Pro: An Interview with Katha Pollitt
Is abortion really always tragic? How much has pro-life rhetoric influenced women's attitudes toward abortion? Forty years after the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, “abortion” is still a word that is said with outright hostility by many, despite the fact that one in three American women will have terminated at least one pregnancy in their lifetime. In her new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, feminist writer and poet Katha Pollitt reframes abortion as a common part of a woman’s reproductive life, one that should be accepted as a moral right with positive social implications. I talked to Pollitt about what voting Republican really means to women's health, the relation between Jewish values and reproductive freedom, and why the right to abortion is crucial to equality.
Pro is being hailed—and criticized—as radical and controversial. Why is your message so polarizing, in 2014?
So far, the response has been very positive. I’m sure the criticism will come any day. I think the book speaks to a feeling among many pro-choice people that we need to be more assertive, less defensive. For a long time now abortion opponents have controlled the discourse: it’s all about fetuses, about imaginary dangers of abortion to women—made-up conditions like post-abortion syndrome—and “religious freedom.” Abortion opponents have put forward a picture of abortion that is false—for example, they claim that you can get an abortion the day before birth (really, they say this!), that abortion is dangerous, and that women have abortions because they’re “confused” or because someone coerced them. The pro-choice response has too often been subtly stigmatizing: abortion is always “tragic,” “the hardest decision a woman ever makes.” One side says abortion is terrible, let’s ban it, the other side says, abortion is terrible, let’s keep it legal. That’s not very inspiring!
So many events in the last year have disheartened and terrified pro-choicers. Do you think the pro-life movement is “winning?”
When Republicans win, abortion opponents win, even if a lot of people vote Republican for reasons that have nothing to do with abortion. Thus, in the last two years, fantastic numbers of abortion restrictions have been passed in Red states, and in purple states like Pennsylvania too. Fortunately we’re beginning to see pushback. In Albuquerque, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have banned abortion after 20 weeks and closed one of the few clinics in the whole country that do third trimester abortions. That vote was the result of intense local organizing by a multiracial cross-class coalition. When pro-choicers organize at the grassroots like that, they can win.
Is it possible to be a pro-life feminist?
Feminism is a big tent, but I have trouble seeing as a feminist someone who wants to force millions of other women to have children against their will. A feminist can certainly say, I would never have an abortion. She can certainly fight, as all feminists should, to make abortion less necessary—through birth control, sex education and more support for mothers, especially poor mothers. But can a feminist say, no matter what you want for your life, no matter what your circumstances are, and no matter what the consequences will be, you have to have that baby? And if you insist on ending your pregnancy you should do so secretly and illegally, without proper care? I just can’t see that.
What does the right to abortion have to do with the fight for equality?
It is essential. If you can’t determine such a basic, life-transforming thing as when and if you bear a child, what freedom do you really have? At any moment you might have to drop out of school, leave your job, lose your income, be stuck in an abusive relationship, or be tied for the next two decades to a man who is totally wrong for you (and maybe for your child as well). Women will never be equal to men if they have to bear children basically at random. And I do think a piece of the opposition to abortion is a deep-seated feeling that women shouldn’t be equal.
Do Jewish values either conflict or support your views on abortion in any way?
Abortion opponents speak as if the Bible bars abortion. In fact, neither Testament mentions abortion. The Jewish tradition does not have the concept of the personhood of the fetus (much less the embryo or fertilized egg). In Jewish law, you become a person when you draw your first breath. Not all rabbis support abortion on demand, of course, but Jewish law does not ban abortion to preserve the woman’s health, and actually mandates it to save her life. Rabbis support ending a Tay-Sachs pregnancy even in the seventh month. It’s a different, less rigid mindset.
Why was it important to you to write this book now, after a long career as a pro-choice activist?
This is a crucial moment for abortion rights. Clinics are closing. Restrictions are piling up. The Republican Party has taken over many state governments and may well take the Senate in November. Even birth control is being redefined as abortion now, as we saw in the Hobby Lobby case. Some abortion opponents refer to the Pill as “baby pesticide” or “chemical abortion.” If pro-choicers don’t wake up, we’ll soon find abortion restricted to a few cities in blue states, and large numbers of women denied insurance coverage for contraception—and no-copay birth control is one of the really positive things about the Affordable Care Act. Most Americans, fortunately, are more-or-less pro-choice. But they need to shed their complacency and get active—today!