Katha Pollit on Abortion and Her Controversial New Book ‘Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights’


In Katha Pollitt’s new book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, the longtime poet, essayist, and columnist for The Nation turns her eye towards the state of abortion today in 2014. What she finds is stark. Forty years after Roe Vs. Wade, abortion is under attack — from the erosion of state laws to the closing of clinics to the wishy-washy language used even by so-called liberals (i.e. “Safe, legal, and rare.) In Pro, Pollitt argues for a new framework for abortion where it’s normalized, safe, and a humdrum part of women’s lives, in a world where women’s health — physically and economically — is prioritized. It’s a challenging, smart book, and it will change what you think about and talk about when the topic of abortion comes up. Over a coffee on the upper west side, I talked with Pollitt about her book and why we need to pay attention to the political attack on abortion.

Flavorwire: Who are you writing this book for?

Katha Pollitt: Well, you know, that’s interesting. I wanted to write a book that talked to people who weren’t totally, sternly pro-choice. People that don’t want it to be illegal completely, or they think there’s too much of it, or think maybe “Oh, these sluts today,” or they think “What’s wrong with the waiting period?” Stuff like that. I wanted to write a book that would get them to think about it.

I think what’s the problem with abortion today in America is that most people would really prefer to never think about it. It’s tough, it’s about sex, it’s about all kinds of private stuff, and it’s something they might someday need but that they don’t want to think they might someday need. It’s just a lot to talk about. And I think that the problem with that is that abortion is an issue that’s very much about law and public policy. And if people feel that they don’t want to engage with it, they’re leaving it open for people who want to ban it completely.

There’s a point where you talk about people’s stories around abortion. But a lot of the book is statistics-based, and really sort of an argument. And I was curious as to why you made those choices as a writer, to write something that’s more of an argument than someone’s personal story, as you clearly have experience with many sides.

Well, when something is about women, immediately personal stories come to the fore. And personal stories can often invite or result in a tremendous amount of hostile judgment. And, almost any story you can tell about abortion, the kinds of the people who write on the comments or websites, would be able to say, “No, why didn’t she marry her boyfriend?” or, “Why didn’t she escape from that abuser? Why didn’t she go to a crisis pregnancy center? Why didn’t she tell her parents?” They always have something that you should’ve done, that would explain how you could’ve done everything better, which is of course what they would’ve done, so they think. So, I think that telling stories is in some ways a very effective tool, because it gets people to think about things in more human terms. It doesn’t necessarily make the points you want to make.

Whereas, if you can point out that 60% of women who have abortions are people that are already mothers, this is something people don’t know. And this cuts right at the stereotype which is that a woman who has an abortion is either a slutty teen or a cold-hearted career woman. Not the reality, which is that a woman who has an abortion is a low-income mother, or a woman who already has five kids, you know?

Once you’ve said that, you’re also getting people to think about how making people look at the ultrasound is ridiculous. They’ve already seen ultrasounds. I had my daughter 27 years ago, and I saw an ultrasound. So 60% of these people have already seen an ultrasound, they know they’re not growing a honeydew melon in there. It’s demeaning to treat women who have chosen to have an abortion as if they don’t know the truth.

That’s one of the things that’s scary about Texas. Texas is one of those states that requires a speech before your abortion, correct?

A lot of states have speeches. And some of those states require doctors to read government written scripts that are falsehoods. “You’ll get breast cancer, mental illness, infertility, madness,” all kinds of things. It’s very demeaning to doctors as well. I keep wondering, when is the medical profession — which has been quite passive in all this — when are they going to wake up and see that their colleagues are really being treated like criminals here, and that the denial of abortion to so many women is really going to affect standard medicine in a big way. It’s going to affect doctors who don’t specialize in abortion, but “Oh my god, here’s my patient, what am I going to do now?” Oh, you have to wait 72 hours, you have to read her a script, et cetera, et cetera.

Do you think if we talked about the reasons people had abortions more, it wouldn’t be so hard for someone to maybe write something like an op-ed that said, “Hey I had an abortion because I couldn’t afford to have this baby.” Because I think it’s so politicized, I think that if someone wrote that they’d get buried in some way.

It’s kind of the same thing as gays and lesbians coming out. Before people came out, you didn’t know that you knew people who were not straight. So all kinds of stereotypes could flourish in that knowledge vacuum.

Once people started coming out, you could see that there were a lot of really nice people who were gay. Maybe someone in your family, someone in your office, it’s really not that big a deal. In a lot of ways the abortion situation and the gay situation are different, but I think that if different people could talk about it more openly, it would have to be good. There’s the difference too, obviously, that being gay is something that you are. You know, you wake up every day and you’re gay.

An abortion is an event. Most people try to put it behind them. So, I think it would really be good if people could talk more about abortion as a choice that they make. If they’re going to tell it through the medium of personal stories, the personal stories we have now are very disproportionately, “I had an abortion, it’s the worst thing I ever did, I really regret it, I should be protected from making this decision.”

I go every year to the Right to Life March in Washington, around the anniversary of Roe v Wade, and there are always these women, and I write about this in my book, and they stand up there and they read from these laminated cards, the story of their abortion. And the story of their abortion always is, “Someone pushed me into this. And it ruined my life. And now I’ve found Christ.” That’s always the story.

Those people go to state legislators in red states and they give politicians a way of saying, “Yes, we have to help these women by removing this terrible possibility that they might make this terrible mistake. We all have to protect them from their evil boyfriends, who all want to push them into this decision.” So, that’s another myth about abortion, the idea that it’s the parents or the boyfriend or the husband, and in fact, in one of the Dakotas, the argument in favor of passing a very extensive waiting period was directly related to false statistics about coercion.

What is up with Ireland? Abortion is completely illegal over there?

When I was in Ireland last spring, I met with an organization. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was pro-choice doctors. And I asked the same question. And he said, “Well, you might wonder why all these other Catholic countries have been able to make abortion illegal and Ireland hasn’t. And the difference is, we believe it.” And I think Ireland for a number of reasons is a very poor, kind of culturally isolated country. And the Catholic Church really got hold of the levers of politics and the levers of the social welfare system. And that’s when the Magdalene laundries started. I just read this — when Ireland became its own country, they didn’t have enough money to do all of the social welfare, they said, “OK, church, you do it.”

But anyway, the trouble with Ireland and why it’s not going to be easy to change the law is that it’s written in the constitution. It’s Article 8 that the unborn and the woman are of equal rights. So, that’s where you get their situations, and they wait and wait and wait, and they might wait too long, and the fetus dies and the mother dies.

In Ireland they’ll say, “We’re pure over here, you take your sin over there.” And it’s probably easier for a person in Ireland to get to the UK than it is for a person in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to get to an abortion clinic. Half the problem is — and it’s similar — is that, if you’re not a citizen, you don’t have the right papers. If you don’t have the money to travel, if you’re young — I’ve read people, women say, “I ran into someone I knew in the airport,” because they’re a tiny country, and they say, “Where are you going?” And it’s so shameful, that it isn’t a solution in that country.

Also, when something like abortion is tied with religiosity, there’s always that language, “A woman is going to have a certain amount of mental trauma. And we can’t let that happen.” So it’ll be illegal. I find that so offensive, and presumptuous, and trying to take ownership of something that’s a woman’s choice.

You know, the stuff about mental trauma, it’s dangerous — it’s a political dodge. If you go back, 20 or 30 years, they weren’t talking about that so much. “There’s that whore that wants to fit into her prom dress.” “There’s that slut who’s having an abortion so she can go on a European vacation. What a cold-hearted career woman.” But that didn’t go over very well, because it sounds so mean and misogynistic, and so they retooled and got this language of concern for the woman. So they’ll say, “There are two victims here.”

It’s justified trap laws where you have to completely renovate your abortion clinic to the tune of $1 million or $1.5 million. That is all justified on the basis of concerns for women’s health. That is the only thing that has really worked to make abortion truly inaccessible.

I wanted to talk about two more things. Laws are being hollowed out throughout the country, right? What do you think of that?

More and more restrictions in the last couple of years. Since the Republicans did so well in 2012, an enormous wave of anti-choice legislation has been proposed and enacted. In many, many, many states. We’re really moving in the wrong direction. Ten years ago, a third of American women lived in states where there were hostile abortion rights, a third lived in states that were in the middle, and a third lived in states that were pro choice.

Now it’s more than half of American women who live in states that are hostile to abortion rights. Take Missouri, for example. And Missouri is a big state with a lot of people in it. It’s not like North Dakota. Now there’s just one clinic in all of Missouri. And they just passed — over the democratic governor’s veto — a 72-hour waiting period, with no exceptions. So that means you have to get to St. Louis and then stay there for three days. It’s very hard to do — you’ve got kids, you’ve got jobs, you need a place to say — and all of these things are tremendous obstacles to women. And you know, Sandra Day O’Connor said, “Okay, you can have your waiting period if you don’t present an undue burden on the women.” We are so far beyond that undue burden now. Each of the restrictions by itself not be so huge, but if you add them all together, they are huge.

That makes me feel not optimistic.

At the end of my book, I like to leave a little hope with what they can do and all that, and I do think that pro-choicers are becoming more active. I think there has been a blasé attitude among them — not among activists of course, not among very political, feminist women — but among regular people who grew up pro-choice. I have people who say to me, “Well I’ll be able to get an abortion when I need it,” or, “I would never need an abortion.” “I live in New York, I live in Massachusetts,” and I think people are waking up a little bit to how close this is to them.

It’s interesting in the book when you talk about democratic and Hilary Clinton were like, “I don’t want anyone to have an abortion, it would be so bad, but I do want it to be legal.” There’s a certain amount of dancing you have to do to talk about it, even when you’re liberal.

Yeah, safe, legal, and rare is the Democratic motto. Although, they retired that for the last election, because as abortion becomes actually something people might vote about — although, there’s a huge majority of anti-choice people that vote on this issue — but as it becomes more politically salient, the Democrats want to wake up the pro-choicers to get those votes. So, that’s good. I think they realize it can win them votes, whereas ten years ago, after John Kerry lost, the conventional wisdom was “Oh, women don’t care about choice,” and obviously that’s not true.

Oh, women care.

Women care.