Skip Navigation

Review: Abortion Without Apology

Katha Pollitt’s “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights” arrives just as the topic has once again assumed a prominent place in the national conversation, writes Senior Fellow Dorothy Samuels.

August 31, 2015

Cross-posted on The National Book Review and the Huffington Post

Talk about great timing. The paperback edition of PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt’s fierce and engaging response to the raging crusade against women’s reproductive freedom, has arrived just as the question of a woman’s right to make her own childbearing decisions has once again assumed a prominent place in the national conversation.  

And it’s a good bet that this question of a woman’s right to choose is going to remain there for a while. There is seemingly always something new pushing it to the fore – like the current tumult over the secretly recorded Planned Parenthood videos.  Or the early skirmishing over abortion rolling toward the 2016 elections.  Or the expected Supreme Court showdown in the coming term over the current siege against Texas abortion providers.

Given the fragile state of abortion rights today, and the determination of those who would undo them further, Pollitt’s book offers an important rallying cry. Her analysis is not perfect:  Pollitt’s devotion to the pro-choice cause leads her to minimize, to some degree, the qualms that some women, even pro-choice women, feel about abortion. But on the whole, her argument is persuasive – and necessary.

Pollitt says her aim in writing PRO was to reach the so-called  “middle-of-the-road-more-or-less pro-choice voter” who is so far uninvolved in the fight to save legal abortion in this country and whose complacency and dithering badly undermines the cause.  I suspect, though, that most of the readers drawn to this timely volume are already committed supporters of abortion rights, most of whom know and admire Pollitt’s work as an essayist and longtime columnist for The Nation, covering the abortion wars and other political and social issues.  

Of course, the nation’s tangle over abortion is one of those evergreen topics. As Pollitt recounts, advocates of abortion rights have been warning over many years and election cycles about the extreme, sometimes violent, doings of abortion opponents and of the ongoing threat to the essential right established by the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.  In fact, I wrote my share of those warnings during my three-decade run as a member of The New York Times editorial board.  Spanning several presidencies and innumerable crisis points, that mostly unsigned oeuvre bears witness to Roe’s progressive erosion over time.

As we’re seeing, all that undermining adds up.  The hollowing out of abortion rights, which has accelerated in recent years with the proliferation of longer waiting periods, prohibitively expensive rules governing clinic design, hospital affiliation requirements, and other medically unnecessary mandates, has made abortion a lot harder to get in much of America – most especially for poor women residing in Red States, but in other places, too.

Bouncing off this discouraging reality, Pollitt sets out in PRO to do more than offer her own distinctive spin on the ragged state of abortion rights.  She is on a mission to stir into action the still inert bunch of would-be supporters she dubs the “muddled middle” – and, in the process, to help foster a sea change in how abortion is thought about and discussed.  Pollitt wants people “to see abortion as an urgent practical decision that is just as moral as the decision to have a child – indeed sometimes more moral.”  She urges an end to “shaming women for ending a pregnancy“ and calls for recognition that “it’s good for everyone if women have only the children they want and can raise well.”

It is also, Pollitt insists, good for society.  Everyone benefits, she says, when women can make decisions about education and employment “without having at the back of their mind a concern that maybe it’s all provisional because at any moment an accidental pregnancy could derail them for life.”  She argues that it is “good for children to be wanted, and to come into this life when their parents are ready for them.” And she says that it is “good for people to be able to have sexual experiences and know that birth-control failure need not be the last word.”

While Pollitt isn’t the first to discuss the true societal benefits of abortion rights, she does a skillful job of weaving her arguments in way that forces her readers to consider the real-life consequences of different anti-choice stances. She points out, for example, that someone who favors allowing abortions only in cases of rape, incest, or due to a woman’s health concerns opposes more than 9 in 10 abortions.  She then explains what that policy means in practice, for instance forcing “15-year-old girls who got drunk at a party” and“single mothers with all the kids they can handle and no money” to carry their unintended and unwanted pregnancies to term. 

Much of PRO is taken up by an accomplished demolishing of the main argument of the right-to-life movement – the notion that “the unborn” are the same as actual living, breathing human beings from the moment of conception, entitled to legal protections, and that terminating a pregnancy at any stage is the equivalent of murder.  Only a small percentage of Americans hold that view, as Pollitt says, and a so-called “personhood” amendment embodying it was rejected even in Mississippi when it was put on the state ballot there in 2011.

Although it was too extreme for Mississippi, similar language has been embedded in the Republican national platform since 1984.  And the current crop of Republican presidential wannabees are right now on a tear to convince religious-right G.O.P. primary voters that no one is more determined than they are to end safe and legal abortion in the U.S.

Pollitt is careful to add that even if you don’t equate zygotes, embryos, and fetuses to live human beings, it “doesn’t mean they have no value, especially as the pregnancy progresses and the fetus becomes able to survive on its own.”  Elaborating, she writes that if “you want to say that the ‘unborn’ have some kind of special worth, you do not need to torture the concept of personhood to do so.  They can matter for other reasons that might vary from one individual to another and be hard to put into words, but may involve a basic sense of human connectedness.” 

In saying that, Pollitt was giving a nod to the fact that while abortion does not equate to killing a human being, and few think it does, it does mean the termination of a potential human life, which is not something most people take lightly. That includes, I venture, most women who have an abortion, even those who were relieved to end their pregnancy and, as is typically the case, have no regrets about their choice.

Pollitt could have gone further, however, to say that acknowledging that what is growing in a woman’s body is a potential life is not selling out to the anti-abortion crowd or casting shame or moral judgment on women who decide to have an abortion.  It is merely stating the obvious.  

Women seeking to terminate a pregnancy understand what’s going on. They don’t need a patronizing reminder from politicians in the form of forced ultrasounds, waiting periods, anti-abortion counseling sessions, and like impositions. These measures rarely change minds, as Pollitt observes, but they can make an abortion unaffordable for some women and drive the procedure later into pregnancy. They also demonstrate massive disrespect for women.

At the heart of the current crisis for abortion rights lies a galling disconnect, which Pollitt addresses with appropriate frustration. A small number of anti-abortion zealots have succeeded in making abortion stigma a major obstacle to rallying sufficient public support to fend off unraveling of a constitutionally protected right.  This is quite a feat considering that they have demonized a safe and common medical procedure that about one third of American women have at least one of by the time they reach menopause.

Moreover, as Pollitt explains, this wily fringe has altered the debate, placing “the zygote/embryo/fetus at the moral center, while relegating women and their rights to the periphery.”

How has the self-described pro-life movement pulled that off? Pollitt’s take on this point is particularly apt and unsettling.  On top of lots of Republican electoral successes, she offers “a deeper, more troubling answer” – the superior “intensity, dedication, cohesion, and savvy,” of the pro-lifers.  Ouch.

Pollitt faults the pro-choice side for relying on “brilliant lawyers and sympathetic judges” without building a politically effective grassroots movement. And she criticizes it for being too apologetic—“invoking rape victims, incest victims, women with serious health problems or women carrying fetuses with rare fatal conditions to attract support while saying comparatively little about the vast majority of women who choose abortion and who are basically trying to get their life on track or keep it there.”

I’ve been guilty of some of that myself, focusing on objections to a bad bill in Congress by, say, underscoring inadequate or non-existent exceptions as the best strategy to stop it rather than expound, in the limited space available in a brief editorial, on the bill’s insult to the rights and dignity of the much larger group of women who fall outside any exception zone.  I see this tactical focus more as being practical, not “apologetic.”

But that’s a quibble. Pollitt’s larger point is well taken.  Abortion rights are in trouble in part because the pro-choice community fell down on the job, allowing itself to be out-organized and out-maneuvered, and failed to hone an effective message over long stretches.

That needs to change. And quickly.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Read Dorothy Samuels’s interview with author Katha Pollitt. 

(Photo: Thinkstock)