Illustrated by Shawna Huang.
Americans often assume that a Democrat in the White House means abortion rights are safe, but recent years have certainly taught us that this is not the case. Instead, attacks on the right to choose have been growing in intensity since 2010, when the anti-choice strategy of working on the state level paid off with a clutch of Republicans being elected to the statehouse in places like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Virginia. They promised jobs but delivered, instead, a record number of restrictions on abortion access.
From the beginning of 2011 to the summer of 2014, according to The Guttmacher Institute, states have adopted 226 new laws that ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, that require an ultrasound before the procedure, or otherwise make it more arduous, more time-consuming, and more expensive to get an abortion. Just recently, on October 2, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted a stay on Texas's draconian HB2, which has led, over the past year, to the shuttering of all but eight abortion clinics in the massive state. The Huffington Post ran a map of the clinics under the headline “Abortion Access in Texas Now Only for the Wealthy.”
The situation is dire, and it has often seemed that the mainstream pro-choice institutions are not up to the challenge of fighting it. Tepid arguments for “reframing” abortion and “action alert” emails talking vaguely about “women's health” will not stop a movement determined to chip away at access to abortion, birth control, and any other form of control that people may have over their reproductive and sexual lives. And, the people, as noted above, who face the greatest hardship from these cuts are low-income, rural women who cannot afford the travel and additional procedures made necessary by these restrictions. The connection between low wages and attacks on reproductive choice and healthcare was made even more explicit this year when the Supreme Court gave Hobby Lobby and other supposedly religious “closely held” corporations the right to refuse to provide birth control in their employees' health care plans, as if we didn't already know that this was always about power and work.
It is past time for a revived, unapologetic and unified abortion rights movement that understands abortion as a social good, that understands it in the context of economic rights and freedoms as well as healthcare, and that is connected to other struggles for justice and equality across the United States.
Into this space steps Katha Pollitt, award-winning columnist at The Nation (full disclosure: I am a regular contributor to The Nation), with her new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. Pollitt aims to shake up our discourse and to “put real women...back at the center of the way we talk about abortion.” She challenges pro-choice organizations to see abortion as a positive social good rather than something to be euphemised away, and challenges American society to take a hard look at its treatment of motherhood and childbirth. Our values about abortion, Pollitt says, are deeply connected to the way we value (or don't value) women.
Pollitt is at her best when she is passionately arguing for women's right to control their own lives. Pro begins with a fierce critique of the way the pro-choice infrastructure has shied away from the word abortion itself and has allowed the anti-abortion crowd to shape the discourse — and to leave pregnant people out of it entirely, focusing instead on those endlessly lovable fetuses and their “right to life.” It ends with an equally powerful call to understand abortion not as some singular culture-war issue but as one part of a struggle for women to be able to live full, complete lives, and for the reproductive labor that is still done mostly by women to be understood as something that benefits all of society and is deserving of respect and (financial) support. “What if we respected pregnancy and childbirth as major physical, psychological, and economic events — as work?” she writes. “There's a reason they call childbirth labor.”
But, who is Pollitt speaking to? Anti-abortion activists probably won't touch her book with a 10-foot pole (though no doubt they will do much excoriating of it). The most likely readers of a pro-choice book by a famed feminist columnist will not need as much convincing as the central chapters of Pro dish out, repeating arguments against restricting abortion that are not new, though they are well-phrased. Abortion rights activists often face the problem of trying to please too many constituencies, tacking to the right with arguments like “safe, legal and rare” that Pollitt rightly excoriates for giving up too much ground. The book is at its best when she is calling on activists to worry less about mollifying those who are easily scared away by radical arguments. It drags in the middle, where it too often feels repetitive rather than challenging.
Much of today's activism can feel disconnected from the past, unaware of a history where, as Pollitt notes, “Abortion was legal when the Declaration of Independence declared that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were inalienable rights endowed by the Creator,” or even of the recent past where activists turned up to disrupt a panel on abortion that was composed of all men and one nun. A better connection to our history would be helpful, if only to understand that the way things are now is not at all the way things have always been.
Also necessary is a better understanding of who the enemy is. Who is funding the antis? Who lobbies for laws like HR2 in Texas? Pollitt brushes up against but never quite answers these questions, leaving them hanging.
There is, of course, an ongoing movement struggling around reproductive rights in this country, one that may not make many headlines but has nevertheless made its presence felt in recent years. Particularly worth discussing is reproductive justice, a framework created by women-of-color activists that has already been doing much of what Pollitt seems to want: situating pregnancy and childbirth in the middle of a broader social-justice movement that fights against criminalization of poor parents and for their right to parent or not parent in safety and support. Reproductive justice sees the shackling of pregnant women in prison, the deaths of black youth at the hands of the police, and the rights of trans people and people in the sex trades as connected struggles. As Monica Simpson of SisterSong Reproductive Justice wrote in a recent open letter to Planned Parenthood, “Over the past 20 years, RJ activists have changed the trajectory of the pro-choice movement and helped to inform and expand the analysis of reproductive issues in ways that are more inclusive of the lived experience of all marginalized communities that contribute significantly to major organizing and political victories.”
The Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR) was at the center of the fight that turned back several attempts to pass “fetal personhood” bills in Colorado. In Mississippi, SisterSong and other reproductive justice advocates worked with organizers fighting a voter ID bill and managed to stop a personhood bill in that state (though the voter ID bill did pass). In response to racist billboards declaring that “The Most Dangerous Place for a Black/Latino Child is in the Mother’s Womb” going up in many states, reproductive justice advocates organized, got billboards removed, and formed the Trust Black Women Partnership to be ready for such attacks in the future.
These stories and others — like the activists in Virginia who stopped a bill that would have required a transvaginal ultrasound before abortion, or the Texan women who stood in line until the wee hours of the morning in a “People's Filibuster” that set the stage for legislator (now candidate for governor) Wendy Davis to take her famous stand — are worth highlighting because it is possible to fight back and win. Change will not come from reframing our arguments alone. It will come from many more people joining a revitalized movement that is able, as Pollitt argues, to stop conceding territory and, yes, demand abortion be part of any true struggle for social justice.