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Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Posted on Oct 17, 2014

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To see long excerpts from “Pro” at Google Books, click here.

“Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights”
A book by Katha Pollitt

I still remember the day in 1973 that the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade, the decision that gave women the right to choose an abortion. I was thrilled that women would no longer risk their lives seeking illegal abortions. But I admit I felt anxious and ambivalent. The Supreme Court had acted before the nation had debated the issue. I feared that what the court gave, the court could take away. Still, it seemed like a miracle and I had seen no evidence that Congress had the political will to make abortion legal.

From that day on, opponents of abortion—which included Catholics, evangelicals and funders of right-wing politics—began organizing to repeal the court’s decision. By 1980, Republicans had turned abortion into a powerful wedge issue and for the first time inserted the repeal of the court’s decision into their party platform. Four years later, abortion became a litmus test for every national political candidate.

In her new book, “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights,” Katha Pollitt—poet, essayist and columnist for The Nation magazine—reminds us of what life was like before Roe v. Wade and critically examines the abortion wars that followed in its wake.

“We tend to forget that both Democrats and Republicans once supported abortion,” Pollitt writes. “Of the seven Supreme Court justices who made up the majority in Roe, five were nominated by a Republican president.” Feminist activists spoke up about their abortions and most described relief, not tormented lives filled with regret. The original feminist demand for legal abortion promoted a broad vision of women gaining control of their bodies, including their sexual freedom, choosing when or whether they wanted to be a mother and ending the poverty that so often kept a woman from having a child. Abortion, even when illegal, was a common event in women’s lives. 

It still is. “By menopause, 3 in 10 American women will have terminated at least one pregnancy, about half of all U.S. women who have an abortion have already had a prior abortion and 21 percent of pregnancies end in abortion. Contrary to the popular stereotype of abortion-seeking women as promiscuous teenagers, or child-hating professionals, around 6 in 10 women who have an abortion are already mothers.  And 7 in 10 are poor or low-income.” 

Pollitt reminds us that “abortion, in other words, is part of the fabric of American life, and yet it is arguably more stigmatized than it was when Roe was decided.”

Explaining why and how abortion became demonized is one reason she wrote “Pro.” Her goal is to address the “muddled middle,” those who may not be terribly concerned with abortion, and to encourage them, as well as activists, to reclaim feminists’ original sense of rights, without apology or shame. 

Pollitt is an equal opportunity critic. Part of her book is a brilliant attack against the “pro-life” movement and the strategic war it has waged against women and abortion. At the same time, she offers a frank and critical appraisal of the abortion rights movement and what it might have done differently.

In Pollitt’s view, the opponents were so successful because they changed the terms of public debate, just as they eliminated the estate tax by cleverly recasting it as a “death tax.”

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