Forty years ago, the landmark decision Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, but as Katha Pollitt points out in her new book “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights” (Picador: 272 pp., $25), it failed to make it private, which means that everyone — including employers (as the Supreme Court’s decision on the Hobby Lobby case made clear) — “gets to weigh in on a woman’s most private parts” and “the most private decisions she will ever make.”
For the past three decades, abortion foes have been dismantling Roe as abortion rights supporters desperately try to hold onto what’s left. Just last week, a federal appellate court granted Texas the right to close all but eight abortion facilities. And the ACLU filed suit against Alabama, which this past summer passed a parental-consent law that would put minors who failed to get their parents’ permission on trial for getting abortions and appoint lawyers for their fetuses.
Pollitt, an award-winning essayist and poet who is a columnist at the Nation, argues that not only have women lost control over their bodies but the abortion rights movement has lost control and the context of the conversation over abortion itself. She spoke by phone about her new book, in which she explains where the movement went wrong and how the age-old battle for reproduction freedom can regain ground.
Pollitt will be discussing “Pro” at Book Soup at 4 p.m. Oct. 18.
The same-sex marriage movement won when they reframed the conversation to say it’s about love and family. You skillfully make a similar claim about abortion, recasting it as a moral decision and a family-values issue. You write, “We tend to think of abortion as anti-child and anti-motherhood … We need to put abortion back into context, which is the lives and bodies of women, but also the lives of men, and families, and the children those women already have or will have.”
I hadn’t thought of that. But you’re absolutely right. Because abortion really is a family issue, and it has to do with people making realistic and commonsensical decisions about what it means to be a parent. And whether they have that wherewithal. Having a child is a lot of work. You do have to make sacrifices, and you have to really want to do it. And if people could tell the truth, we know you cannot say, “I have three children, and I’m sorry, I wish I had stopped at one.” Or, “I should never have had children.”
The pro-choice movement’s motto two decades ago was “Abortion on Demand Without Apology.” Now it seems like there is a lot of apologizing. For example, Wendy Davis qualified hers in “Forgetting to Be Afraid,” saying one was for medical reasons and that she grieved. But you can’t say, as Caitlin Moran did in “How to Be a Woman,” that you didn’t regret it.
I think women should be able to feel however they want, but as I say in my book, it is not very often that how people feel about something becomes what the law should be. For example, divorced people have all kinds of complex feelings.... But we don’t say, “Hey state Legislature, here are some women who were made miserable by divorce, we should ban divorce.” But the anti-choicers have been very effective in representing women who regret their abortions, who are small in number but do exist. They send them to state legislatures and they cry and read from their statements about how abortion ruined their lives. There is a tremendous amount of stigma around abortion that has multiple sources. It has: “Oh, my God, I had sex.” “I chose myself instead of choosing the future baby.” “I ‘made a mistake’ by having sex with that person.”
It’s almost like if you don’t feel guilty, that’s something to feel guilty about. Like the Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman said a long time ago, feminism has come so far that women can do anything they want as long as they feel guilty about it.
You say that most anti-choice people don’t want to overturn Roe v. Wade, that it is more effective to make it harder for women to get abortions.
It’s totally true. They’ve finally realized that a much more effective way of banning abortion is to make it inaccessible to as many people as possible. We’ve now reached the point where some states have so many restrictions that the cost of an abortion is raised very, very high.
In the wake of Massachusetts’ buffer-zone ruling and the SCOTUS ruling on Hobby Lobby, do you have faith that the pro-choice movement can turn things around?
There is tremendous backsliding, but there is some forward-sliding too. California has just made it easier for nonphysicians to give the abortion pill and to perform certain kinds of early abortions. And in Buffalo, N.Y., a women’s clinic has opened that does full-spectrum reproductive care, so they’ll help you have a baby, they’ll help you have an abortion. The more abortion can be put back into the context of normal healthcare, that’s really good.
Bolonik is the executive editor of Dame magazine.