Proud to support abortion rights

January 15, 2015

Leela Yellesetty reviews Katha Pollitt's new book Pro, where she makes the case that abortion rights supporters need to stop being defensive.

I HELPED make 18 abortions possible last year. This, according to a holiday card from the abortion fund I volunteer for, thanking me for my support.

It sounds like a strange thing to be proud of. In the mainstream discussion on abortion, the range of opinion ranges from those who believe it is murder and those, like Hillary Clinton, who while in support of legal abortion, see it as a "sad, often tragic choice" for women. Nobody is pro-abortion.

Of course, another way of looking at it is that I helped empower 18 women who had already made a decision about what was best for themselves and their families given their own circumstances, and who were determined to control their own destinies despite the myriad financial, legal, logistical and social obstacles thrown up in their path.

You don't often hear it put that way. So it was to my relief and delight that I picked up Katha Pollitt's new book Pro right after my last volunteer shift. Pollitt writes:

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. Pro-choicers often say no one is pro-abortion, but what is so virtuous about adding another child to the ones you're already overwhelmed by? Why do we make young women feel guilty for wanting to feel ready for motherhood before they have a baby? Isn't it a good thing that women think carefully about what it means to bring a child into this world--what, for example, it means to the children she already has? We tend to think of abortion as anti-child and anti-motherhood. In media iconography, it's the fetus versus the coat hanger: that is, abortion kills an "unborn baby," but banning it makes women injure themselves. Actually, abortion is part of being a mother and of caring for children, because part of caring for children is knowing when it is not a good idea to bring them into the world.

Protesters outside the Texas capitol building defend abortion rights
Protesters outside the Texas capitol building defend abortion rights (David Weaver)

IN FORTHRIGHT and engaging prose, Pollitt demolishes many of the myths about abortion: that it's a dangerous procedure, that late-term abortions are common, that religions have always prohibited it, that it's racist. She takes on common stereotypes of the women who have them--that they're flighty teenagers (most are already mothers) or selfish career women (most are low income), that they usually regret it (many feel relieved).

Whatever we may think about it, the reality is women have abortions--a million per year in this country, or roughly one in three of us in lifetimes. Women have had abortions across the globe and throughout human history, whether legal or not--in the latter case often risking their lives in the process. Yet there is a code of silence in discussing this commonplace reality due to what Pollitt describes as the "awfulization" of abortion. As a result popular attitudes don't match this lived experience.

The majority of Americans still support the right to legalized abortion, yet the reality of accessing that right is increasingly circumscribed. In the most recent elections, voters in Colorado and North Dakota defeated so-called "personhood" amendments that would have made all abortions and even some kinds of birth control illegal.

At the same time, record numbers of restrictions on abortion access, from 20-week bans, to mandatory waiting periods and ultrasounds, to zoning regulations and admitting requirements driving clinics out of business and on and on, are putting abortion access out of reach for increasing numbers of women.

Pollitt addresses her book to this so-called "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."

Only a small (though admittedly very vocal) minority actually believes that from the moment of conception a fertilized egg has all the rights of a human being and therefore all abortion is murder. Most people agree there are times when abortion is acceptable--say to save the life of the mother--but "[o]nce you admit that embryonic or fetal life can be sacrificed for one reason, you're admitting that it is not equivalent to a born person, so why stop there?"

Once you move past the smokescreen of the "fetal personhood" debate, the real criteria for deciding when abortion is acceptable becomes clearer: it's about judging women and policing their sexuality. A rape victim is one thing, a woman who got drunk at a party and the condom broke, another. Being forced to carry an unwanted to pregnancy to term is thus her just punishment.

Underlying the restrictions on abortion is an assumption that a woman's default mode and paramount duty in life is motherhood. Witness the increasing criminalization of pregnant women who engage in any activity deemed harmful to their unborn child. The fetus is the person, and the woman merely a vessel it inhabits.

Of course the idea that women's bodies do not belong to us is far from a new one. But previous waves of women's activism challenged that view, arguing that the right to control our own bodies is fundamental to women's economic, social and political equality. The attack on legal abortion must be seen as an attempt to turn back the clock and return women to a subordinate status.

There's an economic interest at stake in this as well:

The whole world runs on women's unpaid or grossly underpaid labor, and it always has. When that work is an extension of female domestic roles--caring for children or the elderly, preparing food, cleaning houses--it is ill paid, insecure, low-skilled and low status. But when it is done within the family, it is so deeply mystified and romanticized, so wrapped in religion, morality, tradition and ideas about what's natural that it looks like something else--a free gift of love, a personal preference, a private arrangement that stands outside the marketplace and cannot be judged by outsiders. And yet, if women rejected labor within the family, society would have to pay enormous sums to replace it.

In this society, being pregnant will cost you tens of thousands in medical bills and the chance of being fired from or discriminated against on the job--and that's before the baby that you are expected to raise for the next 18-plus years is even born.

Anti-abortion forces are not particularly interested in ensuring that all children have a decent home or adequate nutrition, a promising future or even the right not to be shot down in the streets because of the color of their skin. Nor are they concerned with what sacrifices to their own future livelihoods women and their families must make to try and attain these things.

This is the true face of the so-called "pro-life" movement: they're not in the business of promoting life but punishing women. This is why they are opposed even to birth control, despite its overwhelming use and popularity.

HOW IS it that such a fringe belief has come to dominate the mainstream debate about reproductive rights? Pollitt writes:

For far too long the pro-choice movement was either complacent or defensive. It relied on brilliant lawyers and sympathetic judges, while abortion opponents built a grassroots movement and took over political offices from zoning boards and school boards to the legislature itself. 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. It let is mostly white leadership age in place, pursuing their tired Beltway-focused strategies, and then wondered why young women and working-class women of color didn't connect with its organizations.

As we approach the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it's worth remembering how abortion rights were won in the first place: through a mass social movement which forced even a Supreme Court full of right-wing appointees to respond.

In the wake of the dramatic rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, we should also remember that the women's liberation movement was part of a broader wave of radicalization in society that began with the civil rights movement. Given this context, Pollitt's case for a reproductive justice framework is all the more relevant:

What do women need to mother as well as to decide when and if to have a child? How does the state interfere with those rights, and to what ends? Answering those questions brings in a host of issues--from racism and poverty and sexual identity to the rights of immigrants and prisoners and women workers--and need to understand how they affect different women differently. Reproductive justice connects the right to no-copay contraception in your health insurance and the right of prisoners to give birth unshackled and the targeting of Black and Latina mothers by the foster-care system. It connects the right to choose abortion with the right to choose how to give birth.

On a whole number of fronts, new generation of activists is beginning to emerge who are tired of compromise and retreat, and instead of narrowing our focus are increasingly making connections between issues. Now is the time to go on the offensive and a build a movement that can shift and broaden the terms of the debate. Pro gives voice to this new spirit of confidence and is a welcome contribution to the project of building a fighting movement for reproductive justice.

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