This book review is from the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine.Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights By Katha Pollitt 258 pp. Picador. $25
In August, a swarm of police officers was dispatched to the scene of a miscarriage at a Dallas high school, after a dead fetus was found in the girls' lavatory. Police officers combed the school in search of a female “suspect.” The investigation concluded only when the authorities satisfied themselves that the miscarriage had been spontaneous.
We might have known it would come to this.
Abortion access has decreased dramatically in Texas since the state’s restrictive anti-choice law went into effect in 2013. About half of the state’s abortion clinics closed in the law’s first year on the books. On August 29, a federal judge struck down key parts of the law that were scheduled to take effect in September, and would have forced about twelve of the state’s remaining nineteen clinics to close. But the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals could easily reverse the lower court when it hears the case later this year.
One result of the law is that Texas women are increasingly turning to black market abortion drugs from online pharmacies, flea markets, or Mexico to induce their own miscarriages—a fact that might have been on the police officers’ minds when they decided descend on Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas to investigate a miscarriage.
When it comes to dwindling access to abortion, Texas is not unique. Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, but anti-choicers have been chipping away abortion access through state legislatures. Between 2011 and 2013, 205 new abortion restrictions became law. These laws make abortion more difficult and expensive to obtain by imposing waiting periods, ultrasound viewings, medically unnecessary restrictions on clinic operations and other hurdles.
This all makes Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights a timely book indeed. A full-throated defense of abortion as a social good, Pro is a thorough debunking of anti-abortion pieties. But it’s not just anti-abortion activists on whom Pollitt, columnist for The Nation and a noted poet, sets her sights: She also takes pro-choicers to task for what she calls “the awfulization” of abortion by paying lip service to the idea that abortion is always an agonizing decision that all women feel somewhat bad about.
Pollitt makes a compelling point: Why would that be universally true, unless all women inherently want babies all the time, or unless everyone believes there’s something at least a bit wrong with abortion? As Pollitt’s own reporting makes clear, regret and uncertainty are hardly universal experiences for those who have abortions.
Women’s reasons for abortion are dismissed as frivolous and selfish, Pollitt argues, because society doesn’t take women’s aspirations for a better life seriously. Furthermore, she writes, women are depicted as shallow—or worse—for wanting to have sex while avoiding pregnancy. This attitude rests on the conservative assumption that pregnancy is a natural “consequence” of sex, and that women who try to avoid it are shirkers.
As Pollitt points out in her book, large swaths of the public have muddled ideas about the morality of abortion. She found that polls that ask people to label their stance on abortion (pro-choice/pro-life) don’t square with other polls that ask more probing questions about whether abortions should be allowed for specific reasons. Whether the people deem an abortion to be permissible or not has more to do with our judgments about a woman’s sexual morality than about the moral status of zygotes.
Citing a 1996 University of Virginia poll in which 38 percent of respondents said that abortion was murder, “as bad as killing a person already born,” Pollitt notes that 84 percent of respondents in the same poll agreed that abortion should be legal to save the life of the woman. A Gallup average of various polls starting from 1996 to the present found that 79 percent of respondents thought abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest. The popularity of rape exemptions suggests that people are not really reasoning from the premise that an embryo has full human rights, but rather from the premise that women have responsibilities to bear children conceived by consensual sex, but not coerced sex.
Pollitt offers this acerbic judgment on the "mushy middle" of the American abortion debate:
If you really mean what you tell pollsters, your respect for "life" is entirely conditional. It depends not on any quality of the embryo or fetus—you're willing to dispose of it if the reason meets your approval—but on your judgment of the pregnant woman.
Pollitt exposes some muddled thinking in pro-choice public opinion as well: 31 percent of respondents in a poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center proclaimed themselves to be totally pro-choice, but only 25 percent of respondents in Gallup’s poll average agreed that woman should be allowed to have an abortion if having a baby would interfere with their career. This is further evidence that people decide the rightness of an abortion based on their judgments about the woman and her choices, rather than about any inherent property of the embryo or fetus.
The term “pro-choice” has fallen on hard times. In 2013, even the venerable Planned Parenthood announced it was moving away from it. Pollitt faults the pro-choice establishment for playing defense and spending too much time defending rare but “sympathetic” kinds of abortion: termination to save the woman’s life or health, catastrophic fetal anomaly, and unwanted pregnancies due to rape or incest—even though the vast majority of abortions take place for more mundane reasons.
In a typical abortion, the woman simply doesn’t want a baby. Pollitt persuasively argues that this option is a good thing for women and for society—and that supporters of abortion rights should be explaining the benefits of ready access to these less dramatic abortions. If a woman’s body is truly her own, and not the property of her male partner or the state, simply not wanting to be pregnant should be enough. A woman shouldn’t need extraordinary extenuating circumstances to end a pregnancy.
We don’t expect people to choose a spouse or a career based on happenstance. Why should a woman bear a child just because she happens to get pregnant? Not only can abortion be just as ethical as childbearing, Pollitt maintains, it can be the morally superior choice in some circumstances. What’s praiseworthy about bearing more children than you can—or want to—take care of?
Among the book’s strengths, Pro articulates a clear vision of how abortion rights contribute to a flourishing society. For starters, how are women to be socially equal to men if they can’t control their own fertility? A woman has a much better chance at success if she can pursue education or employment without fear of being interrupted by unplanned pregnancy. What’s more, abortion and birth control are central to the modern companionate ideal of marriage, where people get married because they love each other, not because a condom broke. And, of course, the power to have sex without having babies gives both women and men the option to postpone marriage and childrearing while they pursue other goals, like higher education, which benefits individuals and society.
Anti-choicers like to say that abortion and birth control destroyed the “traditional family.” What they really mean is reproductive freedom deprived them of their greatest recruiting tool: the shotgun marriage.
Pollitt argues that the anti-choice movement’s focus on the putative rights of the unborn from the moment of conception is just a fig leaf for its real agenda: controlling women’s sexuality and reproduction. If anti-choicers were as interested in saving unborn babies as they claim, they would be enthusiastic proponents of birth control and medically accurate sex education--which can prevent unplanned pregnancies, and thereby reduce the need for abortions. Yet we see anti-choicers opposing both abortion and birth control—and even trying to redefine some forms of birth control as abortion, in opposition to scientific consensus.
In the 18th century, when women were totally entrenched in the family, Pollitt writes, abortion wasn’t even a topic of public controversy in the United States. In those days, abortion was just one of those icky female concerns, like periods and childbirth, that men didn’t need to think about. But abortion became a symbolic issue when women started agitating rights to education, property, and the vote in the 19th century. Pollitt stresses that 19th century doctors like Horatio Robinson Storer, who led the physician’s movement to criminalize abortion, condemned the practice as a woman’s rejection of her role as a wife and mother. Storer famously claimed that nine out 10 abortions in his day were performed on married women. In his view, the women who should have been breeding were deliberately flouting their duty. As Pollitt points out, Storer openly fretted that Protestant women weren’t having enough babies to populate the West and the newly liberated South with free, white people. He also took a personal interest in keeping women out of the medical profession.
The controversy over abortion flared up again after Roe v. Wade, which took place during an era of massive upheavals in women’s social status. “In the nineteenth century, abortion came under attack at a moment when women were claiming political power; in the twentieth century, it came under attack when they claimed sexual freedom,” wrote historian Leslie Reagan in her classic book, When Abortion Was a Crime.
Where Pollitt errs is when she draws a sharp distinction between the old arguments for abortion (pronatalism, eugenics, racism, chastity) and the new zygote-as-person anti-abortionism, and overrates the novelty of the "zygote-as-person" talk that dominates today's anti-choice discourse. This isn’t exactly true. The old sexist arguments have become much less socially acceptable, but theories about ensoulment or personhood beginning at conception have been around since at least the days of Hippocrates, seesawing back and forth in popularity with rival views like Aristotle’s that alleged the soul formed more gradually as the fetus developed. In fact, arguments about the moral status of the unborn often coexisted with sexist and pronatalist arguments. In his famous 1868 anti-abortion treatise, Why Not? A Book For Every Woman, Storer argues that abortion is morally equivalent to infanticide from the moment of conception.
Certainly, the kitsch of “the unborn baby” took off after the invention of ultrasounds in the 1960s, when the anti-choice movement glommed on to imagery of adorable fetuses in utero, and their opposite numbers, bloody fetuses in basins. But ancient is the basic, sexist, idea that, as soon as a man contributes his vital essence to effect a pregnancy, the fetus enjoys moral status independent from the pregnant woman.
“Abortion equals murder” is almost always been a bad-faith argument. There are a handful of true believers who assassinate abortion providers and justify it as violence necessary to save unborn babies, but even these terrorists usually draw the line at killing women who’ve had abortions. If the people who say abortion is murder truly believed it, would they do so with no follow-through on disagreeable prospects like jailing or executing women who procure abortions for such premeditated “murder”?
Yet Pollitt is correct to point out that increased emphasis on embryo-Americans as human beings tends to push the abortion debate in a more radical direction. There is less room for compromise when one side has proclaimed that abortion is homicide.
When murder rhetoric combines with old-fashioned sexism, the two strains of anti-abortion thought can recombine in strange ways. It’s surely difficult and disconcerting to believe that abortion is murder and that one in three—the ratio of American women who have abortions—of your female family members, friends and neighbors is a stone-cold killer. One way to resolve this conflict is to posit that women are stupid: They don’t realize that they’re killing babies, because they are dupes of “the abortion industry.” That’s why, anti-choicers say, women need the state to confront them with ultrasound images and stall them with waiting periods and bombard them with false propaganda that claim a relationship between abortion and breast cancer.
There’s an even more sinister implication to this paternalism. If embryos are people, and women are stupid people, pregnant women need to be monitored and controlled to ensure the well-being of the innocent people inside them. “Fetal endangerment” laws are based on this premise. A proposed law in Kansas that would have made every miscarriage subject to criminal investigation. Spontaneous miscarriages are even more common than abortions. A pregnant woman in Tennessee recently received a more severe sentence for making meth, based on the judge's interpretation of federal sentencing guidelines, than could be given a man, because she is deemed to have endangered her “unborn child.”
Pollitt calls upon supporters of abortion rights to go back to the more radical era of “abortion without apology.” By conceding the “awfulization” of abortion, they have empowered anti-choicers to chip away at abortion access with paternalistic restrictions that make it harder to get an abortion, even making it impossible for women who lack the means to travel. Only by reclaiming abortion as a fundamental right and normal part of health care can the pro-choice movement hope to win in the long run.
Pro is one of the most comprehensive arguments for abortion rights to be published in recent memory. Anyone who wants to understand why pro-choicers believe what they believe would do well to start with this book. But even more than a valuable resource, Pro is a great read. Fans of Pollitt’s clear and dryly funny prose will not be disappointed.