, they’re mighty foes.

Pollitt makes clear that abortion is central to women’s liberation and calls reproductive rights “the key to every other freedom.” She further argues that it is impossible not to see the attacks on abortion as an attack on feminism. “When you consider the way restrictions on abortion go hand-in-hand with cutbacks in social programs and stymied gender equality, 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 outside it,” she writes.

So what to do? Although Pollitt says that her goal is to reach people in the “muddled middle”—”those who don’t want to ban abortion, exactly, but don’t want it to be widely available, either”—she still issues a call to arms for reproductive justice allies. She urges us to boldly and matter-of-factly claim abortion as socially beneficial across the board, and to stop skirting the issue of female sexuality as a valid justification for its availability.

She points out:

Pro-choice organizations avoid talking directly about sex and sexual freedom, making narrow and expedient points against each new proposed restriction: Parental notification and consent laws are wrong because some families are violent and dysfunctional; 20-week bans are wrong because of fetuses with extreme deformities; women need birth control coverage in the Affordable Care Act because the Pill has other medical uses.

While this is all true, she writes, the arguments against abortion restrictions are much broader than that. Ultimately, these laws are wrong because it is immoral to force parenthood on women who are not ready or able to be mothers. The reproductive justice movement should, first and foremost, stand for their right to autonomy and self-determination.

To that end, she also pushes us to to defend family choice in all its incarnations by also advocating for paid parental leave; flex-time work schedules; available and affordable child care; decent housing; adequate public benefits; nutritious food; and access to schooling, job training, and medical care.

“For too long the pro-choice movement was either complacent or defensive,” she concludes. “It sold itself too cheaply to the Democratic Party, even when the Democrats were seeking out anti-abortion and anti-feminist candidates to run in conservative districts.”

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights is a plea for feminists and the pro-choice and reproductive justice communities to be proactive in support of legal abortion in all circumstances, not just politically favorable ones. Those of us already in Pollitt’s corner will undoubtedly be energized and emboldened by her hard-hitting argument; hopefully, it will be enough to convince that aforementioned “muddled middle,” too. Indeed, if Pro finds its way into the hearts and minds of those whose support for abortion is equivocal, we just might win this epic struggle.

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