Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

by katha pollitt

picador, 272 pages, $25

It’s easy to be a charitable reader when you like what a writer is saying. It’s possible even when you don’t agree, if an author is temperate and thoughtful. It’s most difficult when the author is an ideologue who inhabits a cartoonish world. This describes Katha Pollitt, noted feminist and columnist for the Nation. For her, there are simply good guys and bad guys; and you, the reader of this review, are probably the bad guy.

The argument of her latest book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, is that conservative men and right-wing Christians are engaged in a systematic and intentional campaign to oppress women by placing limitations on the right to abortion. Because they want to “restrict sexual freedom, enforce sectarian religious views on a pluralistic society, and return women to traditional roles,” these enemies of progress are making it harder for women to get abortions. But the right to abortion, Pollitt argues, is essential for women’s liberation and fulfillment. And it isn’t shameful, or even morally ambiguous. It is a good that we ought to defend without blushing.

Pollitt realizes that she’s not going to persuade those who are “­frighteningly” religious, who live in the South, or who have doubts about the sexual revolution. She thus addresses readers who are either undecided or weakly pro-choice. Members of the latter group support abortion but may have moral intuitions against it. She calls both groups the “muddled middle,” and insists that they follow her through a series of arguments that focus on how the anti-abortion movement isn’t really about babies but about keeping women down and discouraging their expressions of sexuality. Here, she says to her readers: Let me tell you how things really are.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that ­Pollitt’s characterization of the pro-life position lacks both subtlety and intellectual humility. Even liberal reviewers have commented that the book reads like a collection of the greatest hits of 1970s women’s-­studies texts. She never bothers to consider whether people might have other reasons for opposing abortion, besides the antiwoman motives she blithely ascribes to them. What about all those women who oppose abortion? Are we just victims of the patriarchy, or possessed of a false consciousness?

She speaks directly to the insecurities of her readers, on the one hand, and to their intellectual laziness, on the other. If you haven’t thought carefully about abortion or have reflexively adopted the position held by everyone else at your elite liberal arts college, then this book comes as a godsend. Not sure where you really stand? Support abortion for rape victims but not sexually active college students? Think it’s a baby at six months but just a clump of cells at six weeks? Well, follow me, says Pollitt; I will clear up all these naive inconsistencies and demonstrate that the only logical path is to be confidently pro-choice.

We need, she writes, “to see abortion as an urgent practical decision that is just as moral as the decision to have a child—indeed, sometimes more moral.” It turns out that the anti-abortion movement in the United States isn’t really about defending life. It’s about “control,” and it treats women as “potting soil.” Pollitt is intent on hammering her point home, and anyone who attempts to see experience in its actual complexity will find her maddening.

And yet, it is worth trying to look past its flaws to see what is really driving the author. What is her vision of a flourishing life? What goods does she pursue? To follow R. G. Collingwood’s famous admonition, we should remember that a sympathetic, charitable reader “like a good listener, must be quiet in order to be attentive; able to refrain from obtruding his own thoughts, the better to apprehend those of the writer.”

Though she isn’t explicit about laying out her assumptions, Pollitt’s view of a thriving life for women consists of three primary goods: autonomy, equality, and sexual freedom. First, women must be able to control their lives by making autonomous choices, thereby enacting themselves as they see fit. Obviously, these choices include not just college major, career, and place of residence but decisions about one’s own body—whether to exercise, how to eat, with whom to have sexual relations, and, of course, how and when to become pregnant and whether to remain so.

The second good is equality. Few people in the present day would publicly question the moral or intellectual equality of men and women. But Pollitt calls for a more radical form of equality, arguing categorically that if men can do something, then women should be able to do it too, with exactly the same consequences. “We don’t like the idea that a man might be severely constrained for life by a single ejaculation,” she writes. “He has places to go and things to do.” And so do women. Thus it is unfair for women to be “severely constrained” by the pregnancy that might result from sex, when this simply can’t happen to men.

The final, crucial good that Pollitt advocates for women is sexual freedom, both inside and outside marriage. This follows logically from her assumptions about equality. If men are free to have sex without consequences, then women must be too. Only abortion (preferably without guilt) can guarantee this outcome. Anything less hinders women’s sexual freedom and, implicitly, their equality as well.

How should a reader assess this vision? I can certainly agree with Pollitt on the goods of autonomy and equality. Indeed, few parents or teachers today would tell a young woman that she isn’t allowed to make choices for herself, or pursue her career ambitions, or marry the man she loves. With respect to equality, young women now have unprecedented opportunities to work alongside and compete with the young men who are their peers. Far from being unequal, enrollment and admissions policies in colleges and professional schools often manifest a bias in favor of women, and women often out-achieve the men in their classes.

But the third piece of Pollitt’s puzzle throws everything into disarray. While there’s no doubt that some women desire the unhindered sexual freedom Pollitt calls for, others emphatically do not. And many who try it realize that it doesn’t make them happy in the ways they thought it would, or that Pollitt seems to promise. As one student put it very candidly to me, channeling Kant: “Yes, I want to have sex! But I want it with a man who will love me as an end, not as an expendable means to his pleasure.”

This demand for sexual freedom also requires an assumption that is at once utopian (for some) and horrifying (for others): that we can somehow make the differences between the sexes just go away. Caitlin Moran, a British feminist writer who shares Pollitt’s views, reports a comment her husband made about the difficulty of pregnancy, just before she underwent an abortion: “It seems wildly unfair that, for us to reproduce, you have to go through all this . . .”

While we may recognize this as a sympathetic husband trying to make his wife feel better, it’s also a symptom of an unwillingness to accept, much less embrace, the conditions of nature and biology that distinguish men and women. Along similar lines, Pollitt dreams of a homeopathic drug that will flush a woman’s uterus “and leave it pink and shiny and empty without you ever needing to know if you were pregnant or about to be.”

All of this strikes me as an attempt to remake women in the image of men. It aggressively fights against the biological reality that women’s bodies are made to conceive children. And it ignores the actual desires of a great many women, who not only want to nurture children but will even sacrifice for them, willingly giving up some of the independence and autonomy that Pollitt holds so dear. But for her, conception is the enemy, right up until the unencumbered self decides that she “wants one,” as if a child is like a Vitamix blender, purchased at last despite the cost.

I’ll admit it now looks like I’ve left behind my attempt at a charitable reading of Pollitt. And I have, because I think she gets women fundamentally wrong. It’s true that almost everyone desires some measure of autonomy, and perhaps a lot of it. Many women certainly want sexual freedom and the choice to have an abortion. Yet this is all currently within our grasp. It’s just that most of us don’t make that abortion decision easily. And many of us think it’s simply not a decision that should ever be made at all. This is the problem Pollitt wants to remedy.

If we are honest, we must face the facts, as Pollitt does not. She relies instead on what people say they think about abortion. To wit: If people say that abortion kills a human being, and yet support it in the case of rape or incest, they are either in favor of killing a human being (impossible!) or do not really think abortion is murder (correct!). Therefore, abortion doesn’t really kill a human being. It is a strange line of reasoning, to say the least, which relies on the inconsistencies in people’s views to prove a point about life and death.

Though she wants to advocate for abortion as a moral good, it is worth remembering what others have said quite frankly, and what most of us now know to be true: that “no matter how early” an abortion is performed, it is “taking a life.” These are not the words of some suspect religious conservative but of Margaret Sanger, writing in 1938. How much more apparent this is in the age of ultrasound.

Perhaps the best condemnation of Pollitt’s misguided attempt to call abortion simply good comes from fellow feminist Camille Paglia, also a supporter of the right to abortion. “I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful,” writes Paglia. “Liberals for the most part have shrunk from facing the ethical consequences of their embrace of abortion, which results in the ­annihilation of concrete individuals and not just clumps of insensate tissue.” Let us not shrink from facing this truth.  

Elizabeth C. Corey is associate professor of political science in the Honors Program at Baylor University.