Katha Pollitt on Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Rejecting Shame and Renewing America’s Potential

Pollitt’s new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights is both a call to arms and a call for honest reflection.

The ‘pro’ in the title of Katha Pollitt’s new book refers, of course, to ‘pro-choice’. But it could equally well describe her. This is one ‘pro’ with an impressive list of accomplishments.

She’s a successful writer who has contributed to basically every publication one could aspire to contribute to (namely: The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Ms. Magazine, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Glamour, Mother Jones, and the London Review of Books). She writes a regular column in The Nation magazine, and she’s a political activist (of the writing sort) who succeeds in riling up precisely the sort of people worth riling. But she’s not just political, she’s poetic! (An award-winning, published poet.) She’s a regular on NPR. She’s even invented a theory: ‘The Smurfette Principle’ (as she described it in a 1991 article with that title in the New York Times: “Contemporary shows are either essentially all-male, like “Garfield,” or are organized on what I call the Smurfette principle: a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined.”) And one of her works has been turned into a film.

As if all that were not enough, she’s decided her next move will be to reverse the rapidly deteriorating state of abortion rights in America. Of course, this is not a new topic for her: she’s written a great deal on the subject of reproductive rights over the years. But now she’s developed her arguments, research, and a whole lot more, into a new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. Expect the culture wars to kick into high gear.

Pro opens with an unapologetic barrage that makes three potent points. First: we need to talk about abortion. Not in the awkward, embarrassed, defensive hand-wringing way that has become the norm in recent years, but defiantly and unapologetically and acknowledging it as a common, routine practice, which is a critical lynchpin of decent, modern American society and all the freedoms and achievements that society holds dear. The closure of clinics, defunding of services and imposition of restrictive regulations do not constitute a social compromise: they constitute a threat to the very fabric of American society and to the freedom and equality of all women.

Second: the anti-abortion movement is driven by minority extremists wielding disproportionate political influence who are not to be underestimated, but who are punching far above their weight when compared to actual public opinion, and it’s time to call their bluff. Third: it’s time to call their bluff. And to make that possible, it’s time for the ‘muddled middle’ – “those millions of Americans (more than half) who don’t want to ban abortion, exactly, but don’t want it to be widely available, either” – to really examine their muddled position, and realize that in essence that is a pro-choice position, and that to protect the values they hold dear they must stop accommodating the increasingly voracious and repressive demands of the anti-abortion fringe.

I spoke with Pollitt about all this, but before we get to that, let’s explore the arguments she presents in her book.

Pollitt’s position is an unapologetic call to arms, but a call to reflection, as well. Constitutional rights aside, abortion opponents have made in-roads by making abortion seem shameful, and it’s time for that to end, she writes. Abortion needs to be recognized as a normal, routine, and beneficial aspect of women’s modern reproductive lives. It’s not a tragic choice; not usually sorrowful, troubling or traumatic; not irresponsible and not a reflection of personal failure. It is, rather, a responsible aspect of life which makes our decent modern society possible. More importantly, it’s what makes equality possible.

When people call for a ‘compromise’ on the issue, they’re misreading the issue. Roe vs. Wade was the compromise. The erosion of reproductive rights since then has been an attack on that compromise, and it’s time for it to end. “We had a compromise, and we compromised it away,” she writes.

Furthermore, she calls out the anti-abortion movement for what it is: anti-woman. She deftly demonstrates that the underlying motivation of the movement is about imposing repressive and antiquated models of sexuality on women, and about controlling women’s bodies. “Judgements about women’s sexuality permeate the discussion of abortion,” she writes, “much of which is about trying to distinguish good women from bad ones… The obsession with women’s virtue infuses the abortion debate even for some who want it to be legal.”

“At the heart of opposition to legal abortion is an anti-feminist, anti-modern view of relations between the sexes: Women are (or should be) maternal and domestic, men are (or should be) energetic breadwinners, and sex is a powerful, dangerous force that must be narrowly channeled, with parents controlling girls to keep them virgins and women refusing men sex in order to corral them into early marriage with babies soon to follow.”

This is a view that Pollitt feels most Americans do not share. Opinion polls appear to support her. And as for those ‘culture wars’? The term itself is part of the problem. It’s an effort to trivialize something that is actually critically important to the future potential of American society. “Abortion is often discussed as a culture-war issue,” she writes. “That’s another way of saying it isn’t very important, like the question of whether a nativity scene can be placed in a public park… Setting women off to one side, as if half of humanity were a footnote to something called society or politics or economics, is an old story. But reproductive rights are not a distraction from the important, economic issues. It is an economic issue… In the end, abortion is an issue of fundamental human rights.”

A Vocal Minority, a Silent Majority

When it comes to those who have firm positions on either side of the debate, pro-choicers statistically outnumber anti-abortion advocates. So how in the world have such a minority of anti-abortionists managed to seize such disproportionate political influence in the US?

Part of it has to do with their energetic fanaticism, Pollitt writes: “anti-abortion crusaders comprise one of the few active ‘movements’ in the US these days. This enables them to swing far above their weight through a savvy manipulation of political and media devices to make it appear they’re more popular than they actually are. “But that’s only part of the problem. The other problem, she says, is the majority of Americans who identify as being part of the ‘muddled middle’. These are Americans who try to avoid identification as either pro-choice or anti-abortion; the ones who say that some middle ground is the ideal goal, and that abortion ought to be legal in some circumstances although it’s a terrible thing, and we ought to focus on eliminating the underlying issues which make it necessary at all, and so on and so forth.

There’s a tendency in contemporary politics, it seems, to treat middle-of-the-roadism as a positive and noble ideal. It’s treated as rational and sensible to stay above the fray and to adopt a ‘balanced’ perspective somewhere safely in the middle. “Defying both camps lets one feel sensitive and judicious and mature, alert to moral complexities, above the vulgar slogan war — a plague on both your houses!” she writes.

Pollitt has little time for this type of muddled prevarication. Because what’s driving the anti-abortion cause, Pollitt argues, actually has very little to do with life or babies or embryos (it’s embryos that people are really talking about, she points out; fetuses don’t even form until long after most abortions take place). The issue is the same age-old barrier that has always been placed in the way of women’s rights: men’s desire to control women’s bodies. After all, Pollitt notes, guns in America kills tens of thousands of real people every year, yet no one dares propose laws to restrict them. And coincidentally, gun culture, with a few high-profile exceptions, is overwhelmingly male-dominated. In gun control debates, saving lives comes a far second to preserving individual rights and freedoms. This is the exact opposite of the abortion struggle, where anti-abortion crusaders argue that the individual rights and freedoms of American (female) citizens should take a backseat to preserving what they describe as ‘life’.

“Abortion opponents are right about one thing: for a woman, reproductive rights are the key to every other freedom,” she writes. “They correctly perceive that birth control and abortion are about much more than women’s health: they are what enable women to have at least a chance of shaping their lives. … This is not about ‘life’…It’s about control.”

In Pro, Pollitt holds nothing back, taking aim at what she ably depicts as the hypocrisies in anti-abortion activism, and the various laws it has led to. These laws have led to closures of great numbers of clinics, and in many states introduced requirements for women to be read anti-abortion scripts before receiving authorization for abortions. If that’s how we treated religion, Pollitt points out, it would be akin to requiring Hindus and Jews to listen to a Christian sermon before being permitted to take a four-hour bus ride to their own place of worship. Would an enlightened civilization allow such a state of affairs?

She systematically targets other hypocrisies, too. The overwhelming majority of abortions happen during the first trimester; women tend to want to get abortions as early as possible. Yet anti-abortionists consistently churn out wild claims about great numbers of abortions happening after the first trimester. When women receiving abortions after the first trimester are surveyed about their reasons for waiting, they often respond that restrictive anti-abortion laws and lack of access to clinics is what required them to wait. In other words, the anti-abortionists are the very ones who are responsible for the (very small number of) later abortions that they denounce.

All of this creates for a muddled public discussion, however. For all these reasons, Pollitt says it’s time for a new attitude toward abortion. The mushy middle-ground approach has to end, she says. People need to re-examine their attitudes toward abortion. Particularly, we need to stop treating it as a terrible thing.

Well-meaning pro-choice advocates have given too much ground, she says, by conceding the notion that it’s a bad thing. What’s so bad about it? she asks. If you believe it should be permissible in order to create a more just society, more equal rights and equitable lives for women, then let’s stop talking about it as though it’s a bad thing. It’s a tremendous sign of progress that we’ve advanced sufficiently as a species to be able to control our own reproduction. It’s a step forward for our society to acknowledge that women will use their own judgement to determine how and when and if to bring children into the world, to not bring children into the world if it would cause hardship to either the children or the women, or if it would be a negative thing in any way. This is great, and furthermore facilitates healthy and enjoyable sex lives, which is also great. Let’s stop treating abortion as a necessary evil. The ability to control reproduction, including abortion, is an important social good.

“The pro-choice movement needs to present a positive message about what birth control has done, not just for women’s physical health but for sex, love, marriage, and family life… the ability to limit the timing and number of children undergirds the modern ideal of egalitarian, intimate marriages based on love, companionship, and mutual sexual delight. It makes for marriages that are less rigidly role-bound and more democratic – and better for children, who get more parental attention and more resources… Since birth control is far from perfect, legal abortion is essential to this way of life. Why not say that out loud?”

Talking Abortion Rights with Katha Pollitt

Pollitt hails from Brooklyn, and her warm American drawl is friendly and welcoming: it throws me off guard, after reading the powerful barrage of no-compromise attitude in her book. But her straightforward, systematic logic makes her points as persuasive in person as in print. One of the key points she makes in the book is the damage being caused by this ‘muddled middle’ attitude. So I have to ask her: where does this middle-of-the-roadism come from? What makes people so eager to appear above the fray, when that fray in fact involves their very own rights and freedoms?

“I think part of it comes from not realizing how common abortion is,” she replies, “and how intertwined abortion is with the kinds of lives people want to lead. Because there’s so much stigma around abortion, and people who have been involved in helping people have abortions, don’t want to talk about it. And so that allows many people to believe that abortion is this really terrible thing committed by teenage sluts and cold hearted career women. They don’t realize that their own mother, like my own mother, may have had an abortion.”

Abortion opponents come from many camps, she notes, but it’s the more radically conservative Christian denominations that have fixated on abortion as a political target. “The real juice, the real foot-soldiers and the money and the organizational pest comes from those religions and their effect on the Republican Party,” she explains. The Southern Baptists are one such example, she notes. In the ‘70s they were open to abortions under certain circumstances, but in recent years they’ve fallen under the sway of politically radical fundamentalists.

As much as her book is a call to defend reproductive rights, however, it’s also a call to protect and expand welfare rights. The two are deeply entwined, she reveals. A society needs to have strong publicly funded social programs to support children. And a society that values equality must provide the publicly accessible resources – education, health care, contraception, abortion, childcare – to ensure that all of its members are able to participate on an equal basis, regardless of race, socio-economic background… or gender.

“To me, abortion, and reproductive rights generally, are human rights issues and social justice issues,” she says. “And we now have a state of affairs where, as clinics close, more and more women are going to have no alternative than to bear children that they can’t support. And yet we don’t find the anti-choice movement saying, ‘well this is terrible and we have to support these children’. In America, we treat children like luxury goods: you have it, you pay for it. People think they care a lot about children, but people have lost this sense that we are all in this society together.”

In Pro, she presents the argument both powerfully and passionately. “Birth control has enabled women to invest in higher education and skills, join the workforce in greater numbers, and make more money over the course of their lifetimes…” she writes. “Later marriage and smaller families means more female brainpower available for innovative thinking, creative work, entrepreneurship, and leadership…”

“Here is where we see the class and race bias of pronatalism. Our society ignores millions of poor, black, or brown young people. We don’t educate them well or feed them well or house them well. We put far too many in prison… These young people, and their mothers and fathers, not aborted fetuses, are our missing workforce. And our missing geniuses.”

Where to Take a Stand? In the Courts or in the Streets?

One of the recent debates in the reproductive rights movement has involved whether to treat reproductive rights as a social justice struggle, to be waged through street protests and community organizing, or as a constitutional rights struggle, to be waged in the courts. I ask Pollitt what she thinks of this complicated divide that has appeared within the pro-choice camp.

“I don’t see it as an either-or thing. Abortion is partly a matter of law. If you don’t fight in the courts you’ll lose that. However, just focusing on the courts leaves most people with nothing to do. And ultimately, social activism and winning ordinary people to your side are connected with what the laws are going to do. Laws are passed by legislatures. If the legislature is constantly hearing from anti-choice activists and not so constantly seeing pro-choice activists, because the pro-choice people have been demobilized in some way, that’s not good. I think that choice and reproductive justice go hand in hand.”

“It’s a little like civil rights,” she says, noting that the courts were a key battleground for civil rights. “However the civil rights movement was the context in which people of colour made the gains they did. It’s wasn’t just that a law came down.”

Some of these struggles transcend borders. Pollitt notes that even in Europe some of the anti-abortion activists have adopted US-style tactics. Within North America, Canada and the US may have very different legal regimes (abortion is fully legal in Canada, where there is in fact no law on the topic at all; an ideal scenario from the perspective of most choice activists), but that doesn’t mean reproductive rights are unassailable.

“Don’t be complacent in Canada,” she warns. “These things have a way of spreading… I think that what’s happening in Canada is similar to what’s happening in the US where the most successful anti-choice tactic is to limit access. To get clinics to close, and to raise the cost of abortion by having all these restrictions. It’s similar.”

Popular Culture: Aider or Abettor?

I ask her whether she thinks the portrayal of reproductive rights in pop culture has had an effect in shaping the public’s perception of these issues.

“Well, I think the portrayal of abortion in popular culture has been mostly negative,” she reflects, thoughtfully. “So in Juno, she has the baby. She goes to a clinic and she’s grossed out, basically. The receptionist is chewing gum and talking about flavored condoms. It’s really not a caring environment. So she has the baby, she gives it away and she’s fine. In Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl’s character, an ambitious young career woman, decides to have the baby after a one-night stand with a virtual stranger, and they wind up married!” She proceeds through more of such films: pop culture’s canon is full of them. What these films fail to portray, she points out, are the negative effects on individuals and on society “of what happens if you have a baby that you really, really didn’t want to have.”

On the other hand, maybe things are changing. “Recently a counter-example would be Obvious Child, where Jenny Slate’s character gets pregnant after a one night stand. She has an abortion and she’s not miserable, her boyfriend doesn’t leave her, she doesn’t have a nervous breakdown, she doesn’t die, and she doesn’t have a miscarriage to make the situation moot. Sometimes I think maybe we’re getting a little more of a turning around on the abortion issue [in pop culture], because things have gone so far the other way and people are starting to wake up.”

And what about pop culture’s prodigious younger sibling, social media? “I think social media is a great organizing tool,” she exclaims with enthusiasm. “I think it’s allowed a lot of young women to find each other. It’s such a powerful thing when you think you’re all alone and then you find Jezebel, and then you find Feministing, and you find lots and lots of people who want to talk about the same thing from your perspective. And you’re not alone any more.”

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights serves much the same function. It’s a thoroughly researched, thoughtfully developed examination of the key arguments and ideas framing reproductive rights discourse in America today, with a refreshing and unapologetic call to action to defend these rights, which have proven so fundamental to women’s equality and to the broader improvement of society. For those who are already pro, it provides reassurance they are not alone; they are in fact a clear majority, albeit one that’s been a bit reticent about presenting itself as a majority. But the book provides a wealth of ammunition – both empirical data and logical arguments – to reinforce the position of those defending Americans’ reproductive rights.

And for those who find themselves in that vocal minority camp of abortion opponents, it begs for some honest reflection: what’s really more important? A dogmatic, old-fashioned ideology? Or the rights, freedom, and equality of one’s fellow Americans?

For the rest, Pro encourages those who find themselves in the ‘middle’ (‘muddled’ or not) to reflect on their attitudes, to not be afraid to think them through logically and to not be afraid or ashamed when they find that that logical conclusion is an undeniably pro-choice one. And to remember that abortion is not shameful, but a vital lynchpin for our modern society and our collective future.

RATING 8 / 10