I had an abortion. I was not in a libertine college-girl phase, although frankly it’s none of your business. I was already a mother of two, which puts me in the majority of American women who have abortions. Six out of 10 are mothers, which makes sense, because a mother could not fool herself into believing that having another baby was no big deal.
I start the story this way because Katha Pollitt, author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, would want it this way. In fact any woman who’s reading this piece and has had an abortion, or any man who has supported one, should go in the comments section and do the same thing, until there are so many accounts that the statement loses its shock value. Because frankly, in 2014, it should be no big deal that in a movie a young woman has an abortion and it’s no big deal. We shouldn’t need a book explaining why abortion rights are important. We should be over that by now.
The reason we’re not, according to Pollitt, is that we have all essentially been brainwashed by a small minority of pro-life activists. Only 7 to 20 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want to totally ban abortion, but that loud minority has beaten the rest of us into submission with their fetus posters and their absolutism and their infiltration of American politics. They have landed us in the era of the “awfulization” of abortion, Pollitt writes, where even pro-choicers are “falling all over themselves” to use words like “thorny,” “vexed,” “complex,” and “difficult” instead of doing what they should be doing, which is saying out loud that abortion is a positive social good.
Pollitt aims her book at the “muddled middle” who have been infected by the awfulization without thinking about it that much. To win them back she’s crafted a lengthy Socratic response dissecting the contradictions on the pro-life side. If you know Pollitt’s writing at all, it’s no surprise what she believes. But by the end of the book, it’s a surprise to realize that while the fight over abortion has been going on for more than 40 years, we’ve all forgotten what’s at stake. The left especially has lost sight of its original animating purpose.
In 2012 when the Susan G. Komen Foundation pulled funding from Planned Parenthood, Planned Parenthood responded by explaining that 90 percent of what it does is preventive care. Many writers sympathetic to Planned Parenthood repeated that line (including in Slate) without realizing how defensive it sounded. In the years since Roe v. Wade, in fact, the left has time and again signaled retreat—a point my colleague Will Saletan also emphasizes in his 2004 book, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War. “Safe, legal and rare,” “Permit but discourage”—these updated slogans have left the pro-choice side advocating the neurotic position that you can have an abortion but only if you feel “really really bad about it,” Pollitt writes.
The fog of regret has meant no one is able to confidently defend or even cleanly describe what’s actually going on: Three in 10 American women have abortions by the time they hit menopause. They are not generally victims of rape or incest, or in any pitiable situation from which they need to be rescued. They are making a reasonable and even admirable decision that they can’t raise a child at the moment. Is that so hard to say? As Pollitt puts it, “This is not the right time for me” should be reason enough. And saying that aloud would help push back against the lingering notion that it’s unnatural for a woman to choose herself over others.
Pollitt tests the logic of this position in many ways. She uses the simple principle advocated by U.K. feminist writer Caitlin Moran: “And are the men doing this, as well?” The answer there is, of course not. We would never expect a man to drop everything and accept a life of “dimmed hope” because of a single ejaculation. Then there’s the Europe comparison, especially useful when discussing matter of American sex. Europeans do in fact have stricter abortion cutoffs. In Germany, for example, it’s 12 weeks after conception. But those exist in a non-neurotic atmosphere, where the procedure is readily available at hospitals, where contraception is everywhere and encouraged, and where sex ed doesn’t teach abstinence. In the U.S., by contrast, the increasing restrictions and lack of access to abortion clinics, and the culture of shame and regret around sex, mean that many women—especially if they are poor or young or live in the South—end up waiting longer than they should, until they get desperate.
Pollitt spends significant energy dissecting the pro-life side’s contradictions. This largely involves explaining how the concept of personhood, when applied to a fetus, makes very little sense. She cites one poll for example showing that 38 percent of people say abortion is as “bad as killing a person already born.” But in the same poll 84 percent say it’s fine to save the life of a mother. If you really think about it, this position is untenable. No one would say it was fine to kill a toddler if the mother needed its heart. The pro-life position, she concludes, involves a reflexive moralism but doesn’t really reflect what people know to be true, which is that the fetus and the mother have a complicated relationship, unlike any other.
When writing about conservatives and especially pastors or priests, Pollitt tends to dismiss them as patriarchal or women-hating, which is fine but only gets you so far. Her book would be more convincing, and also strategically smarter, if she actually examined what’s happening on their turf. In the past 40 years, as the pro-life position has hardened, the American family has also been undergoing a tremendous shift. The most conservative parts of the country, the same ones that are likely to pass the most restrictive abortion laws, have seen a rise in single motherhood. The big secret, write Naomi Cahn and June Carbone in their story, “Did the Pro-Life Movement Lead to More Single Moms?” is that higher abortion rates correlate with greater commitment to traditional marriage.
If the pro-choice side wants to get some moral ground back, it could advocate for a more equal kind of family planning. Right now, college-educated women have babies when they are ready. They wait until they have a degree and they are usually married. Poor women, meanwhile, are what Isabel Sawhill, in her new book Generation Unbound, calls “drifters,” meaning they drift into parenthood without thinking about it that much. The result, argues Sawhill, is a new generation of women who are struggling and children who are growing up in poverty. Sawhill wants the left to pick up a “new ethic of responsible parenthood.” That means urging women to wait until they are a little more settled and can sustain a stable relationship before they have children. “The old social norm was: ‘Don’t have a child outside marriage,’ ” she writes in her New York Times op-ed. The new one needs to be: “Don’t have a child until you and your partner are ready to be parents.”
Sawhill talks mostly about birth control and especially IUDs, but abortion should also be part of the mix. The pro-choice side should be able to say that a poor or working-class woman getting an abortion is making a wise choice for her future. That way, the left would own not only gender and income equality, but also a new era of family values. They could claim that abortion is not a distraction from economic issues but that they are inextricably linked. And they could point out the pro-life side’s very weak response to the proliferation of young, struggling single mothers.
Pollitt mentions this briefly in Pro, referring to a cheery pamphlet put out by Feminists for Life called “Raising Kids on a Shoestring,” which suggests clipping coupons and growing herbs on the window. But Pollitt’s book is an enclosed universe. It’s essentially a reference encyclopedia of pro-choice arguments. You can imagine a college activist going to what she imagines will be a hostile rally with Pro in her backpack, its best arguments underlined in an angry red. In that way, the book is useful but limited. Pollitt believes the moral high ground is in reclaiming the right to have an abortion, regardless of the circumstances. In her book she starts to address the class and family questions but doesn’t get into them all that deeply. But paired with Sawhill, the argument is more powerful, a path from apologies to a new energized left.
Several years after I had the abortion, I had a third child. Part of me thinks the shadow aborted child stayed with me and created a space for the last one to be born. Does this mean I was plagued by abortion “regret,” as pro-life activists claim, or haunted by my decision? Of course not. I never felt like I had done something awful. The truth is, I hardly thought about it after I did it, because I was too busy working and raising two small children. Like Pollitt said about the pro-lifers, I recognize that the fetus and the mother have a complicated relationship without being able to fully articulate what that is. The aborted fetus hung around as a concept, nothing at all like the living children I already had. Having an abortion left me with a sense of what a great power it is to be able to give life but also a sense that I can trust myself to use it carefully.