A Woman’s Right at Risk: An Exchange With Katha Pollitt

Yesterday we published a review, which first appeared in the new online publication The National Book Review, by Dorothy Samuels of Katha Pollitt’s PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. What follows is a QA Samuels conducted with Pollitt to mark the release of PRO in paperback.

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Samuels: First, Katha, congratulations on PRO’s arrival in paperback. And thanks for having this back and forth with me.

To begin, I have a writerly question for you. As a fellow scribe, I’m curious about your dual identity. You’re a columnist, essayist and book author covering women’s rights and other popping social and political issues. Plus, you’re an award-winning poet.

It strikes me that you’re drawing on two very different sensibilities. Please talk some about how you navigate between them and your general work methods.

Pollitt: Short answer: I don’t navigate well at all; the nearest deadline always wins. My work methods: atrocious. For example, I’m answering your questions instead of writing my column. The Internet has destroyed my powers of concentration. Damn you, Twitter!

Samuels: When the hardback of PRO came out last year, the drive to hollow out abortion rights by stigmatizing the procedure and piling on onerous abortion restrictions, shrinking access, had already succeeded to an alarming degree, much as you detail in the book. The paperback has landed amid the new frenzy over the secretly-recorded Planned Parenthood videos.

Republican lawmakers appear to believe they now have adequate cover to press for ending Planned Parenthood’s federal funding without hurting themselves politically.

Are they right? What do you make of this new dynamic?

Pollitt: Planned Parenthood is a pretty popular organization. Way more popular than Congress! It claims that one in five women have received care from one of its clinics. And this care, despite what abortion opponents say, is excellent and not easily replaceable by “community health centers.” Texas tried it, and thousands of women went without care. It also disproportionately serves poor and low-income women.

What I am hearing is that the real danger is not federal defunding, but state-level defunding. That’s already happened in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and New Hampshire so far, with Utah probably next. And some states have been cutting funding for years now. Chris Christie cut the state family-planning budget and forced the closing of several Planned Parenthood clinics. And New Jersey is a blue state.

Samuels: One of your most striking insights in PRO relates to a core wonder of the abortion wars. Essentially, a small group of anti-abortion zealots, aided and abetted by Republican politicians, has succeeded in demonizing abortion and women who have them, even though about one-third of American women have at least one abortion prior to menopause, and most of them are already mothers.

How did it come to this? Was there a bad strategic decision, or series of them at some point by pro-choice forces? Was the pro-choice side simply overwhelmed by the greater focus and intensity of those working to end abortion rights? Were pro-choice leaders too complacent?

Pollitt: All of the above. Pro-choicers have been on the defensive virtually since the passage of Roe. The Hyde amendment, banning federal Medicaid funds for poor women’s abortions, was passed in 1976 and signed by President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, who memorably quoted JFK’s aphorism, “life isn’t fair.” Opposition to abortion was one of the ways the Christian right was brought into the Republican Party by conservatives hoping to move the party further right. Now, of course, the tail is wagging the dog.

Samuels: You urge in the book that abortion should be seen for what it is: A remarkably safe and common medical procedure, “an urgent practical decision,” and a normal part of being a woman. You also make the valid if provocative point that the choice to have an abortion “is just as moral as the decision to have a child — indeed, sometimes more moral.”

Could you expand on your morality argument? It’s a key part of your effort in PRO to get people to weigh the real-world consequences of the anti-choice stance.

Pollitt: I don’t believe abortion is murder, or even murder lite. Most Americans don’t believe that either, even if they think they do, because they make exceptions for rape, the life and health of the woman and grave fetal anomalies — exceptions that would not be possible if the embryo or fetus was really a person like you or me. I can’t kill you to save my life by taking your kidney. I can’t kill you if you are going to die soon anyway. So, in that sense, abortion is not immoral; there is no person there to be harmed.

I go further, though: I argue that abortion can be the moral choice. Women have moral duties to themselves and to other people — their other children, for example. If having another child means the other kids don’t get the care and support they need, why is it automatically considered the right motherly thing to add to the family because a condom breaks? Isn’t your first responsibility to the kids you already have? I think if women can manage to have their kids when they are best able to care for them, while also fulfilling a few of their own hopes and dreams, they are doing pretty well. Everyone will be happier if fewer women are tied to abusive men, drop out of school and live impoverished lives because of a random pregnancy.

Samuels: One of your stated aims in writing PRO was to convince the so far un-involved “middle-of-the-road more-or-less pro-choice voters” you dub the “muddled middle” to get off the sidelines and join in fighting the dismantling of abortion rights before it’s too late. In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, you referred specifically to the missing voices of women, declaring “the pro-choice movement cannot flourish if the mass of women it serves — that one in three (who have at least one abortion before menopause) look on as if the struggle has nothing to do with them.”

The clock is ticking. Do you detect any significant stirring?

Pollitt: Abortion stigma is unfortunately real, and it keeps many women from speaking up. But whether or not a woman goes public about her own abortion — and going public might just mean telling one person! — there is so much we can do, and by we I mean all pro-choice women, not just the ones who’ve ended a pregnancy (not all of whom are pro-choice, by the way). We can be politically active, we can talk about the issues in our own community, we can vote pro-choice, we can donate to Planned Parenthood and local abortion funds, which help low-income women pay for their abortion care (for a list, see www.fundabortionnow.org). If every woman who’s had an abortion, or gotten birth control (or a mammogram, or treatment for a STI, or a gyno checkup) from Planned Parenthood gave something back every year, the organization would be in great shape!

Samuels: And speaking of raised voices, I think Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood’s president, did a terrific job responding to the startling, selectively edited undercover video that launched the new assault — the one in which a Planned Parenthood doctor talks in a rather cavalier way about removing fetal body parts over lunch and a glass of wine. Richards apologized — correctly, in my view — for the doctor’s “tone and statements,” which were off-putting even to many devoted supporters of Planned Parenthood and abortion rights, including this one. She coupled the apology with a fierce defense of Planned Parenthood’s work and blunt talk about the real and very unpopular agenda of its stealthy attackers, namely “to ban abortion completely, and cut women off from care at Planned Parenthood and other women’s health centers,” going strongly on the offensive.

I’m interested in your take, Katha. All the more so in light of your critical comments in PRO about the “apologetic rhetoric” and narrow arguments deployed over the years by abortion rights advocates to help defeat a bad piece of legislation or other short-term gain.

Katha: I thought Cecile Richards handled the situation very well. Rationally, it shouldn’t matter how doctors talk in a private meeting — we all know they can sound cold and offhanded amongst themselves. But it’s important to acknowledge how disturbing the videos sounded to many, many people. The target of the videos, though, is not really fetal-tissue donation per se. It’s abortion. The point is to activate all the stereotypes: abortion is baby killing; providers are cruel and money-grubbing; women are dupes. Here I think the pro-choice movement has been reactive for too long.

As I write in PRO, we fight short-term battles using messages that encode the vision of the other side. For example, when abortion opponents say women need waiting periods because they’re acting on impulse, we say, oh no, they think it through: abortion is the most difficult, agonizing decision women ever make. Really? Every woman with an unwanted pregnancy seriously considers having a baby? When we talk this way, we unwittingly reinforce stigma. We’re saying a good woman agonizes, and if you didn’t there’s something wrong with you. Focusing on rape, incest and life-threatening pregnancies is another example. Of course we have to talk about these tragic situations, since abortion opponents want to force childbirth on even these women. But the vast majority of women who end pregnancies do so for personal and socioeconomic reasons. We can’t leave them out. Abortion is a normal part of female reproductive life.

Samuels: One consequence of your down-to-earth and relatable writing style and persona, I know, is that women often approach you on your travels to share their personal stories. Before this exchange ends, could you share the single most important takeaway for you from those encounters?

Pollitt: There is a huge reservoir of support for abortion rights from ordinary women. I hear all the time from women who had abortions and say it made possible the good life they went on to have. Social shaming silences too many. The pro-choice movement needs to find ways to make reproductive rights and reproductive justice a grassroots movement. The so-called pro-life movement is way ahead of us on that.

Samuels: Thanks so much again for fielding my questions, Katha. We’ve covered a lot of ground.

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