Now Read This

If you need a refresher course in understanding why preserving access to abortion is good for women and their families, Katha Pollitt’s book is essential reading. 

by Sue Tomchin

Members of B'nai B'rith Women (which later became JWI) marching for abortion rights in Washington, DC in the 1980s.

Members of B'nai B'rith Women (which later became JWI) marching for abortion rights in Washington, DC in the 1980s.

“I wrote this book because I wanted to put real women…back at the center of the way we talk about abortion,” declares Katha Pollitt in the introduction to her superb book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. Named a New York Times Notable Book in 2014 and issued as a paperback in 2015, this is a must-read book for anyone who cares about women’s rights or has found it hard to articulate a clear and unapologetic position on a subject often wreathed in controversy or discomfort. Pollitt reframes abortion as a common part of women’s reproductive life, one that should be accepted as a moral right with positive implications not only for them, but for their families and society. Pollitt is an award winning poet, essayist and columnist. Jewish Woman spoke to Pollitt about the current climate surrounding the abortion debate.

Why is the pro-choice movement reluctant to make a case about how access to abortion has changed women’s lives for the better? Why does it seem to be on the defensive?

KP: The pro-choice movement has been under an unremitting barrage of hostility for decades now. It is constantly trying to put out fires, trying to explain its position in terms of the arguments made by abortion opponents. It sounds defensive because it is on the defensive.

But I do think that’s changing. My book PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights is part of a whole wave of activism that presents abortion as a positive good for women. 

We see that in the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion on Twitter in which women talk about their abortions and claim them. A lot more women are coming out of the closet about abortion than five years ago.

Why are polls such a poor indicator of how people truly feel about the right to abortion?

KP: They ask the wrong questions. They don’t make people think about real life circumstances. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to do a poll where you present people with real life scenarios. I talk about that in Pro. For example, Danielle is living on her sister’s couch, and becomes pregnant. Will you force her to have that baby? And Anita and her boyfriend have been together for six weeks and neither of them feels remotely ready for parenthood. Will you force her to have the baby? Sara is 43 and has four adult children and now she is taking care of her mother. Will you force her to have that baby?

It’s very easy to be censorious when it’s an abstract question. It is much harder for people to be punitive and rigid when they are actually faced with the human condition. We know, for example, that lots of women opposed to legal abortions have actually had abortions. When it’s your life and you are going to have a baby and have no way to take care of that baby, you do what you have to do.

So what you are saying is that we need to give back the context to discussions about abortion?

KP: The important thing is to center the abortion discussion on women. Now it’s centered on the fetus. We talk about it as though the baby is going to be born tomorrow and the pregnant woman is just the container and a would-be killer. We don’t talk about the human situation that leads to abortion.  

One of those human situations is not having very good birth control or good access to birth control. There are many states where abstinence-only is the name of the game. Millions of federal and state dollars are spent on abstinence-only sex education, which teaches people nothing about their bodies and birth control and how to negotiate sex. 

We are a very weird country when it comes to women. If people take only one thing away from reading PRO, it’s that we need to see abortion as a normal part of women’s reproductive life because that’s what it is. If you have almost one in three women having at least one abortion by the end of her fertile years, you can’t talk about abortion as a form of murder. Are one in three women murderers? Does that make sense? No. Abortion is about managing your fertility and part of the ordinary reproductive life of women. 
credit: Christina Pabst

Why have women felt so much shame about abortion?

KP: It’s because you have refused to have a baby and that’s what women are for, according to many people. You’ve put something ahead of maternity. Even if what you’ve put ahead of maternity is your health, your safety or the wellbeing of the children you already have, abortion goes against the very common idea that women should drop everything for motherhood. There’s also the idea that women shouldn’t be having sex in the first place, and if you have an abortion you’re getting away with something. 

Do you see the attack on abortion as a way of condemning the advances that women have made in terms of personal and professional fulfillment?

KP: Birth control and abortion are essential tools that allow women to control when and if they have kids. Without them, it’s very hard for women to get their education, to get their professional degrees, to work consistently. Historically this was true. When birth control became widely available to young women and teenagers in the ‘70s and when abortion became legal you really began to see women committing to their education and to a work life that would not be derailed if they happened to get pregnant. 

The attack on reproductive rights is part of a larger picture. Some men don’t want women to advance, because they don’t want the competition. They [also] don’t want to lose control over women’s bodies. They want the right to decide what happens to women’s bodies. We see that same mentality—I want to keep what I’ve got, I don’t want to share, I don’t want anyone else to have a shot—in many areas of life now.

In the past, women have complained that their daughters and granddaughters didn’t appreciate the rights that their mothers and grandmothers worked so hard to win. Do you think that young women have come to recognize the importance of speaking out about reproductive rights?

KP: I think more and more young women are becoming active around this issue. If they are active at all in the world of women’s rights, this is the issue [they are engaged in], along with violence against women and rape. It took a while for people to understand how dire the situation around abortion has become. And the natural tendency of most people is to believe that if something was O.K. yesterday, it’s O.K. today. But now we’re seeing it isn’t O.K. Anyone who watched even five minutes of the Planned Parenthood hearing [in September] could see how determined some very important people in our government are to make it very much harder for girls and women to get necessary reproductive health care.

You write in the afterward of your book that 7 in 10 women support Roe v. Wade, yet clinics are closing and in many locations women are having to turn to illegal means. Do you see the “sleeping giant” of pro-choice voters awakening to this problem? 

KP: One can only hope. I think it’s happening in some places. For example, Virginia went from a red state controlled by very anti-choice Republicans to being a blue state, which has just set aside some of the regulations that the previous government put in that were threatening to close down clinics. My hope is that people will see that the threat to reproductive rights isn’t something taking place far, far away but is happening all over the country, including in blue and purple states. 

I have a friend who says that as long as abortion is legal on paper, many people aren’t going to care if it’s actually available. As long as there is one clinic [that performs abortions] in a state that’s all people care about. Unfortunately, as long as it doesn’t affect them personally, some people won’t care about how hard it is on others—poor women, for example. 

Can you give an example of the problems created because of clinic closures? 

KP: Texas is a good example because there over half the clinics have closed. There are great swaths of the state that have no provision at all. We are beginning to see women resort to self-induced abortions including using abortion pills that have been brought from Mexico or purchased online. That’s what happens when you can’t get abortion from a doctor.

In what ways do you see that preserving choice for women is part of a larger picture about providing services to women and mothers in particular?

KP: I’m glad you asked that question because more and more supporters of legal abortion are talking about it within the reproductive justice framework. The right to end a pregnancy only takes us so far. What about the right to have a child and be able to raise that child safely and decently? We need to have a larger conversation about women and kids and motherhood. Right now over one in five children in America grow up in poverty. That’s shocking. Reproductive justice is a very good way of enlarging the whole issue to cover not just your right not to have a baby if you don’t want to have a baby, but your right to have a baby and have the kind of support that, I must say, other countries are much more generous about giving.

How do you think we can encourage women to become allies in this larger fight to improve the lives of all women?

KP: I like to think that women and men too will understand that we are one society in the end. We are a very rich country and it’s in everyone’s interest that everyone has what they need to flourish, that there’s decently paid work for people, that there’s housing, nourishing food, good schools, and that men and women have children when they are ready to raise those children, not when they are unprepared or overwhelmed. It’s so self-evident. We used to be closer to this ideal, yet we’re moving away from it. It’s very disturbing. 

Our publisher, Jewish Women International, avidly advocates for VAWA and women’s economic security. How are these things tied in with reproductive choice issue? 

KP: The same people in Congress who are against reproductive rights are against VAWA, against paid parental leave, against the Equal Pay Act, and even against food stamps. You look around the country and see that the 20 plus states that have not accepted the Medicaid expansion, which would help millions of poor women who make just a little too much to qualify under Medicaid, are controlled by Republican conservatives. These things all go together. 

In the introduction of your book you state that your great-grandmother died of an abortion after bearing nine children. How did you learn about that?

KP: It was a family story that I only found out about recently, within the last 10 years. That was back in Belarus during World War I. It’s so ridiculous that people think that abortion began with Roe v. Wade in 1973. Abortion began thousands of years ago and was very common, although not always safe, in America before it was legalized.

Katha Pollitt (photo by Christina Pabst)

Katha Pollitt (photo by Christina Pabst)