The day after publishing this post, I feel I must add a small caveat. I’ve realized since reading the book and writing this review that Katha Pollitt is opposed to the usage of gender-inclusionary language surrounding abortion. While she did not use gender-inclusionary language in the book, I tried my best to use it in my review when I could. Pollitt goes further into her justification for this in this article, but I urge you to read this response article by physician Cheryl Chastine explaining why Pollitt is not justified in excluding non-cisgender people from her abortion arguments. Chastine did an amazing job. In giving cisgender women the right to bodily autonomy, we do not need to be erasing people with diverse gender identities from claiming that same right.
After owning the book for over two years, this week I finally stopped procrastinating reading Katha Pollitt’s 2014 persuasive powerhouse of a book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. Ironically, my timing had nothing to do with the recent “heartbeat bill” in Texas, but the urgency that the bill caused definitely lit a fire under me to enthusiastically jump into the book. If you want the context around the pro-choice argument, then I can’t recommend Pro enough.
The rhetoric surrounding abortion almost always concerns whether or not one can consider it murder, depending on whether or not an embryo or fetus is a person. Since this makes it such a delicate subject, it can be really difficult to see past this part of the argument. Granted, the issue that a lot of abortion opponents have with abortion is that we tend to look past their accusation of it being murder and consider abortion in other sociopolitical and cultural contexts. If this frustrates you, I urge you to still listen to my exploration of Pollitt’s arguments. If you really believe that abortion is murder, then they probably won’t convince you, but at least you will have the surrounding context, whether you want it or not.
In fact, Pollitt’s examination of what abortion means for people who can become pregnant (other than the usual mantra of it being our bodies, our choices) rather than erasing the women to see just the fetus inside them is a take that I’ve rarely seen but that I think is extremely important. If we take a moment—just a moment—to look not at the fetus, but at the adult carrying it, then we actually gain the full much-needed picture.
A lot of the perspectives Pollitt offered were new to me. To be honest with you, I am still reckoning with what she said. I identified as “pro-life” (which I wholeheartedly believe is an intentionally manipulative misnomer) only less than about four years ago. (This post was the first time I mentioned it on my blog, and even then you can see that I reluctantly admitted to being barely pro-choice.) Hearing for my whole life that abortion is murder has had an effect on me, and it’s a journey I’m still on.
In a post that I am still very proud of, almost one year ago I made the case for why it is best that abortion is legal. I didn’t comment then on whether the act of getting an abortion was “moral” or not, but the stated assumption was that “the goal is to reduce abortions and save as many lives as possible.” My general argument was that accessible contraception, sex education, and healthcare will reduce unwanted pregnancies which will reduce abortions. I also included examples of women who needed abortions to save their lives, especially when their pregnancies were nonviable.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with these life-of-the-mother examples, but what Pollitt opened my eyes to is that while yes, we do need to work on making contraception available, there will always be people who need abortions. No matter what. Amazingly, sometimes people need them even when they’re not dying! Maybe they just want to be able to go on with the life that they’ve spent however many decades building for themselves, and they don’t want to lose it all just because they had sex.
Throughout Pro, the arguments almost always came back to one simple thing: access to abortion is part of women’s sexual freedom. And by examining the greater context of the anti-abortion movement’s opinions on things like IVF, single motherhood, women’s careers, and women’s sexual autonomy, Pollitt was able to expose the fact that it’s not even always the loss of an embryo or fetus that the abortion opponents hate, it’s the thought that women can have sex with whomever they want, even—gasp!—outside of a heterosexual marriage, without “consequences”.
Sooner or later, the case against abortion rights always comes down to sex. Sex and women.
. . . [Abortion opponents] have to argue that when a woman has sex she is contracting to carry any resultant pregnancy to term, no matter what. But who says sex implies this contract and that it can never be qualified or broken? With whom does the woman make this contract? The not-yet-existent fertilized egg? The man with her in bed? Nature? God? And who says there is a contract in the first place? And why does this contract to give life at the expense of one’s own body place no demands on the man? And why does it end at birth? The notion of sex as a contract is just another way of asserting that women shouldn’t be sexual beings—even with their husbands—except on those rare occasions when they wish to conceive a child.Katha Pollitt, Pro, p 91
There are a lot of great points in this book, which is only a little over 200 pages. I’m sharing the link to buy it on Thriftbooks, because it is old enough that it’s only a couple of dollars (or, of course, for free from your local library). I really do recommend that you read it for yourself. Pollitt goes into so much more than I’ve even touched on here: pronatalism, adoption, crisis pregnancy centers, poverty, racism, welfare, politics, religion, and more!
To me, this book entirely reframes the way we look at abortion. Pollitt argues that we need to stop picturing people who seek abortions as confused, or sluts, or even bad people. That women should have the autonomy to be in control not only of their wombs but their entire life trajectories, even when they’re not at risk of death. That it would be a beautiful thing to see any and all mothers with their children and know that that child was wanted: a choice that their mother actively made. That all children were intentionally created and brought into families that had all of the love and resources needed to give them fulfilling lives.
For those who are troubled by America’s high abortion rate, the good news is that we already know what will lower it: more feminism. More justice. More equality. More freedom. More respect. Women should have what they need both to avoid unwanted pregnancy and childbirth and to have wanted children. . . .
. . . But even in feminist heaven, there will be abortion, as there is in even the most prosperous, enlightened countries in the world. Because life will always be complicated, there is no perfect contraception, and there are no perfect people, either. We need to be able to say that is all right.Katha Pollitt, Pro, p 218