It’s Her Choice
An interview with Katha Pollitt On The Struggle Over Abortion Rights
© Christina Pabst
In the late 1980s I taught composition classes to college students, introducing them to the art of the “persuasive essay.” I told my students they could write on any topic that interested them except one: abortion, I claimed, was “too emotional” a subject, and their arguments were liable to be based on feeling, not reason. The truth was that I couldn’t stand to read, let alone grade, any papers about abortion, because it made me too emotional. I was pro-choice, but I’d been opposed to abortion when I was younger — before I’d known many women who’d had abortions, and before I’d realized that the abortion restrictions proposed by conservatives would also limit my access to birth control. And even when I didn’t support abortion in theory, I knew that if I got pregnant, I would end the pregnancy, because I certainly didn’t want a child.
Political columnist Katha Pollitt might have identified me then as a member of the “muddled middle” — people who don’t like the idea of abortion and believe there should be some restrictions on it but who don’t want to ban it altogether. Such people are the audience for whom she wrote her latest book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. Unlike my own early thinking, Pollitt’s arguments in support of a woman’s right to choose are cogent, rational, and clear. They are also timely, as efforts to limit abortion have been succeeding since the 2010 midterm elections, in which Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives and many state legislatures. From 2011 to 2013 thirty states adopted a total of 205 measures restricting abortion, and more have passed since then.
Pollitt has been a contributor to The Nation since 1980, and for the past twenty years she has unapologetically attacked shoddy thinking and rhetoric in her bimonthly opinion column, “Subject to Debate.” Not surprisingly, her strong views have upset conservatives. (Nine days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, she wrote about her refusal to fly the U.S. flag at her home, saying, “The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war. . . . There are no symbolic representations right now for the things the world really needs — equality and justice and humanity and solidarity and intelligence.”) On the other hand, she has criticized some progressives’ knee-jerk support for sex work, in part, she says, because prostitution involves implicit male privilege. And when transgender activists called for replacing the word “women” with the term “pregnant persons” in discussions of abortion, Pollitt argued that abortion is not a gender-neutral issue and that opposition to it arises from a long history of women’s oppression. The Washington Post has called her column “the best place to go for original thinking on the Left.”
Born in 1949 to a Protestant father and a Jewish mother, Pollitt was raised in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Her father was a lawyer, and both her parents were known for their radical left-wing politics. (The FBI kept thick files on them.) Pollitt earned her undergraduate degree at Harvard and received a master’s in fine arts from Columbia University. The author of two collections of poems and five nonfiction books on feminism and politics, Pollitt is also a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Republic, and other publications. She has taught poetry at Princeton and women’s studies at the New School University, and she’s lectured at many more schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Cornell. She’s won numerous awards for her writing, including two National Magazine Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, and a lifetime achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Her essay “Why Do We Romanticize the Fetus?” won the Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
I still find it hard to discuss abortion calmly. I’ve given up trying to argue with the few people I know who oppose abortion rights, one of whom is the husband of a good friend: he thinks abortion is a sin, and our conversations never go very far — which makes me respect Pollitt all the more for her ability to talk sense on such a contentious issue.
Despite an intense work schedule, Pollitt generously made time on several occasions to talk to me about her new book and the state of reproductive rights in the U.S. Though often tired when we began our conversations, she became animated and articulate in discussion, making me laugh as well as think. She answered my many questions directly and thoughtfully, taking breaks every hour or so to make more coffee.
Ed — This adapted interview is printed with permission of the author and The Sun magazine, which originally published the interview in December, 2015. www.thesunmagazine.org.
Gillian Kendall: Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established abortion as a fundamental right, is now more than forty years old. What concerns you most about the present political climate in regard to abortion rights?
Katha Pollitt: That Republicans control the U.S. Congress and all three branches of state government in twenty-four states. In 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that no “undue burden” could be placed on the right to terminate a pregnancy. Ever since, there has been a struggle over what makes a burden undue. Plenty of judges will say it is not an undue burden to have to travel 150 miles, or wait seventy-two hours, or be forced to listen to providers read from scripts intended to change a woman’s mind. In Casey, the Supreme Court rejected a requirement that the woman notify her husband that she was seeking an abortion. Since then, I’m not aware that the courts have permanently turned down any restrictions. It’s all in flux.
Roe v. Wade has been undermined in many ways. It is undermined when particular kinds of procedures are prohibited; by bans on abortions after twenty weeks, which have been passed in twelve states; when clinics are closed because of laws, such as those passed in Texas and other states, that require an abortion clinic to meet the standards of a small hospital. Roe is undermined when laws require a clinic doctor to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and none will grant them. And what about proposed state laws that say a doctor does not have to treat somebody who comes to the emergency room with abortion complications? Anti-choicers are always claiming abortion is dangerous and life threatening, yet they want the right of conscience to include the right to let someone suffer and even die.
Roe is undermined when a teenager cannot get an abortion without telling her parents. Yes, a teen can get a judicial bypass, but some judges will not issue them. Recently a pregnant teenager in Kansas, which requires notification of both parents, didn’t want to ask hers for permission, and the judge in her small town was her father’s best friend. What she eventually did was call various pro-choice resources, and with their assistance she arranged to take a bus to New Mexico and have her abortion there. Think of it: You are fifteen or sixteen years old, and you have to negotiate the court system, get to the courthouse, risk being seen by your neighbors, and deal with all sorts of invasive questions; and in the end, the judge can decide you’re not “mature” enough to decide to have an abortion — but you’re mature enough to have a baby! It’s an unfriendly system, and an incredibly sexist one.
I think the restrictions being placed on health-insurance companies to try to prevent them from paying for abortions are a tremendous violation of Roe v. Wade. Abortion should be treated like any other medical procedure, but under the Affordable Care Act, state after state has refused to allow insurance plans that cover abortion. And of course the Hyde Amendment prevents Medicaid from paying for abortions. We are moving toward a situation in which more and more women have to pay out of pocket, even as restrictions drive up the cost.
Gillian Kendall: Why did you write Pro?
Katha Pollitt: The conversation about abortion has put the pro-choice movement on the defensive for too long. We always seem to be reacting to the claims of the anti-choice movement, putting out one fire after another, and that’s not a good way to persuade people.
We need to make a positive case for abortion. We need to flip the conversation so that instead of just saying, “What about rape victims?” or, “What about fatal fetal abnormalities?” we are talking about the much more typical situation of a pregnant woman who, for one reason or another, does not want to have a baby. One in three American women will have at least one abortion, most because they cannot afford to have a baby, or they don’t have a partner, or they’re in school, or they’re working, or they have already had enough children, or they’re too young, or they just don’t want to become a mother right now, or possibly ever.
Gillian Kendall: At what age do most of those women have an abortion?
Katha Pollitt: Somewhere in their twenties. Because women in their twenties tend to be sexually active and are at their most fertile, they account for more than 50 percent of abortions in the U.S.
Gillian Kendall: What’s the most surprising statistic you’ve found about abortion?
Katha Pollitt: The one that surprises everybody is that 61 percent of women who have abortions are mothers. I was on the radio in Minnesota with a Catholic law professor, a woman, who announced that the cause of abortion is that people lack the self-control to stay abstinent. I said, What about married people? They’re supposed to have sex. She replied that married women don’t have abortions. Two women immediately contacted the station to say that they’d had an abortion while married.
The 61-percent statistic dispels the idea that the typical abortion seeker is living a wild single life or hates children. These are women who already have children and who have assessed the limits of what they can do.
Many restrictions on abortion assume that women don’t know much about pregnancy. In some states, pregnant women are forced to have ultrasounds, whether or not they are medically necessary, and to look at the images. In some states doctors are forced to read women statements about fetal development that are written by state legislators and often contain inaccuracies and falsehoods. The idea behind these restrictions is that the women do not know what they are about to do; they do not know “what’s in there.” Maybe they think it’s a cantaloupe! So the legislators think they have to show them. But a woman who’s had a baby knows. Really, it’s all about making the women feel bad.
Gillian Kendall: Do you have any statistics on income level and abortion rates?
Katha Pollitt: Yes, the Guttmacher Institute did a study called “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions.” Among abortion patients from 1987 to 2000 about 30 percent were living in poverty. That’s about twice the poverty rate in the population as a whole, which tells you that a disproportionate percentage of women who have abortions are poor. I think this is probably even truer than it used to be, because middle-class women who go to private doctors are getting better birth control than ever, but poor women, who have to go to clinics and deal with a lot of financial difficulties, have less access to effective birth control.
Gillian Kendall: You’ve called abortion access a “positive social good.” Please explain.
Katha Pollitt: It’s good for society when women can finish their education and have the number of children that they feel is right for them, given how much love, attention, and money it takes to raise a child. It is good for society for men to become fathers when they can be a part of the child’s life. And it is good for society when children are wanted rather than unwanted, and when their parents are in a position to care for them well.
Gillian Kendall: Your book mentions Caitlin Knowles Myers, an economics professor at Middlebury College, who believes that abortion had an even stronger positive effect on women’s lives in the 1970s and 1980s than the birth-control pill did. Can you say more about that?
Katha Pollitt: After the pill went on the market in 1960 — and especially after the government began to make birth control more widely available about ten years later — there was a huge uptick in the number of women who finished high school, college, and professional training. Women applied to med school and law school in unprecedented numbers, and, pressured by the women’s movement, schools lifted their quotas on the number of female students they would accept. Imagine: it had been around 5 percent!
Once women could control their fertility, they began to think about their lives differently, more the way men do. They could make longer-range plans for school and career and not just get married at nineteen or twenty and start having babies soon after. Of course, I am mostly speaking of middle-class or potentially middle-class women here. For many women, not that much changed.
Abortion, illegal and then legal, was an important part of that story. It allowed women who got pregnant to stay in school, keep that scholarship, go to grad school, and take a job that had a future. And the ability to control your fertility and have a baby only when you are ready is just as important to women today as it was then.
Gillian Kendall: You have written that you can imagine a utopia in which there are fewer abortions because there’s less need for them. Do you think there are too many abortions now?
Katha Pollitt: Everybody says there are too many abortions — in the 1990s the Clintons talked about making abortion “safe, legal, and rare” — but in my opinion this is the wrong way to think about abortion, because it puts the emphasis on the number of abortions, and not on what women want or need.
The ideal number of abortions is whatever number lets women control their reproductive lives. We don’t know how many women would choose abortion if it were available and affordable for everyone, but one study of poor mothers in Michigan found that 20 percent of them said they would have had an abortion if they could have afforded one. That tells me that there are too few abortions among poor women in Michigan.
Of course, women don’t have abortions only because they are poor. If that were true, then providing more assistance to low-income mothers would lower abortion rates, and it doesn’t necessarily do so. Look at Sweden, where there is a substantial welfare state, yet in 2009 one in four known pregnancies was terminated.
I am in favor of food assistance and government-sponsored day care and other programs for poor families, but whether to have a baby is not just a financial decision; it’s a personal decision. It has to do with the man you’re with, or the man you’re trying to get away from, or the fact that you don’t have a man and don’t want to be a single mother. It might be that you’re too young or too old. There are women who get pregnant after they have grown children in college and don’t want to go through motherhood all over again.
I think in our modern world most women want to have smaller families than they did back when we were an agricultural society. In those days a big family was often an advantage, because it meant more labor on the farm. Also the infant mortality rate was high then, so people wanted to have more children in case not all of them survived.
But even in eighteenth-century America, women had sex outside of marriage, and having a baby out of wedlock was social suicide. And some married women reached a point where they didn’t want to have any more children. So there were abortions.
Abortion in the early years of the U.S. could have been done by midwives, or it might have been self-administered, or it might have been done by taking patent medicines sold for that purpose, which were sometimes fatal. So people who talk about abortion as if it were a new development are wrong.
Gillian Kendall: Can you talk about the history of abortion?
Katha Pollitt: Anthropologists tell us that abortion has existed in virtually every society for thousands of years. We know that in early tribal cultures women did not have ten children, because the tribe didn’t have the resources to feed that many, and anthropologists are pretty certain that abortion was one method of fertility control.
Some abortions may have been performed with herbs. We don’t know what those herbs were, although John Riddle, who has written several books about abortion in ancient and medieval times, has identified various possibilities, all of which were probably dangerous and not always effective.
Abortion, infanticide, and infant abandonment were so common in medieval Europe that the Catholic Church established a system of foundling hospitals in order to give unmarried pregnant women an alternative. Foundling hospitals allowed a woman or girl to have her baby in secret and return to society with her honor intact. There were several problems with this solution however. One was that almost all of the babies died of starvation or disease. And it was cruel toward the mothers as well: they were forced to remain in the foundling hospital and breast-feed for maybe a year — because this was before formula — but they could not breast-feed their own baby.
Gillian Kendall: When and why was abortion criminalized?
Katha Pollitt: Except in New York and Connecticut, abortion was legal in the U.S. until the late 1860s. A pregnancy could be aborted up until what was called the “quickening,” which is when the pregnant woman can feel the baby move — usually in the fourth or fifth month. Even in New York City, where abortion was technically illegal, there were perhaps two hundred practicing abortionists. Abortifacients [drugs that will induce an abortion] were advertised in the newspaper under euphemisms like “Female Monthly Pills” and “The Samaritan’s Gift for Females.”
If you want proof that abortion was widespread in the nineteenth century, consider this: In 1800 the average woman had around seven or eight children. By 1900 the average was three or four. How did that happen? Birth control was primitive throughout the century, and yet there was a tremendous reduction in the fertility rate. Except for the baby boom of the 1950s, the fertility rate has been declining in the U.S. for more than two hundred years, in part because of abortion.
Abortion became a politically charged issue only after it was connected to women’s independence. As long as abortion was about saving a daughter from shame or helping a woman who was exhausted from having too many children, it was accepted (though probably not talked about much), but when women began marrying later and postponing having children in order to become more politically and socially active, then it was considered a problem.
Gillian Kendall: What do you say to the abortion opponents who claim that any woman who has an abortion will feel terrible anguish and regret?
Katha Pollitt: Studies show that deep and lasting regret about an abortion is rare. More women feel relief, and if they do feel sadness, it’s usually transient. A three-year study of nearly a thousand women called “Decision Rightness and Emotional Responses to Abortion in the United States” concluded that the “overwhelming majority” felt they had made the right decision for them.
It’s OK in this culture for women who have abortions to express their regrets, but it’s hard for a woman to say, “Thank God I had an abortion,” because it stigmatizes her. There was about five minutes after the Roe decision when it was OK for a woman to say she was happy she’d had an abortion.
It’s not that I believe women shouldn’t express regret. They should be able to speak all the feelings they have and get a respectful and sympathetic ear. But the anti-choice movement has organized a kind of phalanx of unhappy women who go to state legislatures and testify that abortion is terrible and that they regret theirs. This regret narrative has been quite effective. They present it as a universal experience, not the experience of an individual. The argument is that we must protect women from these feelings of guilt. We must protect them from themselves. Even if a woman wants an abortion at the time she has it, she might feel regret later.
Gillian Kendall: Law professor Michelle Oberman, who specializes in issues of pregnancy and motherhood, writes, “By reducing our abortion conversations to a simple referendum on criminalization, we’ve become distracted. . . . Nuanced, compassionate conversations . . . [have been reduced] to a statement of one’s position about the law.” Is there any merit to her suggestion that we stop arguing about the law and listen with more compassion to women who’ve had abortions?
Katha Pollitt: If we stop talking about the law and stop fighting to keep clinics open, then they will all close, and we’ll be having compassionate conversations with women who’ve had illegal abortions.
I do think we can do both: have compassionate conversations and fight to keep abortion legal. My position is that each woman can have her feelings about it, but those feelings should not determine what all women’s choices can be. Look at it this way: People have different reactions to divorce, but we would never say, “Here are ten women who regret their divorces, so we’d better make divorce illegal, or at least harder to get.” We would never require couples to receive mandatory counseling before getting a divorce.
Gillian Kendall: The anti-choice movement promotes the idea of “post-abortion stress syndrome” and insists that information about it must be provided to women seeking abortion. Do you agree such a syndrome exists?
Katha Pollitt: No, it is a completely made-up diagnosis. This syndrome has not been recognized by any reputable medical authority and is a concoction of the Elliot Institute, an anti-choice outfit. Their studies asked women who are anti-choice how they felt about abortions they’d had much earlier in life. If you think that abortion is murder and a violation of God’s law, you probably won’t feel good about the one you had ten years ago. But the authors of the study present that experience as practically universal. It’s ridiculous.
Gillian Kendall: What do you think about mandatory counseling for women seeking abortions?
Katha Pollitt: A lot of abortion clinics do provide counseling. There are clinics that partner with adoption agencies, and a reputable provider is going to tell you what the procedure involves, what to expect, and so on. She’ll ask you why you’re there, and if you seem unsure or conflicted, she will try to help you think it through and may even send you away to think some more and come back another day. But that’s different than the kind of counseling some state legislatures are now demanding. For example, some states require the doctor to tell you that the fetus is an individual human being from the moment of conception, describe the stages of fetal development, and remind you, if you’re worried about the cost of raising a child, that you can get child support — which in practice is quite an iffy proposition. All of this is an attempt to dissuade the woman from having an abortion, especially by making her feel ashamed and guilty, and I don’t think that’s the job of healthcare professionals. I don’t think it’s anybody’s job.
Gillian Kendall: You mentioned that twelve states ban abortion after twenty weeks of pregnancy. How many abortions occur later than twenty weeks?
Katha Pollitt: If you believe the anti-choice propaganda, you would think it’s most of them. Actually something like 1.5 percent of all abortions occur after twenty weeks, and even fewer after twenty-four weeks, which is usually considered the threshold of viability. Although abortions that late are actually quite rare, the campaign against so-called partial-birth abortion put into people’s minds the idea that abortions routinely occur after twenty-four weeks.
The federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 is not a limit on the number of weeks of pregnancy; it is a limit on a procedure used to perform later abortions. (Actually “partial- birth abortion” is not a medical term; it’s anti-abortion propaganda language, now smuggled into law.) That was an important victory for the anti-choice side. Now they’re going after abortions earlier in the second trimester, which begins around thirteen weeks, on the basis that dilation and evacuation — the method used in almost all second-trimester abortions — involves “fetal dismemberment.”
The federal ban went to the Supreme Court in 2007, in Gonzales v. Carhart. The deciding vote to uphold it was cast by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who said that the procedure was so horrible he feared a woman who’d had one might come to feel intense regret. In other words, because the woman — a woman — might regret it, and because Anthony Kennedy thinks she will regret it, then we have to ban it for everybody. It had nothing to do with medicine; it had to do with Justice Kennedy’s assumptions about women’s feelings, and it was a miscarriage of justice.
Gillian Kendall: How many clinics have closed as a result of recent state restrictions?
Katha Pollitt: I don’t have the numbers for every state, but in Texas, for example, there were forty-one clinics, and more than half have closed. It’s a similar story elsewhere.
The clinics that remain are swamped. In Texas women are having to wait up to twenty days for an appointment. If you are running the only clinic in a state, you’re busy. Add in the three-day waiting period, and it means women in many states are having a hard time getting their procedures done promptly. In some instances doctors travel from other states to staff the one clinic, like Dr. Willie Parker, who travels from Chicago to Mississippi to perform abortions.
Gillian Kendall: How many states currently have a strong commitment to abortion rights?
Katha Pollitt: California now allows nurse-midwives and some other medical professionals to perform first-trimester abortions. That needs to happen everywhere, because not enough doctors are willing to perform the procedure: it’s stigmatized, it’s not a prestigious field of medicine, it’s not medically challenging, some hospitals and practices won’t take on doctors who do abortions — and let’s not forget, there’s a risk of arson and assassination.
Oregon is the only state in the union that has not qualified the original Roe decision in any way. New York State and Indiana are opening up clinics and centers that will do both deliveries and abortions, bringing together those two normal parts of women’s reproductive lives. In New York State the proposed Women’s Equality Act would codify Roe in the state constitution. It was rejected in 2013 and again in 2014, but it’s important to try to pass pro-choice laws and not just fight anti-choice ones.
Gillian Kendall: Why is the U.S. so conservative on abortion compared to most Westernized, non-Catholic countries?
Katha Pollitt: The U.S. is different from other industrialized Western nations for several reasons. One is that Americans are much more religious than the citizens of most economically equivalent countries. The Catholic Church is strong in the U.S., and Protestant fundamentalists are a huge part of the Republican Party. It’s not just a matter of how many people are anti-choice but that the political system is organized in their favor. Every state gets two senators, which gives disproportionate power to the less-populated, more-conservative parts of the country. Wyoming and New York State each get two senators, even though Wyoming has just 3 percent of the population of New York. That’s an undemocratic feature of our Constitution. The parliamentary systems of Western Europe are organized differently.
Gillian Kendall: Do you know what percentage of Americans are fervently opposed to abortion?
Katha Pollitt: What is “fervently”? Depending on how the question is asked, polls suggest between 7 and 19 percent of Americans believe abortion should be completely banned. That’s not a lot of people, but the anti-choice movement makes up in passion and organization for what it lacks in numbers. It really is a grassroots movement. If you are anti-choice, you likely attend a church that is actively against abortion; you can get together after services and write letters to your representatives, plan demonstrations, organize clinic picketing, and so on. Pro-choicers don’t have a ready-made place to congregate. It would be great if some of the denominations that are officially pro-choice were more active on this issue. Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Reform Judaism are all pro-choice faiths, but they do not have that same single-minded energy. This unfortunately gives people the idea that all religions are against abortion.
Gillian Kendall: Getting back to the other Western nations, don’t many of them restrict abortion?
Katha Pollitt: Yes, a lot of countries have even more restrictions on paper than the U.S. does. For example, in France abortion is legal for the first twelve weeks after conception. People have said to me, “Look at France, Katha! You’re a socialist. You love France. So what’s your problem?” But I say look at the other side of it. In France abortion is free, and you can get one at any hospital. They also have great government healthcare. And it’s not hard to get birth control. And they have realistic sex education. If you need an abortion after the first trimester in France, you can get one if two doctors agree that your mental or physical health is at risk, or if there are major fetal defects. I don’t agree with those restrictions, but they do allow for some flexibility. So you cannot make superficial comparisons between the laws in France and the U.S.
Gillian Kendall: What do you mean by “realistic sex education”?
Katha Pollitt: Realistic sex education discusses sex as a normal part of life and in a nonjudgmental way. “Abstinence-only” sex education says that if you have sex before marriage, you’re dirty and disgusting. They compare girls who’ve had sex to used chewing gum and candies that have been passed from hand to hand. It’s unbelievably sexist. Realistic sex education talks about birth control. In abstinence-only sex education, you can’t discuss birth control except with respect to its failure rate, which is greatly exaggerated. Kids are effectively taught that condoms don’t work. The abstinence-only programs in many public schools actively discourage the use of birth control and use falsehoods to do it.
I think sex education should be tied to talk about relationships and feelings and what you want out of life. It should not just be dry and technical, free of emotions and values. Girls and boys should be taught how to negotiate sex with a partner. We know abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work — the kids still have sex, but they’re less likely to use birth control.
In this country we are unable to speak frankly about sexual development. We push it into a dark corner, making it harder to develop a healthy sexuality. Look at the fuss about the HPV vaccine. This is a vaccine that helps prevent a girl from getting the human papillomavirus, which later in life can have serious consequences, including cancer. Doctors recommend that all girls be vaccinated around age eleven or twelve, well before they become sexually active, but some conservatives have objected that the girls will become promiscuous. As if teens will run wild because they feel assured they won’t get cancer when they’re fifty!
Gillian Kendall: What’s the most important thing people who are pro-choice can do to maintain or increase access to abortion?
Katha Pollitt: Activism is crucial at every level, and although I have criticized the pro-choice movement for being too defensive and apologetic, I think we are seeing a rebirth of activism. The National Network of Abortion Funds, for example, raises money to pay for abortions for poor women. We are seeing a resurgence of commitment to clinic defense — preventing protestors from blocking clinic entrances and harassing patients on their way in.
There’s not just more activism but a new kind — unapologetic and bold and personal. For example, women are claiming their own abortions by tweeting under the hashtag #shoutyourabortion. Abortion counselor Emily Letts filmed her abortion and put it on YouTube to show that it is not a terrible, scary procedure. This new frankness is good, but we still need a more grassroots movement. There is not enough of a role for ordinary people to play, beyond donating money or helping to raise money.
Gillian Kendall: In the early days of gay liberation, activists encouraged gay people to come out of the closet. Maybe everybody in this country who has benefitted from abortion should wear an armband for one day.
Katha Pollitt: One of our big problems is that our side is silenced by stigma. I recognize that not every woman who has had an abortion is in a position to speak out publicly, but if more women would talk about their abortions to their friends and family, it would change hearts and minds.
Sarah Cowan, a sociologist who studies secrets, compared how women talk about abortions and miscarriages. She found women were much more likely to disclose that they’d had a miscarriage than they were to talk about an abortion. She also found that women are very careful whom they tell about their abortions and try to choose people they feel will be empathetic and not judgmental.
All of us know people who have had abortions. If you’re anti-choice, you may think you don’t know anyone who has had an abortion, but chances are you do, and they’re just not telling you for fear of being judged.
Because women don’t speak up, all those stereotypes about women who have abortions — the twenty-something slut and the hardhearted “career woman” — are allowed to persist.
Gillian Kendall: After your mother died, you found out that she’d had an abortion when you were a child. How did you discover this?
Katha Pollitt: My father made a Freedom of Information Act request for their FBI files — they were both communists — and there was a reference to her having been under the care of a gynecologist. It seemed like a strange thing for the FBI to note, so I asked my father about it, and he told me that she’d had an abortion.
Gillian Kendall: How old were you when you found out, and did it influence your feelings about abortion?
Katha Pollitt: I was in my early thirties by then and had always been pro-choice, so, no, it didn’t affect my position. But it made it more intense.
A lot of women had illegal abortions in my mother’s day. We’re in danger of forgetting how common it was. When you consider that, until 1960, birth control was just diaphragms and condoms, it’s not surprising that there were so many.
Gillian Kendall: How can women find the courage to share their experiences?
Katha Pollitt: By talking to each other. Feminist poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote that if one woman spoke the truth about her life, the world would split open. Women can find the courage if they see that other women are in the same boat.
Gillian Kendall: What are some of the reactions you’ve gotten to your writing on abortion?
Katha Pollitt: Sometimes I get postcards with pictures of bloody fetuses, or people e-mail me saying they are going to pray for me, which is better than the bloody fetuses.
I was expecting more criticism from the mainstream press about the book, such as critics saying that I go too far or don’t acknowledge the moral seriousness of abortion, but I did not get a single review like that. All the reviews were favorable except from the anti-choice press, and of course the National Review did not like it. What makes me think we are going to see a turnaround on the issue is that several of the reviews began with the reviewer talking about her own abortion. I don’t think we would have seen this ten years ago.
Gillian Kendall: Sometimes in Pro, when you write about anti-choice activists and their ideas, your tone seems acerbic and sarcastic. Do you worry you might offend some readers who are still trying to make up their minds on the issue?
Katha Pollitt: To a certain extent your writing style is like your fingerprint: you can’t really change it. I have to write the way I do, or else I just couldn’t do it. I leave it to others to write the book that says, “There’s much wisdom on both sides, and you’re all wonderful people.”
Gillian Kendall: When I talk about abortion with people who oppose choice, I get judgmental, furious, and inarticulate. And people who oppose abortion are often just as hostile and unwilling to communicate with someone who holds my views. I wonder if there is any way the two groups can learn to talk to each other.
Katha Pollitt: I know how you feel. It’s hard to have a reasonable conversation with people who not only hold the opposite view from yours on what’s moral, but want to force everyone to live according to their views.
After the 2014 elections I wrote a column in which I invited anti-choice readers to answer some open-ended, non-snarky, non-rhetorical questions about abortion. I didn’t get a whole lot of responses, but the answers I did get were fascinating. One of the biggest differences between them and me was in how we view sex. For me sex is pleasure; sex is intimacy; sex is a part of life. It’s not just about reproduction, and therefore, when sex produces unwanted reproduction, you are allowed to fix it.
The anti-choice position is that sex is always about reproduction, and each act of intercourse is a kind of contract to have a baby if conception occurs. If you are not prepared to have a baby, they say, then don’t have sex.
Gillian Kendall: And don’t get raped?
Katha Pollitt: Yes, don’t get raped. Basically it all comes down to sex.
Gillian Kendall: Do you think the pro-choice movement should address choice opponents with some empathy — not the politicians, but the voters whose views might change?
Katha Pollitt: I do think it’s important to talk to people who disagree with you, as difficult as it is. It’s difficult for them, too. But you and I are never going to change the minds of people who think abortion should be illegal even when the mother’s life is in danger.
The people who are reachable are those I call the “muddled middle.” They don’t really believe that the fetus is a person from the so-called moment of conception. They are fine with stem-cell research; they’re fine with abortion for rape or medical reasons. They just don’t like sex being so separated from reproduction. They feel the country is going to pot: people are doing whatever they want, no one is responsible anymore, nobody gets married — and what happened to the family? I think those people are reachable: the people who believe that there are good abortions and bad abortions, and that we can have laws that distinguish between the two. Perhaps they think that abortion should be legal for rape, for incest, for fatal fetal abnormalities, and to save the life of the mother, but they think all other abortions should be illegal. I try to show those people what it would mean in real life to make that compromise.
Gillian Kendall: Why isn’t a compromise feasible?
Katha Pollitt: Those exceptions — rape, incest, threat to the mother’s life, and catastrophic medical defects — together account for only about 8 percent of abortions in this country. The other 92 percent of women who are currently getting abortions would seek them illegally. In other words, we’d be right back to where we were before Roe. Is that what we want: for almost a million women a year to have illegal abortions? Because that’s what would happen. But this isn’t the picture people have when they imagine a compromise. They think those women would simply have those babies.
Even the exceptions would be unworkable. If you want to allow abortion when the pregnancy is a result of rape, what criteria would you use? If the assault isn’t reported, is it still rape? If the woman was coerced but not physically forced, is it still rape? What if she was raped but the police don’t believe her? By the time we make a legal judgment about whether the person has been raped, the child could be three years old.
If one in three women has had an abortion, you can’t really talk about it as some rare practice indulged in only by particularly evil women. If you really think abortion is murder, what do you do with that one-third of women? Put them in prison? Most anti-choice activists will answer no, but in fact we are seeing women go to prison.
Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman, was sentenced to twenty years in jail this past March for feticide and neglect of a dependent. She is the first woman to be charged, convicted, and sentenced on feticide charges. Patel went to the emergency room saying that she’d had a miscarriage and had thrown the stillborn fetus into a dumpster — which was not a smart move. Prosecutors said she had taken an abortion drug she’d ordered online, and that the fetus had been born alive at just past the point of viability. The jury believed the prosecutor, and Patel is now in prison.
Gillian Kendall: Please say more about the “so-called moment of conception.”
Katha Pollitt: Most people have the idea that conception is immediate: wham-bam, there it is — the future baby. But actually it takes some hours, perhaps twenty-four, for the sperm and egg to get together. And then the embryo needs to become implanted in the uterus, which, medically speaking, is when pregnancy begins. Anti-choice activists focus on the mythical “moment” of conception for two reasons: one, because it’s Catholic doctrine, and two, because redefining the start of pregnancy as the moment of conception allows them to oppose birth control that supposedly works by preventing implantation. Their aim is to redefine the pill, emergency contraception, and the IUD as “abortifacients,” which would greatly limit access to the best forms of birth control.
In 2009 a wealthy donor set up a pilot program in Colorado that provided low-income women with free IUDs. An IUD is pretty expensive — as much as a thousand dollars or so up front, though it pays for itself eventually — and a lot of insurance companies won’t cover it. This program gave women IUDs for free, and the teen birthrate went down by 40 percent, while the abortion rate among teenagers went down by 42 percent.
After the wealthy donor moved on, the question became: Was the state of Colorado going to pay $5 million a year to continue the program? Five million is a rounding error, a tiny fraction of Colorado’s budget, but the state legislature decided not to. Why? Partly because some feared, against the evidence, that having reliable birth control would increase promiscuity and partly because of the bogus claim that the IUD is equivalent to abortion.
Gillian Kendall: Do you think abortion opponents will ever succeed in classifying the IUD and other forms of birth control as abortion?
Katha Pollitt: If Republican legislators can pass amendments to state constitutions saying that the fertilized egg is a person from the moment of conception, that could, in effect, ban the IUD and the pill, but so far they’ve failed to do that, even in Mississippi.
I do not think personhood amendments will pass — for one thing, they would end in vitro fertility treatments, which involve the destruction of many fertilized eggs — but I’ve been wrong before. We’ve seen how far governments can go in other parts of the world. Ireland has such harsh restrictions on abortion that women there have died because they could not get one. In Paraguay right now a ten-year-old girl who is pregnant from being raped by her stepfather is being denied an abortion. In El Salvador there are eighteen women in prison with long sentences because they are accused of having abortions that they say were actually miscarriages.
That is where this is all heading, because ultimately I think you cannot say it’s murder and then not punish anyone. In fact, when the first President Bush was asked whether he would put women in jail if abortion were made illegal, he said there would have to be consequences.
Gillian Kendall: Why has the religious Right forced its way into the courts and the legislatures on the issue of abortion but not on other matters?
Katha Pollitt: They’ve been active on birth control and, to a lesser extent, end-of-life issues, and of course they’ve tried hard to thwart same-sex marriage. We don’t hear much from them, though, on many issues that ought to be of concern to Christians, such as the death penalty and helping the poor. The reason is that the religious Right is a reactionary social movement obsessed with controlling women. They want to turn back the clock to when women had fewer rights, were dependent on men, and were punished if they stepped out of line sexually. The Southern Baptist Convention officially states that women should be subservient to their husbands. The Catholic Church is one of the most patriarchal institutions in the country. It has no women who hold formal power, no women who make policy, and no women in the hierarchy. The Church says its followers should not have to obey Obamacare mandates about birth control being paid for by insurance.
Abortion opponents like to talk about “life,” but at bottom the campaign against reproductive rights is all about women and sex. At the more extreme evangelical fundamentalist end, fathers are supposed to take responsibility for their daughters’ sexuality: purity balls, father-daughter balls, girls pledging to their fathers to remain virgins until they are married. Interestingly, we don’t see sons taking that pledge to their mothers.
Gillian Kendall: Naomi Wolf wrote in New Statesman in 1995: “When we defend abortion rights by emptying the act of moral gravity, we find ourselves cultivating a hardness of heart.” She says that the pro-choice movement has “ceded the language of right and wrong to abortion foes” and “relies instead on a political rhetoric in which the fetus means nothing.”
Katha Pollitt: I have read that article many times. I would dispute all of it. What Wolf wrote is just another way of saying women should feel ashamed of having an accidental pregnancy and guilty if they don’t want to have a baby. She accuses women of being irresponsible about sex and birth control, which is terribly unfair. It takes two to make a pregnancy, and no method of birth control is perfect.
I think creating a society in which women can fulfill their hopes and dreams — along with raising kids, if that’s what they want — is a moral goal. To have children only when you are ready and able to take care of them is a moral decision.
Gillian Kendall: What would you say to a woman who feels conflicted about having an abortion?
Katha Pollitt: She has to look into her heart. It has to be her choice. No one should force her decision. If she wants to carry a child to term and become a mother, then we as a society should help her do that. It’s up to her, even in circumstances in which I personally think she might be making a choice that isn’t likely to turn out well.
We need to keep in mind the bigger picture of reproductive justice. It’s about more than the choice whether to have a baby or not. Reproductive justice is about all the aspects of motherhood, of which abortion is only one. It’s about building a society in which mothers, families, and children all have what they need to grow and flourish.
Gillian Kendall is a writer based in Holmes Beach, FL. Find her work at gilliankendall.org.