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Reclaiming Abortion Rights

By Katha Pollitt

(NY Times)

'I never had an abortion, but my mother did. She didn’t tell me about it, but from what I pieced together after her death from a line in her F.B.I. file, which my father, the old radical, had requested along with his own, it was in 1960, so like almost all abortions back then, it was illegal.'

Thus begins 'Pro,' the abortion rights manifesto by the Nation columnist, poet and red diaper baby Katha Pollitt. While parents with F.B.I. files may be exotic, her departure point is that abortion was and is not. Like six out of 10 women who get abortions today, Pollitt's mom was already a mother when she chose to abort. Why didn't she carry this pregnancy to term? How far along was she? Why didn't she tell her husband? Was her practitioner good? Did a friend go with her? Pollitt doesn't know.

Like her, we are left to project. And when it comes to abortion, we project a lot. Having internalized the messages of both abortion's defenders and opponents, we imagine the women seeking one as some combination of young, scared, alone, poor and victimized. Those women obviously do exist, though given that nearly one in three women will have had at least one abortion by the age of 45, the stereotype doesn't always square with reality. Abortion is safe, it is - still - legal, but at more than a million procedures a year, it isn't all that rare. As 'Pro' lays out in enraging detail, this is partly due to the religious right's efforts to restrict access to contraception, recently by branding certain methods as 'abortifacients' (contra science but now with the imprimatur of the Supreme Court). Yet abortion was never that rare, and - absent universal child care, Scandinavian levels of parental leave and support, comprehensive sex education and free access to birth control - it won't be. Half of all pregnancies are accidental, and some of those are going to be unwelcome, unsupportable or unviable, as well as unplanned.

Abortion, therefore, needs to come out of the closet and be claimed as a 'positive social good,' Pollitt argues. 'It is an essential option for women - not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul-destroying situations, but all women — and thus benefits society as a whole.'

Pollitt says she's aimed her argument at the 'muddled middle': those who don't want to ban abortion outright but don't want it widely available either; those who boggle pollsters with their deeply conflicted opinions about the circumstances under which an abortion - after enough guilt is heaped on, enough hoops jumped through - should be tolerated. The Bible, Pollitt notes, does not ban abortion, nor did the founding fathers. Indeed, until after the Civil War, most of the Roman Catholic clergy advised that the unborn were only 'ensouled' (in today's parlance, had achieved 'personhood') at quickening, and abortifacients with names like 'Uterine Regulator' and 'Samaritan's Gift for Females' were widely and often legally available. It wasn't until 1869 that the Catholic Church took the position that life begins at conception. Abortion opponents have since combined that edict with medical advances like ultrasounds and the public's squishy belief in DNA determinism to elide the difference between a five-day-old blastocyst, an eight-week-old embryo and a five-month-old fetus.

The policy results are confounding. Between 2011 and 2013, 205 new restrictions were enacted, more than in the previous 10 years combined. Parental notification, forced sonograms, mandatory waiting periods and a dearth of clinics can all push the procedure past the first trimester - which is when most Americans support the right to an abortion, and when nearly 90 percent of them are performed. Even so, 58 percent of women who have had an abortion wish they'd had it sooner. The main impediment is not hand-wringing, but access.

If we hewed to the notion that an embryo achieves personhood when sperm meets egg, Pollitt argues, we'd have to investigate all miscarriages as potential homicides, perhaps punishable by death, as one Georgia bill proposed. And why don't more die-hard abortion opponents fret over embryos discarded during the course of I.V.F.? The reason is that destroying an embryo in pursuit of a baby is part of a noble struggle, whereas destroying an embryo to finish high school or law school or even to put enough food on the table for other kids is considered selfish at best. ('The difference between a petri dish and a womb isn't in the embryos,' Pollitt writes, 'it's in the woman's perceived intention.') Indeed, Pollitt argues that many abortion opponents are less concerned with the plight of any one embryo - and the fate of that embryo if carried to term - than they are with curtailing women's sexual and economic freedom.

This isn't exactly a novel concept to students of feminist theory. But Pollitt's exploration of the hypocrisy of abortion opponents - including the 'inverse relationship between support for abortion restrictions and support for programs that help low-income pregnant women, babies and children' - is so witheringly encyclopedic it will be an eye opener for those who have never darkened the door of a women's studies classroom. Then again, there's a great deal of cognitive science indicating that the more evidence you bring to an argument, the more entrenched your opponents will become. So 'Pro' may succeed best at galvanizing complacent pro-choicers who are newly alarmed at transvaginal ultrasounds, 'legitimate rape' and the slut-shaming of contraception proponents. Pollitt might benefit from timing in much the same way that Susan Faludi did, 23 years ago. Faludi's 'Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,' which arrived on the heels of the Anita Hill hearings, became so thoroughly absorbed by the culture that two years later Nora Ephron could toss a line into 'Sleepless in Seattle' about the 'it's easier for a woman over 40 to be killed by a terrorist than marry' canard, and a rom-com audience could be relied on to nod indignantly with the rebuttal: 'There's practically a whole book about how that statistic is not true.'

In the intervening decades, Pollitt says, the pro-choice community has become too apologetic and defensive. Forget talk of compromise: Roe, which balanced the rights of the mother with the rights of a fetus nearing viability, was the compromise. Demand sexual and economic freedom, and the notion that motherhood should be entered into with the same forethought, the same liberty, that we value in all other pursuits. And enough of the shame, wear your scarlet A with pride. You don't even have to have had the abortion yourself. Maybe you helped scrape the money together. Or sat in the waiting room. Maybe you got somebody pregnant, and are you sure you haven't?

So: I've never had an abortion. But when I was a teenager, I helped some friends get theirs. We were fortunate: rounding up the money wasn't that hard; we had cars; had our parents found out, the consequences wouldn't have been dire. As the years passed, the reasons for my friends' abortions shifted from teenage haplessness to failed IUDs to dire fetal anomalies to chemotherapy to, yes, rape. Not to mention: 'This is not the right time for my family.' Or: 'This is not the right time for me.'

In two generations, contraception and abortion have allowed women to widen their worlds dramatically. If you're a woman, I don't need to detail all the barriers we still face. If you're a mother, I don't need to tell you all the ways in which the workplace is set up as if you didn't have kids, and schools, camps and childhood extracurriculars as if you didn't have a job. There are still those who would reduce women to potting soil, or in the immortal words of Todd Akin, a source of 'food and climate control' who enter into a contract to raise a child every time we have sex. Motherhood is hard enough if you go into it willingly. And Pollitt is correct to insist that the right to an abortion is merely society's down payment on all the rights we are yet due.

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