Abortion as a Social Good: Author Katha Pollitt Pens New Vision for Pro-Choice Movement

October 16, 2014


Katha Pollitt

a columnist for The Nation magazine who has been writing about reproductive rights for decades. Her new book out this week is Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.

We look at a book out this week that offers a new vision for the pro-choice movement. In "Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights," Nation columnist Katha Pollitt dissects the logic behind the hundreds of abortion restrictions enacted over the past few years and shows that, at their core, they are not about safety, but about controlling women. In order to reverse the tide of eroding access, Pollitt concludes, the pro-choice movement must end the "awfulization" of abortion. She writes, "I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, as we turn now to our next guest. We continue to discuss the crisis in abortion access as we turn to a new book that offers a new vision for the pro-choice movement. It’s called Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. We’re joined by Katha Pollitt.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Why "Pro"?

KATHA POLLITT: Well, I chose that title because I wanted to make a positive case for abortion rights, as opposed to the negative case of "if abortion is illegal, women will die"—which is true. I wanted to talk about how abortion is part of what makes it possible for women to have a decent, reasonable life in which they have children when they’re ready to have them, and it’s good for everybody. It’s good for children to be wanted and to be well timed, and it’s good for men, too. We forget that. But when you have women having random—expected to have random children with random people, just because a stray sperm gets in their womb, this is not good for anybody.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Katha Pollitt, you say that you’ve addressed the book to those who are in the middle of the abortion debate here in the United States and, as you say, millions of Americans, more than half, who don’t want to ban abortion exactly, but don’t want it to be widely available, either. How do you explain that kind of middle space?

KATHA POLLITT: Well, I think abortion is very stigmatized. And it’s connected with ideas about women and sex, like you can have an abortion if you’ve been raped, but if you’ve had voluntary sex, too bad. You know, a lot of people feel that way. And most abortion in the United States is for social, economic and personal reasons. It’s not for the really hard cases. About maybe 10 percent is for rape and incest and medical catastrophes for the mother or the fetus. But most of it is because the woman is—she’s in school, she doesn’t have any money, she doesn’t have a partner, and she doesn’t want to be a single mother, and—you know, and reasons like that. But those reasons, which basically say this should be a woman’s decision, because having children when you want to have children is very important to women’s lives, that, I think, is a harder message for middle-of-the-road people to take in.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue to talk with Katha Pollitt about abortion as a moral right after this.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Last year, Planned Parenthood announced it was moving away from the term "pro-choice." It launched a campaign called "Not in Her Shoes" with this video message. While we wait for that SOT to come up, I’d like to ask you about your position on that, the language that’s been used in this debate in the U.S. They say, you know, "pro-choice," "anti-choice," as opposed to "pro-life," which is what most people who are opposed to abortion call the term.

KATHA POLLITT: Well, in my book, I don’t use the term "pro-life."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Right, exactly.

KATHA POLLITT: And I explain why I made that decision, which is, I think it’s a propagandistic word. They’re not pro-life. They’re anti-abortion. It’s a rare pro-lifer who is against the death penalty, who’s against all war, who favors, you know, all the things people need to flourish and stay healthy in life. They’ve tied themselves to the Republican Party, which doesn’t support any of that. So, I use the term "opponents of abortion," awkward as that is, and sometimes I use the term "anti-choice," although I tried not to do that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why did you not use that word?

KATHA POLLITT: I can’t remember why exactly. I think it is a term they find so offensive, and I didn’t want to sort of provide them with a hot-button issue. I wanted it to be sort of fair. And I think "pro-choice" is a fair term.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that Planned Parenthood clip that we have ready now, "Not in Her Shoes."

PLANNED PARENTHOOD AD: Most things in life aren’t simple, and that includes abortion. It’s personal. It can be complicated. And for many people, it’s not a black-and-white issue. So why do people try to label it like it is? "Pro-choice"? "Pro-life"? The truth is, these labels limit the conversation and simply don’t reflect how people actually feel about abortion. A majority of Americans believe abortion should remain safe and legal. Many just don’t use the words "pro-choice." They don’t necessarily identify as "pro-life" either. Truth is, they just don’t want to be labeled.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the "Not in Her Shoes" campaign of Planned Parenthood. Katha Pollitt, your response?

KATHA POLLITT: Well, I don’t—I’m not able to speak to whether people identify with labels or not, but I would say that when you say things are—it’s not black and white, it’s gray, and all like this, what you’re really—you’re putting it on the wrong footing, because it is black and white. What the right should be is a black-and-white issue. How people feel about it is something entirely different, it seems to me. And people can have all kinds of feelings about abortion. They can think, "My abortion really saved my life," "My abortion made me sad," "Someone else’s abortion makes me angry." But what the law should be is not to be decided by individuals’ feelings about it. This is a question of rights.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about your own mother in the book.

KATHA POLLITT: Yes. My mother had an illegal abortion in 1960, which was the year the birth control pill came out, but I guess a little late for her, but—and I never knew. I found out when my father, after her death, got her FBI file. And that—


KATHA POLLITT: Yes, and this tells you something about illegal abortion. The FBI knew. You know, isn’t that kind of amazing? They knew that she—you know, what was going on with her gynecologically. That’s a kind of scary thought. So, you know, not only did my mother have an abortion, my great-grandmother had an abortion, and this was during World War I back in Russia. And I think in the book I say she had had eight children by then, but my cousin tells me it was nine children. So this tells you how embedded in women’s reproductive lives is abortion. It goes back 4,000 years, anthropologists tell us. It is not some newfangled innovation that came in after Roe v. Wade.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, earlier this year, Emily Letts, an abortion counselor at a clinic in New Jersey, filmed her own abortion and posted it online. In the video, which went viral, she explained her reasons for wanting to share her story publicly.

EMILY LETTS: I feel like I talk to women all the time, and they’re like, "Of course everyone feels bad about this. Of course every woman is going to feel guilty," as if it’s a given how people should feel about this, that what they’re doing is wrong. I don’t feel like a bad person. I don’t feel sad. I feel in awe of the fact that I can make a baby, I can make a life. I knew that what I was going to do is right, because it was right for me and no one else.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s Emily Letts, who filmed her own abortion and posted it online. Katha Pollitt, you talk about the stigmatization of abortion leading to the criminalization of abortion. Could you elaborate on that?

KATHA POLLITT: Yeah, well, I want to just point out that my great-grandmother died of that abortion. That’s a sort of important piece of the story. And that’s what happens when abortion is illegal and you don’t get good medical care.

About the stigmatization of abortion, I feel that when we talk about abortion—"it should be safe, legal and rare," which is how Hillary Clinton put it and how the Democratic Party often frames it, and/or "it’s the most difficult decision a woman makes," you know, "it’s also terrible and agonizing"— you’re kind of conceding a lot to the people who say, "Yes, it is a terrible decision, it should be rare, let’s make it illegal, let’s make it really hard to get." It’s very hard to say, "Here’s this terrible thing you’re going to do, so we have to keep it legal, so you won’t do it illegally." That’s not a ringing cry that will rally people to the truth, which is: Abortion is a part of reproductive life, women’s reproductive lives. One in three American women will have an abortion by menopause. Sixty percent are already mothers. You know, so this picture we have of it’s the slutty teenager, it’s the cold-hearted, child-hating career woman, this is completely false. That’s not the typical abortion patient.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s sort of the point of Obvious Child, the feature film that’s out.


AMY GOODMAN: But I wanted to ask you about reproductive justice, a framework—


AMY GOODMAN: —founded by women of color, which uses the lens of human rights to look at the right to parent and raise children in a healthy environment, as well as the right to abortion. This is longtime activist Loretta Ross talking about reproductive justice in an interview for the PBS series Makers.

LORETTA ROSS: We kind of spliced reproductive rights and social justice together to come up with the term "reproductive justice," which was a human rights way of looking at the totality of women’s life, so that that question of "Will I keep my job if I become pregnant or decide to become a mother?" is not irrelevant anymore, or "Do I have healthcare?" is not irrelevant anymore to the abortion decision.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Loretta Justice [sic], the Atlanta, Georgia, activist—rather, Loretta Ross. Talk about reproductive justice.

KATHA POLLITT: Well, I think reproductive justice is great. I wish it had a few fewer syllables. You know, "I’m pro-reproductive justice" is a little awkward. But it’s exactly right. It’s that the abortion decision is made in a social context, and the childbearing decision is also made in a social context. And we should have a society where a woman who doesn’t want to stay pregnant can do that, and a woman who wants to have a baby and raise that baby well can do that, too. You know, we—it’s like what we do in this society is we say, "Oh, you’re pregnant; you have to have a baby. Oh, you have a baby; well, screw you. You know, why did you do that?" And we do so little to help mothers and children and families in this society. We don’t even have paid maternity leave. So, women are really left to carry, often alone, the tremendous burden of producing and raising the next generation. Well, what kind of a society does that? That’s really crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with our last headline today about Anita Sarkeesian, who’s been forced to cancel a planned talk in Utah—

KATHA POLLITT: So shocking.

AMY GOODMAN: —after threats of a shooting massacre. She was deeply concerned that the university would not ban people from the talk carrying in guns. How safe do you think women are in this country now expressing their views around equality and reproductive rights?

KATHA POLLITT: Well, I think that there are risks. We see that with this whole "Gamergate" thing. That’s the most obvious way right now. But look, the anti-abortion people have killed people. Now, they killed doctors and healthcare providers, but, you know, it’s been tremendously discouraging to the whole abortion community to think, "Yes, if I perform this necessary service that women want and need, I could be murdered." That’s what we’ve come to in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Katha Pollitt, we want to thank you for being with us. Her new book is called Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, as she sets off for her tour around the country to talk about these issues.

Well, on Monday, Democracy Now! co-host Juan González speaks in Columbus at Ohio State University at 1:00 p.m. Tuesday, I’ll be in Purchase, New York, speaking at Manhattanville College at 7:00 p.m. You can check our website for details.

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