Book Club: Pro – Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Pro PollittPro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt, prize-winning author, poet, essayist, and columnist for The Nation, is a book for people who are in the “muddled middle” of the abortion debate. YOU are a member of this group — more than half of Americans — if you do not want to ban abortion, exactly, but don’t want it to be widely available, either.

Pollitt argues that “muddlers” are clinging to an illogical and ultimately untenable position and need to sit down and examine their reasoning carefully. She does so in a witty, engaging manner, taking us through 218 pages in the following six chapters:

RECLAIMING ABORTION. Pollitt states her case:

“Abortion. We need to talk about it. I know, sometimes it seems as if we talk of little else, so perhaps I should say we need to talk about it differently. Not as something we all agree is a bad thing about which we shake our heads sadly and then debate its precise degree of badness, preening ourselves on our judiciousness and moral seriousness as we argue about this or that restriction on this or that kind of woman. We need to talk about ending a pregnancy as a common, even normal, event in the reproductive lives of women … We need to see abortion as an urgent practical decision that is just as moral as the decision to have a child — indeed, sometimes more moral.”

WHAT DO AMERICANS THINK ABOUT ABORTION? Polls are one thing; voting, another. Voters in even the most conservative states reject extreme abortion restrictions, despite polls predicting passage.

“It’s hard to tell why people hold the positions they do, because opinion polls don’t usually measure how much they know. Perhaps they would respond differently if they were given more information. Would you support banning abortion after twenty weeks if the pollster reminded you that the twenty-week sonogram is when many serious fetal problems are diagnosed? In one poll, only 62 percent of respondents could correctly identify what issue Roe v. Wade was about … so, we don’t know what people mean when they say they do or don’t approve of Roe v. Wade.

WHAT IS A PERSON? This chapter is critical to understanding opposition to abortion and why the personhood argument falls apart.

“The bedrock argument of the anti-abortion movement is that intentionally ending new life at any point after conception is murder, or close to it. A fertilized egg is as much a person as Pope Francis. Not a potential person, but a person at that very moment … it can compel things no born baby can. It can take command of its mother-to-be’s health and life, for example. There is no other circumstance in which parents are required to lend their actual physical bodies to preserve their offspring … parents are not required to donate blood to their child — much less a kidney or other vital organ — even if they are the only match available and the child will die without it … Once you spell out all the logical consequences, the idea that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are persons collapses …  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?”

ARE WOMEN PEOPLE? Because a fetus has no personality, no history, no motives to be scrutinized, and makes so few demands on anyone but the woman bearing it, it’s so much easier to start the abortion discussion there and avoid the vexing complications of a woman’s situation. But …

“What if we started with women? After all, they are right here. You do not need to give someone an ultrasound to know that a woman is present; no one doubts that she can think or perceive or suffer pain. What is the moral status of women? How much right to life do women have? How much personhood? What about their souls … We’re in the wrong frame, the social-conservative one, in which it feels natural for women’s sexuality (but not men’s) to be monitored and regulated and worried about. And yet, the end result is the opposite of what most of us would say we want: religious zealots controlling sex education, doctors and pharmacists and legislators putting up barriers to women’s ability to control their fertility …”

SIX MYTHS ABOUT ABORTION. Pollitt explains and refutes these myths:

  1. The Bible forbids abortion.
  2. Women are coerced into having abortions.
  3. Abortion is dangerous.
  4. There are too many abortions.
  5. Abortion is racist.
  6. Abortion opponents would never punish women.

WHAT DO ABORTION OPPONENTS REALLY OPPOSE? (HINT: IT’S NOT JUST ABORTION).  As Pollitt says, “It looks like a single-issue movement — protect the unborn — but a closer look shows it’s about much more than that.” It’s also about anti-feminism, shaming sexually active girls and single women, fears of white demographic decline, conservative views of marriage and sexuality, and outright misogyny. So, from where do these hidden agendas come?

“The antiabortion movement is inescapably entangled with patriarchal religion: the Catholic Church, evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism, Mormonism. That is where the opposition’s organizational muscle, its funding, its political power and its grassroots support come from … increasingly merged with the political right.”

CAN THERE BE COMPROMISE ON ABORTION? Pollitt explores several ideas being debated in the public square, but plagued by unintended consequences when the logic is scrutinized: limiting abortion by reason (e.g., rape, incest, life/health of mother), time (how many weeks, which trimester of pregnancy), or geography (some states with no abortion restrictions, others with abortion prohibited, and everything in between). Pollitt concludes:

“We had a compromise and we compromised it away … If only the Supreme Court had left Roe alone … As of 2013, only one state, Oregon, has added no restrictions to the original Roe decision.”

REFRAMING MOTHERHOOD. Typical views of mothers include lower-class drains on society bearing children they cannot afford to raise, middle-class boring frumps, and elite “sanctimommies” who are just plain annoying. To the world at large, taking care of children is uninteresting and undervalued.

“We think we value mothers in America, but we don’t. We may revere motherhood, the hazy abstraction, the cream-of-wheat-with-a-halo idea, but a mother is just a kind of woman, after all, and women are trouble and not so valuable.”

We need to fix this. The abortion-rights movement has been complacent or defensive and relied too heavily on brilliant lawyers and sympathetic judges. People need to join the fray to reclaim a woman’s right to pursue a full life, with or without motherhood.

This blogger’s reaction: While reading the book, it occurred to me that, over the decades, while busy with career, family, and pursuit of happiness, I had drifted away from my early feminist opinion, circa 1971: “Keep your laws off my body.” My view had morphed toward the idea that there might, maybe, sorta be some compromise on abortion. Boy, howdy, was I asleep at the switch! Look where we are now with anti-abortion, anti-women-as-independent-people groups chipping away at the rights of women to control their destiny.

So, guys and gals, plop yourself down in a comfy chair with Katha’s book and get your head straight about what you really think about abortion rights, both legally and morally. I guarantee that you will arise from the cushions with a clearer opinion and the ability to defend it — and maybe even energized to do something more.