Katha Pollitt is a longtime columnist at The Nation, where her funny and sharp editorials have won her awards and much acclaim. She's also a celebrated poet. This week she has a new book out, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. It's getting raves everywhere.
Pollitt begins her book by talking about how she learned her mother had had an abortion, and then never spoke of it to her daughter. She regrets that. "Knowing about her abortion might have helped me. It might have given me a truer sense of life as a young, very romantic woman who had no idea what was what."
From there unfurls a thoughtful, funny, and informed refutation of every stupid thing the anti-choicers have ever said. (And they have said a lot of stupid things — one of my favorites Pollitt highlights is the CDC recommending that all women practice "preconception care" basically from puberty to menopause.)
Pollitt spoke to Gawker by phone about why she thinks abortion is actually a "social good."
It must be interesting to have your book come out at this particular moment, where we're about to have a pretty big public fight about abortion rights!
Yeah. It's either very fortunate or unfortunate, we'll find out! But you know, these issues have been building for a long time. It's just that right now, the whole threat to abortion has become so real that it's kind of broken through the usual complacency.
It does feel to me, covering it even a little for Gawker, that there is a growing amount of public anger about courts stepping in and closing abortion clinics.
Well, in the last two years, there have been over 200 abortion restrictions in the States, and I think this was a real wake-up call for a lot of people. Liberals, and pro-choice people in blue states, tend to focus on the federal government, and they forget that most of the anti-abortion rights action is taking place [at the state level]. So, you know, we think, "North Dakota? What do I know about North Dakota?" But eventually things that start out in small and rural states spread into more populous areas. And that's what we're seeing with Texas and also with Missouri, which has one clinic left.
And your book calls for us to start talking more openly about this stuff that we have been ignoring.
One of the things I find so interesting and heartening about the reception of the book is that it sparked women talking about their own abortions. I would never say, you know, if you're in any danger, or if you fear for your life, that you should [talk about it], but if you can, if you can do this, I think you can make a real difference.
We've fallen into the anti-abortion cliché of thinking of women who have abortions as slutty teenagers, cold-hearted career women, welfare queens, people too lazy to use birth control, and so forth. To have abortion put back into the ongoing reproductive lives of women, over the entire years of their fertility, is a wonderful thing. And now we can see that women who have abortions also have children. Women who have abortions are people you know. Because that is the truth! One in three American women will have an abortion by menopause. And most women who have abortions already have children.
As you were saying that I was thinking how similar it sounds to the rhetoric that has successfully encouraged gay rights and gay marriage in this country. The more people came to realize that they knew gay people, that gay people existed, it became harder and harder for people to cling to abstract positions about gay marriage. I wonder if the same success will come if people are more open about abortion.
I think it has to help. It's so true that that is what turned things around for gays and lesbians. When you know gay people as colleagues, and cousins… well, with gays also there are tremendous stereotypes. The more we can break down stereotypes around all stigmatized people and behaviours the better it is.
Right, and there are some other things your book is dismantling…
Like the notion that a fertilized egg is a person! And sometimes people believe something that's so strange it's hard for outsiders to take it seriously. So I have to say, yes, anti-abortion [campaigners] believe that a fertilized egg is equivalent to a four-year-old? Yes. They do believe that. It's a very very dangerous belief. And it's why there are several personhood amendments on the ballot this November – one in Colorado, one in North Dakota and one in Tennessee.
And these amendments would change the state constitutions to make the fertilized egg a person, and it would wreak all kinds of havoc.
I thought a really useful way of putting it, as you do in your book, is that actually the fertilized eggs would become super-persons.
They would be super-persons because they would require of women a kind of self-sacrifice that we don't ask parents of born children! We have to give her entire use of her body to this unborn being, when she doesn't have to do that – and the father certainly doesn't have to do that – to a born child!
We would never force parents to give a kidney to their child. We might think it's the right thing to do, and I'm sure almost every parent would be grateful if they could save their child by doing that. But we will never see the day when the police come and bring you to the hospital and tie you down to the operating table because the court says that this is what you have to do.
And yet, with pregnant women, we grant this extraordinary level of the person and denial of just normal human life.
And it really is about women specifically…
Yes! Yes! I'm getting all revved up here.
We do ask for child support [from men]. Although I might add, child support is impotant but it is the rare court-ordered child support that accounts for the full 50% cost of raising a child. And I just challenge people to think whether men who are equally responsible for a pregnancy have their lives disordered and damaged to anything like this extent! Do men drop out of college because they get someone pregnant? Do they quit their job if they get someone pregnant? No.
And we do not require men to support women they have made pregnant. Once the baby is born, there can be child support. Before that, though, no. There are women living in homeless shelters, who are pregnant. There are women living in their parental home and have to find shelter somewhere else.
And men do tend to walk away from the situation. I put out a call on Twitter and Facebook and email for women to tell me their stories about their abortions. And many women said, I told my boyfriend I was pregnant, and that was the last I ever heard of them.
What is the main message you want this book to send to pro-choicers?
Well, the heart of the book is the idea that abortion is actually a social good, because it allows people to have children when they are ready and able to be good parents. It is not a social good if women have random pregnancies, at random times in their lives, with random people, no matter what else is going on in their life.
We want to make sure that women have a way to use all their gifts in society, to get educated, to be all they can be in the workforce, to really develop as people in all the ways that they can. We want this for men too! And we want this for children. Well this can't happen if this can be sandbagged by an ill-timed and unwanted pregnancy.
And so you want to see women stop talking about abortion as a tragedy in their lives.
The ideal for abortion to be as Hilary Clinton and other Democrats have put it, "Safe, legal and rare," is actually stigmatizing. If by rare, you mean that we should blanket the land in birth control, yes, we should do that. But there's still going to be quite a lot of abortion. Because life is very complicated and messy and birth control has a failure rate.
And I don't think for a woman who wants to finish college that it is a difficult decision to make. I think for most women, that is not a difficult decision to make. And it is not thorny, vexed, and tragic. It is something that you have to do to continue on your path in life.
Have you seen Obvious Child?
Yes I have. I liked it, and I'm not a fan of rom-coms at all, I usually can't stand them. I like movies that are dark and depressing. I thought it was very well done. What I liked about it especially was the matter of fact way that the characters feel about the abortion. And you know, the character's starting off a new relationship, he's nice to her, he's taking care of her, and it isn't that her life is going to fall apart.
Which is different from the Juno paradigm.
You know, Juno was a very clever movie and Ellen Page was wonderful. But it was very pernicious in a way. Because first of all, it presented the abortion clinic as this really sketchy place, remember, with this bubblegum-popping receptionist handing out flavoured condoms. And I think that doesn't reflect reality.
It also presents adoption as kind of an adventurous, romantic, and in the end emotionally – I don't want to say cost-free, because she cries briefly, but she gets over it – low-cost thing to do. And we know that plenty of children who give up women for adoption are very very distressed by it. For years.
Another theme of anti-abortion coverage is, give the baby up for adoption, make another woman happy. Well, if a woman wants to do that, fine. But the idea that abortion is a problem, and adoption is the solution, is really the wrong way to look at it. First of all, if we did that, there would be a surplus of babies in about five minutes. There are not as many people who want to adopt as adoption organizations want you to think there are. But why should you have to go through this very physically serious, and emotionally serious, event of pregnancy and childbirth, in which many women die and many are injured and maimed?
Your tone in this book is so great. It's polemical (you're a great polemicist) but there's something both reasonable and funny about it.
The safe liberal way to talk about abortion is the pundit move: On the one hand this, and on the one hand that, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. And I don't think that that's true in this case. I don't think the opponents of abortion are half-right, and the proponents of legal abortion are half-wrong. I think the truth is pretty clearly on one side.
I saw an op-ed by Dana Milbank, who writes for the Washington Post. And he was saying, a pox on both your houses. He wrote that what both sides really needed was lots of birth control. And reading this, I'm thinking [sarcastically], "Yes, Planned Parenthood, why don't you provide birth control for people??" I mean, what planet is this man living on? Abortion opponents are the main reason it's hard to get birth control in this country. And abortion supporters are the people who want to blanket the country in birth control.
I wanted very much to resist that tone of fake reasonableness. I wanted to write a book that had something amusing and personal in the tone of it.