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Katha Pollitt Is Trying to Remove the Stigma of Abortion

"It's part of reproductive life and I think that we need to say that and stop saying it's the most agonizing decision a woman ever makes. Sometimes it is an agonizing decision, but a lot of times it's not."

Photo via Flickr user Elvert Barnes

By any measure, abortion is an extremely common medical procedure. In the US alone, there were over a million abortions in 2011 (the latest year for which figures are available). While the abortion rate is at its lowest level since 1973, it is estimated that three in ten women will terminate a pregnancy before the age of 45, despite opposition in the form of deceptive "crisis pregnancy centers," legal restrictions that serve no medical purpose, and threats of murder or outright terrorism in some cases.

It's not surprising that many people who don't want to see all abortion clinics shut down have bought into a few of the assumptions of the pro-life movement. The result is what we have today: a situation where a majority of people believe abortion should be mostly legal but frowned upon.

It is precisely those people that Katha Pollitt, columnist for The Nation, wants to speak to in her new book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, which came out just as the Supreme Court intervened to halt a new Texas law that would close all but eight of the state's abortion clinics. Pollitt not only lays out in extraordinary detail her opposition to a wide array of anti-abortion advocacy, but also takes the additional step of making her case for why abortion is a good thing. I reached out to her to find out more.

VICE: Unlike many other pro-choice advocates, you say abortion is a social good. Can you explain that?
Katha Pollitt: What I try to do in the book is to put abortion into the context of motherhood and society. And I say it is a good thing for society that children are born at a time when a woman-and the man, if there is one-are able to best take care of them. And society also benefits when women who are currently unbelievably hampered in every area of life when they become mothers can express all their talents and gifts and make a good life for themselves and the people in their families. Right now, what [the anti-abortion movement] says is, "Oh, you got accidentally pregnant? You have to have a baby." "Oh, you have a baby? Well, that's not my problem." The anti-choice movement would make women's entire lives dependent on a stray sperm. She gets accidentally pregnant-which is half of all pregnancies in this country-and then we say, "Well, too bad."

Do you think that people have an accurate picture of women who have abortions?
People don't think a lot really about the situations of women. And they have very stereotypical ideas about who has abortions. You know: It's the teenage slut, it's the irresponsible welfare queen, it's the cold-hearted career woman who hates children, and so on. They don't really picture the full situation.

What do you say to those who might dismiss the abortion debate as a "culture war" issue?
"Culture war" is about culture-pornography, or what books should be in the school library, or whether Harry Potter promotes witchcraft. But this is an issue that goes right to heart of whether women can ever be equal to men. Whether they can have the basic autonomies we give to men to decide what goes on in their bodies and what risks they're going to take. What physical, emotional, and social risks they're going to take. Basically it's about making sure that women don't remain vulnerable to pregnancy from their first period to their last period. 

Photo courtesy of Katha Pollitt

You have a chapter called "Are Women People?" Do you believe the anti-abortion movement denies women their humanity?
To me, that is the central issue. I think that if you say that at any moment in life a woman can be compelled, because of an accident, because of a failed condom, or she got carried away and, my God, had sex without protection-that this should derail her life. You can see how it basically means what she wants to do with her life is really not important. 

On the other hand, it seems that the fetus is afforded the status of "person" by many opponents of abortion. Why is that?
Because I think at bottom, the anti-abortion movement is motivated by those patriarchal religions like the Catholic Church and Evangelical Fundamentalist Christianity that believe that women should pay for having sex. That sex is connected to reproduction and the burden should be borne by women.

Is there a non-religious opposition to abortion that stands out to you?
Since you raise the question: libertarians. Abortion restrictions are the only restriction on people's liberty that some libertarians like. For example, Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan. It's like, "You can do anything you want... except have an abortion." No small government there. And if you think about it, let's say abortion was banned or very severely restricted. Think of the law enforcement apparatus that would be required to actually make it a reality that a woman could not get an abortion. They would have to be arresting people all the time. They would have to build many new prisons for all those women and all those doctors and nurses. And it would have to be illegal to give someone money knowing that that's what they were going to do with it. I can't give you money and say, "Please take this money and go buy me some heroin." You know? And I should mention that a lot of libertarians are pro-choice precisely because they understand that this is a liberty. I went to the March for Life in Washington the last two years and there are libertarians there explaining why women have every right except for that.

What does the pro-choice movement need to do that it's not doing right now?
I think the pro-choice movement needs to talk more about women's lives and how ridiculous it is to expect women to give birth to every fertilized egg that finds its way into their bodies. They need to talk more about the way in which abortion is part of the fabric of American life and the fabric of family life. It's not something that women decide in isolation. One in five pregnancies ends in abortion. When you put it that way, you can't really see it as something that is performed by deviants or confused or selfish women. It's part of reproductive life and I think that we need to say that and stop saying it's the most agonizing decision a woman ever makes. Sometimes it is an agonizing decision and but a lot of times it's not. We've been chasing the framing of the other side. They say that abortion is terrible and women are too confused to make the decision. We say that abortion is terrible but we think women aren't too confused, they've thought about it really hard. It doesn't put you in a good position to support access, availability, government funding, etc. 

It sounds like you don't think compromise has served pro-choice advocates well.
No, I don't think compromise has served the pro-choice movement well. Because the compromises for the anti-choicers are just baby steps on the way to what they really want. 

And you don't see a lot of compromise from the other side.
Well, that's it. They say, "We should have common ground, we should come together." Try asking them how they feel about making all methods of birth control free and available. There's one [abortion] clinic in Mississippi; someone could say that's a compromise. Well, they're trying to get rid of that one clinic. They're not interested in compromise. They're interested in winning. 

Seems like this book is your way of trying to get the pro-choice side more interested in winning as well.
Yeah. I think that we have to recover our mojo and our moxie, and I'm happy to say I'm not the only person who's saying it. What really gives me heart is we're beginning to see a turnaround because things have gone so far in the wrong direction. I think young women are becoming very interested in this issue. We're seeing some very, very creative organizing and a lot is happening online. There are several websites now-One in Three Campaign is one, Not Alone is another-where women tell their abortion stories. The more talk there is, the more it will be de-stigmatized. And I think that really, the opposition to abortion that isn't specifically religious boils down to the stigma that the anti-abortion movement has placed on both the procedure and on women who seek it. 

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