What will happen with contraception and abortion if John McCain wins the election? You wouldn’t think this would be such a puzzler. McCain has been in the Senate for a quarter of a century, after all, during which time he has voted against women controlling their own fertility nearly every chance he got. His campaign website prominently features a section called "Human Dignity and the Sanctity of Life," whose first heading is "Overturning Roe v. Wade." It states: "John McCain believes Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned, and as president he will nominate judges who understand that the courts should not be in the business of legislating from the bench." He has expressed his admiration for Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Alito. He chose as his running mate a far-right Christian with extreme antiabortion views. And yet, even now, with less than a month to go, voters are a bit like the student in the old joke who, when asked which was the bigger problem in his high school, ignorance or apathy, responded, I don’t know and I don’t care!
Unfortunately, the media have abetted both attitudes by not asking the right questions, the right follow-ups–a lost art, apparently–or, in the case of Gwen Ifill, by not asking at all. (What was the matter with her, anyway? When she moderated the 2004 vice presidential debate, she stumped Cheney and Edwards by asking what they’d do about high rates of HIV among black women–of which both men appeared unaware. This time, as Ruth Rosen has pointed out on AlterNet, Ifill asked not one question that related to women, although women supposedly hold the election in our soft little hands. Equal pay. Supreme Court. Violence Against Women Act. Making women pay for their own rape kits. Nada on these high-profile news items.) In her justly celebrated CBS interview, Katie Couric did her best to penetrate the evasive blather–culture of life, respect for other opinions, make adoption easier, blah-blah-blah–with which Sarah Palin met a straightforward question about whether abortion should be illegal for a 15-year-old raped by her father:
But ideally, you think it should be illegal for a girl who was raped or the victim of incest to get an abortion?
I’m saying that, personally, I would counsel the person to choose life, despite horrific, horrific circumstances that this person would find themselves in. And, um, if you’re asking, though, kind of foundationally here, should anyone end up in jail for having an…abortion, absolutely not. That’s nothing I would ever support.
Oh, Katie, you let her slip away. Sure, parsing Palin’s English is like swimming in salad, but don’t you know that jailing women is not what outlawing abortion was ever about? When abortion was illegal in the United States, it was almost unheard of for a woman to be sent to prison for having one. Women were picked up by the police, forcibly examined, threatened with public humiliation and jail, their names were published in the papers, they were hounded in their hospital beds for testimony after botched procedures and compelled to testify in court–but it was abortion providers who went to prison. Today the people who want to recriminalize abortion are careful to remove moral agency from women who seek abortion: they are "confused" victims of bullying men or parents, feminists, the abortion "industry," the "culture of death." Abortion is the only "crime" that allows the person who seeks, pays for and instigates it to be largely excused from responsibility–because antichoicers know that Americans don’t want their daughters, sisters, girlfriends, wives and mothers behind bars. Nor do they want to imprison parents, friends, husbands and boyfriends as accessories. Punishment is for the doctor–up to ten years in prison under the law the Louisiana State Legislature passed to go into effect if Roe is overturned.
Banning abortion isn’t primarily about putting people in prison, anyway. It isn’t even about stopping abortion. It’s about using the threat of arrest to push it underground–to make it shameful, hard to find, dangerous and humiliating. The right questions to ask Sarah Palin would be:
§ In 1999 John McCain said he would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade because without it "X number of women" would undergo "illegal and dangerous operations." Now you both want Roe to go. Why wasn’t he right in the first place?
§ You want to make abortion illegal except to save the woman’s life. Recently in Poland, a woman sought an abortion because she risked blindness if she continued her pregnancy. Should she have been forced to give birth? That woman did lose most of her eyesight. What would you say to her?
§ You’ve said you support contraception, yet many abortion opponents consider the birth control pill not a contraceptive but an abortifacient. Do you think the pill causes abortion? Should it be illegal too?
§ Some people have suggested that as mayor of Wasilla you required rape victims to pay for their own rape kits because part of the procedure included offering them emergency contraception, which you believe causes abortion. Others think you were trying to save money. What was it?
§ In the Washington Post Linda Hirshman speculated that if Roe were overturned, some states might seek to make it a crime for a pregnant resident to travel to another state to obtain a legal abortion. Would you favor such laws? If so, how would you enforce them? If not, why not? If a fertilized egg or embryo or fetus is a person, why should it lose its right to life because it is forcibly transported across state lines?
I realize reproductive rights are not at the top of the list of people’s concerns. Let’s hope we don’t regret that come November 5.
Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, my collection of personal essays, is just out in paperback. Visit kathapollitt.com for ten questions to kick off your book club discussion and for info on how to reach me to get involved.