Pro-Choice Without Apology, with Katha Pollitt

October 22, 2014

Given the divisive nature of the debates over abortion, the subject is understandably not the best table-talk material. But despite the fact that abortion is normal and often necessary (one in three women will have an abortion before menopause), even those who are staunchly pro-choice feel compelled to hedge their support by making sounds about how abortions are “horrible” and “unfortunate.” When both sides of the controversy associate abortions as immoral and shameful, much of the conversation ground is yielded to anti-abortion advocates.

This week on Point of Inquiry, columnist and activist Katha Pollitt discusses her new book, Pro: Reclaiming Reproductive Rights. With clinics closing at record high rates, unapologetically reclaiming women’s reproductive rights may be the best way to keep the conversation — and the clinics — open.

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, October 21st, 2014. 

Hello and welcome to a point of inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is Katha Pollitt. Feminist, intellectual and award winning opinion columnist. Katherine is a crusader for secularism and the rights of nonbelievers. She’s been a featured speaker at CeaseFire’s Women in Secularism Conference, and she was one of the only pundits to sound the alarm about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The love that ultimately brought us the Hobby Lobby decision. 

She’s here to talk about her new book, Pro Reclaiming Abortion Rights. The book has a provocative thesis that abortion is a positive social good rather than a necessary evil. 

Abortion has been legal in the United States for over 40 years, but a woman’s right to choose has never been more contested. A series of Supreme Court decisions has eroded that right. Scores of state laws have reduced access for millions of women, and then choices are fine tuning their legal strategy to overturn Roe once and for all. 

Welcome to the program. 

Oh, thanks for having me. 

What made you think that now was a good time to write a manifesto about abortion rights? 

Well, look how things have been going, you know, for a number of years now. But picking up terrible speed since the Republicans scored some successes in the 2010 and then 2012 elections. But beyond that, I think the anti choice rhetoric has been so successful in kind of demobilizing and depressed people on the pro-choice side. And we’ve started using some of the language and themes of the other side, which is really, you know, what the book is about that. What’s wrong with doing that? What’s wrong with always saying, yes, abortion is terrible, but it should be legal because when you have two sides and one is saying abortion is terrible, let’s ban it. And the other side says, oh, abortion is terrible. Let’s keep it legal. 

Why do you think pro-choice has fallen into the habit of only talking about abortion as a necessary evil? 

They’ve adopted a reactive and defensive stance, so they’re always chasing the arguments of the other side. So, for example, the other side says women have abortions because they’re frivolous. They’re confused. They haven’t thought it through. And that’s why we need to have all kinds of restrictions that slow the process down. Then the pro-choice side says, no, no, women think this through very carefully. It’s an agonizing decision for them. It’s the hardest decision they’ll ever make. And what they mean to do is say, yes, women do deliberate. Women are morally serious agents. But what they’re really saying is every time a woman gets trying, then even if motherhood is the farthest thing from her mind before that happens, she’s really seriously going to think about having a baby. And that’s just one step away from saying and she should seriously think about having that baby. And I don’t agree with that. 

So the idea that all women would be inherently ambivalent about whether or not to get an abortion sort of presupposes that all women always at least sort of want to have a baby boy girl. 

Exactly. Exactly. And that’s what the meme that the anti-abortion people rely on that. Yes. Having a baby is always the right thing to do. And, you know, because you’re a woman and because motherhood is your basic nature, what do you have that baby? It’s gonna be great. 

They really think that pro-choice rhetoric used to focus on women’s freedom and equality. I feel like that’s gotten pushed aside somewhat as pro-choice rhetoric has become more reactive. 

Yes, I think that’s true. And you know, where you really see that is with the related, although not identical discussion about birth control. That first control is often defended as if it was an acne medication. It. And we’re always saying that all the wonderful things birth control does for well, for acne or for variances or for many, many other medical problems. And that’s all true. But the real reason why we call it birth control is not because it’s a skin medication. It’s because it helps women have sex without fear of pregnancy. That’s what it’s about. And that’s why it changed American life. It’s not because we have wonderful complexions now. So I think that, you know, there’s a reluctance to come right out and say that because America is so crazy when it comes to everything having to do with sex. And there are definitely people who think, well, yeah, contraception allows women to have sex without fear of pregnancy. And that’s a terrible thing. We need to put that fear back in there. 

In the book, you write a lot about how the anti choice movement focuses on the supposed value of the embryo or fetus, but that their actual arguments when you break them down, show that they’re more concerned about judging women’s sexual choices. 

Well, I think that’s true. I mean, there is a small but. Very, very vocal minority of Americans who oppose abortion for any reason whatsoever, even to save a woman’s life. And certainly they would not say if you’re pregnant because of rape, you should be allowed to have an abortion. But that’s a small minority. Most people who are very. Squeamish about abortion. I think that there’s too much of it may think that it’s about the personhood of the fertilized egg, embryo and fetus. But really, it’s about the woman. And the way you can tell is that they would allow abortion for rape, for example, but not for voluntary sex. So there the moral status of the fertilized embryo and fetus is is the same no matter how it got in there. Right. But what’s different is how it got in there. And if it’s not the woman’s, quote, fault, unquote, she gets to have an abortion. Another way you can tell is that they don’t oppose fertility medicine. Now, in in vitro fertilization, many, many fertilized eggs are discarded or they’re frozen and they’re left in their little snowfall forever. But you don’t see. Anything like the last bastion of fertility medicine that you see about abortion, that’s because it’s not it’s a fertilized egg. And like, it is not in the woman. So it is not in the woman. It doesn’t have the same status. If it’s killed while the woman is trying to get pregnant, that’s one thing. And if it’s failed because she doesn’t want to be pregnant, that’s another thing. 

Should the pro-choice movement take the fight to the anti’s and say you’re the enemies of women’s freedom. You don’t want women to fulfill their dreams, explore their sexuality or plan their families. Should we put that on the table? 

Yes. I think we should. And I think another thing we should say, and this is kind of the underlying message of pro reclaiming abortion, right, is that abortion is a family value, abortion less. It’s not just that. It allows women to have the best lives that they’re able to have. It’s it allows this to man and also to children and to families. I mean, when women are expected to have these random pregnancies, whenever they happen to get pregnant and then deal with the results as best they can, because it’s not as if our society is going to help them a whole lot, then you’re really setting people up for unhappiness and for for poverty, for curtailed education and for overburdened families. And that’s not a good thing for anybody. 

People always ask, what about the moral status of the embryo or fetus? Do you think there’s anything to be said about that? 

Well, I talk a lot about the personal argument. There’s a whole chapter devoted to that. And what I think is that Roe v. Wade represents a very good compromise on this issue, because between the rights of women and the developing rights of the unborn, it’s ridiculous to say that a fertilized egg or or a zygote or of an early embryo is a person. It doesn’t have any of the qualities that that go with what being a person is. For example, it has no self-consciousness. It has no fertilized egg. So arms or legs or head, it has no brain. It has no heart. It has nothing. That is part of being a person. It has no social relations and that some, you know, variations of that remain true for a long time. But what Roe v. Wade does is it says, look, once to see, you know, after 24 ways and the third trimester with the fetus is kind of viable and then it does deserve it does deserve protection, except it can never trump the interests of the fetus, can never trump the right of the woman to life and to health and safety. And I think that that is a very reasonable compromise that doesn’t satisfy a lot of pro-choice groups. But given the immense division in the country over this issue, it would be good to stick to Roe. But unfortunately, Roe has been incredibly compromised. Now you have 20 week bans. You have no such denials of access to women. That pushes them over that line and they’re unable to get a termination. And that’s not right. 

One thing I think a lot of people don’t know is that the majority of abortions, about 65 percent, are performed before the pregnancy even produces a fetus. We’re talking about embryos here. 

Well, it’s true. And, you know, 90 percent of abortions take place in the first trimester. And I think a little more than half take place before eight weeks so that the majority of abortions do take place before there is a fetus. And I, I joke in the book that, you know, if we if they had to talk about the embryo, right. And this would be the right to life of the embryo, they would have gotten a lot less traction with the public because embryo really doesn’t sound like a baby and fetus does sound much more like a baby. 

Is this really a religious argument? The only way I can see someone putting any moral value on an embryo to the extent that it would force a woman to be pregnant is if you believed in some kind of insulin. 

You know, it’s interesting. A lot of people don’t know this, but the official the truly official Catholic dogma about when the soul enters the being, the unborn being is that we don’t really know. And that makes sense. How could we possibly know? But we have to air on the side that it happens right away. And so most Catholic teaching on the subway is it now is that it happens right away. But the truth is, what they really say is that we don’t really know. And I think that’s very interesting. I mean, you know, if we don’t really know, then why so keen to make a rule about it? 

So they’re saying air on the side of something that may or may not have a soul. And we know for a fact that women have souls. 

Exactly. Women have souls. We know that. But, you know, the other thing is, is. Talk about religion, you really have to kind of talk about all religions that can’t just be the loudest ones. And in Judaism, for example, the fetus becomes a person when it is born and takes a breath. So up until then, it has moral value. It’s not. I mean, in duty to do that. All kinds of different teachings about abortion, but it’s not a person. And that makes a real difference. It does not have a legal right and it does not have legal rights that equal to or surpass the woman’s right. For example, in Judaism, abortion is mandatory if a woman’s life is at stake because her life is the one that is already here. So if we’re going to talk about religion, why not talk about that? 

A lot of people say that nobody is pro-abortion. Do you think that’s an accurate statement? 

I think it’s accurate that a lot of people say that. But I think that, again, that was intended to say, yes, we are morally serious here on the pro choice side. It’s not that we think women should have abortions. 

They’re really saying that women shouldn’t get abortions for their own sake or get pregnant just to have an abortion right now. 

That’s ridiculous. That’s the other thing. It’s like who would get pregnant to have an abortion? That makes no sense at all. But I think that to say no one’s no one’s in favor of abortion, I don’t I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think there are times when there are plenty of times when abortion is probably the most sensible thing to do and the least causing a pain to anybody. And in fact, I would say that that’s pretty much always true when a woman wants an abortion. That’s a very good reason to have one. 

Some pro-choice who say they can’t embrace abortion as a social good because it would have been better to prevent those unplanned pregnancies with birth control. 

Well, yeah, I think that it’s better to use birth control than to have an abortion. It’s much less stressful on your body. It’s much less given the way we think about abortion. It’s probably going to be a much easier thing to use birth control than to go through an abortion. And in much of the country, abortion is pretty much unavailable now. So I’m all in favor of that. Let’s blanket the nation and birth control. That’s great. But what you find is the same people who are against abortion are against birth control, too. In fact, now the anti-abortion movement is busy redefining as many methods of birth control as they can as abortion. So, you know, now the idea is an abortion, emergency contraception as abortion that they’re calling the pill baby. Cast aside chemical abortion. So, you know, that also lets you see that abortion is not really the act. The act of abortion is not the only thing that they’re about. They’re also about pushing sex back into a box where if you have sex, you’ve kind of signed a contract to be nine months later. 

Birth control and abortion are really part of a unified system that enables women to have sex without having babies. Every good safety system has redundancy built into it. I mean, we’re all pro airbags in cars. It’s important to drive safely and wear your seatbelt. But you also want that airbag. And sure, it would’ve been better if the driver hadn’t hit that patch of black ice. But hurray for the airbag. When we think about the benefits of airbags, it’s not just a benefit to the individuals whose lives are saved in the crash. It’s the benefit everyone on the road to the security and peace of mind that we all have knowing that option is there if we need it. 

Well, exactly. I mean, you could think of abortion, abortion as a backup, abortion as a backup when your birth control fails. Abortion is a backup when you didn’t use birth control. It’s a backup in all kinds of situations. For example, rape. And instead, what we have is this mad willingness to think that there is some way we could get rid of abortion completely. And each of these ideas is put forward as a total solution. For example, emergency contraception that was going to solve the whole problem. Right. Could just if you forgot your birth control, if you were raped or whatever your birth control failed, you could just take a pill and problem, solve the same problem. Show up with emergency contraception to show up with everything else. 

It’s up not 100. Doesn’t work on two percent. It’s not that easy to get. First, the government and now some pharmacists put up all kinds of obstacles to getting it. So everything helps a little bit, but it’s not the total solution. 

And people who are asking women to rely solely on birth control are basically saying that if women want to be sexually active or if they’re raped, they’re at risk of having their lives derailed. Each year there’s a twelve percent typical failure rate for the use of condoms and a nine percent typical use failure rate for the pill. It’s Russian roulette, isn’t it? 

Oh, yeah. I mean, when you consider that one in. Three American women will have had at least one abortion by menopause. That tells you that abortion is really an integral part of the fertility control that women exercise over the course of a very long reproductive life. You know, you have to you have to prevent pregnancy pretty much unless you’re trying to get pregnant for those months. And when you are president, you are trying to prevent pregnancy every month from, you know, fifteen or sixteen to forty five. And, you know, women, we hear so much about infertility, we can forget how fertile women are there plenty of women who have abortions because they got pregnant once they thought they were through with all that. So they were in their 40s and they weren’t through anymore, but haha they were. So I really think to say, yes, this birth control, but a person us doesn’t work, you’re out of luck is not going to be a good answer to the problem of unwanted fertility. 

Let’s talk a little bit about the reproductive justice movement, which is obviously had a major influence on your book. What are they bringing to the table in terms of what the term pro-choice means and what other issues we should be thinking about? 

Well, pro-choice says it’s up to you, the individual woman, to decide whether to have a baby or not. And that is crucial. It’s a crucial message because it could be the power where it belongs, the woman’s own decision. But the woman is not making this decision in a vacuum. And that’s what reproductive justice brings to the table, that we not only want women to be able not to have babies when they don’t want them, we want them to be able to have the babies that they want to have and to be able to take care of them well. Pro-Choice kind of stops at birth. But reproductive justice looks at motherhood in a more holistic way. And so it looks at, well, who can have as many kids as they want, who can’t? What happens when you have a baby and you don’t have money? And the reproductive justice framework? Let us think hard about what it means to be a mother in this country, which is which is so friendly to mothers and children. I mean, to a remarkable extent, when you consider where I think the only rich country that doesn’t have paid maternity leave, paid parental leave and we don’t have daycare. We’ve cut, cut, cut welfare and everything that helps poor women and children. And this is this is really shameful. 

So for those listeners who don’t know, the reproductive justice movement is a sister movement to the pro-choice movement, but it’s centered around the needs of women of color and poor women. Some of these activists think that pro-choice is alienating. People are focusing on the wrong thing. Do you think about that? 

Well, I am maybe one of the minority who like the term pro-choice, but mostly where you really see the attacks. That I think is a mistake is from the people who’ve been using it, like Planned Parenthood has now moved away from pro-choice, which has caused the anti choice people to say, you see, you see they know they’re losing. They’re desperately searching around for better messaging. And so what Planned Parenthood is doing is saying, you know, we want to put it to be more a matter of getting people to walk in another woman’s shoes to to see because people see that abortion isn’t black and white, it’s gray. Well, I don’t think it is gray. You know, I really see what. What does that mean? That means there are good abortions and bad abortions. Walking in someone’s shoes could mean yes. Now that I see what you’re going through, I understand your situation better and you’re making a decision that’s right for you. 

But it could also mean, hey, I walked in your shoes and I just don’t see what your problem is up through. Storytelling doesn’t necessarily mean that you approve of the person who’s telling the story, does it? 

It’s like Game of Thrones. I mention this because I know you’re a fan of the show, great storytelling, but we don’t actually want to be or identify with or approve of most of the characters. 

Well, yeah, exactly. And, you know, if you look at the comment threads on any articles, you’ll see all these people who can see exactly how they wouldn’t have ended up in that situation. They wouldn’t be great. They wouldn’t have been murdered. They would have lost all their money. How idiotic can that person be? That more on the same thing is true with abortion story. You can see why I didn’t use birth control. I would have used first. Why were you with that man? Why didn’t you why didn’t you get another job? That kind of thing. People can be incredibly touchy metal and knowing more about a situation doesn’t always make you less judgment, can make you even more judgmental than before. 

It seems paradoxical that some people feel alienated by the label of choice. I think everybody agrees that meaningful tourist presupposes a reasonable array of options to choose from. If your only options are abortion, adoption and destitution, you don’t have a real choice. The reproductive justice movement is saying that a real choice requires a modicum of financial security, social acceptance of single motherhood, and a society where you can raise kids of color and be confident that they’re not going to be scooped up arbitrarily by social services or steered into the prison industrial complex. 

Well, I think you’re right. I think to make a choice, you should see that in a broad context. I agree with that. What I wonder is how many women who have abortion really wanted to have that baby and how many are having that abortion because they didn’t have good birth control and sex education and enough autonomy in the whole part about getting pregnant in the first place. I mean, if you look at people who are in the middle class or even the upper class, they tend to have quite small families. Right. And they’re the people with the most ability to decide when and when not to get pregnant. So they make a decision pretty much. I don’t want to be pregnant. I want to have a small family when I’m ready and able to have it. And so I think, you know, there’s a little romanticism in the idea that if we have less poverty, those very same women would have more babies. I don’t think they would. I think they would have more birth control and they would have more reason to exercise a lot of control over their fertility before they got pregnant. But that’s just me. I mean, I’m not a social scientist. But that’s what I think. But nonetheless, there are probably there’s a lot of ambivalence in some women who are pregnant. 

And I think that whether or not that’s a thing. I don’t think we should have. Oh, yes. We need to have better care for mothers and we need to have better health care and more support for families so that there will be less abortion. I think we should do it no matter how much or how little abortion there should be, because we’re a rich country and we need the next generation and we need them to be raised well. And also, women have a lot to contribute besides being mothers. We need to support all of that. So I don’t think we need to tie abortion to support for mothers. But having said that, it is interesting that the people who are most anti-abortion variable least interested in doing anything for mothers. 

Until then, it seems like tying abortion to all these other things is good, not just because it might reduce the abortion rate, but also in the existential sense of giving all women of all races and classes true equal rights. 

Yes, I agree with that. I mean, and I don’t think I was at another program. Well, what if what if you believe that women should have every conceivable right that men have, that abortion should not be legal? Could you still be said to be a proponent of equality between the sexes? And I would say no, because basically you’re saying, well, men and women are completely equal, except in this an area where women are completely unequal. And so it’s sort of like they’re always going to be competing with one hand tied behind their back at any moment. They could get pregnant and be faced with either having an illegal abortion or having a baby. Well, they’re never going to be equal if that’s the way in which they’re not equal. They’re not going to be equal. 

Do you think the phrase trust women can encapsulate the moral seriousness with which women approach abortion without falling into the trap of authorizing it? 

I think this woman is a great slogan, and that was a button that Dr. George Tiller always wore. And he was killed because he trusted women. And I trust women. Doesn’t mean you think every woman is right in everything she does. It doesn’t happen. It’s not some mystical idea about the wonderfulness of women. But what it says is that women are the experts in their own lives and we trust them to make the best decision that they can. And who else? Who’s going to make a better decision? That’s the other thing. It’s like trust the state legislature. Trust your priest or your pastor. Trust the woman’s partner or her parents. Ultimately, she is the person who has to live with her decision. And so she is the person that needs to be trusted. 

What’s the way forward for the pro-choice movement? Can we get out of this defensive crouch in time? 

Well, here, I hope my book can be a little bit of a help. You know, I actually did write pro reclaiming abortion rights with the idea of helping to turn the conversation in a different way that I think we have to stop being so defensive. 

One thing women could do, which I think would really make a difference if they could talk about their own abortion. So many women have abortions and they put it behind them and they try their best not to think about it anymore. And they don’t tell anybody because of the tremendous stigma around it. But I think if a woman is in a position where she can safely talk about it, that could really be a help. Because, you know, most people know someone who’s had an abortion, but because of the stigma and the silence, they don’t necessarily know that they know. And it’s in that silence that all the stereotypes are where people think, oh, yeah, the woman who has an abortion, she’s the teenage slut. She’s the child hating, cold hearted career woman. She’s the welfare queen. But probably the person who had an abortion is is a friend, is a colleague, is a relative. And it would be good if people knew that the women who have abortions are ordinary American. 

And there’s this big confirmation bias that exists right now because the anti choice movement has been very effective at mobilizing women who feel that they do regret their abortions. So the average person gets a distorted view of what percentage of women actually do. 

Oh, totally. You know, groups like Rachel’s Vinyard that put together groups of women who regret their abortions and they they recite their speeches. You know, at anti choice rallies. And they go to state legislatures and they say, oh, this is why we need to have restrictions on abortion, because I had an abortion that I regret. I had an abortion and it ruined my life. Well, first of all, we don’t know that that’s true. It’s very easy to do something and then decide. That’s the reason everything in your life is for the next 30 years went wrong. But that doesn’t mean that’s really what happened, does it? I mean, usually you tend to have a lot of causes. 

It’s true. I mean, part of being a free form of religion is being able to make choices, some of which you might regret. 

Exactly. And the idea that because some people regret something that they did, it should be illegal for everybody. It’s kind of crazy. And, you know, I like to compare abortion to divorce in this regard. I mean, people have forth very easy to get a divorce in America. And that’s for a reason. And that’s because we decided as a society that the alternative of making it very hard to get a divorce caused a great deal of pain and suffering and disrespect for the law, too, because people found ways around those families. But anyway, some people are happier after their divorce. A few people are asked, do regret their divorce. An individual divorce could have a winner and a loser. It’s all very complicated. But we would never say, oh, here are can women who have for less than divorce. No. And the abortion is the same thing. There are people who regret having children. We would never say, oh, now nobody can have children because, you know, here are 10 women who are killed. 

So the reason this regret means has traction is because it looks women friendly. And for a long time, the anti choice movement was really all about these terrible floods, these murderers. She had an abortion so she could go to her prom. She had an abortion so she could take a European vacation. And this was not a winning rhetorical strategy because they sounded misogynistic and mean. So now is all we care so much that women we won protect them from making that terrible, terrible decision. But probably they’re being pushed into anyway, because in the stories that the women who regret their abortions tell it so, so often, the boyfriend or the parent or the really cruel and callous abortion clinic itself is somehow pushed them into having an abortion. It was never their own decision. 

And this regret meme has filtered all the way up to the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence mostly. 

This is so shocking. It’s one of many places where you realize that the law is not existing in a framework outside the rest of society because Justice Anthony Kennedy upheld. The federal partial birth abortion ban, which did not have a health exception for women. He upheld that flagrantly unconstitutional law, which completely violates Roe, which says you always have to have a health exception for the woman. 

He upheld it, saying, well, I understand that some women regret their abortion. And it’s a particularly horrible kind of abortion that they might regret this. And that would cause suffering. I think we should ban it. Nobody took a poll saying who regrets that? Or partial birth abortion and who doesn’t. 

It’s not a real thing. Well, it’s a it’s not a real it the whole thing was ridiculous. The whole thing with so many levels removed from the reality that it really is remarkable. 

But it’s a little bit like the Hobby Lobby decision where the CEO of Hobby Lobby secular craft company was allowed to deny health coverage of certain kinds of birth control because he personally decided that they were forms of abortion and this was against his religion. And I’m thinking, yeah, but they’re not for all. 

Scientific consensus negates what this guy believes. 

Yeah. So it was like. Right. You were right. You think you are getting back to secular, though? If you can slap a religious label on something, you can just do whatever you want. It seems as long as it involves limiting women’s rights, as long as you’re not a pagan in Oklahoma or anybody who isn’t part of a majority religion. 

Right. Right. Yes. And it was interesting that Samuel Alito, when he wrote the Hobby Lobby decision, basically pooh poohed the idea that it could be extended further to something like denying health coverage for blood transfusions because chuggers witnesses found that out. It’s just ridiculous. You know, that would never happen. But that’s really saying, yeah, because a man might need such a decision. So that’s important. That’s an important right. We need to preserve women’s rights, reproductive rights. 

Forget it. That’s all the time we have for today. Katha, thank you so much for coming on the show. Katha Pollitt? S new book is Pro Reclaiming Abortion Rights. Thanks so much for having me. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.