The Body Politic : WAKE...

English is the co-author, with Barbara Ehrenreich, of "For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women" (Anchor/Doubleday)

In recent weeks it has been as if Little Susie herself, the sleepy 1950s teen-ager, woke up from her back-seat slumber to find that it is 1992 and she is Murphy Brown. Although she is still a mere figment of the white middle-class moral imagination, she is now an independent career woman with a new baby. She no longer worries that her parents will be mad at her for staying out late with her boyfriend, but a headline in a New York City tabloid screams, "Quayle to Murphy: You Tramp!" The attack word "illegitimate" is back in use after the Vice President of the United States clobbered her with it. But America's poor black women and children were the real objects of his advice: "Just have two-parent families."

Those who want to put today's debates on race, poverty and pregnancy into historical perspective should read "Wake Up, Little Susie," Rickie Solinger's timely and perceptive analysis of the years after World War II and before the legalization of abortion. They will have to slog through some clumsy academic language, but this is urgent reading in light of the likely recriminalization of abortion in America. What will become of unwed mothers and their babies-to-be besides getting stamped with more angry labels ranging from "slut" to "black matriarch," "man-hating feminist" to "welfare cheat," "unwed baby" (Quayle actually said this) to "bastard"? Are we making progress here?

In Solinger's book we revisit an era when, if a woman wanted to get a legal abortion, she generally had to plead psychiatric illness to a hospital panel. The doctors (usually all male) frequently rejected the appeals, sometimes recording their unconcealed contempt ("she wants us to wash her dirty laundry . . .").

The dominant Freudian gloss, applied by psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, was that girls had "gotten themselves in trouble" (and even "got themselves raped") out of unconscious motivations--often hostility toward their boyfriends or families, especially their mothers. (This notion helped let men off the hook. One fellow, on being told by his girlfriend that she was pregnant by him, responded: "God help me, I'm ashamed of you.")

A pregnant white woman would be informed that only by acknowledging her emotional maladjustment and unfitness for motherhood (proved by the very fact that she was pregnant) could she hope for a "second chance" at appropriate femininity, marriage and maternity. Usually expelled from high school by law, she was often sequestered in an austere maternity home on condition that she never tell anyone where she went. She would be urged or, if necessary, forced (and sometimes tricked) into giving the child up to the booming postwar adoption market as a sign of her new-found "adjustment."

African-American women were spared the pseudo-psychologicaltheorizing about their rejection of the feminine role in favor of a cruder assumption that they were only "doing what comes naturally"--to oversexed Negroes, of course, not to pure white virgins. But they, too, had little access to sex education, birth control or abortion, few maternity homes, and--in striking distinction from white women--virtually no access to adoption services. In 1960, Solinger tells us, approximately 70% of white babies born out of wedlock were adopted, while only 5% of such nonwhite babies were placed; in fact, one African-American woman who tried to give her baby to a hospital for adoption was arrested for desertion. Partly in the absence of any alternative and partly by choice, the black community mostly made room for its newest members and accepted the mothers without stigma.

The treatment of white and black unwed mothers did converge on one point: Both were seen primarily as potential threats to the stability of middle-class home life. The white woman was shamed for her sexuality unless and until she gave up her baby, while the black woman who kept her baby was blamed by the white taxpaying public for causing everything from rising welfare costs to poverty and so-called "black pathology."

Despite these demeaning attitudes, postwar non-marital sexual activity, illegal abortions and out-of-wedlock birth rates all rose steadily (perhaps in part because males were exempt from most of the shaming and blaming and so had little motivation to reform typical practices, such as shunning the use of contraceptives). Population experts, along with some feminists, doctors and social-service providers, campaigned long and hard for abortion reform, yet the nation seemed psychically unprepared for their success in 1972 when the Supreme Court made abortion legal.

The high number of legal abortions that followed revealed for the first time the real rate of unwanted pregnancies in America (now more than 1.5 million a year) and also testified to a new way of life that women were selecting for themselves--a life of greater independence and intentionality, in which they might elect not to have children, to have fewer children or to have children later in life. The new right to control their reproductive natures ushered women into sexual maturity with a far greater degree of personal freedom than ever before in history.

In the 1980s, however, the practice of abortion became hotly controversial, and a woman who went for one was likely to have to pass through a gauntlet of condemning protesters and even to risk her life (more than 200 clinics received bomb threats and 32 were actually bombed between 1977 and 1987).

In response to the anti-abortion assault, the women's movement has become preoccupied with protecting the right to an abortion, often having to delay action on the rest of its extensive "reproductive rights" agenda: better and safer contraception, sex education, decreased infant mortality rates through prenatal care, reformed obstetrical practices (such as less frequent Cesarian sections) and day care for working mothers. Today the two sides meet across the barricades, mortal enemies in a contested space where there is little middle ground and few new ideas.

In "Life Itself," Roger Rosenblatt enters this unpromising terrain to try to expand any room for agreement that he might find. He hopes to help Americans to speak up--perhaps even to converse--in the coming state-by-state battle over abortion rights without totally losing their civility. The challenge, he observes, is to somehow "resolve this irresolvable issue and move on." Rosenblatt finds hope in polls that indicate that a majority of Americans simultaneously regard abortions as a form of killing and yet believe that the state should not outlaw them. If there had been more open-minded discussion of ordinary people's moral anxieties about abortion, he reasons, "the process of national healing might have begun sooner."

Most of his book can be read as a model of the kind of wide-ranging and tolerant conversation he prescribes. Rosenblatt ventures into the heartland (we hear a lot about the virtues of life in Iowa) to talk to all sides. No matter where they stand, most of the folks he meets seem to be caring, salt-of-the-earth types of a decidedly philosophical bent.

To Rosenblatt they seem more than ready to agree with his own formula for abortion rights: "Permit but discourage." By this he means to "take a stand against abortion while also allowing its existence." Specifically, Roe v. Wade should remain intact or, if it is overruled, Congress should pass legislation to the same effect. (Since Rosenblatt completed his book, President Bush has promised to veto any such action.)

But Rosenblatt would like to see "some wording attached" to the law that would state that abortion is "the taking of life" and urge that actions be taken, especially a return to family and spiritual values, to make it less necessary. Only such a position, he writes, carries the appropriate moral seriousness. What he leaves unsaid is how any such "wording" would accomplish anything at all--except to make women who have abortions feel guiltier than they already do.

The eloquent abstraction of Rosenblatt's tone becomes wearying. The dilemmas of actual women in crisis, not one of whom is mentioned among the dozens of people he quotes, seem far, far away. Rosenblatt also manages to ignore the last two decades of scholarship on the social inequality of the sexes, without which no discussion of child-bearing arrangements is adequate.

If reading Solinger and Rosenblatt is like hearing about war from the generals, reading the vivid testimonies in "Bitter Fruit" is like watching civilians whose homes are being bombed and who flee--to single motherhood, abortion or adoption. Authors Perkins and Townsend believe that we must hear the deep ambivalence that is often inherent in these acts. The testimony of pregnant women themselves leaves little doubt that their decisions are not lightly taken; the suffering evident here should be enough to deflect all but the most punitive moralities. One young woman describes watching clinic protesters after her abortion: "I felt horrible, so horrible. Part of me wanted to be where they were, holding up a sign, because I felt so ashamed, so horrible about it." Yet this young woman had been raped.

The authors want their book to be an "antidote to easy answers"; most of all they want to give women their voices back--to articulate truths that are being suppressed because there is no room for complexity in the polarized political debate. These oral accounts demonstrate that women who can acknowledge their pain or regrets if they feel them (and note: regret is not universal after any of these decisions) achieve emotional resolution and a strengthened sense of self-respect.

In the excellent introduction by Rita Townsend we are reminded that as many as three million pregnancies a year in the United States are caused by contraceptive failure, yet federal spending for contraceptive research has declined because of pressure from the anti-abortion and anti-contraception lobby. The lack of availability of effective contraception then leads effectively to an ever higher abortion rate.

The larger truth that emerges from the particular stories in "Bitter Fruit" is that if women had more choice--more and better contraception, more support for those who choose to give babies up for adoption, more opportunities to raise children alone while still working or pursuing an education, and more responsible and thoughtful men to pick from as sex partners and husbands--there would be fewer abortions, single mothers, unwanted children and unhappy marriages.

Taken together, these books remind us why we must never reduce the meaning of the "pro-choice" position to merely "pro-abortion." The vision of fundamental liberty and justice for women is far more encompassing than that.

BOOK MARK: For an excerpt from "Bitter Fruit," see the Opinion section, Page 3.

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