Reading Katha Pollitt’s new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, in public feels slightly risky. Abortion is arguably the single most controversial social issue in the United States—and as the names of its two sides, pro-choice and pro-life, suggest, it has some of the highest stakes. Do you value a woman’s right to choose or a child’s right to life?
“There’s a very deep drive to make [abortion] a moral issue,” Pollitt says, but it’s actually “a normal part of reproductive life.” In the wake of recent conservative attempts to tighten abortion restrictions, Pollitt realized that though there were many books reporting on the maneuvers of the anti-abortion movement, there wasn’t one that really made a positive case for a woman’s right to an abortion. So she set out to show why abortion should not only be a legal choice, but also a socially embraced one.
This meant dismantling years of accumulated rhetoric supporting the idea that abortion is, at best, a necessary evil. For starters, she refuses to refer to abortion opponents as pro-life. This term, she writes, encodes the idea that “a fertilized egg is a life in the same sense a woman is” and that opposing abortion is thus about saving lives rather than about restricting women’s choices. In fact, she says, “it’s really all about sex”—namely, women’s ability to have sex without consequences, which was long a privilege reserved for men.
Pollitt contends that most of the anti-abortion position makes little sense upon close examination. Take, for example, the fact that even many of those who want to outlaw abortion believe there should be allowances for rape victims. “But why?” Pollitt asks. “From a fetal point of view it makes no difference.” If abortion is really murder, then shouldn’t it be an even bigger issue? After all, that would mean that one in every three women is a murderer.
Yet even pro-choicers are often squeamish about abortion. “There’s this position of, we want abortion to be legal but we want everybody to feel really bad about it,” she says, referencing liberal writers like Naomi Wolf and Andrew Sullivan, who has described abortion as “always and everywhere a moral tragedy.” Pollitt utterly rejects this kind of thinking (including the old Clinton ideal of “legal, safe, and rare”) and insists that though abortion may be a major trauma for some women, for many it is simply a medical procedure.
In place of a rush to judgment (or sympathy), Pollitt wants us to consider the idea that abortion may be a wise, even moral decision for many women. “We need to see abortion as part of the normal life of women and families in America, instead of seeing it as this weird extraordinary, terrible thing that happens to women who are insufficiently careful,” she says. “Abortion is part of life. And it’s part of motherhood.”
That means rejecting the oft-drawn contrast between the responsible mother who raises her child and the careless floozy who aborts it for a more nuanced—and fact-based—view of who is having abortions and why. Most women who have abortions are poor mothers: 7 in 10 are low-income, and 6 in 10 already have at least one child. Many more will go on to become mothers later in their lives.
In fact, part of what inspired Pollitt to write Pro was the discovery, buried within an old FBI file, that her own mother had an illegal abortion in 1960 that she had never spoken about to her daughter or her husband. Roe v. Wade may have rendered such secrecy legally unnecessary, but it remains the norm. To admit to having an abortion is a political act—one that many women aren’t comfortable with.
“I never understand women who say, ‘I’m not a feminist; I just think of myself as a person,’ ” she says. “I think of myself as a person too, but you occupy a social position, you occupy a political position, and you live in a country that treats women this way and not that way. How women can not be interested in that I just don’t understand.”
This pervasive belief that our rights won’t be affected, even as we see others’ being taken away, is partly why Pollitt believes the anti-choice movement has made such strides recently. Most people, she says, don’t realize that abortion rights are primarily dictated by state law, and since most abortion supporters live in states with liberal abortion laws, they assume there’s nothing to worry about. It doesn’t help that the pro-choice movement lacks the kind of institutional support that churches provide to the anti-abortion movement.
In researching her book, Pollitt was surprised to find that for much of American history, her views wouldn’t have been all that radical. In most parts of Colonial America, abortion was allowed until well into the second trimester. Had you opened up a newspaper during the 19th century, you would have found numerous ads for products like “Uterine Regulators” and the “Samaritan’s Gift for Females”—abortifacient herbal preparations. Pollitt even suggests that the massive drop in birth rate between 1800 and 1930, from roughly seven children per woman to merely two, was thanks primarily to abortions, given that other birth control methods were still mostly ineffective or inaccessible.
We may be a long way from such blasé acceptance, but Pollitt does believe the tide is turning in favor of abortion rights. Women, she says, are realizing how abortion is connected to other issues of women’s rights, like equal pay, maternity leave and access to birth control. Extreme measures like personhood amendments have largely failed to pass and have, in some places, resulted in a general swing to the left. The idea that women have abortions for many reasons, all of them valid, is also increasingly widespread.
“Abortion is part of the fabric of American life,” she says, “and it probably always will be.”
Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer.