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Prochoice Puritans | The Nation

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Prochoice Puritans

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Do you think abortion is tragic and terrible and wrong, that Roe v. Wade went too far and that the prochoice movement is elitist, unfeeling, overbearing, overreaching and quite possibly dead? In the current debate over abortion, that makes you a prochoicer. As the nation passes the thirty-third anniversary of Roe, it is hard to find anyone who will say a good word in public for abortion rights, let alone for abortion itself. Abortion has become a bit like flag-burning--something that offends all right-thinking people but needs to be legal for reasons of abstract principle ("choice"). Unwanted pregnancy has become like, I don't know, smoking crack: the mark of a weak, undisciplined person of the lower orders.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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On the New York Times op-ed page, William Saletan argues that prochoicers should concede that "abortion is bad, and the ideal number of abortions is zero," and calls for "an explicit pro-choice war on the abortion rate." Sounding a "clear anti-abortion message," prochoicers should promote a basket of "solutions" to unintended pregnancy: the Prevention First Act, which calls for federal funding for family planning programs; expanded access to health insurance and emergency contraception; comprehensive sex education. "Some pro-choice activists" are even "pushing for more contraceptive diligence in the abortion counseling process, especially on the part of those women who come back for a second abortion." Give those sluts the lecture they deserve.

Saletan is a very shrewd analyst of political framing. Indeed, plenty of Democrats have already picked up the "I hate abortion" mantra. I seem always to be reading calls from prochoicers to antichoicers to work together on contraception. Calling their bluff sounds so clever. Why isn't it working?

The problem is, although of course many abortion opponents support birth control, the organized antichoice movement hates it. To the movement, the most effective birth control methods--the Pill, emergency contraception, the IUD--are "abortifacients" and "mini-abortions," and even barrier methods like the condom promote a "contraceptive mentality": a selfish, licentious attitude that leads straight to abortion hell. Wherever antichoicers have political power, they've slashed funds for family-planning clinics, passed laws enabling pharmacists to deny women EC and the Pill and promoted abstinence-only sex ed that tells kids condoms don't work. In 2003 the Republican-controlled Missouri state legislature handed over the entire state family-planning budget for poor women to "abortion alternatives" centers. Among antichoicers, the political will to mount a significant public-health campaign for contraception, safe sex and accurate information simply does not exist. Democrats for Life of America is pushing "95-10," a plan they claim would reduce abortions by 95 percent in ten years. It doesn't even mention birth control. And that's the liberals!

And there's another problem, too. Inevitably, attacking abortion as a great evil means attacking providers and patients. If abortion is so bad, why not stigmatize the doctors who perform them? Deny the clinic a permit in your town? Make women feel guilty and ashamed for choosing it and make them sweat so they won't screw up again? Ironically, improvements in contraception have made unwanted pregnancy look more like a personal failing. "Why was I so careful? Because I never wanted to have an abortion," wrote 32-year-old Laurie Gigliotti in response to Saletan's op-ed, describing her super-vigilant approach to safe sex. You can just see how unwanted pregnancy will join obesity and smoking as unacceptable behavior in polite society. But how is all this censoriousness supposed to help women control their fertility? If half of all pregnancies are unplanned, it doesn't make sense to treat them as individual sins.

Fact is, there will never be zero abortions. Half the women who abort are using birth control already--there are no perfect methods or perfect people, except maybe Laurie Gigliotti. Even in small, tidy, prosperous Sweden and the Netherlands, there are abortions. So how can there be zero abortions in America, with our ramshackle healthcare system, our millions of poor people, our high school graduates who can't even read a prescription information sheet?

The trouble with thinking in terms of zero abortions is that you make abortion so hateful you do the antichoicers' work for them. You accept that the zygote/embryo/fetus has some kind of claim to be born. You start making madonna-whore distinctions. In the New York Times Magazine Eyal Press, a contributing writer to this magazine, writes of his father, a heroically brave and dedicated abortion doctor: "Had the women...been free-love advocates for whom the procedure seemed a mere matter of convenience, he would not have been so angry" at the antichoice protesters who hounded him and his patients. Why not? Because a sexy single woman should suffer for not suffering? Nobody's proposing the walk of shame for men who don't or won't use condoms, or stern lectures for them in the clinic waiting room either.

In 1989 a number of polls asked respondents whether abortion should be legal or not depending on the reason for seeking it. After life/health, rape/incest and fetal deformity, majorities of Americans disapproved of every reason on the list: can't afford a child (40 percent approval), too many children (40 percent), emotional strain (35 percent), to finish school (28 percent), not married (25 percent). Assuming opinion hasn't drastically changed, most Americans think women should be denied abortions for the reasons the vast majority of procedures are performed. They think women should carry unwanted children to term, even if they can't support them, have no partner, have to drop out of school, shortchange their other children or can't cope emotionally. Now, maybe those respondents don't really want abortion to be illegal so much as they want to express their disapproval.

Either way, these answers don't suggest to me that injecting more antiabortion moralism into the debate will help keep abortion legal and accessible. I'd say it is too moralistic already.

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