Adapted from Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, by Katha Pollitt, © 2014 by Katha Pollitt. Published October 14, 2014, by Picador USA. All rights reserved.
I never had an abortion, but my mother did. She didn’t tell me about it, but from what I pieced together after her death from a line in her FBI file—which my father, the old radical, had requested along with his own—it was in 1960, so like almost all abortions back then, it was illegal. The agent who kept her file wrote that she was in the care of a physician for gynecological problems that spring, which I like to think was his chivalrous way of protecting her from further investigation, but perhaps he too was in the dark and only put down what he knew. For a while I was angry at her, the way one is angry at the dead for keeping their secrets till it is too late to ask questions, and the way one can be angry at one’s mother for having a life outside her child’s ken. I thought she owed me this bit of woman-to-woman realism and honesty, instead of, or at least in addition to, tales of the nine marriage proposals she had received by the time she met my father, and falling in love with him at first sight, and eloping with him three months later when she had just turned 21. Knowing about her abortion might have helped me. It might have given me a truer sense of life as a young, very romantic woman who had no idea what was what.
When I ask myself why I have been so preoccupied with abortion rights for so long, I wonder if learning about my mother’s abortion—its illegality, the fact that she didn’t tell my father, the unknowability of her reasons or her feelings or the experience itself—is part of the answer. I find myself wondering: Was whoever performed the procedure a real doctor? Was he kind to her? Respectful? Did he do his best not to cause pain? Did she take someone with her? I remember her talking with her friend Judy about how another woman they knew had “had a D&C,” which was often a euphemism for abortion back then, so maybe her circle of women steered her to a good practitioner. Maybe her friend Judy sat in the waiting room—if there was a waiting room—and took her home in a taxi afterward and made her a cup of tea. I hope so. It would have been so wrong if my tender, fragile mother had had to go through that all by herself.
What did it mean that my mother had to break the law to end a pregnancy? It meant that America basically said to her: It’s the twentieth century, so we’re going to let you vote and go to college, and have a family and a job—not a great job, not the one you wanted, because unfortunately that job is for men—and your own charge accounts at Bonwit’s and Altman’s and your own subscription to the Heritage Book Club, but underneath all that normal, forward-looking, mid-twentieth-century middle-class New York life is the secret underground life of women, and that you must manage outside the law. If you are injured or die or are trapped by the police, you’ll only have yourself to blame, because the real reason you are here on Earth is to produce children, and you shirk that duty at your peril.
I wonder if my mother knew that her own grandmother died of an abortion after bearing nine children, back in Russia, during the First World War, or if her mother kept that family secret from her as she kept her secret from me.
Women’s lives are different now—so much so we’re in danger of forgetting how they used to be. Legalizing abortion didn’t just save women from death and injury and fear of arrest, didn’t just make it possible for women to commit to education and work and free them from shotgun marriages and too many kids. It changed how women saw themselves: as mothers by choice, not fate. As long as abortion is available to her, even a woman who thinks it is tantamount to murder is making a choice when she keeps a pregnancy. She may feel like she has to have that baby—Jesus or her parents or her boyfriend is telling her she has to do it. But actually, she doesn’t have to do it. She is choosing to have that baby. Roe v. Wade gave women a kind of existential freedom that is not always welcome—indeed, is sometimes quite painful—but that has become part of what women are.
One thing Roe v. Wade didn’t do, though, was make abortion private.
Sometimes I look up from reading about the latest onslaught against abortion rights—Texas legislators placed such onerous requirements on clinics that all but eight in the state were shut down before the Supreme Court intervened; Louisiana passed a similar law, now temporarily blocked by a judge; Missouri legislators have now required a seventy-two-hour waiting period for the state’s sole remaining clinic—and I think: How strange. Justice Harry Blackmun’s majority opinion in Roe v. Wade was all about privacy, but the most private parts of a woman’s body and the most private decisions she will ever make have never been more public. Everyone gets to weigh in—even, according to the five conservative Catholic men on the Supreme Court, her employer. If the CEO of the Hobby Lobby craft-store chain, a secular business, decides that emergency contraception and IUDs are “abortifacients” and banned by God, then he is entitled to keep them out of her health coverage—even though he’s wrong about how these methods work. It’s religion; facts don’t matter, especially when the facts involve women’s liberty.
Maybe Blackmun’s mistake was thinking that a woman could claim privacy as a right in the first place. A man’s home is his castle, but a woman’s body has never been wholly her own. Historically, it’s belonged to her nation, her community, her father, her family, her husband—in 1973, when Roe was decided, marital rape was legal in every state. Why shouldn’t her body belong to a fertilized egg as well? And if that egg has a right to live and grow in her body, why shouldn’t she be held legally responsible for its fate and be forced to have a cesarean if her doctor thinks it’s best, or be charged with a crime if she uses illegal drugs and delivers a stillborn or sick baby? Incidents like these have been happening all over the country for some time now. Denying women the right to end a pregnancy is the flip side of punishing women for their conduct during pregnancy—and even if not punishing, monitoring. In the spring of 2014, a law was proposed in the Kansas Legislature that would require doctors to report every miscarriage, no matter how early in the pregnancy. You would almost think the people who have always opposed women’s independence and full participation in society were still at it. They can’t push women all the way back, but they can use women’s bodies to keep them under surveillance and control.
That thought gives rise to a wish. Surely, I find myself daydreaming, there is something, some substance already in common use, that women could drink after sex, or at the end of the month, that would keep them unpregnant with no one the wiser. Something you could buy at the supermarket, or maybe several things you could mix together, items so safe and so ordinary they could never be banned, that you could prepare in your own home, that would flush your uterus and leave it pink and shiny and empty without you ever needing to know if you were pregnant or about to be. A brew of Earl Grey, Lapsang souchong and ground cardamom, say. Or Coca-Cola with a teaspoon of Nescafé and a dusting of cayenne pepper. Things you might have on your shelves right now, just waiting for some clever person to put them together, some stay-at-home mother with a chemistry degree rattling around her kitchen late at night.
Something like the herbal concoctions Jamaica Kincaid remembers from her childhood:
When I was a child, growing up on an island in the Caribbean, an island whose inhabitants were mostly descendants of people forcibly brought there from Africa, I noticed that from time to time my mother and her friends, all of them women, would gather together at some spot in our yard and talk and sip and drink some very dark hot drink that they had made from various leaves and bark of trees that they had gathered. Without them telling me anything directly, I came to understand that the potions they were drinking were meant to sweep their wombs clean of anything in it that would result in them being unable to manage the day-to-day working of their lives; that is, this clearing of their wombs was another form of house keeping.
* * *
Think of it: no pharmacist refusing to fill your prescription for birth control or Plan B; no religious fanatics following you through the clinic parking lot screaming “Baby killer!” and taking down your license-plate number, hoping to raise your blood pressure so high that you won’t be able to have your procedure that day; no need to notify your parents or get their permission. The whole elaborate panopticon that governs abortion today—gone. RU-486, the “French abortion pill” now better known as mifepristone, was supposed to accomplish that: Any doctor could prescribe it in his office and no one need be the wiser. A 1999 New York Times Magazine cover story called it “the little white bombshell” that “may well reconfigure the politics and perception of abortion,” pushing abortion earlier and reintegrating it with regular medical practice. It’s the age-old hope that a single technological or scientific advance will once and for all resolve a social issue, a fantasy that means forgetting that the new thing will be embedded in the existing system and involve the existing human beings. For a variety of reasons—difficulties obtaining the drug, laws that made medication abortions as heavily regulated as surgical ones, fear of abortion opponents—few doctors not already involved in abortion care took up the challenge of prescribing it. That women want early abortion, that many women prefer medication to surgery, that it would be a good thing to free women from having to run a gantlet of protesters—none of that mattered. What women want in their abortion care is simply not important.
“Trust Women” is a popular motto in the pro-choice movement. It sounds a little sentimental, doesn’t it? Part of that old sisterhood-is-powerful feminism it is fashionable to mock today. But “Trust Women” doesn’t mean that every woman is wise or good or has magical intuitive powers. It means that no one else can make a better decision, because no one else is living her life, and since she will have to live with that decision—not you, and not the state legislature or the Supreme Court—chances are she is doing her best in a tight spot. Dr. George Tiller, who provided abortion care in Wichita, Kansas, and was one of a handful of doctors to perform abortions after twenty-four weeks, wore a “Trust Women” button. Unlike the vast majority of Americans, he did not assume that a woman seeking an abortion late in pregnancy was lazy or stupid or too busy having sex to have attended to matters early on. He did not assume that her body ceased to be her own because she was pregnant. Well, you see what trusting women got him: In 2009, he was gunned down in church by Scott Roeder, a far-right Christian anti-government, anti-abortion activist, who thought he had the right to commit murder because, as he told a reporter, “preborn children’s lives were in imminent danger.”
When Roe v. Wade was wending its way through the courts and various states were reforming their abortion laws to permit abortion for rape, incest, fetal deformity and the like, the radical-feminist activist Lucinda Cisler, head of New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal, warned against half-measures that left women regulated by the state and the medical profession. She feared that qualifications of the essential right “would be extremely difficult to get judges and legislators to throw out later.” At one meeting, she held up a piece of paper representing the ideal abortion law. It was blank.
Cisler saw Roe v. Wade as a defeat, and maybe she was on to something, because what seemed at the time to be small details have proved to be critical fault lines. The extraordinary deference paid to physicians and their judgment preserved the idea that the woman’s desire to end a pregnancy was not enough in itself; it had to be approved by a respectable authority figure, at the time almost always a man. (Roe placed the medical profession under no burden to actually provide abortion care, and indeed few doctors and few hospitals want anything to do with it.) Furthermore, the acceptance of a near-total ban on later abortion contained the germ of the idea that the fetus had rights that trumped those of the woman. It isn’t hard to see how these small seeds blossomed into the whole infantilizing rigmarole we have today, which is all about disrespecting women’s capacity to make an independent judgment about their pregnancies: parental notification and consent, judicial bypass, waiting periods, crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), government-mandated scripts full of anti-abortion propaganda that doctors must read to patients, and so on.
But Cisler was wrong in a way, too: Had the Supreme Court agreed in 1973 that the proper abortion law was none at all, we would probably have ended up close to where we are today, because of the power and determination of the anti-abortion movement and the qualms and hesitations and lack of engagement of most who are nominally pro-choice. It is just that hard to see women as belonging to themselves.
And yet women keep trying. They put off the rent or the utilities to scrape together the $500 for a first-trimester abortion. They drive across whole states to get to a clinic and sleep in their cars because they can’t afford a motel. They do not do this because they are careless sluts or because they hate babies or because they fail to see clearly what their alternatives are. They see the alternatives all too clearly. We live, as Ellen Willis wrote, in a society that is “actively hostile to women’s ambitions for a better life. Under these conditions the unwillingly pregnant woman faces a terrifying loss of control over her fate.” Abortion, Willis argued, is an act of self-defense.
Perhaps we don’t see abortion that way because we don’t think women have the right to a self. They are supposed to live for others. Qualities that are seen as normal and desirable in men—ambition, confidence, outspokenness—are perceived as selfish and aggressive in women, especially when they have children. Perhaps that is why women’s privacy has so little purchase on the abortion debate: Only a self can have privacy.
And only a self can have equality. Many feminist legal scholars, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have argued that the Supreme Court should have legalized abortion on grounds of equality rather than privacy. Pregnancy and childbirth are not only physical and medical experiences, after all. They are also social experiences that, in modern America, just as when abortion was criminalized in the 1870s, serve to restrict women’s ability to participate in society on an equal footing with men. Would we be living in a different world today had Blackmun based abortion rights on the need to dismantle women’s subordination? Or would the same people who don’t accept women’s privacy rights say, “Well, if women can’t be equal without abortion, they’ll have to stay in their place”?
Reporters describe the return of illegal abortion in states where clinics have closed. In Texas, women in the Rio Grande Valley, now hundreds of miles from a clinic—no problem, said Judge Edith Jones of the Fifth Circuit, just drive fast—are crossing the Mexican border to buy misoprostol, which causes miscarriage and is sold over the counter there as an anti-ulcer medication. Even where abortion is available, some women won’t or can’t go to a clinic: They’re undocumented immigrants and fear arrest; they have no money; there’s too much shame around abortion to risk being seen by someone who knows them. But now, with clinics disappearing, more and more women will have no choice but to turn to pills, as women do in Ireland and other countries where it is illegal for a woman to end a pregnancy. Some will wind up in emergency rooms. Some will be injured. Some may die. This is what laws supposedly intended to protect women from “dangerous” clinics will have accomplished. This is what the so-called pro-life movement will have done for “life.”
A single discovery or invention rarely lives up to its promise of deep social change. Even the birth-control pill, an immense advance over the clumsy and fallible methods that preceded it, has fallen short: Half of all pregnancies in the United States are accidental. Still, I imagine my mother, sitting at the kitchen table in her pretty bathrobe with the blue and yellow flowers, on an ordinary day in 1960, cutting out articles from The New York Times as she loved to do. She lights a Benson & Hedges and sips her very dark, hot drink while the sun pours in through the window facing the street.
* * *
We need to put real women—women like my mother—back at the center of the way we talk about abortion. Abortion opponents have been very effective at shifting the focus of moral concern on to the contents of women’s wombs—even an unimplanted fertilized egg is a baby now. Unless they are very brave, women who seek abortions have been pushed back into the shadows. It’s one thing for a rape victim to speak up, or a woman with a wanted pregnancy that has turned into a medical catastrophe. But why can’t a woman just say, “This isn’t the right time for me”? Or “Two children (or one, or none) are enough”? Why must the woman apologize for not having a baby just because she happened to get pregnant? It’s as if we think motherhood is the default setting for a woman’s life from first period to menopause, and she needs a note from God not to say yes to every zygote that knocks on her door—even if, like most women who have abortions, including my mother, she already has children. There is deep contempt for women in that—and disregard for the seriousness of motherhood as well.
For many years, pundits dismissed the notion that abortion would ever be significantly restricted, and mocked as Chicken Littles those pro-choicers who warned that both rights and access were at risk—and contraception, too. The conventional wisdom held that the Republican Party would not risk waking the sleeping giant that is the middle-of-the-road, more-or-less-pro-choice voter. Now we are seeing that the Chicken Littles were right. Where is that giant? In some states, it is indeed stretching and standing up—Virginia is a blue state now because the Republicans in charge went too far, closing clinics, trying to mandate transvaginal ultrasounds and so on. In others, the giant dozes on, immobilized by conflicting, not-very-well-thought-out notions about women, sex, family, race, government, and a general sense that America is going down the drain.
Clinic doctors, nurses, directors and employees risk their lives to help women. Patient escorts, abortion-fund volunteers, bloggers, organizers, lawyers and thousands of other activists work tirelessly to keep abortion legal, expand access, change the discourse and sway the vote. But it’s the millions of pro-choice Americans who are so far uninvolved (and still complacent) that will ultimately decide the fate of legal abortion in this country.
It’s past time for the giant to rise.